In the United States, discussions of religion and politics are generally considered taboo subjects with people we don’t know very well. — and definitely with relatives at the Thanksgiving dinner table. However, during our visit to Japan, I found English speaking Japanese locals who seemed happy to explain religion in Japan.
The Japanese with whom I discussed religion, all maintained that the practice of religion in Japan these days could best be characterized as a cafeteria plan. They said that they are born Shinto, marry as Shintos, die Buddhists and celebrate at least the secular aspects of Christmas. Many homes have both Buddhist and Shinto altars—just in case.
Religion in Japan – Shinto
Shinto has colorful ceremonies to celebrate birth and marriage. Multiple deities are worshiped.
At Shinto shrines you can purchase pre-printed fortunes. If you’re bummed out by a bad prognostication, you can simply tie the bad fortune to a tree or “clothesline” set up for that purpose, and then buy another one. (I guess it’s similar to lottery tickets in this regard.)
Our Japanese tour guide told us that because there is no provision for an afterlife in the Shinto religion, people prefer to be Buddhist when they are getting ready to die.
Religion in Japan: Buddhism
As with the range of orthodoxies available in other world religions, Buddhism also has various sects.
Amida Buddhism is quite popular. As far as I can understand, in this type of Buddhism, if you lead an exemplary life, upon death, Amida Buddha himself will descend from heaven to fetch you along with all of his 52 assistants.
Even you live the life of a total SOB, you can still go to heaven, but Amida Buddha is just going to send two of his lowliest assistants to fetch you. Presumably, these two are not going to be enough to get you into the heavenly HOV lane at rush hour.
As in Christianity, a good deal of treasure and the best art and architecture seem to be devoted to religion in Japan. For example, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto was built by a Buddhist shogun so he could go there to meditate on his humility. (Note to Shogun: meditating about one’s humility in a pagoda sheathed in gold leaf might be a non-starter.)
Religion in Japan Can Be Painful
We started our Japanese trip in Kyoto where Mr./Dr. Excitement was attending a medical research conference. While he conferred with his science peeps, I visited a Zen Buddhist temple with some other trailing spouses. As part of our tour, we were instructed in Zen Buddhist meditation. A Zen Buddhist monk led the session.
We entered a room with a tatami mat floor where we were each assigned a cushion and told to assume the lotus position.
The lotus position requires one to sit on the floor cross-legged with each ankle atop the contralateral knee. I forced my limbs as close as I could to this position whereupon I was appalled to hear the monk tell us we would sit like this for 15 minutes while closing our eyes and meditating.
Within about sixty seconds I was “meditating” about recommending this to CIA black ops interrogators as a so-called “stress position”.
Anticipating that some of us might be in a fair amount of pain during the fifteen minutes, we were told we could place our palms together (in a beseeching position). The monk would then come over and smack the beseecher on the shoulders with a big stick. As far as I could tell, the theory was that the pain in one’s shoulders would then distract one from the pain in one’s hips.
An Australian friend requested the stick strikes a number of times and insisted that it helped with her “discomfort”.
According to the monk, Zen Buddhist master monks can meditate for 22 hours per day for a week, thereby becoming one with nature. I have resigned myself to being no closer to nature than a walk around Rittenhouse Square with the dog.