Sunday, May 24, 2009

Some thoughts on Religion in Japan

The panel I was on today about metaphysics, science and religion got me thinking about belief systems. While there is a lot of variation in belief systems across the world, I think that it's hard to understand what an alternate belief system entails unless you've lived in contact with it - and really paid attention - for some time.

I've spoken here before about syncretic traditions, and mentioned the coxistence of the Shinto animistic beliefs and the Buddhist beliefs in Japan. Essentially, if you were to take a poll of the Japanese population, over half would describe themselves as Buddhist, and over half would describe themselves as Shinto.

Mathematically, that means a good portion of the population believes in both.

When I first heard this, it surprised me - probably because I was accustomed to hearing about religions that claimed exclusivity. However, Buddhism has a tendency to blend with whatever beliefs pre-exist its arrival in a geographical area, and that's what happened with Shinto. This is why, for example, you can have stories about bird-goblins (tree and mountain spirits also called tengu) tormenting overly proud Buddhist priests who use their power for their own gain. Indeed, a powerful tengu is said to be able to change its form into that of an itinerant Buddhist priest (usually one with quite a long nose).

When you see this syncretism in action, it's quite fascinating. A bit like two kids who, when asked to share, decide to take turns. From what I've seen of the Buddhist and Shinto traditions, one or the other will be associated with particular types of life events or activities. Some holidays call for Buddhist celebration, and others Shinto. Birth ceremonies are often in the Shinto tradition, as are weddings, while funerals are generally Buddhist. The two aren't exclusive of one another, nor are they exclusive of other traditions. Sometimes you can even see a Japanese couple being married in a western-style ceremony - or a western ceremony followed by a Shinto one, each with its own elaborate style of dress.

Before experiencing it first-hand, I would never have imagined that kind of a system of beliefs. And I always find it broadening to encounter things I have never imagined before, in part because it helps me to imagine more diverse ideas in the future.

I don't want to go into the history of Christianity in Japan in detail here. If you're curious, one fascinating source of information is Endo's book entitled "Silence." The part that I found most saddening about the story was that when Christianity first came to Japan, the Japanese were very open to it. Problems began to arise when Christian missionaries enforced the exclusion of the pre-existing traditions, and those problems worsened when areas of Japan, complete with local lords, their towns and armies, used Christianity to separate themselves from the rest of the population. Fortunately, at this point all the ugliness has become ancient history.