On the Path to Enlightenment: What Studying Buddhism Has Taught Me About Japan

Photo: Moyan Brenn on Flickr

On the Path to Enlightenment: What Studying Buddhism Has Taught Me About Japan

Liam Carrigan

If you’re a regular reader of my work here on Taiken Japan, or if you’ve read some of my harder-hitting, more politically-charged work elsewhere, then you’ve probably gathered by now that I am not really much of a fan of the concept of organized religion.

Growing up in Glasgow, a city still struggling with deep seated sectarian prejudices and just over the water from Northern Ireland, where British occupying forces used the false flag of Catholic/Protestant hatred to murder indiscriminately, and criminal gangs on both sides of the divide used it to further their own nefarious ends, it’s fair to say that I am a firm believer in the idea that religion causes more problems than it solves.

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Tetsuji Sakakibara on Flickr

And yet here in Japan, I have never once encountered any kind of sectarianism, despite the fact that there are at least 3 widely practiced and distinctly different religions here, with a host of other religious minorities too.

Perhaps it’s down to the fact that teaching religious scriptures in public schools here is banned by law. In any case, I was until very recently quite happy to be living in what appeared in all intents and purposes to be a largely secular state.

However, that has changed recently.

Kamakura Buddha

John Gillespie on Flickr

I remember a number of years ago, whilst I was outlining to my friends in Tokyo why I was no longer a practicing Catholic, one of my friends asked me which religion I would choose if I had to choose a new one. I simply responded “None. But, if you held a gun to my head, I’d probably say Buddhism.”

“Why so?” my friend, who I later found out was a Buddhist, asked me.

“One simple reason,” I replied, “Buddhism seems to be the only mainstream religion where you don’t necessarily need to be a card-carrying member to attain their notion of happiness or enlightenment.”

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Taiyo FUJII on Flickr

Putting it bluntly, after all the “fire and brimstone” nonsense I had been subjected to in my Catholic high school, and the numerous TV reports I had seen of gun-toting madmen on the TV claiming, falsely, to represent Islam, Buddhists didn’t really seemed to mind if you bought into what they said or not, so long as you gave them the freedom to practice what they believed. I found this approach most refreshing.

I’d always wondered, what actually are the differences between a Buddhist Temple and a Shinto Shrine in Japan (there is a previous article explaining this)?

After all, they both look pretty similar to each other and seem to be treated with an equal level of reverence by the local populace.

Although Shinto is the majority religion in Japan, most Japanese will actually switch between Buddhism and Shinto during different times of their lives, depending on which ritual or rite is most appropriate for the given situation.

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Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble on Flickr

For example, the “Shichigosan” (seven, five, three) ceremonies for children coming of age are a Shinto ritual. However, the temples that Japanese tend to visit on occasions like New Years Day, or when praying for good fortune, are Buddhist, and when the sad time comes, almost all Japanese will be cremated following Buddhist Funeral rites.

At the invitation of a friend, I, at first reluctantly, joined a Buddhist study group in Umeda, central Osaka more out of curiosity than anything else. I was amazed to discover how many of the ideas and opinions they presented felt very close to my own.

Central to Buddhist belief is the idea of “The Law of Cause and Effect”. Buddhists don’t really believe in coincidence, rather they believe that everything that happens within the universe does so for a reason and that whilst every good deed will, ultimately, be rewarded, conversely no bad deed will go unpunished either. As a strong believer in the idea of karma, outside of a religious context, this was an idea I could certainly buy into.

Buddhists try to live their lives according to a series of rules, known as the “Six Paramitas”. They are listed as: Giving, Discipline, Forbearance, Diligence, Contemplation and Wisdom. These may sound like mere buzzwords, but it’s when we discussed them in our group in greater detail that I realized the extent to which these “Paramitas” underline the Japanese psyche.

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Barry Silver on Flickr

“Giving” doesn’t necessarily mean giving in the Catholic sense of sticking some lose change in the charity box at the local chapel. Buddhists divide giving into 2 different types: material giving and Dharma giving.

Material giving means, as stated above, giving monetarily or giving physical items, such as equipment or food to help others.

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Jan Kaláb on Flickr

Dharma giving means giving of your experience and knowledge as a Buddhist. So in other words you give your time, and your teachings to others.

You’ll notice that community volunteering is a big thing in Japan, and that many Japanese will selflessly give some of their time and their resources to help others. This, I believe, is the Buddhist notion of giving playing out in the real world.

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Mith Huang on Flickr

Discipline is another area where the Japanese have clearly taken the words of the Buddha to heart. Being on time, keeping promises, honoring yourself and your family in all that you do, these are all fundamental ideals that form the foundation of Japanese society, and they all feature prominently in the Buddhist Sutras (scriptures) covering this area. Without becoming pedantic and boring, there are numerous other ways that the remaining 4 “Paramitas” also play into Japanese daily life. Japan may officially proclaim to be a Shinto country, but it certainly retains a very Buddhist heart.

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Japanexperterna.se on Flickr

The leader of the discussion group I attend semi-regularly in Osaka, recently joked to me that I may have been a “Secret Buddhist” for most of my life.

I don’t know if I would go that far, but certainly, I have lived most of my adult life by a code of ethics and honour that is pretty similar to what shows up in the Sutras.

I remain skeptical about any and all organized religions, but being exposed to Buddhism in Japan has certainly opened my eyes to just how religiously observant Japanese people actually are, and it has shown me that, despite my often bitter childhood experiences, religion can, when used correctly, be a force for good in the world too.

For all its external appearances, maybe Japan isn’t really so secular after all. Perhaps, like me, it has been Buddhist the whole time; it just doesn’t know it yet!