Japonism Victoria vol.8 no.9


Shinto and Buddhism, and Japanese people No.4

Vincent A. @ ELC Research International

Existence of Buddhha

In the last issue, I wrote about the differences between Shintoism and Buddhism, and explained that Buddhism is a religion wherein logic is valued greatly, whereas Shinto is a religion purely based on intuitive and spiritual cognition, and furthermore that the Kami (gods) of Shinto exist in reality, whereas the Buddhas of Buddhism are present in the world of ideas and do not exist in physical reality. However, I added, at the end, that, on the contrary, Buddhas which do not exist solely in theory might actually be real and existing. The issue of whether Buddhas exist in reality, or not, is a useful key to understanding both Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan. So, I would like to discuss it in this issue.

Regrettably, I cannot say any definite, so far, about the real existence of Buddhas. However, since the Kami of Shintoism exist nearly certainly, the possibility of Buddhas’ existence in physical reality seems to be very strong. Further, Buddhas have been uninterruptedly the object of the fervent religious faith of billions of people for an incredibly long time, up to two millennia, so it is very hard for me to regard Buddhas as merely entities present in the world of ideas which are created through the conceptualization of humans. So, it seems to me that Buddhas are an entity existing in reality like the Kami of Shintoism.

However, the various Buddhism circles do not at all clarify their positions with regard to the matter in question; the obscurity is more than just that different denominations have different opinions. Buddhist priests, in general, do not express definite opinions as to the reality or non-reality of Buddhas. Clearly, the way that Buddha is present should be one of the most fundamental issues of Buddhism, so, the evasiveness of the priests on the matter seems very curious. However, in fact, there is a reason for it; questioning whether Buddha exists in reality or not is, essentially, a “Shintoistic” approach; in contrast, Buddhistically, it is not anything to contemplate. Why? Because, as we have noted, Buddhism is a philosophy! So, let’s talk about the real existence of Kami first, taking a bit of a roundabout way, though.

Kami as recognized by Japanese People

Generally, the word “Kami” means the Kami of Shintoism in current Japan. However, as suggested by the words “Jingi Shinko” meaning the faith to the deities of heaven and earth and “Ko-Shinto” meaning old Shinto, Japanese people worshiped Kami even in the old days before Shinto was established or its religious form was fixed. A Kami, here, is a noble entity to be awed and respected, and it far transcends human intelligence. Essentially, Kami is a being to be referred to as “Shinrei” or “Mitama” both meaning a divine spirit. The divine spirit is a real presence being present in the spiritual world, and basically it is visible to those having greater spiritual perception.

The word “spiritual world” may be misinterpreted as a reference to spiritualism. However, I have no interest in communicating with spirits or in hunting for power spots. I’m just an ordinary Buddhist in this regard. Namely, in respect to the spirits of the dead, for example, I would be satisfied if they get peaceful rest in “the next world.” Possibly, I might be bit different from average Buddhists in Japan since, for a variety of reasons, I am an adherent of the Jodo Shin sect of Buddhism and, at the same time, an adherent of Shingon Buddhism, too; and furthermore, at heart I am a Shinto believer! So, when I am in Japan, I go to Shinto shrines more often than Buddhism temples…no constancy to Buddhism!

By the way, a Kami is a high-level entity in the spiritual world, but human beings are closely involved in this spiritual world, too. Stating it quite briefly, when a person passes away, his or her body and spirit/soul are isolated from each other. The body decays, but the sprit/soul continues to live on in the spiritual world. After a certain amount of time elapses, the spirit/soul obtains a fresh body and is born again in this world. Then, life in this world continues for a while and, subsequently, death comes again. So, the spirit/soul gets back to being an entity in the spiritual world. In the course of life and death repeated in this way, the spirit/soul continues learning a lot of different things and evolves to a spiritually higher level, little by little. This is the process called samsara.

On the other hand, Christianity does not admit to any such thing as samsara. There is no reincarnation, and thus physical life is a one-off. One clergyman said “Samsara is absolutely impossible. If there is any previous life, we must have a memory of such previous life but, actually, we have no such memory.” Unfortunately, measuring the spiritual world with a rule of this world doesn’t make sense. The reincarnation is probably a very complicated process and, although I am not sure of it, the memory of the previous life seems to be reset when one is reborn. In fact, if the memory of the previous life was not erased but preserved vividly, a lot of people would be prompted to “pay off their previous life’s grudge at all costs during this life” such that we will have a rash of bloody scenes in this world. Probably, however, the memory of our previous life may remain, at least in part, in our subconscious.

Let’s get back to Shinto. Kami sometimes appear in front of human beings with a miraculous efficacy. This is called manifestation. A typical example of such manifestation is the descent of Kami in the case of a special ceremony such as a religious ritual, in response to a request made by a proper person such as a Shinto priesthood or a medium using the proper method. However, Kami‘s appearance is not limited to such special events. Rather, Kami seem to appear in people’s everyday life quite frequently, in accordance with their “free will.” In other words, we may have encountered Kami though we haven’t actually realized it!

For example, in the case of Shinto shrines, while we often imagine that Kami-sama (sama is a honorific title) are enshrined in the heart of the main or inner shrine, it is quite possible that the Kami-sama get out of the inner shrine to see a person who usually sincerely reveres Kami and who comes to the Shinto shrine for worship. Or, it is possible that the Kami go out of the shrine to observe the lives of the people in the nearby villages. Kami certainly seem to be very active and move around willingly.

A particular example which illustrates Kami mobility is the household Shinto altar which is enshrined in many homes, stores or offices in Japan, as a shelf on one hand for enshrining a “Shintai” (symbol of deity spirit) or a Shinto shrine talisman and, on the other hand a place for welcoming the Kami-sama visiting there! In fact, on either side of the altar, a pair of Sakaki branches (a species of camellia) are offered. These Sakaki branches serve as a “Yorishiro” (approach substitute) (*1) for a Kami-sama‘s descent, that is, a plant which the divine spirit could possess in order to be present. Furthermore, in order to receive Kami-sama at the altar, offerings of rice, water and salt as well as fruit and fish, which differ from place to place, are presented on the altar all the time. If the household Shinto altar is always kept clean and people pray sincerely in front of the altar every day, it is quite possible that Kami-sama will be present.

Why do Kami appear in front of people as described? One reason may be that there seems to be a particular significance in showing the existence of Kami or their divine power to people, this being clearly illustrated by a religious ritual where Kami descend in response to a special request by people. Furthermore, Kami may descend and show their divine power when people sincerely pray, requesting something of Kami. Yet again, when people are in the middle of desperately struggling to accomplish some very important thing, a divine spirit may descend and help them accomplish their task. This has been called “Kami-gakari” (divine inspiration) for centuries in Japan. As an example, we hear at times such a story as: when a doctor was confronted by an extremely difficult situation during an operation on his/her patient, some sort of force moved the doctor’s hands to get out of the difficulty, ending in the success of the operation.

In addition to the above, Kami-sama may be full of curiosity, so when people are doing something quite fun or very interesting, Kami may appear in that place! An excellent example is a “Matsuri” (festival) in Japan. Most Japanese festivals are Shinto festivals held around a Shinto shrine. More specifically, the Matsuri is inherently a divine ritual that is performed to afford pleasure to Kami, here, an Uji-gami (village tutelary deity) (*2) . The Matsuri is also an opportunity to show to Kami-sama a joyful scene where many people gather in the Shinto shrine to enjoy the festival.

In the theology, it is often emphasized that the Kami of Japan are dreadful entities since Kami administer punishments to people if they get angry. However, the everyday reality is slightly different. For Japanese people, Kami-gami (grammatically, the plural form of Kami) are noble entities to be awed and respected and, at the same time, they are warm and friendly entities occasionally appearing around people. Thus, the Japanese people, born and raised in such a cultural climate that they feel Kami-gami are very close to them, have traditionally acquired, consciously or unconsciously, a cognition “we are living while being watched over by Kami, or divine spirits.”

In such a cultural climate, Japanese people have worshiped Buddhas in the same way as they have Kami. Quite naturally, therefore, Japanese people have attached their faith to Buddhas while regarding Buddhas as real entities like Kami. In other words, people have believed that, while Kami and Buddhas are invisible, there must be something existing in physical reality. However, Buddhist priests do not share precisely that opinion.

Indifference to Spiritual World

Shakyamuni, the originator of Buddhism, pursued the question of how human beings could get rid of all the worldly passions to reach Satori or Bodhi (perfect realization) (*3), but he himself was not much interested in life after death or samsara, itself. To live in this life means, for Shakyamuni, being totally distressed by doubt and agony due to the worldly passions, such that the rebirth by samsara after death means nothing but the recurrence of the distress. Thus, Gedatsu or Moksha (emancipation) (*4) which Buddha eagerly aimed at is not only to get free of the worldly passions but also to get out of the cycle of pain called samsara.

Buddhism has changed drastically in its long history, but Shakyamuni‘s indifference to the afterlife (spiritual world) was inherited unbroken by the priests that came after him. Even now, Buddhist priests are, in general, marvelously indifferent to the spiritual world. Japanese Buddhism is sometimes chaffed as “funeral Buddhism” because it is largely and directly involved in the funerals of dead persons and the memorial services for the spirit of the dead. Despite that, however, Buddhist priests are not much interested in the spirit/soul or things about the spiritual world. If I say it bit ironically, for Buddhist priests, funeral services or anniversary memorial services are based on the supply and demand method: that is, they provide services simply to meet the demand, although the services are religious rituals. These services are in fact a weighty income source for them in terms of finance.

Furthermore, when you contemplate the spiritual world, use of intuitive and spiritual cognition as needed in Shintoism is inevitable. However, for Buddhist priests who are accustomed to philosophical and logical thinking, such a sensation-based approach might be a little bit hard to deal with. This may be an additional factor promoting the priests’ indifference to the spiritual world. Anyway, for Buddhist priests who are unconcerned about spiritual matters, the spiritual world is virtually non-existent. What does this mean? It means that there is no “home” for Buddha. More specifically, clearly Buddha is not an entity residing in this world. So, if the spiritual world does not exist, then there is no “home” to accommodate Buddha, i.e., there is no world in which Buddha should be placed. But, Buddha must be located somewhere. Thus, the “world of ideas” is devised. Namely, the world of ideas that human beings can recognize only through their conceptualization is submitted to Buddha as a home in which to reside. This is the true meaning of “Buddha is present in the world of ideas, and does not exist in physical reality.”

As long as Buddha is associated with the world of ideas, human beings are able to define the presence of Buddhas exactly as they desire by manipulation of ideas and, thus, whether or not Buddha exists in physical reality is never brought into question. The term “existence” loses its sense entirely. This is the very reason why Buddhist priests do not express definite opinions about the reality or existence of Buddha.

Meanwhile, Buddhist priests’ cognition on the subject of Buddhas, placing Buddhas in the world of ideas, directly affects their cognition concerning Kami. In particular, Buddhist priests, in general, regard the Kami of Shinto as being present in the world of ideas, in the same way as Buddhas are. So, they have no latitude to think of Kami as existing in reality. In this sense, although the syncretic fusion of Buddhism and Shintoism is frequently pointed out in Japan, Buddhist priests’ cognition on the subjects of Kami and Shintoism is obviously terribly limited.

Possibility of Real Existence of Buddhas

Finally, though Buddhism places Buddhas in the world of ideas, whether Buddhism completely denies the real existence of Buddhas or not is a very delicate matter. For example, the Shingon sect of Buddhism which is one of the esoteric denominations often uses the term “universe” that could be interpreted as the spiritual world. Likewise, the Jodo sect and Jodo Shin sect of Buddhism, which are schools of Jodo denominations, teach Jodo (pure land) (*5) that could be regarded as a real place where spirits/souls of the dead proceed. In this sense, the pure land could be construed as a part of the spiritual world, also.

Supposing that a real spiritual world is assumed in these sects, there is a high probability that Buddhas such as “Dainichi Nyorai” (Mah Avairocane) meaning “Great Sun Tathagata” as well as “Amida Nyorai” (Amitabha Tathagata) which are worshiped as a Honzon (principal idol) in these sects may exist in physical reality.

[To be continued in the next issue]

Proofreading: David Gordon-MacDonald

*1: Yorishiro (approach substitute)

*2: Ujigami (village deity)

*3: Satori (Bodhi) (perfect realization)

*4: Gedatsu (Moksha) (emancipation)

*5: Jodo (pure land)

Shinto and Buddhism, and Japanese people No.4
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