Ryan’s blog

For this blog, I’d like to hit on something that has been bothering me for the course of this course. The nature of Buddhism in Japan is a complicated idea. To begin with, my impression coming into this course had already undergone a shift towards a more accurate understanding. As a younger man, I, like many Americans, had been under the impression that basically everyone in Japan did Zen.The country was full of nothing but meditating individuals and lots of monks. Well, my conception underwent a radical shift when I realized that there are many other kinds of Buddhism in Japan, most notably in my mind Shin and Nichiren, with Shugendo being kind of the weird outsiders. This class quickly turned me around by pointing out that more people who affiliate themselves with a sect of Buddhism, a small group already, affiliate with Shugendo than any other sect of Buddhism.
Furthermore, I was surprised to learn that Buddhism in Japan was much less of the “active” affair that I had in my head, where people went out and meditated and practiced other rituals. Contrary to my belief, the way people do Buddhism in Japan only really relates to the dead, for most people. The rituals practiced with the Butsudan were completely unknown to me, and caught me completely off-guard. As it became clearer and clearer to me that the Butsudan and rituals associated with it were at the absolute core of Japanese Buddhism, I became tempted to call this set of rituals and beliefs, in my head at least, “Butsudanism,” since the focus seemed to be completely different than my conception of what Buddhism should be. I realized, however, that this was Ryan the theologian thinking, not Ryan the religious studies scholar, and that if the Japanese call their Butsudan rituals Buddhism, then it is Buddhism, end of story. That is probably always going to be a challenge for me to work with, and I’m glad that it came up in this context, because separating my own biases from my research is an important task.
So admittedly, I have tried to motivate myself into working on these for the last few months, but that has been an uphill struggle, as evident by my lack of posting. That aside, I’ll use this update to reflect on the process of working on the website. It has been an up-and-down semester in regards to that assignment. The website has been a rather disorganized affair, most likely because none of us had any experience in putting together a website like this before. On my part, I focused in on what I thought was my responsibility and had a rather myopic view of the process as a whole, whether that’s applicable to everyone or not is another issue entirely. There has been a lot of confusion within the group with regards to who is doing exactly what, and that has caused a great deal of stress all around. On my part, I think I added a few gray hairs the night before our first major series of additions to the website was due, as I found out about 12 hours before the due time that I had to write the entire history section. So that is something I’ll take with me.
Reflecting back on the class as a whole, I must confess to a certain frustration: I feel like I am learning a lot of things. I know what a Butsudan is, I know how one performs rituals at a kamidana, and things like that, however I don’t feel like I know very much about Japanese religiousness itself, aside from the very murky conclusion that it is a vague field. It seems like after every fact I learn I hear, “but it isn’t that way in general,” or “most people don’t do this.” I don’t think this is a pedagogical issue, but nonetheless, it frustrates me as a student to feel like I’m not really learning anything.
Having been studying Japanese Religions for several weeks, let me open this post with the following statement: Putting off writing about what you have learned and what you hope to learn until a point where there is a whole watershed of information stored up in your head is not a very productive way to go about metacognition. That being said, I’ll begin with some concepts which have particularly interested me. We’ve talked a considerable amount about the specific rituals which people undergo in Japan, ranging from Omairi at Shinto shrines to the practices associated with keeping a Butsudan in the family. Some of what really interests me about this, and I swear that I am not a Durkheim fanboy, is the way that these practices create a very closely-knit sense of community in one way or another. The ability of the Butsudan in this respect is of particular interest to me. Ideally, one person in a family, at least, keeps a small Buddhist shrine in their household, which they use to continually make offerings for the benefit of the family’s ancestors. This practice knits families together through both the belief that honoring your ancestors is essential for their continued happiness in the afterlife, but also through a somewhat implicit threat. If one is particularly unkind to another family member, that family member might decide not to keep a Butsudan and make offerings for your sake as you are in the afterlife. It is believed that if offerings are not made for your sake, your afterlife will be intensely unpleasant.
So there’s that, but the interesting bits with Butsudans don’t stop there! One of the more challenging aspects of them which I have gotten to explore so far is the way that they pass through the family over time. It is apparently a very rare thing for a Butsudan to be replaced, and so they typically get passed through generation after generation.
Questions I have currently and hope to explore/see answered:
1. What specific factors encouraged the split between Jodo Shinshu and Jodo Buddhism in Japan?
2. What is the curriculum which a Shinto priest must undergo at their colleges?
3. What factors of the Shingon school a. differentiate it or link it to the more well-known forms of Tantric Buddhism in the west? I.E. the Nyingma, Gelug, Saka, and Kagyu traditions. I’ve heard it mentioned that Shingon is not Vajrayana, but the argument supporting that fact has since been lost when the site hosting it crashed. Also b. cause it to be such a popular form of Buddhism in Japan?

Just trying to test this out a little bit, so I suppose I’ll begin with a little bit of background information on me.

I’m a junior here at Ball State University, getting ready to start studying English with minors in Geography and Religious Studies if I can squeeze it, and hopefully go into a career writing more novels (I wrote my first this spring, though it has yet to get published) and poetry, you can check out my poetry at my other blog . I’m taking Doc Roemer’s class because I’ve always been interested in Japanese religions. I am a Buddhist myself, though I make that statement with several caveats directly afterward:

1. I understand that Buddhism is not the dominant religion in Japan.

2. The school of Buddhism to which I belong, the rNyingma is Tibetan, not Japanese, in origin, so I am an outsider to the material at that rate. Though, with that being said, I absolutely love the writings of Shinran Shonin and his disciples.

3. I’m not taking this class with a religious end in mind, really I’m just taking it because it interests me, that said, be aware of possible bias in the writing I will produce. If you catch it, please please please call me out on it.

I also have a lovely fiance named Lacey, whose saintly patience with my interests is essential for me to get anything done.
Academically speaking, this semester will be kind of interesting for me, as I am beginning to study the Japanese language so that I can understand the texts, and hopefully the specific turns of phrase that go into the things that I’m reading.
Seeing as how this is supposed to be representative of the learning process that I go through, I suppose that I will remark here on one thing that has struck me so far. I started this whole process out with some form of understanding about the nature of religion in Japan, and I knew that Pure Land Buddhism was definitely the biggest school, but after that, I thought that Nichiren, followed by Zen, and then others were the largest by membership. I was surprised to learn that, in fact, Shingon Buddhism, a school which I thought to be relatively on the outskirts of Japanese Buddhist practice, was larger than Zen and Nichiren Buddhism. I particularly look forward to continuing to have my own preconceptions of Japanese religiousness shattered and broken into a thousand tiny pieces.
Beyond that, I’m really not certain what else to say here right now, but hopefully I’ll have more to say as things move on.

One Response to Ryan’s blog

  1. Doc Roemer says:

    A comment on your comment about butsudan: I’m not sure about the rate of replacement. I do know that post-WWII, many had to be replaced (destroyed with the homes), so many of the ones I’ve seen are of that generation and too new to need replacing. However, the butsudan industry appears to be doing well, indicating people are still buying new ones (and new styles)

    Looking for more on butsudan? see
    Nelson, John. 2008. Household Altars in Contemporary Japan: Rectifying Buddhist “Ancestor Worship” with Home Décor and Consumer Choice.
    Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 35/2, pp. 305–330.

    Ryan, concerning your frustration with content, I understand. Perhaps you’ll find some of these answers in the readings. (also, you should bring these questions to class so we can address them while they’re fresh. Learning takes more than 2 🙂 )

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