Japanese Religion Essay

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Zen Buddhism can often be misinterpreted and, if that happens, it is because, to think of it as a religious concept, it's very easy when, in fact, Zen, at its origins, is something derived from action and not from words. What we mean to say is that Zen's self-perception is of a path, as in the way for someone to experience what will eventually lead to an understanding of the meaning of life. However, Zen understanding is said to come not from the mind, that is to say, from logical thinking and philosophy, but rather that it is derived from insight. Moreover, a Zen perspective is to acknowledge that language itself is poor in describing the ways of life and reality, and thus, insufficient enough for an individual to determine its purpose. That is why Zen is setting itself apart from other religions with promoting practice instead of individuals having to adhere strictly to a set of scriptures from which they need to learn. That is not to say that such scriptures are disregarded completely be Zen followers, but that their focus is less directed towards intellectual teachings and more orientated towards actual practices. Because of this, it is considered that the pupil should be introduced to Zen through the intermediary of a master.

Zen is originated in traditional Buddhist teachings, but as it was, it flourished distinctively in China before being introduced to Japan. Of the five Zen schools in China, three had reached Japan: Soto, Rinzai and Obaku, although the last is said to be merely derived from Rinzai and, as such, we will be focusing here on the first two. To look at what separates one from the other is to understand that Rinzai is much more connected to Zen practices of mind liberation while Soto focuses primordially on Buddha's way of life. However, in both of these cases, enlightenment is to come as the result of an individual's own efforts. To understand the process, we must take a look at some of the practices or efforts that the individual was supposed to follow in order to achieve enlightenment and return to his original nature. We feel the need to clarify one aspect though and it has to do with the reason we might be referring to these practices in past tense. Perception of religion and, subsequently Buddhism, has changed in Japan during the last few centuries. Moreover, Japanese people nowadays are less and less willing to recognise adherence to any particular religion and its practices. Because of that, and because we are looking to discuss also what Zen Buddhism has meant for Japanese culture and considering that the transformations occurred in times past, we will continue to address the issue in the past, when its power grew sufficient enough to cause these changes.

Thus, Zen Buddhism aims at perfection of one's self through practice. Practice is meditating because, through meditation, Zen Buddhists believe the mind can be controlled and let go of, finally reaching enlightenment. However, how the practice of meditation was employed within Soto and Rinzai traditions differ. As we shall see later, other factors as well separated these two schools. In regards to meditation, Soto school employed the method of "just sitting." But let us consider that the mind is an instrument designed almost never to rest and, as such, being able to "just sit" implies one would have to "dethink thinking," that is to say, "for a sitting to be "just sitting," there are many complex levels of thought that have to be dethought, many subtle presuppositions that have to be dismantled." (Robinson and Johnson 252) However, we will not go through the whole process of what Soto school perceived as "sitting" mainly because it implies further knowledge and understanding of other concepts and pondering on such issues would not only send us off rails more than necessary, but are not that relevant here.

Comparatively, Rinzai was focused on achieving enlightenment more abruptly, with the master using certain techniques to accelerate the pace of his disciple's process. The word to describe Rinzai practice is k -- an and it included a method constructed like a puzzle and aimed at pushing the disciple to break his ego-consciousness in attaining the statutory of a Zen person. Separating itself from Soto, Rinzai saw the path to enlightenment, moreover, the practice of meditation as the means to reach it. but, since individuals were already enlightened beings by nature (Dharma -- nature), then, in Soto tradition, meditation "is not a technique by which to achieve enlightenment; it is enlightenment itself" (Kasulis 1981), thus the practice of "just sitting." Rinzai tradition often used puzzling questions to work the mind of the disciple and although Soto school did acknowledge the presence of these questions as something one can work with, it advised that it should not be expected to receive any conclusive answers, but that these questions should merely be understood as a tool to develop "beyond thinking" "that enables one to do the questioning of dethinking thinking here and now in the first place." (Robinson and Johnson 252) Rinzai school used, aside from meditation, such practices as striking and shouting, both of which were meant to caution the disciple on the whereabouts of his mind and the course of his thoughts. As can be observed, no fundamental philosophies regarding aim separate the two shools, rather it is how they implement their practices to achieve enlightenment that makes the difference. However, we cannot help but think at Earhart's question regarding the ideals of Zen Buddhism. And so, "if these ideals exist then why have they not been actualized" (Earhart 11) suggests that actual practices of Zen Buddhism either are not efficient or few people engage in such practices.

And so, whereas Rinzai looks at meditation as the instrument by which realization is achieved, Soto sets apart this version and claims that an individual practicing meditation is nevertheless enlightened already. The practice of Rinzai was however favoured to that of Soto, perhaps because the latter refused any political attachments and, as it is known, Buddhism in Japan was first adopted by aristocrats. That Soto tended to disaffiliate itself from any political influence, considering that most aristocrats were involved one way or another in such matters, must have had a say in regards to people seeking Rinzai Zen. Nevertheless, Zen Buddhism in Japan, adopted as it was by the samurai class which was politically influential at the time of its entrance on scene, did not leave Japan unmarked by its presence. Perhaps we should always remind ourselves that it was not just Buddhist religion that the Chinese had introduced Japan to, but that they had brought along literature, philosophies, arts that influenced Japanese scholars, thinkers and artists to such an extend that many of them pursued travelling to enhance their studies. Subsequently, Rinzai Buddhism was later added as a major point of teaching in the "Way of the Warrior" and served as justifiable means for military actions. Religion has often been used as a defensive mechanism in the light of "the end justifies the means" philosophy. Such was the case in Medieval times when Christianity burned "witches" to allegedly deliver them from evil. Such is the case nowadays with some fundamentalist movements spanning around the world. but, when Japan was met with Christianity, the latter must have felt bewildered by the defective recognition on the former's behalf. This can be explained on the grounds of religion existing in Japan as already self-assertive by the time Christianity was introduced. Moreover, there was also a fix culture of institutionalized practices that prevented other ideological religious forces from altering the Japanese religious environment. Overall, the number of converted Japonese people is less significant than what exposure to Christianity meant for the societal standards of Japan and for Christianity's own perception of itself. Thus, the influences of Confucianism and Buddhism brought to Japan by the Chinese foregrounded both concepts of society and religion as the two blended into a system to serve political needs. Ultimately, let us not forget that Christendom, as a Monotheistic religion, requires one to commit himself completely to Christianity and such a perspective is likely to have interfered with how Japonese implemented their own religious practices.

When speaking of Christianity in Japan, we must consider just what form of "christianity" are we referring to. That being said, Japan was first introduced to Catholic Christianity in 1549 when a Jesuit priest arrived here. Following its attempt to convert as many Japonese people as possible, the Church incorporated some Buddhist and Shinto practices and tried to persuade feudalists to use their influence so that more and more individuals would eventually convert. There was also constant rivalry between Christian groups conducting their missionary work that dismantled the image of religion the Church had sought to portray. Ever since, "Christianity has generally been regarded as an intrusive force in Japonese society and often referred to as an evil religion." (Mullins 262) but such a perception only… [END OF PREVIEW]

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