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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Japan's Shinto And Buddhist Philosophy Co-exist In Harmony

I hate funerals.

In Western traditions, there's the whole big show at a church or temple where people talk about the deceased as though they actually knew them, followed by a trip to the graveyard or wherever the final interning of the body/ashes is to be with a short ceremony, and then everyone comes back to your place to eat food and to tell you how great your loved one was and how they will all miss them.

This was what it was like your millions and millions of us... and for me when my mother passed away 19 years ago, give or take a few months.

It sucked then.

Back at my house... the same house I inhabit right now... in this very room that was my bedroom... on the opposite side of a wall where my mother died on the couch at an age I'll reach soon ... someone woman my mother worked with made the comment to me about how much I resembled my mother... her eyes... her smile... her demeanor... and let me tell you... it was years and years before I could look at myself in a mirror without feeling a whole lot of personal loss.

It was either a very thoughtful comment or one I could consider most distasteful. I still haven't decided. Perhaps a bit of both.

Funerals aren't really for the dead. It's about them... but it's more to do with placating the soul... and again, not the soul of the dead... but rather the soul of those of still left on this mortal coil.

It's like that in Japan, too.

Japan, as you know has two main forms of religion (not including the inclusion of Western religions onto the culture) known as Shintoism and Buddhism, which is not actually a religion but is a philosophy... if we are being correct.

(There's also Taoism... but it doesn't fit in this discussion, so I'm omitting it.)

There is an old Japanese saying that implies that the Japanese are born into shinto, but in death are aligned with Buddhism.

The shinto religion says that there is a kami (a god of nature) within everything, from the rocks, to the trees, the mountains, the sky, the archery bullseye, the cooking pot et al.

It means you can pray to a lot of different kami for a lot of different things. Things that a little prayer here or there will help you get through your life. I'm over simplifying things regarding shinto, but that is what it is.

There is the shichi-go-san festival... a shinto event that celebrates the coming of age for kids... at the age of 7, 5 and 3. Shichi means seven, go is five, and san means three. Why it is presented in a backwards order has always been something I have never understood. Is it because the older age is more important? Is it because wisdom is best served going in reverse? No idea.

This event is coming up on November 15, and is done to celebrate the growth and well-being of young kids. Not a national holiday, it is observed on the nearest weekend.... so Saturday the 16th, I suppose, this year.

The thing that shinto does not cover, however, is death.

And that's where the Buddhist philosophy comes into play... it's why these two major belief systems can co-exist in Japanese culture.

With Buddhism, death is examined. It is examined as a key to the mystery of life.

Buddhists attempt to understand death. By understanding death, we can understand life.

It's because death is a part of life. They are joined. You have one... and eventually you have the other. You understand one.... and you understand the other.

Buddhists attempt to understand death, and when that is achieved, they understand life.

I'm not a Buddhist. I don't understand life or death or why we are here or why we are no longer here.

I understand that I am writing and you are reading this. I understand that you will be reading this after I have finished writing this.

All I do know is that I don't understand because I choose not to understand... I figure all things will be understood in its time... and that in the meantime, all we can do is live to the best of our abilities.

I still hate funerals, though. It's self serving. Almost like being a Buddhist.

I do enjoy the philosophy of zen Buddhism, which I paraphrase for you below:
  • the past no longer exists... your memories of it are fleeting. You can't smell, taste, hear or feel what happened in the past with the strength at which it occurred...
  • the future is unwritten... why worry about something that hasn't happened yet.
  • the present is all we have. The now. Waste it not.  
I do really like the concept of shintoism, though. A spirit in everything. I can see why the Japanese like it, too...

My mother died 19 years ago this past September... on the same day as my ex-fiance Noboko celebrated her birthday. Bitter sweet memories.

I have never visited my mother's space in a wall 20 minutes north of my home... never gone to talk with her... I don't have to.

I see her every time I look in a mirror... but I don't enjoy doing that much because I feel sad. Self-serving.

Andrew Joseph
PS: Funny how things work... I wrote the Shakespearean term "mortal coil" in this blog at around 7PM... stopped to watch an episode of Murdoch Mysteries... and heard it spoken twice... and it was made a big deal off....
PPS: My mother did come and visit me while I was living in Japan. The locals of Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken all treated her with a respect and dignity I appreciated... not only because they like her, but because they like me. It's my favorite memory of Japan, believe it or not. Self-serving. It's not necessarily always a bad thing. 
PPPS: This wasn't what I wanted to write about when I began all of this... but since I never really know what I'm going to write about, I guess that's okay by me.
PPPPS: The photo above was taken by me at Chuzenji-ko (Lake Chuzenji) near Nikko-shi, Tochigi-ken. It is one of my favorite photos of Japan, as it was also my mother's, which was why for my parent's wedding anniversary a month after I got back from Japan for good in 1993, I enlarged it and framed and gave it to them. I have it now. I always had this thing for dark clouds and rays of sunlight breaking through. My own personal yin and yang.

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