Japanese Fairy Tales
Here are short descriptions for several major religions in Japan.
Shintoism is a far descendant of ancient animism, mixed with ancestor worship, sun worship, and Buddhism. Shintoists see everything have its own spirits, which they call kami. Even a man becomes Kami when he died. It is said there are eight millions Kami in the world. ("eight millions" means "many")
There are various kami. Some kami made good harvest, which was called Fuku-no-kami. Some brought disaster. which was called Magatsu-Kami. The basic of ancient animism was to call Fuku-no-Kami and to repel Matatsu-Kami. Songs, dances and festivals were created for such rituals.
Each village had own Shinto shrine, in which they deified the most important kami in their village. Some deified water kami (Ryu-jin or a dragon spirit), some did an old tree kami. When a village member died, he was enshrined there. He became a minor Kami.
However, alike the western Christianity, rulers used Shintoism for a mean to rule people. They create new sun kami, which is called Amaterasu, and located her atop all other kami. Then they declared the Emperor was descendant of Amaterasu. All shrines in the country was absorbed into this system.
When Buddhism was brought into the country 1300 years ago, Shintoism was greatly influenced by this new religion, and mixed partly. Some shrine was deifying Buddha and Kami at the same time.
Now Shintoism has changed far different from original animism. Almost Japanese have little faith and believe no miracles of faith. But its spiritual backbone remains. Shinto is a way of coexist with the natural world, with all spirits in the world.
Buddhism -- Jodo
The Jodo sect is the most major of all Buddhism sects in Japan.
Original Buddhism said a man could be saved only by getting spiritual awakening by himself. This meant those who couldn't attain awakening by himself were never to be saved.
When Buddha died, his followers branched into two groups. One is Hinayana Buddhism, aiming to save only priests who could awake by himself. Another is Mahayana Buddhism, trying to save all people rather than only priests.
The Jodo sect is a far descendant of Mahayanist Buddhism. Jodo priests abandoned the concept of the salvation of deliverance. Such concept was too difficult for people to understand. Instead, they preached "You will be reborn in the paradise if you behave good, and will be in the hell if you behave bad." It was said there were six lives, the life as a human, the life in the paradise, the life as a animal, the life in forever wars, the life in eternal starvation, and the life in the hell. The word "Jodo" means "the paradise."
The original Jodo sect was formed in ancient China, and brought into Japan about 1000 years ago. Then this religion was mixed up with Japanese Shinto and other ancestor worships. As a result, the Jodo Buddhism became a religion attaching very importance on funerals and services for the dead.
Shinran is the most famous priest of Jodo Buddhism, and the founder of the Jodo-shin-shu sub sect. His famous word akunin shoki -- "even a thief can be saved" is sometimes compared to the preach of Jesus Christ. Jodo-shin-shu can be considered as the only Japanese religion that preached the relief in the afterlife. So fanatic believers of the sect didn't fear death, like as Islam.
Once Jodo-shin-shu was known for its very aggressive and violent attitude against the suppression (The sect was suppressed by almost rulers). There were numerous revolts by Jodo-shin-shu farmers against rulers, which are called Ikko-ikki (Ikki means "revolt"). The morale of the believers were extremely high, and they fought to die. In the Civil War Era, Jodo-shin-shu was one of the major power among many daimyo in Japan. Lead by the archbishop Kennyo Kosa, the believers opposed Oda Nobunaga.
Jodo-shin-shu is still powerful in Japan today. However, Jodo-shin-shu divided into two sects in 17th century, Honganji sect and Otani sect. The schism was caused by Tokugawa Ieyasu to weaken the major threat to his Edo shogunate. Though the both sects have similar doctrine, they are at odds each other.
Buddhism -- Esoterics
More than a thousand years ago, a new mysterious sect of Buddhism was brought into Japan. Mikkyo, or known as Esoterics.
It was said the priests of Esoterics invoke powerful miracles, called horiki. They could cure diseases, kill a person by curse, fly in the air, see into the future, scare monsters such as Oni , fight tremendous monsters with the power of Buddha. The religion was loved by the nobles in the Heian Era. There were two major temples of Esoterics once. But Enryakuji temple in Mt.Hiei, Kyoto, was destroyed by Oda Nobunaga in the Civil War Era, and only Kongobuji temple in Mt. Kouya remains now.
Kukai , aka Kobo Taishi, was the most famous priest of Esoterics. His sub sect is called Singonshu. He is the founder of Kongobuji temple.
Priests of Esoterics often disciplined in mountains. Such priests were called Yamabuse. It was said they were good at both horiki and martial arts.
Buddhism -- Zen
Zen is a sect of Buddhism, a far descendant of Hinayana Buddhism.
Zen priests say the spiritual awakening is attained only by meditation. They meditate and put a question each other. The answer is got only by meditation. Through such meditation and question Zen priests can attain the spiritual awakening.
The questions asked by Zen priests are very difficult and seems meaningless. Such as "When you clap your hands, which hand make a sound?" "The both hands" is not correct answer of course. No, there is no correct answer. The priests get the truth through thinking such questions.
Many people think Taoism origins in a legendary Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu. Though, it is not accurate. I can say that the Tao philosophy of Lao Zi is one component of Taoism, but not all. I cannot tell what Taoism is. It is a too vague concept. If I have to say something, I'd say "Taoism is a mixture of native religions of ancient Chinese, divination, Confucian courtesy and ceremony, Buddhism introduced from India, and the Tao philosophy of Lao Zi and Shuang Zi."
Though Taoism is not popular in Japan, it had influenced over Japanese culture. So I'll explain its outline briefly.
Tao Philosophy : The Tao philosophy is based on the books written by Lao Zi and Shuang Zi. The text of the books are too vague, so that ten readers can make eleven interpretations. So numerous annotations about the books have published ever since (some of them contradict each other of course). I won't say I understand it. But you seems to expect I'll give some information about the philosophy, I'll write some.
The Tao philosophy assumes a being beyond human sense, a universal oneness containing everything in itself, called Tao. Tao is translated as "the way" traditionally. Anyone cannot get to Tao through shrewd intelligence or deep meditation. The only way to Tao is to live naturally. Oh, yeah, it is debatable what naturally means. Living in the wild? I don't think so. Abandoning all greed? It's important but not enough. Think by yourself!
Tao philosophy is not popular in Japan. I think it was too difficult and idealistic for Japanese mentality. However, it have affected more or less to Japanese culture. Japanese has the concept of Do, which means "the way." I think it a far descendant of Tao in Chinese.
Chinese Divination : Ancient Chinese divined by the cracks on burned bones and turtle carapaces. To record the cracks they invented characters, which is said to be the ancestor of Han characters. Since then they had invented numerous method for divination, such as astrology, calendar, house plan and direction, physiognomies etc.. Taoism inherited the long tradition of Chinese divination. In Japan it was inherited by Onmyo-Do.
Confucian courtesy and ceremony : Confucius is the world famous Chinese philosopher circa 500 BC. His philosophy is very popular in China, Korea and Japan, so it will be explained on another page (not available now, but soon...). At this point, we should note that he made much of courtesy and traditional ceremony. This part of his teaching was inherited by Taoism. Taoism have numerous ceremonies such as ancestor worship etc.
Buddhism legends : Taoism inherited many legends from Buddhism and Hinduism. Many Buddhism/Hinduism deities appeared in Taoism legends. They coexisted with Celestial Emperor (native Chinese religion) and deified Lao Zi. Taoism itself had little aspect of self-enlightment.
Alchemy : Alchemy was popular among Taoists, though it was much different from Arabian/Europian alchemy. Chinese alchemists aimed at longevity pill rather than gold (pill was the more common form of medicine than liquid potion). Emperors of Chinese dynasties wanted to attain immortality, so alchemists made various pills from quicksilver, arsenic, etc.. It was unfortunate that Chinese alchemy couldn't develop modern chemistry.
Sennin : It was widely believed among Taoists that a man could attain immortality by achieving Tao. Such the immortal were thought to have fantastic abilities such as living without any foods, flying with clouds, etc.. Though Taoism was not popular in Japan, medieval Japanese believed in the immortal Taoists. They were called Sennin in Japanese (sorry, I forget what they were called in Chinese).
At first, immortality was the prize only for those who had achieved Tao. However, Taoists began to want immortality without achieving Tao. So many legends were bore to become Sennin. Some thought there had been a special pill which had made taker into Sennin (how easy idea!). Some other thought to become Sennin by fasting because a Sennin could live without food. Some other thought the way to Sennin is known only by real Sennin, so they had to find Sennin and learn the secret. There were much more other hypothesis how to become Sennin.
A Sennin was described as a hermit living in the wild, who lived on mist.
Onmyo-Do was not really a religion. It was a science thousands years ago. Yeah, you can call it magic. It was based on the oriental astrology, almanac, various method of fortune-telling, and the mystical Taoism religion.
Christianity was brought into the country by Fransisco Xavier in 1549. Christians increased under the protection of a powerful daimyo, Oda Nobunaga. But after his death, his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi prohibited Christianity, because Christians deny the traditional class system.
When Hideyoshi died, his successor Tokugawa Ieyasu became a shogun, and began to clamp down Christians. Many Christians were killed. But brave missionary continued to come from Europe, and christians revolted against shogunate. See also the Revolt on Shimabara. Finally the third shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu decided to close the country in 1638.
When the Edo shogunate fell in 1867, freedom of religion was permitted. But during the Pacific War Christians were considered as American spies and suppressed again. It was in 1945 when Chrisitianity got right finally.
Copyright © 1998-2006 Phillip Riley
Last Updated Sat Aug 11, 2007