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Shinto and Buddhism
Although both Buddhism and Shinto permeate Japanese society and life, most Japanese are blissfully unaware of the distinction between them. A wedding is often a Shinto ceremony while a funeral is a Buddhist rite.
There's a saying in Japan that you're Shinto at birth (marked with a Shinto ceremony), Christian when you marry (if you choose a Western-style wedding), and Buddhist when you die (honored with a Buddhist funeral). The Japanese take a utilitarian view of religion and use each as suits the occasion. One prays for success in life at a shrine and for the repose of a deceased family member at a temple. There is no thought given to the whys for this—these things simply are.
Buddhism in Japan grew out of a Korean king's symbolic gift of a statue of Shaka—the first Buddha, Prince Gautama—to the Yamato Court in AD 538. The Soga clan adopted the foreign faith and used it as a vehicle for changing the political order of the day. After battling for control of the country, they established themselves as political rulers. It was during this period that Japan sent its first ambassadors to China and began to import Chinese culture, writing, and religion into Japan. By the 8th century, Buddhism was well established.
Three waves of development in Japanese Buddhism followed the religion's Nara period (710-794). In the Heian period (794-1185), Esoteric Buddhism was introduced primarily by two priests who studied in China: Saicho and Kukai. Saicho established a temple on Mt. Hie near Kyoto, making it the most revered mountain in Japan after Mt. Fuji. Kukai established the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism on Mt. Koya, south of Nara. It is said that Kukai is still in a state of meditation and will be until the arrival of the last bodhisattva (the Buddhist messianic saint, or bosatsu in Japanese). Esoteric Buddhism introduced the separation of the temple into an interior for the initiated and an outer laypersons' area.
Amidism (Pure Land) was the second wave, and it flourished until the introduction of Zen in 1185. Its adherents saw the world emerging from a period of darkness during which Buddhism had been in decline, and asserted that salvation was offered only to the believers in Amida, a Nyorai (Buddha) or enlightened being. Amidism's promise of salvation and its subsequent versions of heaven and hell earned it the appellation "Devil's Christianity" from visiting Christian missionaries in the 16th century.
In the Post-Heian period (1185 to the present) the influences of Nichiren and Zen Buddhist philosophies pushed Japanese Buddhism in new directions. Nichiren (1222-82) was a monk who insisted on the primacy of the Lotus Sutra, the supposed last and greatest sutra of Shaka. Zen Buddhism was attractive to the samurai class's ideals of discipline and worldly detachment and thus spread throughout Japan in the 12th century. It was later embraced as a nonintellectual path to enlightenment by those in search of a direct experience of the sublime. More recently, Zen has been adopted by a growing number of people in the West as a way to move beyond the subject/object duality that characterizes Western thought.
Visiting a Buddhist Temple
The first thing to do when visiting a temple is to stop at the gate (called mon in Japanese), put your hands together, and bow. Once inside the gate, stop to wash your hands at the stone receptacle near the entrance. Fill one of the ladles with water using your right hand and wash your left hand first. Then refill the ladle using your left hand and wash your right hand. Some people also pour water in their right hand to rinse their mouth, but this is not necessary. After washing your hands, you can ring the temple bell.
Next, light a candle in front of the main altar of the temple and place it inside the glass cabinet. Then put your hands together and bow. You can also light three sticks of incense (lighting them together is customary) and put them in the large stone or brass stand. Follow this with a prayer and a bow. Some people may light both a candle and three sticks of incense, others may just do one or the other. Some may skip this part entirely.
Proceed to the main altar, put your hands together, bow, and pray. While you can make your own prayer here, many people pray by reciting one of the Buddhist sutras. If you'd like to have a closer look at the interior of the altar building, climb the steps and look inside. You can also throw a coin inside the wooden box on the top step as an offering, again putting your hands together and bowing. Most temples have subaltars dedicated to different Buddhist saints or deities, and you can repeat the candle, incense, and prayer rituals observed at the main altar.
After seeing the altar and subaltars spend some time walking around the temple grounds. Most temples are incredibly beautiful places. Many have gardens and sculpture worthy of a visit.
Upon leaving the temple, you should stop at the gate, turn, put your hands together, and bow to give thanks.
Shinto—literally, "the way of the kami (god)"—is a form of animism or nature worship based on myth and rooted to the geography and holy places of the land. It's an ancient belief system, dating back perhaps as far as 500 BC and is indigenous to Japan, though it's name is derived from a Chinese word, shin tao, coined in the 8th century AD, when the Yamato dynasty ruled much of Japan and divine origins were first ascribed to the royal family. Fog-enshrouded mountains, pairs of rocks, primeval forests, and geothermal activity are all manifestations of the kami-sama (honorable gods). For many Japanese, the Shinto aspect of their lives is not attached to a religious framework as it would be in the West. In that sense, the name describes more a way of thinking than a religion.
Visiting a Shinto Shrine
Shrines, like temples, have gates, though they are called torii and are often painted bright orange. In appearance, torii look much like the mathematical symbol for pi. As with the gates of temples, one enters and exits through the torii bowing on the way in and again on the way out. However, when visiting a shrine one claps twice before bowing. This is to summon the kami. Once you have their attention, you clap twice again to pay them homage.
Inside the shrine, you wash your hands in the same manner that you wash them when you visit a temple (left hand and then right hand). You then proceed to the main altar, clap twice and bow. In a shrine, clapping twice and bowing is often repeated as there may be special trees, stones, and other holy objects situated throughout the grounds.
After you have finished visiting the shrine, you should turn around at the torii, clap twice, and bow upon leaving.
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