Japonism Victoria vol.8 no.8


Shinto and Buddhism, and Japanese People No.3

Vincent A. @ ELC Research International

The difference between Shintoism and Buddhism

In the first and second installments of this series, I outlined the history of a magnificent and sophisticated rhetoric called “syncretic fusion of Buddhism and Shintoism” which was devised by the type of Buddhism introduced into Japan in an attempt to swallow whole ancient Japanese Shinto (Old Shinto or The Faith of Deities of Heaven and Earth). The first scenario of the above schema was comprised of a divine message sent from a Kami (god), asking for Shinshin Ridatsu (secession from being a Kami) as the Kami had been completely exhausted by the state and function of being a Kami for quite a long time and wished to convert to Buddhism and be relieved thereby; the oracular message being followed by the establishment of a Buddhist temple called a “Jinguji temple” in the site of a Shinto shrine, to grant the “request” of the Kami. Actually, using the above method, a lot of Jinguji temples were built in many Shinto shrines in Japan, including Ise-Jingu Grand Shrine which worshiped Amateras Oho-Mi-Kami (the Sun-Goddess) as the ancestral Kami of the Japanese imperial family. The scenario was surely effective at widely circulating the idea that Buddhism was a great religion that offered salvation to exhausted Kami.

The second scenario used was an incarnation theory called Honji Suijaku theory, wherein Honji Suijaku means manifestation of the prime noumenon, asserting that Kami is an incarnation of Buddha. The Honji Suijaku incarnation theory could be summarized as follows: Standing behind a Kami is Buddha greater by far than the Kami, but since Buddha consists of deities too sublime for ordinary people, Buddha as such could not be recognized at all by the people. Thus, for the benefit of the ordinary people, Buddha has manifested by being incarnated in the interim form of “Kami” which is dimensionally simpler and can be recognized by the people; so, a Kami is just an incarnation of Buddha. As simply as that, the theory straightforwardly asserted the superiority of Buddhism over Shintoism.

However, despite the use of such sophisticated rhetoric, Buddhist priests were not able to turn Japan into a completely Buddhist country. There were at least two factors at play, I think: Japanese people could not throw away Shintoism; and the Buddhist forces used the wrong strategy. Before analyzing this point in detail, however, I would like to refer to the differences between Shinto and Buddhism.

Philosophy-oriented Buddhism vs. Sensation-based Shintoism

Buddhism assumes an ultimate ideal goal called Moksha (Gedatsu) (complete emancipation) (*1) or Bodhi (Satori) (complete awakening) (*2) and teaches how we should live our life to achieve that goal. In Japan, Buddhism is often referred to as “funeral Buddhism” and is apt to be regarded as a religion which deals with human death and life after death, exclusively. However, the facts are different. Buddhism is rather a philosophy or school of thought systematized based on speculations accumulated, one by one, through the efforts of a large number of clear-headed priests over an incredibly long stretch of history, pursuing the fundamental proposition of how a human being should live in this world. Thus, Buddhism can be thought of as a knowledge system which has a solid structure. Because it has been systematized based on contemplations, Buddhism puts much value on logic and conception. In addition, Buddhism has a strong character of occultism built up by the rigorous ascetic practices of priests. So, Buddhism is really a religion having dreadful power.

In contrast, Shinto is very simple, and is not comparable at all to Buddhism with respect to the powerfulness. First, Shinto has neither a founder nor a systematized doctrine or sutra. Thus, Shinto does not deliver sermons based on its doctrine. Second, although most Shinto shrines currently have an imposing edifice, prototype Shinto shrines didn’t. That is, in those days, a Shinto shrine meant just a place where the divine spirit requested to be present for a special purpose, such as a ceremony or ritual, could descend; more specifically, it was just a narrow sanctuary space called “Shin-iki” defined by an enclosing rope “Shimenawa” and paper streamers “Shide.” (*3) In this Shin-iki (sanctuary space), a symbol called “Yorishiro” (*4) such as a special rock or tree, serving as an approach substitute to which the divine spirit could possess, was often enshrined. Thus, the shrine structure was very simple.

Shinto does not have a deep structure of philosophy and conceptualization as Buddhism, for the very reason that Shinto does not overestimate the value of “manipulating the words.” In Shinto, “Kami” is the real entity to be feared and respected, and, since Kami is far beyond human intelligence, it is regarded as quite haughty to try and define a Kami‘s will using a “dumb tool” of words or logic devised by human beings. Thus, Shintoism doesn’t put much value on “works” such as doctrine or scripture, or theories supporting them, all of those being made up of contemplations based upon words.

Rather, what Shintoism regards as most valuable is the sincerity of truly fearing and respecting Kami and, secondarily, prayers and worship for expressing such sincerity to Kami plus, in addition to this, to “act or live rightly” in the sense of practicing the sincerity in our daily life.

In other words, Shinto has no enthusiasm for estimating the Kami‘s will (in other words, contemplating the way we can live rightly) relying on words and logic. Instead, Shinto esteems much more direct perception: that is, to live our life while perceiving the reality of Kami through sensation; and this fully serves the Kami‘s will. Thus, Shinto is a religion based on purely intuitive and spiritual cognition and, for this reason, Shinto would probably be labelled as a somewhat primitive religion especially when measured using the value scale of western civilization.

Despite the apparent differences described above, the actual differences between the two religions, as they are seen or experienced, may be merely superficial, more visual than actual, which brings up the question, therefore, of how Buddhism and Shinto actually fundamentally differ from one another.

Kami in Reality vs. Buddha in the World of Ideas

The question of how Buddhism and Shinto fundamentally differ from each other could be rewritten as the question of why Buddhism values speculation and why Shinto esteems cognition based on sensation. The answer is simple: Kami and Kami-gami (gods) worshipped in Shinto exist in reality, whereas Buddhas worshipped in Buddhism do not, and all of them are present, instead, in the world of ideas or conceptualization. This crucial difference has determined the colouration of Shinto and Buddhism.

First, regarding Shinto, even some Japanese people would be surprised to hear that Kami real. However, somehow, Kami exists in reality; and, probably, most Shinto priests know this. Here, the word “know” doesn’t mean “believe.” It means “realize” or “be aware of.” I’ve heard that a not insignificant number of Shinto priests are able to see the figure of Kami or hear their voices and, more surprisingly, some people in the general public have a similar ability, though they are too modest to mention it to others.

However, even Shinto priests having the sensitivity to perceive the divine spirit are not able to have a “free conversation” with Kami. So, for enhanced perception of the will of Kami, they must devote themselves to their work as a priest while keeping their own body and spirit purely cleansed every day so as to subtilize their sensitivity to the divine spirit as much as possible. On the other hand, village residents around a Shinto shrine, called Ujiko (parishioners), who have the role of caring for Kami (in this context, Uji-gami which means a village god), demonstrate their sincerity of fearing and respecting the Kami by, for example, cleaning the shrine precincts every morning. By acting rightly every day, Ujiko people can live their life while perceiving the reality of Kami mainly by sensation. In summary, simply because Kami exists in reality, there is no need of especially “expressing” (conceptualizing) the reality of a Kami or a Kami‘s will by means of words and ideas devised by unwise human beings; it good and sufficient for people to live with a Kami while keeping their sincere fear and respect for them.

As described above, in Shintoism, sensation is fundamental to the cognition of a divine spirit, and speculation or conceptualization based on words is of relatively low importance.

With regard to Buddhism, on the other hand, as described earlier, Buddhas (“Hotoke-sama” in Japanese) are all present in the world of ideas; they do not exist in physical reality.

The founder of Buddhism is Shakyamuni (Gautama Buddha), a real person (BCE 624-BCE 544) and well known in Japan as “O-Shaka-sama.” Originally, the term Buddha was used in Buddhism to refer to Shakyamuni after he reached Bodhi (complete awareness) based on Moksha (complete emancipation). Currently, however, those Buddhist priests who have reached Bodhi like Shakyamuni are referred to as Buddhas as well. Here, we should note that Bodhi (complete awareness) denotes a specific ideal level of awareness defined by conception and, exactly in the same way, Buddha is a word representing a specific ideal level of awareness defined by conception; it does not mean that Shakyamuni, only after he passed away exists in reality as Buddha.

More exactly, in Buddhism, Buddha is an ideological word which refers to the ultimate state or level of a Buddhist priest who has become completely free from every hesitation (Kleshas which means “cloud in mind”) and reached Nirvana (*6), the perfect peace and ease, of Bodhi. Buddha does not mean that some supernatural entity called “Buddha” is present.

Furthermore, since Buddhism comprises a large number of denominations, besides Shakyamuni, there are a wide variety of “Buddhas” worshipped as the idol of the faith. The term “Hotoke” in Japanese is originally a clipped form of Buddha (= Shakyamuni), but currently it is used to generally refer to various objects of the faith of Buddhism such as Tathagata (Nyorai) and Bodhisattva (Bosatsu). Similarly, these names Tathagata and Bodhisattva, are ideological terms used to refer to those priests having reached the goal Nirvana of Bodhi or levels close to the goal. None of these words suggests the existence of anything in the real world.

Clearly, the origin of Buddhism resides in the definition of the ideological state called Bodhi (perfect realization) which could be reached by Moksha (complete emancipation). Therefore, the study of the essence of Buddhism should begin with the conceptualization of Bodhi and the route toward it.

Buddhism was born in India, was introduced into Japan via China, and it has developed in Japan in quite a unique manner. As a result, in current Japanese Buddhism, the major issue is relief after death (Jodo Oujo which means rebirth in the pure land) (*7) rather than Moksha or Bodhi. Still, the terms Jodo (Pure Land) and Oujo (Rebirth in the Pure Land) both originate in conceptual manipulation, as well. Thus, Buddhism is in fact a philosophy, and speculative inquiry is valued considerably.

* * * * *

While I have briefly summarized the difference between Shinto and Buddhism, this is not the end of story. The matter is not as simple at all. Although I explained that Buddha does not exist in physical reality, here I have to make a completely contradictory statement: that is, in Buddhism as well, Buddha may in some way perhaps exist in the real world as do Kami in Shinto. It is really a sort of chaos because a thing which is theoretically nonexistent might actually exist in reality. However, I believe that the apparent contradiction described above in fact, is one way of vividly illustrating the dynamic relationship between Shinto and Buddhism in modern-day Japan. I would like to explore more regarding the complex relationship between the two religions in today’s world in our next issue.

[To be continued in the next issue]

Proofreading: David Gordon-MacDonald


*1: Moksha (emancipation) (Gedatsu)

*2: Bodhi (perfect realization) (Satori)

*3: Shimenawa (enclosing rope) and Shide (paper streamers)

*4: Yorishiro (approach substitute)

*5: Ujiko (parishioners) and Ujigami (village god)

*6: Nirvan (perfect peace and rest) (Nehan)

*7: Jodo Oujo (rebirth in pure land)

Shinto and Buddhism, and Japanese People No.3
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