Japan and Religion, Part 1


I'm gonna get religious on y'all.

Starting with a question - what makes a religion a religion?
I think we had to answer that on some essay in high school, and I sat there really thinking about it until my mind hurt. These days, as an adult, someone asks me a question like that and I just pass it off, "Nice question. Who knows." End of story.

But I recently went on a pilgrimage. I didn't know I was on a pilgrimage until halfway through my journey, despite the fact that people started calling me, "pilgrim." And that made me sit there thinking about what this thing "religion" really is.

Imagine you're back at the beginning of recorded history and the gods are sending rain or shine, helping your crops grow, and bestowing good and bad luck among people. It was their form of science. You would have no luck going down among those people and saying, "Stop believing in those gods!" That was just the way the world worked in their eyes and there was no question of "belief." In that kind of society, does religion differ from culture?

Christianity, thousands of years ago, was the same sort of way. It wasn't just a matter of going to church and maybe saying grace before a meal. It was a way of life. Things were done in daily life that centered around God. Rituals were held, sacrifices were made, it was the way things were. Of course, "belief" differs depending on the culture. Christianity and other religions butted up against each other. Sometimes that happened in Japan as well, especially if two countries were at war. The government would ban Buddhism, or ban Christianity, or whatever. So sometimes there is the idea that "People who believe this are superior to those who believe that."

That's why my friend from Myanmar once told me, "I hate religion. Religion divides people. I'm glad I don't have any religion."

But then in another conversation, I asked what people in Myanmar do for fun. He said, "Visit temples. There wasn't much entertainment when I was young, so family outings would mean taking everyone to the temple. Some people even traveled days and days to visit a temple during a long vacation."

So I can't answer the question, "What makes a religion a religion" but maybe I can conclude that religion and culture are often very much intertwined that we can't pull them apart easily. This whole idea of, "Separation between the Church and the State" is a good idea, but it's a new idea. I can see why it's hard to pull off.

In Japan, before eating, we say, "Itadakimasu" in gratitude to some higher power for our food, and every grain in your rice bowl must be eaten, as each is a god, and to waste rice and throw away the gods would be abhorrent. And yet Japanese people say often that they have no religion. My husband says he's a flat out atheist. But we say "Itadakimasu" before every meal. And wasting rice is something to apologize about whereas throwing out the moldy lettuce in the fridge doesn't warrant any special behavior. That's the kind of culture/religion thing that I think a lot of Christians don't get.

In the same way, Japanese people often don't understand other religions. I'm sure there's a religion/culture somewhere where you leave a little of the meal on your plate to give to the gods. And if a Japanese person were travelling there, they would be likely to follow that custom in the "Do as the Roman's do" sense, and think of it as a part of the travel experience. They went to the other culture, tried the lifestyle, enjoyed a new way of thinking about things. So when a Hindu comes to Japan and refuses to eat the yakiniku that their host family prepared to celebrate their first day in Japan, they absolutely can't understand why the Hindu believer refuses to try another culture, and thinks of the behavior as rather close minded.

I sympathize with the Hindu in this case, but I also respect the Japanese way of thinking.
And as a disclaimer, this isn't all Japanese people of course. But it's something I've seen happen enough times.

So I decided to go to a temple and get a Goshuin.
This is the official seal of a temple, that marks that you went there. They also come with little pictures of the god worshipped at that temple, which is usually a form of Buddha or Kannon. It's almost like a souvenir but a little more formal. You have to go up to a window an ask the monk there to inscribe the Goshuin into your Goshuin book. It must be an actual Goshuin book, not just some notebook in your pocket. The book must only have Goshuin in it, not filled with other stamps or souvenirs. I got a book a couple years ago but I've always been too scared to use it.

Too scared?
But Jennifer, you tackle wild boars and go traveling abroad by yourself, and eat raw octopus, and follow people along to their cult meetings just to get a new experience.
Yeah, I dunno, I'm scared.
The first part is that I have to bother someone to sign my book. And it's not just a stamp, the seal is written in gorgeous calligraphy. And I can't read what it says either, it's such nice calligraphy.
The second part is this whole religion thing.
I'm obviously a foreigner, I'm obviously an outsider, no one's going to assume I follow Japanese religion, and here I am demanding some poor monk perform his calligraphy skills in front of me even though I can't understand what he's doing.

This is my whole point of this story. I'm thinking of religion in this Christian-formal-Godly-Church way, and not the Japanese way of religion being just a part of daily, cultural life.

One of my students brought up Goshuin so I grabbed the chance to ask her about it. I admitted to her I was nervous. She told me that was ridiculous. She made me promise to get one. The next time I went to a temple, I considered it, but I forgot to pack up my book with me. I lied to my student and told her I ended up not going.

So then the opportunity of a lifetime dropped itself in my lap. My friend sent me a message, "Hey Jen this company is looking to pay people to test-run hiking trails in Kagawa. That sounds just up your alley!" Oh. My. Goodness. Getting paid to go hiking?? And in Kagawa, the birthplace of the Kobo-Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism? In Shikoku, where Kobo-Daishi had 88 temples designated to his beliefs? It is said that if you visit all 88 in order, you will achieve enlightenment. Sign me up!!!

That's how I found myself breathing deeply in a hotel room in Kanonji City, taking a solo trip with nothing but hiking clothes, a bottle of water, my camera, and my Goshuin book. The first day of the trip is the flattest of the ones I was allotted. It's more of a walk than anything. I was breathing deeply because I was preparing myself mentally for getting my first Goshuin. My mind was running in circles something like this:
-Okay Jen, we're gonna go to Kanonji, ask for a Goshuin, and come back to the hotel for some tea. It'll be great.
-Jen, you are the worst Buddhist ever, you're just visiting a temple for the sake of getting a souvenir. Isn't that like the opposite of what it's all about?
-Okay we have to do this, for our student we made a promise to!!
-Okay Jen, we're gonna go to Kanonji, ask for a Goshuin, and come back to the hotel for some tea. It'll be great.

I got up and went out into the bright morning sunshine. I could smell the sea in the air.
Finding Kanonji was easy. Not only were there big road signs, but there were also little red signs that said, "Pilgrims this way." A lot of older people were out talking walks and visiting a mountain shrine early in the morning. I thought to myself, "Oh no, they're going to think I'm a pilgrim. I'm not. I'm just sightseeing. Oh wait but I'm getting a Goshuin. Does that make me a pilgrim? But I'm not wearing the white costume of a pilgrim. And I've never done this before. So how could I possibly be a pilgrim?"

Can you understand my feelings at all? I knew that these feelings were spawning from my upbringing that had bombarded me with the idea that "There is a wall in the sand between the sacred and the secular." And I knew that these feelings were being countered by my knowledge that Japanese people don't feel the same way. My feelings versus my knowledge.

So I went to the temple. I thought I'd at least better do everything "the right way" if I was going to be forcing some poor monk to perform for a Gaijin. I washed my hands. I prayed for a long time. I put money in all the collection boxes I could find. And I saw not a soul there. No one to ask for a Goshuin. I realized the temple probably doesn't open until 9am. I was too early. I turned around and left.

On the way back I thought to myself, "This is the lesson I have learned from Buddha. I expected too much, and I should be satisfied by the experience I had, and not be disappointed by things I could not control." But deep down, maybe I was feeling relief instead of disappointment.

To stop myself from thinking too much, I climbed up to the mountain shrine, got an awesome view of the coin sand art called Zenigata and took a lot of pictures before going back to the hotel. I made some tea in my room, filled my water bottle, checked my bag, and finally made to leave.

The hotel is actually more of a guest house. It's run by an older lady and her pet cats. She caters especially to pilgrims visiting the 88 temples. She was very kind to me and ended up showing me pictures of her daughter's wedding during breakfast. As I was leaving, she wished me luck. She was a little concerned that I'd get lost (she doesn't understand smart phones) so she said it was too bad I wasn't wearing the pilgrimage clothes. Without them, no one would know I was a pilgrim so no one would stop to help me. If pilgrims go off the main path, they are easily spotted in their white costumes and straw hats, so the locals move to usher them the right way. (She chuckled and said that backfires sometimes if a pilgrim is taking a side trek.) I told the lady, "I don't count as a pilgrim because I'm getting paid for this. Anyway, people move to usher me around anyway because they think I'm a tourist."

She said some words that rang in my mind the whole rest of the day, "Of course you're a pilgrim."

I said, "But I'm not Buddhist" (Jury is still out on the truth of that)

She said, "What does that have anything to do with it?"

Let me just say again: Those words rang through my head like a gong the entire rest of the day.

I left the guesthouse and checked my map for getting to the walking route I'd signed up for. The route led me right back past the temple again. I thought that was too much of a coincidence. By now it was just after 9am. The temple would definitely be ready to sell charms and sign Goshuin. As I was walking, I said to myself, "The hotel lady said I'm a pilgrim, but I'm not. I'm just someone out to enjoy life!" But I also said to myself, "This time I'm really going to do it. I'm going to get my Goshuin for the sake of my student!"

At the temple, I found a lady chanting sutras in front of an alter. Two other people wearing pilgrim costumes had just got out of a car and were heading up the stairs. I was so busy watching what everyone was doing that I forgot to purify myself by washing my hands. The two pilgrims seemed to be an older couple and they spent a while talking in loud voices about which temple structure they were supposed to pray at first. I was so concerned about "doing the right thing" and these native Japanese people had no idea what they were really doing here. So who is doing the right thing in this case? I saw this as related somehow to the root of the turmoil in my mind, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I went over to the building where the reception desk was. Inside, I was faced suddenly with a sculpture of the King of the Afterworld and his judges. King Emma has a black face and his demon-esque judges are red. There was an alter in front of them. I couldn't think of why people would go to a Buddhist temple and then go pray to Emma. Would that be like going to Church and praying to the Devil?

At the reception desk, no one was there! But I did see tools for calligraphy and an ink-splattered roll of paper. There was a bell that said, "ring for service." I hesitated in front of that bell for a long time, until I heard voices in the background. I thought, "Someone's coming anyway! They'll be shocked to see a Gaijin so early in the morning! I'd better give them fair warning!" and I rang the bell.

A very young man with his head shaved sat down in front of me. Taking a deep breath I said, "Could I possibly ask for a Goshuin from you?" He kindly said yes and asked if I had a book. I brought mine out and mentioned that it was my first time. The way he spoke to me seemed like he had all the patience in the world. He began to put down gorgeous curls of calligraphy into my book over the red seals of the temple. As he was doing so, I mentioned that he must have studied calligraphy a lot. He admitted it took many years of practice. After taking my money for the seal, he asked if I had any other questions. I asked, "Isn't Emma a bad god? Why is he being worshipped here?" He said, "Oh, Emma is not good or bad, he is just a judge. He decides who goes to Hell and who goes to Heaven." I guess that's why he comes across as evil. Because when faced with a judge, anyone would be shaking in their boots. Being brought up before him would be terrifying. But the terror is in oneself, and not inspired by the judge. There really is no good or evil when it comes to Buddhism.

Okay, I do not believe in a Devil or Emma, but I realized at that moment, that there was so much terror in me, and this monk in front of me was like that impassive judge. It's all in my own head.

I thanked the monk for his explanation and went on my way. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of me. The sun was shining, the sky was a deep blue, there was a light breeze ruffling the trees, and the faint sound of the woman chanting sutras behind me. I felt like Emma had sent me to heaven.

The first time I walked down the stairs of the temple I was thinking about not having so many expectations. Now, on the other side of getting a Goshuin, I realized that's not what Buddha would have wanted me to think. Inner peace isn't about giving up. Inner peace is about going through all sorts of trials and coming out on the other side with better insight. I'd done it! And I'd learned something: Getting a Goshuin isn't a big deal.

(To be continued)


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