Popular actors in the fourteenth century performed in works that richly
incorporated Buddhist faith and doctrine. While being entertained,
audiences simultaneously learned the ideas of Buddhism.
Characteristic elements of the religious outlook of the Japanese are
readily seen within daily life. For example, people attend memorial
services at their family temple, visit graves during the spring and
autumn equinoxes, and pray before Buddhist altars set up within their
homes and enshrine a talisman received from a Shinto shrine in their
family Shinto altars, while on a personal level they carry amulets and
often treasure them highly. At the same time, even people who are not
Christians have little hesitation about celebrating Christmas or
holding their weddings in churches.
In fact, many religious festivals have been turned into popular
"events," belief being transformed into a general celebration.
Christmas and Valentine's Day are typical of this trend. Some Buddhist
observances have similarly changed from ritual to festival, as for
example the summertime outdoor Bon dance, which was originally an
offering to the spirits of the departed. The religious significance
has, at least for the present, given way to entertainment. People's
connections with Buddhist temples center around veneration of deceased
family members and the attainment of worldly benefits through
occasional temple visits. There is nothing here resembling the prayers
of atonement and devotion found in Christianity.
To put it another way, Buddhism, unlike monotheistic religions where
worship is centered on God, gives priority to blessings that enrich the
lives of individuals. This does not mean, however, that the Japanese
lack religious belief, simply that their ideas about religion are
essentially different from those of Judaism and the Christianity and
Islam that grew out of it.
Japan's Religious Outlook - Causation and the Mandala
The basic factors making up the specific religious outlook of the
Japanese are the natural environment, related to Japan's geographic
location, and the permeation of Buddhist thought in Japanese culture.
Being an island country, relatively distant from the Asian mainland,
Japan in the past did not suffer military domination by other peoples,
and consequently the Japanese do not look on things from abroad as a
threat but rather as being potentially advantageous to them personally.
At the foundation of Buddhist thought are the doctrine of causation
and the mandala. The word we translate as "causation" is the compound hetu-pratyaya; hetu refers to a direct cause and pratyaya
to an indirect one. Causation refers to the multilayered,
interdependent nature of existence, attributed to the belief that
nothing can exist completely unrelated to everything else.
A direct cause of an action can be said to be the will, while the
indirect cause would be the surrounding environment. For example, a
seed needs water and warmth in its surrounding environment to sprout;
it cannot do so by its own will alone. For anything to be accomplished,
the will of one person is not enough-the direct and indirect support of
those around the person are also essential. The doctrine of causation
clearly indicates that our own individual existence is intertwined with
other existences, and from this emerges the idea that we should give
others priority over ourselves. The Japanese expression okagesama, which is used to thank someone for showing concern and translates literally as "in your shadow," has this sense.
A mandala is a concrete expression of the principle of causation. It
is a way of conveying a doctrinal system, not in everyday language, but
in color and form. It shows a large number of buddhas and bodhisattvas
in a particular order of relationship. The idea expressed by the
mandala is that all people are endowed with a mind of great compassion
and constantly seek enlightenment. The action people take with this
spiritual state is skillful means (Skt., upaya), the actions of
a Buddhist to bring benefit to others. I interpret this mind of
compassion expressed in the mandala to mean revering each individual's
characteristics, leading to the harmony of all.
The idea conveyed by the mandala of incorporating all things into
one has gradually permeated the ethos of the Japanese, as water seeps
into the ground. In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), Japanese Buddhism
separated into different sects with specific sets of doctrines and
practices, such as Zen and recitation of the name of the Buddha (nenbutsu),
and a trend began to develop of specialization in single practices
rather than learning Buddhism as a whole. But though we talk of
specialization, what happened was an emphasis on one characteristic
practice or another. There was no sense here of any kind of
fundamentalist rejection of other ideas and practices, for the idea of
overall cohesion remained. This cohesiveness in fact found expression
in combination religious forms such as the cults of the Thirteen
Buddhas, who were believed to help people in life and guide them to the
realm of enlightenment after death, and the Seven Deities of Good Luck,
as well as the concept of honji suijaku, where native deities
were interpreted as incarnations of Buddhist divinities. This outlook
remains today in every part of Japan.
Temples and the Performing Arts
One of the reasons combined forms of Buddhism etched themselves into
the hearts of the Japanese was their association with the performing
arts. This trend increased dramatically in the Muromachi period
(1336-1573) with the appearance of performers such as Kan'ami and his
son Zeami in the fourteenth century. Kan'ami and other actors greatly
popularized culture, and this implied at the same time the expansion of
Buddhism among the populace. This was because the works in which they
performed richly incorporated Buddhist faith and doctrine, so that
audiences watching their performances simultaneously learned the ideas
What we must not forget is that learning about Buddhism meant not
only gaining knowledge and culture but, above all, becoming cultivated
people rich in humanity. Thus such performances served as fitting
textbooks for teaching the moral codes of Buddhism. Even in terms of a
stage performance, however, the content of the dramas was intended not
simply to be entertaining; because they were of a high quality, it was
natural that they would contain Buddhist teachings.
The role of the performing arts was highly valued in temples and
shrines, and performances were actively employed on behalf of
fund-raising activities (Jpn., kanjin). This is clearly seen in expressions incorporating the word kanjin to denote fund-raising events, such as kanjin sumo (sumo tournaments), kanjin shibai (theatrical performances), kanjin-no (Noh plays), kanjinmai (dances), and kanjin heike (public recitation of the epic Tale of the Heike by blind lute players who were Buddhist priests or who adopted priestly garb).
Other expressions, such as daikanjin, kanjinmoto, kanjinshoku, and kanjin hijiri, refer to superintendents, organizers, promoters, and fund-raisers. A kanjinbune,
on the other hand, was a boat used by such fund-raisers, mainly on
inland waters, as a place where people could gather to hear sermons.
Later the term was applied to the boats used to transport performers
involved in fund-raising activities, such as the theatrical arts and
sumo. Kanjin itself is an abbreviation of a phrase meaning "to
encourage people to follow the teachings of the Buddha," which as a
matter of course came to mean the dissemination activities of temples.
For example, the nenbutsu kanjin taught people the importance
of accumulating merit by stimulating them to plant the roots of
goodness by reciting the name of the Amida (Amitabha) Buddha. Such
merit could also be achieved by making donations to temples for
specific purposes, such as carving a new statue or carrying out
repairs. Thus the scope of kanjin activities extended to fund-raising events.
Kanjin was carried out in a positive way in both senses of
the word: it was a religious activity that had as its purpose bringing
people to salvation through Buddhism, and it was a fund-raising
activity that sought broad financial support to build and repair
temples, shrines, and civil engineering projects such as bridges.
Kanjin Performing Arts
I would now like to look at some specific examples of popular entertainment such as Noh plays, Noh recitation (yokyoku), and Kabuki. First, Kanjincho (The donation list) is a Kabuki play based on the Noh play Ataka.
It tells of an episode in the flight of the great warrior Minamoto no
Yoshitsune and his companion Benkei to the northern part of Japan to
escape Yoshitsune's brother Minamoto no Yoritomo. Benkei, who had
trained as a mountain ascetic (yamabushi), had adopted that
persona, and Yoshitsune was disguised as his porter. They were stopped
at the barrier gate of Ataka, where the guards had been warned that
they might try to pass. The two men managed to allay the suspicions of
the guards, thanks to the ability of Benkei to answer questions about
Buddhism and its practices correctly.
The so-called yamabushi mondo was a device employed by temples to check that visiting yamabushi
were not impostors. The questions included items about esoteric
doctrines, such as the five wisdoms and the mandala; about Buddhist
doctrine and beliefs, such as the Law of the Twelve Causes and faith in
Amida; and about Daoist-influenced practices such as the kuji spell, the magical phrase kyukyu nyoritsuryo that was written after talismanic inscriptions to bind them, and the ritual of "teeth tapping."
This collection of questions indicates the penetration of
combination practices into Japanese religion. There were also questions
about the esoteric meanings of yamabushi dress and implements, such as the round tokin worn on the forehead, the surcoat called suzukake,
the sword, and the staff. Since esoteric Buddhism considers all that
exists to be temporary manifestations of the cosmic Buddha
Mahavairocana, any physical appearance, be it the pictures in a
mandala, three-dimensional representations such as Buddhist statues,
buildings such as pagodas, implements such as the five-pronged vajra
(thunderbolt scepter), or actions such as mudras, and even the colors
applied to these Buddhist images, pictures, buildings, and implements
can all be interpreted doctrinally. In this sense, a feature of
esoteric Buddhism is that it is clearly different from religions that
prohibit the veneration of images.
The second example is the Kabuki play Dojoji, from which can
be inferred how religious faith goes hand in hand with worldly
benefits. It is based on a story that appeared, for example, in the
twelfth-century anthology Tales of Times Now Past (Konjaku monogatari). The temple Dojoji in Wakayama Prefecture had a picture scroll made based on this story to account for its origin. The Noh play Dojoji was taken from this, and the Kabuki play Kyoganoko musume Dojoji
was adapted from the Noh version. It tells the story of a female temple
dancer who visited Dojoji when a new temple bell was being dedicated.
At the end of her dance she jumps up inside the bell and pulls it down
over herself and then appears as a demon snake. She was revealed to be
a demon who had as a young girl lived near the temple and fallen in
love with a priest. He ran from her and hid under the temple bell. In
fury, she turned into a giant snake and, coiling herself around the
bell, melted it.
Incidentally, Dojoji, which had previously been relatively unknown,
greatly increased the number of its devotees by means of storytelling
using the picture scroll (etoki). In either case, however,
Buddhist beliefs formed the basis of the "performance." What is
interesting is that whereas in the picture scroll we find the motif of
the miraculous powers of the Lotus Sutra, in the Noh drama it is faith
in the deity Fudo Myoo that is emphasized. Such changes in the story
only add further interest.
The third example is the Noh play Sotoba Komachi, which
centers on the exchange of questions and answers between the aged Ono
no Komachi, who had been a celebrated poet and beauty, and a young
priest from Mount Koya. In the course of their debate about the nature
of the stupa (sotoba) Komachi is sitting on, various points of
esoteric doctrine are developed. The interest of the play focuses on
the subtleties of the exchange, in contrast to the way questions of
faith are dealt with in Dojoji. At the end, the up-and-coming young
priest, who had immersed himself in all the learning Mount Koya had to
offer, had to yield to the decrepit old woman. The play can also be
interpreted in terms of a layperson's cynicism about an ordained
priest. The questions and answers they exchanged contain elements not
just of esoteric Buddhism but of general Buddhism and Zen doctrine as
well. By analyzing them, we are able to ascertain the extent to which
ordinary people understood Buddhist beliefs.
Each of the three works we have considered looks at Buddhism in a
different way, allowing us to see it from various aspects. We can also
discern within them evidence of combined religion-not beliefs
associated just with the various Buddhist sects but with Daoism and
Shinto as well. I think that the absence among Japanese of any idea
that other religions should be eliminated as heretical comes from their
underlying mandala-type way of thinking in which the individual exists
within the whole. All three of these dramatic works remain popular
today. It is of particular interest that the Kabuki actor Matsumoto
Koshiro IX gave his one-thousandth performance of Benkei in Kanjincho
in October 2008 at the temple Todaiji in Nara. Here was an example of
Buddhism being propagated in an entertaining way, and it also
demonstrates the importance of a subtle method of dissemination.