Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, September 15, 2008

When All Things Are New... can anyone be surprised about anything?

I once heard a Buddhist priest say that, but it was on an episode of Dr. Who from the Jon Pertwee era. Actually, it is still very easy for me to be surprised by new things I come across.

Speaking of Buddhism, today is the 35-day anniversary of my mother-in-law's death, which has special significance. Specifically, it is traditionally believed to be the day in which the departed soul finds its way to Heaven, or whatever fate awaits it. It is observed via yet another funeral ceremony (the fourth so far) followed by a dinner party. Once again we gathered family and friends together, though not nearly so many as before. I think there were only about forty people in attendance this opposed to over seven hundred for the actual funeral. The atmosphere was also far less grim, especially during the dinner party. We ate at the Yamato-ya restaurant, which is scarcely a stone's throw from my house, and it was actually kind of nice.

It was ironic, too. I've lived in this house for eleven years now, and I had been to Yamato-ya a number of times for meetings plus a funeral for someone in the family that owns and runs the place. However, this was the first time I had ever eaten an actual meal at Yamato-ya. It apparently has a reputation for being one of the better seafood restaurants (and night spots) in what used to be the town of Aso (now part of Namegata city). I'd say it lives up to its name. I was pleasantly surprised. That makes me wonder why my wife was always so reluctant to eat there...

The rite at the temple was followed by the obligatory joss-stick planting at the gravesite. My father-in-law had bought a triple-pack of very cheap (even cheaper than Suisanko!) joss sticks for the occasion...but managed to forget it. Luckily, I had a BLUE box of Seiun joss sticks in my BLUE RAV4. That saved the day.

Incidentally, I made an interesting discovery about the temple itself. As with joss sticks, I had tended to take the temple rather for granted; it was just the place everyone in our neighborhood went for funerals and to tend their family graves. However, I came to notice a number of things about it. One was its history. (The priest noticed me reading the sign bearing the historical description and immediately gave me a much more understandable, printed copy.) As a religious institution bearing the name Kōtokuji (皇徳寺), or Kōtoku Temple, it dates clear back to the Kamakura Era in the late 12th century. At that time Lord Namegata, ironically a grandson of the recently-defeated Taira or Heike clan (i.e. therefore technically an enemy of the new Shogun), divided his territory among his four sons, who came to be called Lord Aso, Lord Tamatsukuri, Lord Shimazaki, and Lord Odaka. (Gee...where have I heard these names before??!?) Lord Odaka founded both Odaka Castle and Kōtokuji. At that time Kōtokuji was of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Later, during the wonderful carnival of bloodshed that is known as the Muromachi Era (particularly its latter half, which is often called the Sengoku, or Warring States Period), the Odaka clan sided with the Shogun and fought on his behalf. That was when Kōtokuji was changed to its current denomination. The Odaka clan, as well as the Aso, Tamatsukuri, and just about every other clan in this area, were finally wiped out by Lord Satake, a powerful retainer of Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Odaka Castle was taken over, and Kōtokuji was converted into a monastery. Finally, in 1700, during the Edo Era, Odaka Castle was disbanded and razed, and Kōtokuji was ordered rebuilt in its current location.

(This isn't my picture. I can't find my stock pics of the temple and will make a note to take new ones. This image is from a guide to temples in my area.)

This is how Kōtokuji appears today. It doesn't look as old as it is because it is often renovated by the people in the neighborhood. You can see in this apparently recent pic that some of the woodwork on the walls and the deck on the left side have been rebuilt. The inside shows a bit more of its history, though, including a statue of the Bodhisattva Kanon which is a designated cultural treasure.

What surprised me, though, was my discovery (after fifteen years) of the temple's actual denomination. I had always assumed it was either Jodo Shu or Jodo Shinshu (what is called "Hongwan" in the U.S.), both Pure Land sects based on Amida Buddha, since the more devout members of my neighborhood seem to believe quite strongly in Amida Buddha. Also, it seems that most temples I've seen elsewhere in this part of Japan, such as in Kashima and Itako, are also either Jodo or Shingon. In fact, Kōtokuji is a temple of the Soto sect of Zen. In fact, I've come to discover that the majority of temples in this area are of the Soto sect. That surprised me until I studied a bit more about Soto and realized that there is a historical reason for this.

Back when Tendai was still the principal school of Buddhism in Japan, it was patronized by the nobility and came to be wealthy and powerful on its own (i.e. rather like Catholicism, especially during the Middle Ages). Zen had trouble gaining a foothold at first, so it aimed for a largely untapped market, i.e. the common peasantry. The Soto sect came to be particularly popular, not only because it had less of the ascetic demands and esoteric "hocus-pocus" of the competing Rinzai Zen sect, but also because it had the practice of posthumous ordination, i.e. the deceased could be named as monks or priests of the faith. In fact, that's a key part of the Soto funeral ceremony, I'm told. Basically, a lot of these ceremonies I've been attending recently have to do with my mother-in-law being "reborn" as a Zen saint. Soto has never discriminated as to who could receive such an honor, and that really appealed to farmers back in the 12th century. Hence, even today many if not most temples in the rural outback are Soto Zen temples.

All I know is that I've always thought the priest of our local temple to be a very interesting character. Buddhism/Zen is rarely a dogmatic faith, and priests don't usually proselytize (except for some of the Nichiren branches or the related Soka Gakkai denomination). They do, however, take advantages of opportunities sometimes. As for our priest, he often sticks a handout under the windshield wiper of cars arriving on regular days for tending graves. The messages on those handouts, however, rarely if ever appear religious. Mostly they're just simple messages for good living delivered with education and wit. I'd hate to think that Zen has been reduced to the status of a mere funeral factory, but hey...if it gets people to come to the temple and maybe get a bit of learning on the side...

Incidentally, speaking of surprising discoveries, I had another one last weekend. It was the Foundation Festival at Ye Olde Academy, and one of the 9th grade classes staged the musical version of "The Lion King" as their class project. Having participated in large-scale musical productions in my high school days, I tend to have rather high standards with regard to such things. I had seen other musicals staged by students at Ye Olde Academy before, and none of them had gotten more than a score of "Meh for Effort" from me. I actually had to be talked into going to see "The Lion King". I'm really glad I did. I was impressed to the point of mouth hanging open. Yes, there were a lot of points I could criticize (such as the acting ability of a couple of members of the cast), but considering this was a non-auditioned class project operating with limited time and budget, I'd call it phenomenal. The stage work was innovative, the dance numbers were well choreographed, the singing was (mostly) strong and on pitch, the casting was sound, the characterization was reasonable, and the costumes made good use of what little they were able to get. (Yes, you can do a lot with construction paper, twine, cotton balls, and poster paint with a little effort and a lot of love!)

I have to say good job, Grade Nine Room Three. You've set a new standard and probably made history.

Maybe I should add one more discovery. My kids' school's Sports Day was two days ago. I was forced kicking and screaming obliged to participate in a couple of competitions. I discovered that I'm terribly out of shape. No surprise there...except that I somehow managed to win both races. Go figure.


  • 喃模阿彌佗佛!!!

    師主! 你與佛經有緣, 難道你欲拜我為師徒?

    By Anonymous Zen, at 9:51 PM  

  • Ok, I need a review. I know what Zen is (haven't practiced it for a semester at a Jesuit college...yes several priests were serious students/teachers at Zen Monestaries)...

    I think I remember you (or Pandabonium) posted about a couple "Pure Land" sects...but I'm beginning to lose track of what the differences are....

    By Blogger ladybug, at 7:15 AM  

  • Zen
    I seek, I study, I learn, I practice, I ignore all the labels and division crap. The truth is the truth, whatever name you choose to give it.

    (Awaiting Dave's response with bated breath...)

    Maybe I should say "Zen Buddhism" here. In Japan Zen is invariably linked with Buddhism, although they are two different things. Buddhism is a religion, whereas Zen is more like a philosophy or method. You can be a devout follower of almost any religion and still practice Zen. Believe it or not, not only did Pope John Paul II declare Zen to be "not heretical", but it actually has a growing following among Muslims!

    Put simply, Zen is the idea of finding one's true (i.e. spiritual) nature by dissociating oneself from the material ego. The Soto Zen sect and, to an extent, Tendai Buddhism seek to do so mainly through meditation and have developed all kinds of meditative techniques to help facilitate it. Rinzai Zen, on the other hand, takes a more active approach, encouraging the learner to seek the truth by contemplating koan, or paradoxical logic puzzles (e.g. "What is the sound of one hand clapping?") while denying the ego by living a very ordered, ascetic lifestyle.

    As for the "Pure Land" sects, I'm sure Pandabonium could explain them better than I could. The root philosophy of Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu (Hongwan) is that mankind is becoming too corrupt by nature for the original Buddhist teachings to have any further practical value. Therefore, the messianic figure Amida Buddha established a "Pure Land in the West" (i.e. his own layer of Heaven) and decreed that people could be saved from the cycle of death and rebirth simply by reciting the "Nembutsu", a chanted form of his name.

    Actually, one of the key differences between Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu (Hongwan) is that Jodo Shu believes anyone who chants the Nembutsu is automatically saved. Jodo Shinshu (Hongwan), on the other hand, says that the Nembutsu is NOT a blank check allowing people to do whatever they want and maintains that faith and proper conduct are also important toward salvation. There are other differences, but this one is the biggest.

    The Nembutsu is not limited to the Pure Land sects; I noticed a form of it is also chanted during Soto Zen rituals (at least the ones I've seen), and I've also heard that it appears in some of the rituals of Shingon (esoteric Buddhism) and, to a lesser extent, Tendai. However, it seems that only the Pure Land sects believe that the Nembutsu itself is the key to salvation.

    Interestingly, before I came to Japan I (and many of the regular visitors here) met a Tibetan Buddhist during a camping trip. He also spoke of the Pure Land and its promise of salvation if one only speaks the name of its Buddha, but he treated it as a sort of "easy way out" alternative to a better but more difficult path. Now that I know more about Buddhism in general, that surprises me since the Pure Land movement originated in China (but, ironically, has a much bigger following in Japan and the U.S.!).

    The Pure Land sects are definitely the most widespread in Japan, although most Japanese don't practice any religion on a regular basis. As I mentioned, Pure Land temples are the most common in towns and cities, whereas Soto Zen temples are more common in the rural outback. Other sects, such as Shingon, Rinzai Zen, Tendai, and the various Nichiren branches do have temples, but they are more scattered or localized.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:29 AM  

  • (Pandabonium, please feel free to jump in and correct me if I'm totally off the mark!)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:33 AM  

  • Dingity dang. I think you covered just about everything in this post. Thanks for the melange of thoughts.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:02 PM  

  • My readership has been down lately. I think I need to get busy.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:53 AM  

  • Zen, a form of motorcycle maintenance.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 10:10 AM  

  • Just dropping by to say hi, and I've missed you guys in the blogs, but now am off to bed. Ciao.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 12:58 PM  

  • Interesting post, especially the history of your area and the Soto sect. I learned a lot. Thanks. And your explanation above of various is sects is just fine.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:51 PM  

  • Dave
    Or was that "Wheels of Self-Discovery"?

    "Like a ghost rider..."

    That was a good book, too!

    Have you ever read Z&TAOMM? That's still one of my favorite non-fiction books of all time.

    It's good to catch a glimpse of you alive and doing well, m'lady! See you on your next orbit!

    (sigh of relief)
    You definitely have more personal "hands on" experience with these things than I do, but I learned a surprising amount in a short period of time and wanted to pass it on. I for one would be curious to know more about Jodo Shinshu and how its methods and rituals differ from what I've seen so far (mainly Soto Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, the latter being similar to Shingon, I hear).

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:51 PM  

  • I certainly don't know enough about Soto Zen or Tibetan Buddhism (which appears to me to be a blend of local mysticism blended with Buddhist elements).

    There is an excellent and simple comparison of Zen and Traditional Pure Land on this web page:

    Most of the differences I see in various sects stem from which parts of the teachings a group focuses on.

    Pure Land teachings go back to the historical Buddha. Amida Buddha, who before becoming a Buddha was called Bodhisattva Dharmakara, is described in the Larger Sukhavati Sutra, the pure land is described in the Smaller Sukhavati Sutra.

    My understanding is that the Pure Land is not a final destination, like Western "Heaven", but rather a place with no desires or passions where one can become a Buddha and thus break the endless cycle of suffering and rebirth.

    So if Soto followers become Buddhas upon death, Pure Land followers go to the Pure Land and then become Buddhas. Each is relying on the power of the Buddhas to transfer their own merit to people who cannot become Buddhas on their own power.

    Where other sects require a rigid practice to attain Buddhahood, Pure Land sects usually teach that self-power is not enough, and one needs the help of Buddhas "other power".

    The chief difference in Jodo-shu and Jodo-shinshu (the two are very similar in their teachings as the latter was developed by a disciple of the former) is that the sutras are interpreted to mean that one only need have true belief and recite the name of Amida Buddha to be born into the Pure Land. So it is based purely on the "other power" of Amida.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 9:33 AM  

  • MM, I'm curious about all these significant remembrances of your MIL's death and all the get-togethers. Is this common among most families or families of certain classes?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:04 PM  

  • Pandabonium
    Thank you very much for the information. I'll have to follow up on that.

    In Japanese tradition, remembrances of death are frequent. As far as I know, if the family observes Buddhist tradition (regardless of sect), there is a schedule of observances to follow. It basically works like this:

    -Tsuya (night of passing) - ideally three or four nights after death. (Mainly a family event, but people who can't attend the sougi may also be present.) The main point is to bring solace to the soul of the deceased.

    -Sougi (the funeral itself) - the day after the Tsuya. (Attended by anyone and everyone connected with the deceased.) The main point is to bring solace to the soul of the deceased.

    - The twenty-first day after death (observed only by the immediate family). The main point seems to be to prevent the soul of the deceased from coming back to curse everybody.

    - The thirty-fifth day after death (just observed in my MIL's case, and it involved the extended family plus a few close friends). The main point is to commemorate the soul finally arriving in heaven (or wherever it is headed). That means we no longer have to visit the grave and plant joss sticks every day. We are also able to dismantle the special memorial altar and place the memorial plaque (with the post-mortal name of the deceased inscribed) in the regular family altar.

    - The one year anniversary after death (involving the extended family plus those that helped with the funeral). The main point seems to be to make sure no one has suffered any ill effects as the result of the wrath of the soul of the deceased (but I'm not totally sure).

    - The first Obon Festival in the year following the death (involving anyone who is interested). The soul of the deceased is believed to make its first visit back after its transformation, and that's a very big deal.

    Add to that the regular observances that happen every year during the autumnal and vernal equinoxes, at Obon, and during the New Year, and you have a pretty full schedule.

    As far as I know, these practices are observed by all Japanese that are of Buddhist, Shinto/Buddhist, or agnostic Shinto/Buddhist persuasion (which is the overwhelming majority).

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:04 PM  

  • There is no way I could be Japanese, it would be harder than my job!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 4:42 AM  

  • Thanks for your detailed reply, MM. So many fascinating details and what each remembrances are for. What about poorer families? Wouldn't these gatherings be expensive to host? Or is the cost shared? I just wondered how strictly these rites are adhered to.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:03 AM  

  • Olivia
    A lot of people here think the same way, m'lady, but somehow they make it all work. :-)

    The Tsuya and Sougi are usually very expensive, but most if not all of the cost is reimbursed by the gift money given by all the well-wishers. (In fact, my father-in-law wound up breaking even because there were so many guests, and so many of them gave generously!) It's just like a wedding; it's expected that there will be a high cost, though it really depends on the family.

    As for the other events, it really depends on a lot of things. This most recent observance didn't really cost us very much at all. All we had to pay for was the incense (I bought), a few relatively inexpensive items for the temple ritual, a donation to the temple to thank the priest for his services, lunch for the (few) guests that visited for longer than just the temple observance, and the cost of gas driving some of the relatives to and from the bus station. That was it. I know some families can be very ostentatious about such things, but my FIL is, quite frankly, a cheapskate. He took the cheapest route possible that still allowed a degree of respect.

    I'm sure not all families follow these ceremonial demands to the letter, but not doing so would definitely raise some eyebrows. I remember the shock that went around when one of my former students (and band members) died of leukemia, and her parents gave her a strictly Western-style, Christian funeral. They refused to accept any of the gift money or incense brought by the well-wishers and informed us that there would be only one memorial service and no other observances. It simply didn't compute with a lot of the guests. People were seriously stunned.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:17 PM  

  • moody, you are full of history information!! i don't think i could retain so much information... especially after having a child. seems i know nothing any more and forget about my learning anything new! ;)

    i loved the musicals from school.

    i'm out of shape too. keep telling myself that i'm gonna start exercising, but have yet to do it.

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 8:38 PM  

  • Um Naief
    I think you have too much on your mind to worry about as it is without having to bother with trivia, right?

    Does your last remark mean that you also have too much on your...

    Um...never mind...

    (Quickly looks for something to hide behind.)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:28 PM  

  • Interesting! Thanks.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 7:46 PM  

  • Zen is cool.
    I do sometimes feel that instead of not being perturbed by what is going on around us, we should be able to prevent things that perturb us from coming into being - but alas then we are perturbed by things when things go wrong.

    So I guess the only choice left, is not to be perturbed when things go wrong around us - but this again almost demands that we should be able to be blissful even in a storm (or thru a war) - whereas ideally we would bever experience the horrors of war, nor be hit by a storm big enough to cause chaos and destruction.

    Ironically the Bible used to almost imply that bad things happened to a 'peoples' if the peoples were doing wrong ...
    and yet others used to believe that storms could be appeased by appealing to or making sacrifices to whichever gods ...
    and yet ultimately if you live where storms hit, the best one can hope for is that even if there is mayhem and destruction all around, somehow we and our loved ones won't be hurt.

    Of course moving to a place where there are no storms is an option, but it still does not guarantee one (or one's child) will not be hit by a bus.

    Mind you even Zen tends to go right out of the window when a child gets sick or is hurt ... even when we know everything that can be done is being done.


    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 11:38 PM  

  • Happysurfer
    You're welcome!

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Words of wisdom indeed. One could say it's ideal not to be perturbed by the things around us, but sometimes the feeling of being perturbed is a survival mechanism and therefore useful in a crunch. As with just about anything, there seems to be a time and a place for it.

    An Islamic fundamentalist (university professor!) once told a friend of mine that, when a mutual friend of ours had died of leukemia, it had clearly been because God was punishing the family for its wickedness (even though it was one of the least wicked families I knew at the time!). A Christian fundamentalist once told me that a sickness that suddenly hit most members of my family was clearly God warning me over critical comments I'd made about modern Christianity. Heck, even the Tibetan Buddhist I mentioned earlier implied that my older sister's dying in a car accident was clearly the result of "bad kharma" on the part of her, me, or our family.

    Another Christian fundamentalist told me about the time when he was walking through the woods feeling pissed off at God, and suddenly a storm whipped up out of nowhere, knocking a tree down right in front of him. It was clear to him that God was telling him to knock off the attitude and get back in line. Well and good, but how many other people wound up suffering because of that storm? Was that one man so important in the scheme of things to justify such a devastating "admonition"?

    It's so easy and convenient to blame bad occurrences on divine retribution. But that in itself can be perturbing; why would God (Allah, the Godhead, the Will of Heaven, etc.) feel the need to wreck people's lives just for the sake of giving someone a message? Yes, God does say in the Old Testament (Leviticus), "I will visit the sins of the father upon the children," but that still seems like someone poisoning a town's water supply because he doesn't like the manager of their local Chevron station. It means that, no matter how righteous we try to be in our own lives, we can still wind up falling victim because one of our relatives, or even someone living down the street, did something naughty in his own bedroom.

    Which begs the question: why bother trying to be righteous at all?

    Zen (as well as Taoism) offers a somewhat more rational explanation by emphasizing the connectedness of all things. This seems to be reinforced by so-called "Chaos Theory", which holds that the beating of a butterfly's wings in China can influence a hurricane in the Caribbean, perhaps not directly, but by setting in motion a chain of events through the continuum. That would tend to justify the idea of righteousness for its own sake as, ideally, it would spread a wave of goodness that, hopefully, would come around again.

    ...unless it rebounded off a random atmospheric kharma burst somewhere along the way...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:21 PM  

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