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Current Tokyo resident, ex-Kyoto university student, martial-arts practitioner and Buddhism scholar, InsideJapan’s own Thomas Siebert went headfirst into his adopted Japan. Delving into his background and knowledge, he gives us a little overview of Buddhism and Shintoism, how they help him and can help you find ‘calm’.
Over the course of its history, Japan had to face many crises. Civil wars, famines, earthquakes, typhoons and pandemics were common catastrophes that the Japanese had to deal with. Buddhism and Shinto, the two main religions in Japan, have played an important role in staying calm.
These days, Japan is a secular society and most Japanese, if asked about their religious affiliation, would probably respond that they are not very religious. Still, religious ideas are deeply ingrained into Japanese culture and continue shaping the way contemporary Japanese think and behave.
I studied Buddhism and Japanese religion at two Buddhist universities in Kyoto, and would like to share with you some of the beliefs and rituals that help the Japanese stay calm when facing difficult circumstances – ideas that we can apply to our own lives, especially during the current pandemic.
Buddhism was formally introduced to Japan in the 5th century. Its main concern is to understand the nature of suffering and how to overcome it. In Buddhist thought the main roots of our suffering are greed, hate and delusions.
Delusion is said to be at the centre of greed and hate. Negative feelings often come from misunderstandings. The misunderstanding of greed is that we think that we will be happier if we buy more things, but this happiness doesn’t last long. The misunderstanding that often underlies hate is that we cling to our own perspective. We think that we are always right and the person we hate is wrong, but from their perspective it is the other way around. One of the biggest misunderstandings from a Buddhist point of view is to think that things are never changing. This sense of impermanence is an important motif in Japanese arts and aesthetics and is beautifully captured in the opening of The Tale of the Heike, one of Japan’s most famous epic stories:
The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.
— Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation
Being mindful of impermanence and accepting it as a fact of life instead of seeing it in a negative way can help us to change our perspective and to be more optimistic. If everything were permanent, nothing would change. But since our world is ever changing, life has limitless potential. No matter how tough it gets and how much you feel you are stuck, there is always a way for things to get better again. The same goes for the current pandemic – We can stay optimistic because we know that this is not permanent.
It is easy to feel alone and isolated these days, but another important concept of Buddhism is independent origination. This means that nothing exists just by itself. For example, consider a sheet of paper. Paper is made of cellulose fibres from a tree. This tree could not have grown without the sun, soil and water. Without the woodcutter, the person operating the paper factory, the food and water they live on, the oxygen they breathe and the plants that make it, there would be no paper. Everything is connected. Nothing in this universe exists just by itself. The same is true for us. Just like the sheet of paper, we are connected with the whole universe.
Meditation is a central Buddhist practice and a great way to release stress and anxiety, and is simple to do. One of my teachers at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, who was also a Buddhist priest, used to practice meditation with us before every lesson. All you need to do is sit straight, relax and breathe. Try to focus on your breathing. Your mind will wander, but just return to counting your breath. Take a look at this video from a monk at Taizo-in temple in Kyoto who explains the basics. Give it a go at home.
Unlike Buddhism, which has its origins outside of Japan, Shinto began as local worship of indigenous spirits called kami. In the Shinto worldview everything has a certain innate quality, not only sentient beings, but also rocks, waterfalls and trees. Everything has this inherent quality and if this essence or spirit is so awe-inspiring that it sparks a feeling of wonder in people, they worship it as a kami.
Some of the most popular kami are Inari, the kami of rice, agriculture and prosperity; Amaterasu, the sun goddess; and Hachiman, the protector kami of warriors, who is also seen as a protector of Buddhism. Until the end of the 19th century kami were widely understood as the manifestations of Buddhas, and Shinto and Buddhism were not separated, but seen as two parts of one holistic religious worldview.
It could be said that for the Japanese, Shinto is all about appreciating the many wonders that surround us every day and to live in harmony and with gratitude for the blessings we receive from the kami. Gratitude can be a very powerful emotion and living with a sense of gratitude can help us to improve our lives. But how can we cultivate gratitude ourselves?
Scientists found out that people who express their gratitude regularly were, in general, more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Take time to write down all the good things that happened to you and that you are grateful for. Or perhaps, take a moment each evening before going to bed to reflect on the day and try to remember what others have done for you. If something comes to mind that you are especially grateful for, let those responsible know that you are grateful. They will appreciate it. If we cultivate gratitude in this way, we can be thankful for the things we have, even in difficult times.
I hope this text gave you some insights into the beliefs and rituals that for centuries helped the Japanese to stay calm in times of crisis and how we can apply some of these ideas to our own lives. We too can cultivate a mindful and grateful attitude that helps us to stay calm. So let’s stay mindful, let’s be grateful for what we have, and lets help each other to get through these difficult times together.
You can read more of an overview about Shinto-Buddhism and the Japanese belief system here.