It takes lot of practice to sit that still in meditation
July 2, 2007 9:17 AM   Subscribe

Sokushinbutsu - The self-made mummies.
posted by Burhanistan (55 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating! Excellent post. I can't imaging the level of commitment it must take to achieve such an extraordinary level of ascetic self-denial. While I've alway been a bit wary of the anti-body stance of most ascetics, I can understand the desire to serve your local community in what may seem an extreme fashion.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:31 AM on July 2, 2007


the mummification process was far from reliable, and often the body simply decomposed during the three year burial. In these cases, the priest had failed to become sokushinbutsu, and was reburied permanently in a ordinary grave.

Wow, that sucks. All that effort and no payoff.
posted by amro at 9:34 AM on July 2, 2007


That's pretty fascinating. What I want to know, though, is are these mummified monks as delicious and nutritious as the mellified man?
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:38 AM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Deeply religious ceremony....or a great way to keep the crazies off the streets?
posted by DU at 9:45 AM on July 2, 2007


guess these guys figured so much for that silly old "middle way" thing gautama talked about...

seriously, though, and with all due respect, i'm curious to understand why these practitioners didn't regard this sort of radical ascetic practice as a kind of negative attachment to samsara? anything written on that topic?
posted by saulgoodman at 9:46 AM on July 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


saulgoodman: excellent point. The same kind of thing could be said for severe ascetics of any discipline. Anyone who is overly concerned with renunciation is simply attached to renunciation.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:50 AM on July 2, 2007


Anyone who is overly concerned with renunciation is simply attached to renunciation.

Even more generally: All religions have fundamental paradoxes because religions make no sense. That's why they use faith, not reason.
posted by DU at 10:00 AM on July 2, 2007


Re: being attached to renunciation - St. John of the Cross lists this as one of the primary "spiritual imperfections" that beginners are afflicted with when they begin their ascetic practices - a form of spiritual pride.

"AS these beginners feel themselves to be very fervent and diligent in
spiritual things and devout exercises, from this prosperity (although it is
true that holy things of their own nature cause humility) there often comes
to them, through their imperfections, a certain kind of secret pride, whence
they come to have some degree of satisfaction with their works and with
themselves....
2. In these persons the devil often increases the fervour that they have and
the desire to perform these and other works more frequently, so that their
pride and presumption may grow greater. For the devil knows quite well that
all these works and virtues which they perform are not only valueless to
them, but even become vices in them.
" ^

At what point to extreme ascetic practices simply become another expression of vanity?
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:00 AM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Suicide embalmers.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:01 AM on July 2, 2007 [6 favorites]


Even more generally: All religions have fundamental paradoxes because religions make no sense.

That really doesn't follow from my comment and is kind of trolly. Some religions make alot of sense within their own parameters, even if one doesn't believe the outcomes.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:06 AM on July 2, 2007


I've alway been a bit wary of the anti-body stance of most ascetics, I can understand the desire to serve your local community in what may seem an extreme fashion.

Yes! eXXXtreme community service, which channel is this on?
posted by geos at 10:10 AM on July 2, 2007


Even more generally: All religions have fundamental paradoxes because religions make no sense. That's why they use faith, not reason.

actually, in buddhism, reasoning is emphasized over faith (not that this emphasis always finds its way down from the teacher to the lay-practitioners), which is why this kind of practice seems so anomalous to me. it explicitly violates core doctrinal principles of buddhism--in particular, the core principle of buddhism representing a "middle way" between the ascetic and the hedonistic, as i pointed out earlier.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:12 AM on July 2, 2007


At what point to extreme ascetic practices simply become another expression of vanity?

exactly, baby_balrog--it's all vanity. which i've always understood to be one of the main points of the teachings of the historical buddha, so i'm curious to know what kind of arguments were made to support these practices.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:15 AM on July 2, 2007


I can't imagine that time of dedication for any purpose. I was going to also going to say "selflessness," but I don't know if that applies when you're trying to achieve godliness.
posted by FeldBum at 10:22 AM on July 2, 2007


I've traveled to see one of these mummies not once but twice, on Yudono-san, near Tsuruoka, and one of the Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata Prefecture.

The mummy is kept in a glass case in a temple on the lower slopes of Yudono-san, about ten minutes by car from the national road heading toward Yamagata. The first time we went we had no car, so the wife of the abbot picked us up at the bus stop.

Seeing the mummy wasn't particularly significant, chiefly because Tohoku, Japan's northeast, is a pretty magical, even primeval place, and a mummy seemed to be pretty much normal.

I was struck by the fact that the ascetic whose mummy we saw had asked to be buried alive.


At what point to extreme ascetic practices simply become another expression of vanity?


This seems to be more of a Zen attitude toward Buddhism/life, and these ascetics are coming from a Shugendo background.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:24 AM on July 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


The name of the temple is 滝水大日坊...
posted by KokuRyu at 10:30 AM on July 2, 2007


FeldBum writes "I was going to also going to say 'selflessness,' but I don't know if that applies when you're trying to achieve godliness."

Well, if you consider what godliness means from the Japanese Buddhist perspective, though, it really comes out to be selflessness. If you talk about "becoming a god" in the West (especially in a modern context where people's images of "becoming gods" comes from novels, movies, tv, etc.), you imagine "unlimited power mwahahaha!!!". In Japanese Buddhism, you're really basically saying "the power to save people". I'm sure more than a few were motivated by pride and the promise of immortal fame (note: not immortality, because everybody gets that, sokushinbutsu or not), but for the most part, becoming a god would be the equivalent of becoming an unpaid surgeon or a really powerful free social worker.

saulgoodman writes "it explicitly violates core doctrinal principles of buddhism--in particular, the core principle of buddhism representing a 'middle way' between the ascetic and the hedonistic, as i pointed out earlier."

True, but the "middle way" aspect of Buddhism sticks out quite a bit, because it doesn't quite naturally reconcile with the other teachings. From what I can remember, the whole "middle way" thing basically came from Gautama trying out extremism and finding that it didn't work. There's no real reason given for why it doesn't work (sure, you could argue "it shows attachment to asceticism!", but the counterargument is equal: "following the middle path shows attachment to moderation!"). So faced with an apparent contradiction in Buddhism (attachment is in itself a bad thing! one must not attach! But, wait, one must not detach too much! A little attachment is good, even though attachment is intrinsically bad"), I'm not too surprised if some people throw out one side or the other of the contradiction.

Plus, of course, Japanese Buddhism can be, and often is, insanely divorced from Gautama's teachings anyway, due to the influences of Chinese society, Korean society, and Japanese society while Buddhism flowed to Japan. Sokunshibutsu might be ignoring some aspects of Buddhism, but not nearly as much as the monks I see driving BMWs, drinking sake, and eating beef.
posted by Bugbread at 10:36 AM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


DU - that's an awfully glib and facile response to religious practice... the first example amongst many that pops into my head is the "three-legged" stool of the Anglican Church, namely, that the church rests it's authority upon faith, reason, and tradition.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:38 AM on July 2, 2007


kokuryu: So apart from zen/shugendo, are there other major schools of japanese buddhism? how do these align with the conventional mahayana/theravadan school distinctions? to me, the idea that asceticism is a form of vanity would be consistent with the theravadan school. come to think of it, where does zen fall in that mahayana/theravadan formulation?

sorry if this is a derail, but i'm just now realizing i know very little about japanese buddhism (except for the fact that most people identify the fat and happy japanese laughing buddha with the historical buddha, when the historical buddha wasn't particularly fat, nor particularly happy, in the usual sense).
posted by saulgoodman at 10:40 AM on July 2, 2007


saulgoodman writes "to me, the idea that asceticism is a form of vanity would be consistent with the theravadan school. come to think of it, where does zen fall in that mahayana/theravadan formulation?"

Japanese Buddhism is almost entirely mahayana. I know that therevada exists, but it's extremely rare. Japanese Buddhism is mostly religious, with the primary exception being Zen. Dunno what the breakdown is for Zen versus religious Buddhism, but the religious sects (Jodo, Shingon, etc.) definitely outnumber it.

As for Zen on the mahayana/therevada spectrum...it's really tough. It's part of Mahayana, technically, but it shares so little in common with mahayana stuff, and so much in common with therevada, that it seems out of place.
posted by Bugbread at 10:46 AM on July 2, 2007


At what point do extreme ascetic practices simply become another expression of vanity?

The point at which one starts telling other people about them, I would think.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:48 AM on July 2, 2007 [5 favorites]


Faint of Butt - I think that's probably exactly right. If you read the second part to the quote I linked above, St. John of the Cross goes on the explain that that sinful nature of the overly zealous ascetic (the devil making himself known) is in the manner in which they communicate with others - "And hence there comes to them likewise a certain desire, which
is somewhat vain, and at times very vain, to speak of spiritual things in
the presence of others, and sometimes even to teach such things rather than
to learn them."
as well as their teachers:
" 3. Sometimes, too, when their spiritual masters, such as confessors and
superiors, do not approve of their spirit and behavior (for they are anxious
that all they do shall be esteemed and praised), they consider that they do
not understand them, or that, because they do not approve of this and comply
with that, their confessors are themselves not spiritual."

posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:55 AM on July 2, 2007


(sure, you could argue "it shows attachment to asceticism!", but the counterargument is equal: "following the middle path shows attachment to moderation!")

i disagree--i don't think the idea of the middle way necessarily implies any embrace of a moderate balance of asceticism and hedonism, or for that matter any kind of moderation in anything. the suggestion is just that the modes of thinking that give rise to asceticism and hedonism are in error, as are all dualistic modes of thought. it doesn't even posit the existence of non-dualistic modes of thought. instead, it argues for no-self, and no-mind--not the conscious rejection of self and mind, but their absolute non-existence. at least, that's how i understand it. obviously, these guys had different ideas, and were far more willing than i would be to put those ideas into practice.

also: thanks bugbread--i always wondered about that.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:57 AM on July 2, 2007


Zen is most definitely Mahayana. Unlike Theravada, anyone can enter a temple and practice Zen. Unlike Theravada, which is bases on predestination, Zen is based on "jiriki" (自力), that is, enlightenment is based on personal effort. However, Jodo or Pure Land is based on 他力, tairiki, or Other Power, or the Nembutsu. However, Zen and Jodo are both Mahayana.

However, these ascetics practiced something called Shugendo. Since Japanese Buddhism is syncretic in nature, Tendai and Shingon temples often administer Shugendo sites, like the Dewa Sanzan. The two centers of Shugendo are the Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata, and the Kii Peninsula, between Osaka and Nagoya. "Ninjas" are said to have been Shugendo practioners way back when.

Religion in Japan is determined by geography. During the Shogunate, families were forced to register with whatever denomination of Buddhism was prominent in their area. Successive generations stayed with the same temple of denomination. As a result, Buddhism in Japan is pretty much ritualistic. The denomination doesn't really matter for most people, though that's not to say that people are not deeply Buddhist.

But, as my father-in-law said, if he failed to pay a tithe or whatever to our temple, his name would be put up on a list on the temple walls. Also, if you don't pay the priest the necessary fee, no posthumous name.

Japanese people are deeply cynical about religion, at least the more formal aspects of it.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:06 AM on July 2, 2007


I'm not trying to convince you otherwise, salugoodman. Just positing that, for example, there could be the train of thought that says "I am not rejecting my mind or body. That implies that they exist. But neither will I go through the daily rituals of putting food into my body, of breathing, of sleeping. When I was a child, I left out milk and cookies for Santa Claus. When I understood that he was an illusion, I stopped. I now understand that my body, and my life, are an illusion. Why should I spend part of every day giving it milk and cookies?" Just one possibility.
posted by Bugbread at 11:06 AM on July 2, 2007


KokuRyu writes "Unlike Theravada, which is bases on predestination, Zen is based on 'jiriki' (自力), that is, enlightenment is based on personal effort."

Eh? Unlike therevada? Therevada is all about the personal effort. Sure, predestination (in the sense of "you are in the position you are in because of karma from previous lives") exists, but that's true for Mahayana, too, right? In fact, it's more like post-destination (not "your future is decided", but "your present was decided by your past"). There's no upper cap on the future (i.e. it posits "you are who you are because of karma from previous lives", but it doesn't posit "and you will only achieve X amount of spiritual development because of that").

In fact, if anything, the whole deal about different teachings for different levels of enlightenment based on predestination (i.e. "teach the farmers to chant the nembutsu and praise Amida, because they aren't smart enough or spiritually developed enough to understand the harder stuff. If they are devout enough, when they die and are reborn, it will be in a body better able to understand the more complex teachings") is a Mahayana thing, isn't it?
posted by Bugbread at 11:13 AM on July 2, 2007


All I know if that this is much better than the Egyptian style of self-mummification I've been attempting.

I mean, seriously: You ever try to fish your own brain out through your nose with a long hook?
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:19 AM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Unlike Theravada, which is bases on predestination,

uh, not it's not.

the chief differences between mahayana and theravadan schools are that the theravadan ("way of the elders") schools accept as doctrine only the original pali scriptural accounts of the historical buddha's teachings, and downplay the whole i'm-a-bodhisatva-on-a-mission-to-save-the-world-by-delaying-
nirvana-for-the-benefit-of-all-other-suffering-sentient-beings thing that the mahayana schools have going on.

Just positing that, for example, there could be the train of thought that says "I am not rejecting my mind or body. That implies that they exist. But neither will I go through the daily rituals of putting food into my body, of breathing, of sleeping.

yeah, i can kind of see your point with that line of reasoning, but according to one of the links, these guys were drinking lacquer and having themselves crammed into little concrete boxes! that's not exactly analogous to the kind of passive, gradual abandonment of the habits of belief in the fiction of personal existence that your example paints.

still, good point.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:26 AM on July 2, 2007


oh, and what bugbread said.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:27 AM on July 2, 2007


fascinating, but wish a warning about the pictures was somewhere...oy vey...
posted by rmm at 11:29 AM on July 2, 2007


I don't know a lot about Theravada, except that is called "Lesser Wheel" because only a select few are eligible for enlightenment. But like I said, I don't know much, and most of my time has been spent trying to figure out Buddhism in Japan.

Point taken with the nembutsu. But I don't think Honen, Shinran or Rennyo were trying to create a dichotomy - the illiterate peasants learn to chant the nembutsu in order to achieve salvation, while the 1% of educated people at the top of the social heap can learn more sophisticated methods.

My understanding of Jodo-Shin is not that the farmers of Echigo or wherever were not spiritually developed enough, it's just that, given their situation - illiteracy, having to kill animals and fish to live, etc - they would never be able to achieve enlightenment (or is it salvation) under existing Buddhist doctrine. And since Amidha's primal vow is to save everyone, all you have to do is accept that as truth.

Reincarnation: in the Japanese context, does it mean what we think it means? I've never met anyone in Japan who believes in literal reincarnation, eg: bad actions in this life = being reincarnated as a slug.

In fact, the whole afterlife thing was a bit of a mystery. My wife's old man chanted the nembutsu, and therefore accepted the Primal Vow, and was destined for reach the Pure Land after he died. However, when he died, he had to lie in state (dry ice strapped to his chest, brushing the flies away in the heat of late August) as his soul traveled down the river to the underworld.

And in Zen, how can there be reincarnation? When you die you are extinguished. And what the hell is "you", anyway?
posted by KokuRyu at 11:32 AM on July 2, 2007


As Weird Al noted in Amish Paradise:
"I'm a million times humbler than thou art!"
posted by hexatron at 11:41 AM on July 2, 2007


And in Zen, how can there be reincarnation? When you die you are extinguished. And what the hell is "you", anyway?

in all schools of buddhism, you only get "extinguished" by attaining nirvana--if you still have positive or negative karmic debts to pay, you're reborn. i'm pretty sure that's true in zen too.

mahayana calls itself the "greater vehicle" and it calls the theravadan school "the lesser vehicle" (which, btw, theravadans consider an insult) because theravadan practitioners don't believe in postponing their own attainment of nirvana in order to return to samsara in a subsequent life to help other beings attain enlightenment, and the mahayana schools are a little sanctimonious (IMO) about their belief in the bodhisatva pledge. that's why there are so many different buddhas in mahayana--all of them supposedly various incarnations of bodhisatvas who've foresaken nirvana for themselves in order to alleviate the suffering of others. in theravada buddhism there's only one physical buddha--siddharta gautama, the historical figure whose teachings were originally the basis for buddhism. anyone else who attains enlightenment becomes a never-returner, and when they die, they don't return to samsara.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:48 AM on July 2, 2007


what the hell is "you", anyway?

a function of the aggregates of the five skandhas.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:51 AM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


actually, that came out kind of garbled. what i meant is, a function of the five aggregates of the skandhas.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:55 AM on July 2, 2007


if you still have positive or negative karmic debts to pay, you're reborn. i'm pretty sure that's true in zen too.

I don't know much, but one of things about Soto Zen was that it discarded, at least superficially, a lot of the mystical stuff like reincarnation. Whenever I think about religion or Buddhism, I always compare it to Soto Zen.

My experience with Zen: the head temple of Soto Zen is located in Fukui Prefecture, where I used to live (though most people belong to Jodo-Shin Buddhism). I made friends with a monk who lived in a small monastery in Obama (you can read an interview with him online here).

The monk's message to me: don't worry about the scriptures, they're just distractions. Just learn how to set zazen.

I stayed at the monastery for a week. What I remember about the experience (and what sums up my own understanding of Buddhism) is:

When you are finished eating, wash out your bowl.

On a more metaphysical level, my understanding of Zen is:

When we die we die. While we're here we have to learn how to live.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:13 PM on July 2, 2007


KokuRyu writes "I don't know a lot about Theravada, except that is called 'Lesser Wheel' because only a select few are eligible for enlightenment."

Saulgoodman also discussed it, but it's called the "lesser wheel" because it is about attaining enlightenment oneself, while Mahayana is about helping others attain enlightenment. In theravada, the coolest person is someone who is enlightened (a buddha, basically, though I don't remember if they use that term). In mahayana, there's something cooler, a boddhisatva: a person who has satisfied the eligibility requirements of becoming a buddha, but indefinitely postponed it until everyone else has also satisfied the eligibility requirements. So there's no real predestination / select few angle: anyone can become a buddha or boddhisatva. The mahayanists just think the theravadans are selfish for becoming a buddha without helping a brother out.

Regarding the "spiritually enlightened" thing, you're right, I was wrong. It isn't so much "you aren't spiritually enlightened", but more "you have neither the background education nor the free time to pursue salvation in the same way as us monks unless you give up farming and dedicate yourself full time". So there were teachings for people who joined the order, and different teachings for laymen, but it isn't, as I had erroneously said, about spiritual levels.

KokuRyu writes "Reincarnation: in the Japanese context, does it mean what we think it means? I've never met anyone in Japan who believes in literal reincarnation, eg: bad actions in this life = being reincarnated as a slug."

Huh. That's a good point. Everyone I know (so now we're talking folk Buddhism, not Buddhism-as-practiced-by-monks) thinks of death as either "attain buddhaism" (成仏), or "get fucked forever as a ghost or something". Whenever I've heard monks talking to laymen, they've never said anything which contradicts that, so perhaps that's (roughly) how the monks think too.

However, I will point out (as I suspect you know) that there is a concept of reincarnation in the typical sense in Japanese: 輪廻. You just don't hear it much. This may be because of the business aspects of Buddhism in Japan: you can sell a great posthumous name and multitudinous expensive prayers based on the idea that "if you don't pay the monk to pray for your dead relative, they will not become a Buddha, but a lost soul", but it doesn't work so much if the argument is "if you don't pay the monk to pray for your dead relative, he'll be reborn somewhere and have another possibly fulfilling life and maybe become a buddha then". That's just a cynical guess, though.

To be honest, I wonder if it isn't just because very few Buddhist monks seem to know anything about Buddhism beyond "this is my job because my dad was a monk, so I have to take over the temple, and the pay is good".
posted by Bugbread at 12:15 PM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


To be honest, I wonder if it isn't just because very few Buddhist monks seem to know anything about Buddhism beyond "this is my job because my dad was a monk, so I have to take over the temple, and the pay is good".

that's my suspicion, too.

In theravada, the coolest person is someone who is enlightened (a buddha, basically, though I don't remember if they use that term). In mahayana, there's something cooler, a boddhisatva:

i think the term "buddha" is reserved for the historical buddha, but i'm not 100% sure.

thanks for explaining all that stuff so much better than i could.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:29 PM on July 2, 2007


First of all, this is a great thread, and I'm learning a lot. Then...

"this is my job because my dad was a monk, so I have to take over the temple, and the pay is good"

Good point. I'm not sure if this is such a bad thing. Of course, it makes religion a reflexive, almost mechanistic practice in Japan, but, then again, religion can be more personal or community oriented.

Out drinking, people would always ask me, the Westerner, what my religion was. I took to saying, "I'm a Buddhist!" which people always thought to be ridiculous. "You're not Japanese," they said.

I don't think it was chauvinism; it's just that the Japanese people I met didn't think of religion as something you choose. It's not like you could not be a Buddhist in Japan, because the religion is enmeshed in the fabric of Japanese life.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:30 PM on July 2, 2007


Great discussion, folks!
posted by sciurus at 1:46 PM on July 2, 2007


Just want to chime in to thank bugbread & kokuryu. I'm glad you're keeping this discussion going in here. Very informative.
posted by fnord at 2:07 PM on July 2, 2007


This business of slowly embalming yourself is so dark. Why couldn't they just run a couple marathons every day for 100 days?
posted by mullingitover at 2:11 PM on July 2, 2007


The title of this post should have been: "Make me one with roots, bark, and poisonous sap."
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:35 PM on July 2, 2007


There's a reason why successful religions eventually ban suicide.

Mullingitover, here's the first 11 minutes of Marathon Monks on google video.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:26 PM on July 2, 2007


BrotherCaine writes "There's a reason why successful religions eventually ban suicide."

I dunno. Buddhism is successful, and they didn't ban this, the Japanese government did.
posted by Bugbread at 3:35 PM on July 2, 2007


Thank you, thank you, thank you.

13 years of asking various students (many of them heirs to temples, and all that entails) questions about Japanese Buddhism has not been as informative as this thread. I believe there is one of the mummified ascetics at a temple about an hour west of our place. Never had much an interest in seeing it because of my personal opinions on extremism in any form, but maybe the next time I'm in the neighborhood....
posted by squasha at 4:16 PM on July 2, 2007


squasha writes "13 years of asking various students (many of them heirs to temples, and all that entails) questions about Japanese Buddhism has not been as informative as this thread."

Ah, well then I'll sweeten it by giving a really really quick lowdown on what exactly makes the main sects different from eachother, which I seriously doubt most Japanese folks could do (I'm using wikipedia to refresh my memory, so there's a bit copied from there, but this is like an executive summary). Roughly chronologically:

Shingon
One of the oldest forms of Japanese Buddhism. It taught that achieving Buddha-hood within one's own lifetime was possible, not requiring aeons of reincarnations. It was big on symbolism, ritual, tantras, etc. It (like Zen) was big on the whole "we all have the buddha nature already, we just need to realize it".

Tendai
Pretty similar to Shingon, also quite old. It later gave birth to Zen, Jodo, Jodo-Shinshu, and Nichiren Buddhism. It also had the whole "we all have buddha nature". Advantages of that belief are: hey, we can worship Shinto gods, because they're expressions of Buddha nature. They're basically Buddhas! Also, we can listen to music, make paintings, and write poetry, because those aren't idle pursuits, but expression of Buddha nature! Tendai was big on the Lotus Sutra.

Jodo (Pure Land)
Ok, so one of the doctrines in Mahayana Buddhism, in China/Korea/Japan, was the idea that there were different eras of the Buddhist faith. By the time Jodo developed, the idea was that the teachings of Buddha had declined and gotten corrupted, and it wasn't like the good old days anymore, where you could attain Buddha-hood through meditation and thought. Luckily, though, there was a Buddha, Amida, who promised that if anyone called on him, he would take them to the Pure Land. There you could finally meditate and think your way into Buddha-hood. The means of reaching the Pure Land was to recite the nembutsu, a particular chant. You could also be a good person, but that wasn't really required, as long as you avoided the really really bad sins.

Jodo Shinshu
People are chanting the nembutsu all the damn time. Then someone points out, "Hey, this isn't fair. I have to work, and don't have much time for the nembutsu. Bob, over there, is a rich lazy bastard who doesn't need to lift a finger all day, so he can recite the nembutsu all day long. Why should the rich and idle have better chances of getting to the Pure Land?" Shinran, a disciple of the guy who established Jodo, said "Good point. But actually, that's not how it works. You don't say the nembutsu to get to the Pure Land. Or, rather, you do, but only once. The rest of the time, you're saying the nembutsu because you've been so moved by knowing your salvation. The other times don't mean anything, they're just chanting in exultation. What really matters is your faith, not your chanting."

Nichiren
This was founded by a guy named Nichiren, who basically thought the other Buddhist sects were wrong, wrong, wrong. Like, "we're having earthquakes and famines because y'all are following bad teachings" wrong. He had a core set of teachings which, honestly, weren't all that different from other conventional Mahayana Buddhism. He was big on chanting, and on the Lotus Sutra specifically. Nichiren believed that achieving Buddha-hood was possible within one's own lifetime, not after countless reincarnations, and not requiring rebirth in the Pure Land.

Zen
Zen is a pain in the ass to explain. Instead, I'll just drop in the little-ish known trivia that Zen is not originally Japanese, they just get all the credit. It was originally Ch'an Buddhism in China. However, Ch'an eventually died out in China, but remained in Japan, so people associate it with Japan. Just like people in the West who don't know much about Buddhism associate Buddha with a fat Chinese guy, because Buddhism basically died out in India. Same type thing.
posted by Bugbread at 5:18 PM on July 2, 2007 [5 favorites]


I think one of my favorite stories about Nichiren-shu is just after Hideyoshi took power. Until the bakufu (Shogunate), the various Buddhist denominations in Japan wielded tremendous power and influence. Besides being a military threat, socially the Buddhist sects could be a tremendous pain in the ass. Different temples and different schools got into fights.

One day, in Omi near Kyoto, there was a debate between monks of the Nichiren school, and monks from Jodo-shin. It was an argument over doctrine. The Nichiren folks "lost" the argument (remember, their priests and monks could travel all over Japan and stir up endless mischief) and had their heads cut off.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:26 PM on July 2, 2007


日本語フィルター: In Japan, New Sight Mook's 'Books Esoterica' series has pretty much the definitive explanation on religion in Japan.

My favorite: Japanese Curses.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:32 PM on July 2, 2007


日本語フィルター:

heh. precisely what I thought when I clicked into the thread.

Thanks for all the additional info! I suspect my week's lesson plans are going to be full of discussions about the topic. The vast majority of my students use their English when visitors ask them to explain some facet of Japanese culture, and I tend to write a large number of dialogues revolving around these topics.

The Japanese Curses, however, I will keep for myself!
posted by squasha at 7:43 PM on July 2, 2007


actually, in buddhism, reasoning is emphasized over faith (not that this emphasis always finds its way down from the teacher to the lay-practitioners)

A lot of buddhist followers (even teachers) emphasize faith strongly - but it's a different sort of faith than christan faith. It's faith that the buddha was actually enlightened and therefore must know what he's talking about, as in we have faith that he followed his life correctly and therefore is a good example for us. Some sects have even stronger faith than that.
Reasoning emphasized over faith is your intrepretation of it, which does sound great.
Most zen teachers, for example though, emphasize intuition over reasoning.
posted by klik99 at 8:00 PM on July 2, 2007


Most zen teachers, for example though, emphasize intuition over reasoning.

I agree. In fact, I feel foolish even writing in this thread about Zen. Because a little voice says, "Do you want to live? Then shut up and learn how to sit and how to breathe."
posted by KokuRyu at 8:31 PM on July 2, 2007


Ah, one more interesting thing about Nichiren: As I mentioned, unlike the other sects, this one was big on the "bad things are happening in the world because of bad Buddhist teachings". One result of that is that it was far more proselytic than the other sects. Sure, they all had proselytizing to some degree, but a lot of that was about getting more money or more governmental power. Nichiren had the additional edge that if you didn't get enough people to believe in Nichiren, there would be fires and famines and plagues. So they were big into converting people.

As such, most of the new religious sects/cults in Japan tend to be distant offshoots of Nichiren, because (after all), part of being a cult is actively trying to convert people.
posted by Bugbread at 8:06 AM on July 3, 2007


Reasoning emphasized over faith is your intrepretation of it, which does sound great.
Most zen teachers, for example though, emphasize intuition over reasoning.


I'm sure this is true of Zen and of many of the Mahayana schools, but I don't think it's quite just my interpretation of it--the original teachings of the Buddha explicitly emphasize reason over faith, with frequent enticements to think through the Gautama Buddha's arguments for yourself.

In fact, I remember back when I studied Buddhism as a University student, one of the films we watched on Buddhist practice in one particular region (I can't recall which) showed monks in training and their teachers practicing a certain kind of formal ritual (again, can't recall what it was called) in which the teachers and disciples debated various points of Buddhist doctrine, using formal arguments, as a ritual practice.

While it may be true that Zen in particular places a strong emphasis on intuition (and with it's Chinese roots, there's probably a little bit of a Taoist influence to account for that), the earliest recorded doctrinal teachings of Buddhism are explicitly formulated in terms of structured, logical arguments. Whatever its current forms, the Buddhist tradition has its roots in a highly subtle and sophisticated system of philosophical arguments.

Now, Zen on the other hand--Zen is like Dada. It just strikes like a bolt of lightning and changes everything.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:58 AM on July 3, 2007


And BTW, thanks for the great discussions everyone, and to Burhanistan for putting this thread together. Those images are intense, particularly how the monk's bony fingers are curled just so in various subtle meditative gestures. Wild.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:04 AM on July 3, 2007


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