Japanese Culture And The Afterlife: Shinto And Buddhism

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Japan is known for its unique culture and deep rooted traditions. From traditional arts, including tea ceremonies, calligraphy, intricate gardens, sculptures, poetry and flower arrangements. The country’s population is 126,785,797 and one of the world’s most literate and advanced nations. Today’s culture is a combination of ancient traditions with Western influences.

Most of Japan’s culture follows both Shinto and Buddhism beliefs with a small percentage following Christainity. Shinto religion originated in Japan. The word Shinto means “the way of kami” and the word “Kami” means god or lord. The Shinto way is broken up into three major types. One of the three is Shrine Shintō.

Shrine Shintō practice worshipping shrines in public settings. It has been apart of the Japanese history since the very beginning. These sacred shrines are places that the Kami live and folk come to worship them. Shrine Shintō are so rooted to Japanese culture that people make it accustomed to pay their respects to the Kami or for good fortune. People visit these shrines on special occasions like on New Years, setsubun, shichigosan and other festivals. Even newborn babies are traditionally brought to the shrines as well as holding wedding ceremonies there. Many sacred structures and objects can be found near the shrines.

Torii marks the gateway of these magnificent sacred shrines. These beauties are made from different materials such as wood or stone. Most are made out of wood and many are painted red. The color red protects the shrine from evil. There are many different styles of Torii, Shinmei torii with straight upper lintels and the Myōjin torii with upwards curved upper lintels. Torii serves as a gateway and protection to the Kami and their sacred grounds.

There are many theories about how these beautiful structures came to be. One origin story says that the word “Torii” means “pass through and enter”, in which a person does once they reach the top of the stone stairs. Torii is one of the most visible structures that everyone sees before stepping into the shrine. However, there are stoned creatures that guard the sacred shrines. These creatures are called “Komainu” which resembles a pair of dog like- lions that sits outside of the Torii. Komainu are made up of stone, wood or even jade. There are many of these scapulars all over Asia and different parts of the world. Some say that Japanese Komainu scapulars were influenced by India’s Buddhism statues. Most Torii’s have Shimenawa strung on them. These are sacred stylized ropes that create boundaries between the holy and the profane.

Shrine Shintō are similar to a christainity church. They both have priest or priestess and have some kind of blessed water on the sacred grounds. Shrine Shintō has purification trough which is a place where people can clean their hands and mouth before approaching the main hall. In Christain churches they have holy water and its purpose is to baptise as well as bless a person, place, object, or as a means of repelling evil. Though they do different things but they both believe it cleanses and blesses or protects them.

The main room and offering hall are both in the same building. The Main Hall is the center of the chamber where the sacred object lay. In this chamber is where people can make their prayers and offerings. Some shrines have the people take their shoes off before entering it. There’s a whole ritual when entering the chambers as well. Other structures and symbolism around the shrines are the Noh Theater, Ema, Omikuji and Shimenawa.

The Noh Theater is where the traditional performances were held and one of the oldest forms of theater. The word “Noh” means “talent” or “skill” which meant performers and visuals whereas Western dramas have a narrative for storytelling. These performances were done by various movements like a dance while the music is playing during the performances conveying a story. The idea of focusing solely on the aspect of the story through visual performances aided by music totally counteracts common idea of narration in storytelling on the other side of the world.

Offerings are given at the Shrine Shinto those are called Ema. An Ema is a rectangle wooden tablet that have hand painted twelve animal zodiac signs on them including the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. Depending on the year certain zodiac signs are seen more frequently. These handmade creations are made out of water colors or screen printed and some remain blank for people to create their own Ema. Ema’s are used for prayers or wishes each offering placed for the Kami to see. These are not to be mistaken for Omikuji.

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Omikuji are Japanese fortune-telling paper strips that can be found all over Japan in Shrines and Temples. These special strips of paper are contained in a wooden drawer and each fortune is different. It can range from a great blessing or a great curse. Each fortune costs about One hundred yen. Then the person must shake a container that has sticks with numbers on it. Once they received a number to the drawer they will receive their fortune.

Buddhism was founded in India in the 6th BC by a man named Siddhartha Gautama “the Buddha”. Siddhartha Gautama was born into a wealthy family as a prince to present day Nepal and was moved by human suffering. He then decided to give up his luxurious lifestyle to understand poverty but when this did not fulfill him he found a midway point between two worlds. He had decided to achieve a life without social indulgence but also without deprivation. This movement began in East and Southeast Asia, but its influence is now growing in the West. The Buddha was a humble man who didn’t consider himself a god. The word “Buddha” means “enlightenment”. Buddhists believe Gautama found enlightenment through meditating under a Bodhi tree and spent most of his life teaching others how to achieve this spiritual state of understanding. The path to enlightenment is dedication towards inner peace and wisdom. The practice towards enlightenment takes an amount of patience and discipline. Followers must learn how to utilize morality, meditate and find wisdom within. It is said that Buddhist meditate to help awaken inner truth. Buddhism is a way of life not an organized religion. It encourages followers to avoid self-indulgence but also self-denial.

The most important steps in Buddhism is The Four Noble Truths which are essential to the religion. These Four Noble Truths are suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path. Suffering is understanding that life will always have suffering and with that understanding everything seems good but there’s an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty within. Understanding the cause of suffering is when there’s an understanding of letting go of one's ego by looking within and accepting that there’s no “I” in finding inner peace that we are whole. Although, suffering may seem long but once the person accepts that this feeling is temporary, only then will the suffering end. Through the darkness will one learn acceptance and awaken their minds. The path is the journey towards enlightenment through meditation, living morally and developing wisdom. Buddhists learn how to reach enlightenment through theses four practices.

Buddhism embraces reincarnation and karma. Reincarnation is when a soul transfers to another body after death. These transfers don’t happen instantly and sometimes takes time for a soul to be reborn. However, the thought of a soul doesn’t really exist in Buddhism. They do not believe in souls. Belief in a soul means that there is an ego and self acknowledgement whereas one of Buddhism’s core teachings says one must give up the concept of self illusion. Once people give up that illusion is when they will free themselves to live happier lives. There is no soul existing in Buddhism because of the acceptance in all mental activity ends in death.

Rebirth in Buddhism belief is when self is nonexistent, meaning memories and who you once were is no longer existing and continues a new way of living in another lifetime. They believe that energies within the body have their own power to grow within a new form, independent of the previous identity. There are six realms where a being can be reborn in which are gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and the hells. Each one having their own impact depending on how your first life was based on karma.

Karma in Buddhism is an action of body, speech and mind that is the law of cause and effect. The word “Karma” comes from the Sanskrit word “Kamma” which means action. In Buddhism, Karma works almost like an unseen force similar to that of gravity. The main difference here is that your actions define whether or not you receive good or bad karma. These are achieved by genuine actions without volition. Depending on the situation karma has four different classifications. There is Reproductive Karma, Supportive Karma, Obstructive or Counteractive Karma, and Destructive Karma. Each one being slightly different in beliefs and teachings.

There are three different types of Buddhism and each one influencing different parts of the world. Theravada Buddhism is located in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. Mostly monks that stress spirituality. Mahayana Buddhism is located in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. Mahayana Buddhism is known for its massive movement in Buddhism that originated in India. Tibetan Buddhism is located in Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Bhutan, and parts of Russia and northern India. This type of Buddhism is a combination of Mahayana Buddhism with Tantric and Shamanic, and material from an ancient Tibetan religion called Bon.

Shinto religion is respected and well honored in Japanese culture. It being the first religion means not having proper funeral ceremonies written down. A traditional ceremony takes an intensive amount of planning and have about twenty different ritual commands that follow.

Most Japanese people believe in both Buddhism and Shinto. Both religions complement each other. Most homes in Japan have both a Buddhist altar and a Shinto shrine. When death occurs, both shrine and altar is covered to keep spirits out. There is a small table covered in flowers, lit incense and a candle by the deceased bedside.

Funeral arrangements are made by the eldest son or oldest male relative. An ancient tradition honoring the six-day lunar cycle often discourages funerals from being held on the second day of the cycle.

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Japanese Culture And The Afterlife: Shinto And Buddhism. (2022, February 24). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/japanese-culture-and-the-afterlife-shinto-and-buddhism/
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