Buddhist doctrine and popular custom, which in logical terms should be considered contradictory . . . , have in fact been skillfully joined together to form the composite religious form that we call funerary Buddhism.
Many Japanese, if asked the question "What is Buddhism?" may very well wonder why you bother to ask, since Japan, after all, is a Buddhist country. But if we go one step further and inquire of them what Buddhism is as far as they are concerned, then what will they say? How many people, even those with quite a deep knowledge of Buddhist doctrine and history, will be able to answer? Or will they be completely at a loss for an answer? If they say in reply to the first question that, according to textbooks, Buddhism is the teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni and that its purpose is to gain enlightenment, then the second question will probably leave them nonplussed. Even a Buddhologist does not find it an easy task to answer the question of what exactly Buddhism is. In his Bukkyo nyumon (An introduction to Buddhism), Mitsuyoshi Saigusa writes, "There is no doctrinal dogma in Buddhism, and the idea of suppressing heresy is very weak. Conversely, Buddhist doctrine itself - what Buddhism should be - is open to interpretation, so it is difficult to define Buddhism in terms of a single meaning; in fact, it is close to impossible," and he quotes the expression "the eighty-four thousand teachings" to describe its historical development.1
In Japan, we often hear people say, "My family's sect is such-and-such." As this implies, traditional Japanese Buddhism is sectarian. Before World War II, the government legally recognized only thirteen sects and fifty-six lineages, but with the enactment of the Religious Corporations Law in 1951, which required religious organizations to register under the supervision of the Agency of Cultural Affairs, the situation became more complex as new religions proliferated and groups also broke off from established religious institutions.
The word sect originally refers to the fundamental doctrines and practices of a particular religious group, but most Japanese use it merely in terms of an affiliation. So that to say you have changed your sect does not mean you have changed your ideas about a particular doctrine or practice but that you have moved your family registration to a temple of a different sect.
How is this possible? At the very least, as it stands now, people's associations with a sect, which in effect means having an affiliation with a temple, are in almost all cases concerned with mortuary rites for immediate family members or other relatives, and the choice of temple is in no way consciously connected with the doctrine taught by that particular sect.
Understandably, people do not choose their sect (temple) as they like. In most cases the choice is made because forebears or someone connected with the person has been a parishioner (danka) of the particular temple. The interest is always in the temple, not the sect. This tendency reveals the deep influence of the Edo-period (1603-1867) temple-affiliation system (danka seido).
Why is it that people rely on temples to hold services for the repose of the spirits of the dead? Simply put, people share a common feeling and understanding that temples and their priests derive power from the Buddha and his teachings and that priests' practices can calm the newly deceased and the spirits of the dead.
Japanese Buddhism has been called funerary Buddhism. The causes and background of this unique religious configuration and culture are truly complex and cannot be explained easily. This is probably why people do not find it easy to answer the question "What does Buddhism mean to you?"
Even today, participants in funeral processions often carry four decorative banners inscribed with the Verse of Impermanence from the Nirvana Sutra: "The Buddha - All that exists is impermanent," "The Law - All that arises must perish," "The Community - When there is no more clinging to birth and death," "The Treasure - This is the tranquillity of nirvana." This verse, known also as the Snow Mountains Verse, is an excellent demonstration of the core of Buddhist doctrine. This verse means that Shakyamuni Buddha was enlightened to the law that this world is impermanent, that everything is subject to birth and death, and by gaining liberation from this law by denying the reality of the self, he attained a state of supreme tranquillity. Raising banners bearing these words during a funeral service clearly conveys that the funeral is a ritual enabling the deceased to enter a realm of tranquillity and peace, as did the Buddha. The Buddhist priest, who conducts the ritual, is an indispensable figure at the funeral service because people have accepted the idea that he possesses a power derived from Buddhism (horiki) to lead the dead closer to the realm of the Buddha.
But if Buddhism is a teaching showing people how to attain a state of supreme tranquillity, should it not surely focus on the living rather than the dead, since it is the living who are suffering in the present and need to be led to the realm of the Buddha? Criticism of funerary Buddhism has grown because there are many today who think in this way, and I venture to say, such critics belong to a large extent to the intelligentsia. Thus I predict that in a country like Japan, where higher education is expanding all the time, such criticism will only grow.
However, if we ask whether a change can occur and many Japanese will break away from funerary Buddhism and turn in the direction of doctrine, in other words, toward doctrinal Buddhism, the answer will never be a simple yes. Why is this? As I have mentioned already, requesting Buddhist temples and priests to conduct funerals has nothing at all to do with a personal belief in the teachings of the particular sect to which the temple and priests belong. But by having the temple and its priests conduct mortuary rites, people are expressing a deep-rooted readiness to embrace the idea that if the spirit of the deceased is pacified, it will become an ancestor and protect the family or clan.
Through the funeral, the priest conducts the dead person from the "castle of the three realms," that is, this world of illusion, to the unobstructed emptiness of the world of enlightenment. Ordinary people, on the other hand, hope that the spirit of the deceased will live on and protect them, as a family ancestor, symbolized by the mortuary tablet and the grave. Thus the priest conducts the funeral on the basis of doctrine, while the mourners relate to it to the backdrop of what I call popular custom (minzoku). This term most commonly refers to traditional patterns of belief and manners associated with particular regions or societies, and in many instances it is employed to describe customary practices and mores that contrast with the doctrines of foreign religions, including Buddhism.
For example, from the point of view of Buddhist doctrine, the idea that the spirit of a dead person can bring down curses on people and harm them is immediately rejected as impossible. On the other hand, the understanding arising out of popular custom regards it as very possible that the spirit of the deceased, actually dwelling in the grave and remaining attached to this world, will bring down curses if it is not venerated properly. Buddhist doctrine and popular custom, which in logical terms should be considered contradictory and in opposition to each other, have in fact been skillfully joined together to form the composite religious form that we call funerary Buddhism.
The funeral combines the "buddha" of Buddhism and the "spirit" of popular beliefs and practices. For example, the significance of memorial services is that "such-and-such a person (known through his or her Buddhist posthumous name or as part of the composite ancestral spirit of the family) dwells peacefully in the form of the new mortuary tablet or the gravestone and, receiving veneration, becomes a buddha and protects his or her descendants."2 This means that the ancestral spirits of a particular family are called upon to lodge peacefully in bodies such as mortuary tablets and graves and become buddha bodies through the memorialization received from their descendants, whom they then protect. The person who so calls upon them is of course the Buddhist priest, who stands between doctrine and custom and mediates between the two.
The great scholar of Japanese Buddhist history Taijo Tamamuro wrote, "The common people looked for three things in [Japanese] Buddhism: funerals, the curing of illness, and the bringing of good luck. Seen from an historical perspective, first came the curing of illness, then the bringing of good luck, and finally, from around the fifteenth century, funerals. Once Buddhism began dealing with mortuary rites, it became successful in establishing a monopoly on popular belief."3
This can mean that for the majority of Japanese, belief in Buddhism has formed through funerals and even that mortuary rites themselves are what make up their belief in Buddhism. But however we look at them, it is a fact that rites for the dead have been an important factor in the popularization and indigenization of Buddhism in Japan. According to Professor Tamamuro, funerals were what people looked for in Buddhism.
In recent times there has been a noticeable increase in interest among the various Buddhist organizations (sects) over the question of funerals. It has been taken up enthusiastically by many research bodies within those organizations as well as by lay scholars. It is a complicated issue that does not permit a simple summary but, if I dare to decide on its most important elements, I would suggest the following. First, there has been a decline in people's awareness of their ancestors because of the breakup of the traditional household, the ie, within which the ancestral spirits were venerated, as a result of rapid changes in Japanese social structure, and people's awareness of funerals has weakened. Second, a significant number of young priests who have studied modern Buddhology appear to be troubled with questions about their role as mediators between doctrine and popular custom.4 Whatever the views, it is an issue that is typical of contemporary Buddhism.
A solution to the question may be approached by interrelating the above two points. I feel it is difficult to do so if we think only in terms of alternatives, like doctrine or popular custom. What religious history has shown us is that the more widely held a doctrine is, the more it has been maintained in various forms through a complicated relationship with popular custom. Thus the starting point for resolving this question has to be a deep insight into the importance of the interstices between the two.
I asked above why temple parishioners and people in general request Buddhist priests to conduct mortuary rites and suggested that it was because priests are seen as having a particular power and nature as practitioners to calm the deceased and the spirits of the dead and make them secure. Let us consider this point a little more.
Today there is a tendency among so-called intellectual priests to be less than affirmative in talking about the power of a priest. Why is this? Though this question has deep implications and it is dangerous to make a simple generalization, I would venture to offer three possible answers.
First, priests who study modern Buddhology and have learned its way of thinking tend to understand Buddhism as having originally been an extremely intellectual and rational religion. Since from this point of view religious power seems to be a reflection and a product of irrational and unscientific thought, they tend to try to stay aloof from such ambiguous and mystical ideas.
Second, priests appear to fear that by associating Buddhist doctrine with power, they are reducing the highly developed system of Buddhist thought to an inferior magic, a realm of magical power. We can perhaps see here the influence of the nineteenth-century evolutionary approach to the study of religion, where religion is a higher form in evolutionary terms, being rational and universal, in contrast to magic or magical power, an irrational lower form.
Third, there are a large number of religious groups that are popularly called "spiritualist new religions," which attract people by advocating the efficacy of spiritual power. Their activities are often labeled as the fraudulent sale of unsubstantiated supernatural benefits, and they are severely censured by much of society. The reluctance of priests belonging to Buddhist organizations to bring forward the idea of Buddhist power and its workings is often based on a conviction that Buddhism should not be seen in the same light as these spiritualist religions. These three points may be considered to be factors in, and the background of, the hesitation of priests to claim religious power.
None are more concerned than intellectual priests with systematically teaching an intellectual Buddhist view of the world and humankind and working to propagate this view as the ultimate way to deal with the problem of the impermanency of human life. Holding meetings to study the Buddhist scriptures and conducting Zen meditation sessions are in line with this way of thinking. Such activities are perfectly correct and are among a priest's responsibilities, since the Buddhist sutras and their commentaries, as well as sectarian teachings, provide plentiful courses of action to deal with the human problem according to intellectual ways of thinking. But nevertheless, if we try to undertake religious activities based on doctrine alone, various problems unexpectedly arise.
Priests who speak systematically about dependent origination and impermanence may be highly thought of by the intellectuals among their parishioners and the population, but in fact, an overwhelming number of people, while they accept intellect in the modern sense of the word, seek something over and above it in a priest. They will not, and cannot, be satisfied simply with a logical explanation about human life and a particular way of living that Buddhism teaches.
What is it that cannot be satisfied by religious intellect and logic alone? Perhaps what ordinary people have always sought in religious specialists from the time religion began is, to put it plainly, the power that ordinary people believe accrues to the specialists, and the specialists' ability to wield it. It is this power that differentiates priests from laypeople, and it is their special distinguishing feature. Many laypeople know more about Buddhism than priests, can discuss it systematically, and have written a great many books about it. But however respected they are as intellectuals, they will never be revered in the same way as priests. Priests are revered because, besides their specialist knowledge, they are believed to possess spiritual powers that transcend reason. The powers that Buddhist priests have as religious practitioners is sacred power. It is of a different dimension from secular power (political, economic), both in character and in function. It is this, as it is commonly understood, I believe, that sustains priests and ensures the survival of Buddhism. It is because of this power that people gladly accept the preaching and rituals that priests offer and entrust to them the fate of the deceased.
Belief in and reverence for religious power can be traced back to the very beginnings of religious culture, long before Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam came into being. This power has flowed throughout the length of human history, down to the popular religions of modern times, and forms their core. The power that people seek from Buddhist priests in fact predates Buddhism, having been born of and nurtured by primitive (original) religion. How then is this religious power found in Buddhism, called variously the "power of the Dharma," "ascetic power," the "power of the Buddha," and the "divine authority and power," attained?
The Japanese word soshoku, or soshoku-sha, meaning a member of the priesthood, refers to the duties of the Buddhist priest - conducting rituals such as memorial services, precepts ceremonies, and consecrations and managing temples. Soshoku can also mean the head priest of a temple. By contrast, the word seishoku-sha, meaning a member of a sacred profession, has a far broader meaning, encompassing all those engaged in holy work, like Buddhist priests, Shinto priests, and Christian ministers. Thus soshoku and other terms denoting those working in a religious profession are subordinate in concept to seishoku. The Chinese character for sei, meaning sacred or holy, is used to refer to Shakyamuni Buddha as well as to the priesthood as a whole. What does it imply? European scholars, particularly the French sociologist Émile Durkheim and his followers, have contributed greatly to our understanding of the meaning of the sacred. Making a distinction between the sacred and the profane, Durkheim wrote in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) that sacred things are "things set apart and forbidden."5 Sacred therefore refers to conditions and phenomena that are separated from the ordinary and the everyday and that deny and forbid them. Religious practitioners who withdraw from ordinary life and devote themselves to their training are regarded as sanctified, buildings and spaces that are nonordinary are seen as sacred, and mountains to which access is forbidden are considered holy. Some scholars criticize this explanation of the sacred as being based on Christianity, but when we consider that Buddhism, too, uses the same kind of duality between ordinary and nonordinary,6 the concept of sacred and profane is extremely helpful.
Buddhist priests are thought of as being endowed with the sacred because they spare no effort in assiduously following the way set forth by Shakyamuni, the embodiment of the holy, both physically and mentally, going beyond the ordinary and the everyday. Just as Shakyamuni's holiness was perceived by people as power, Buddhist priests who set out to emulate him are also regarded as possessing sacred power. In Southern Buddhism, monks who withdraw from the world to forest hermitages are revered by people for their powers. The more that people withdraw from the everyday world, the more other people swarm around them, drawn by their sacredness (power) and yearning after it. Forests and other secluded places are called aranya in Sanskrit, which means a place suited for practicing the Buddha Way. It is of great interest that in its Chinese translation it means a far, detached place, since this is in line with Durkheim's concept of the sacred. There are many monks today in Sri Lanka dwelling in aranya; they are vanavasin (forest monks) who live a life of meditation following in the footsteps of the Buddha. However, when rumors of the presence of a vanavasin spread, lay believers from various places flock to the aranya to give alms, in the process invading the monk's solitary life and destroying his sacredness.7
This example well exhibits the dynamic but perilous relationship between the religious and the layperson, and between religion and society. Most Buddhist priests in modern Japan have studied Buddhology and sectarian studies at sect-affiliated high schools and universities and have trained at monasteries of their head temples or regional monasteries. For these priests, these monasteries, which they call "mountains" (oyama), are the equivalent of the aranya; they are the "far, detached places" of Japan. The Zen monastery that is a "mountain" is a space set apart from this saha-world, where the traditions of Zen Buddhism have been passed down in an unbroken line. After years of a life of asceticism and mindfulness based on the Buddha Dharma, it is highly probable that Zen priests find themselves greatly changed in character. After practicing for a number of years in this way, these priests gain a certain presence and acquire the professionalism of Zen practitioners. This gives them a personality, a feeling, and a way of behavior different from those of ordinary people - in other words, sacredness and power. In an essay about the religious life in a training temple, Doken Shibata writes, "A person who enters the monastery is changed in a religious way. The monastery is believed to be a place of mysterious function, where one becomes a buddha and a patriarch; in other words, it is the training hall of all the buddhas. Believers supported them, as places of religious merit and objects of faith."8 The mountain is the source of religious worth, that is, sacredness, which is power.
Today, places set apart like aranya draw the attention and interest of laypeople for the very reason that they support a life very different from that of the secular, everyday world. As more and more people want to see the "mountain," the fame and fortune of such temples will increase, but this also has its dangers. For, as the Sri Lankan case shows, the profane has the potential to destroy the sacred. The perilous connection between the sacred and the profane is in fact an apt subject for research into Buddhist culture at the present time.
1. Mitsuyoshi Saigusa, Bukkyo nyumon [An introduction to Buddhism] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1990).
2. Sotoshu Tokyoto Shumusho, ed., Shasui, tengen, hakken saho [The rites of purification, invocation, and leave-taking of spirits] (Osaka: Seizansha, 1993).
3. Taijo Tamamuro, Introduction to Soshiki bukkyo [Funerary Buddhism] (Tokyo: Daihorinkaku, 1963).
4. Yuishin Ito and Masao Fujii, eds., Sosai bukkyo: Sono rekishi to gendaiteki kadai [Funerary Buddhism: Its history and present-day problems] (Tokyo: Nonburusha, 1997).
. Émile Durkheim, Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse,
1991 (1912). Carol Cosman, trans., The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 46.
. Buddhism divides the supramundane world (shusseken
) from the mundane (seken
) and the priest (shukke
) from the laity (zaike
. Gananath Obeyesekere, "Theodicy, Salvation, and Rebirth in a Sociology of Buddhism," in Dialectic in Practical Religion,
ed. Edmund Leach, 7-40; Cambridge Occasional Papers in Social Anthropology, no. 5 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).
. Doken Shibata, "Zenshu shinko no shiso kozo-Dogen no shukyo o chushin ni" [The intellectual structure of Zen belief, centering on Dogen's religion], in Shukyogaku ronshu
[Essays in religious studies], vol. 3 (Tokyo: Komazawa University Religious Studies Research Group, 1969).
This essay originally appeared in Japanese in a book by the author titled Butsuriki: Seikatsu bukkyo no dainamizumu [Buddha power: The dynamism of living Buddhism] (Tokyo: Shunjusha, 2004).
Kokan Sasaki, LittD, was a professor in the Faculty of Literature at Komazawa University in Tokyo, where he is now a professor emeritus. His specialty is religious anthropology and cultural anthropology. His recent books include "Hotoke" to chikara - Nihon bukkyo bunka no jitsuzo ("The Buddha" and power: A true picture of Japanese Buddhist culture). He is an advisor to the International Institute for the Study of Religions in Tokyo.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2011 issue of Dharma World.