William Elliot Griffis.

The Religions of Japan From the Dawn of History to the Era of Méiji online

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Not only around the human habitation,[10] but within it, the new
religion brought a marvellous change. Instead of the hut, the
dwelling-house grew to spacious and comfortable proportions, every part
of the Japanese house to-day showing to the cultured student, especially
to one familiar with the ancient poetry, the lines of its origin and
development, and in the larger dwellings expressing a wealth of
suggestion and meaning. The oratory and the kami-dana or shelf holding
the gods, became features in the humblest dwelling. Among the well-to-do
there were of course the gilded ancestral tablets and the worship of
progenitors, in special rooms, with imposing ritual and equipment, with
which Buddhism did not interfere; but on the shelf over the door of
nearly every house in the land, along with the emblems of the kami,
stood images representing the avatars of Buddha.[11] There, the light
ever burned, and there, offerings of food and drink were thrice daily
made. Though the family worship might vary in its length and variety of
ceremony, yet even in the home where no regular system was followed, the
burning lights and the stated offering made, called the mind up to
thoughts higher than the mere level of providing for daily wants. The
visitation of the priests in time of sorrow, or of joy, or for friendly
converse, made religion sweetly human.[12]

Outwardly the Buddhist architecture made a profound change in the
landscape. With a settled religion requiring gorgeous ceremonial, the
chanting of liturgies by large bodies of priests and the formation of
monasteries as centres of literary and religious activity, there were
required stability and permanence in the imperial court itself. While,
therefore, the humble village temples arose all over the country, there
were early erected, in the place where the court and emperor dwelt,
impressive religious edifices.[13] The custom of migration ceased, and a
fixed spot selected as the capital, remained such for a number of
generations, until finally Héian-j[)o] or the place of peace, later
called Ki[=o]to, became the "Blossom Capital" and the Sacred City for a
thousand years. At Nara, where flourished the first six sects introduced
from Korea, were built vast monasteries, temples and images, and thence
the influence of civilisation and art radiated. From the first,
forgetting its primitive democracy and purely moral claims, Buddhism
lusted for power in the State. As early as A.D. 624, various grades were
assigned to the priesthood by the government.[14] The sects eagerly
sought and laid great stress upon imperial favor. To this day they
keenly enjoy the canonization of their great teachers by letters patent
from the Throne.

Ministers of Art.

On the establishment of the imperial capital, at Ki[=o]to, toward the
end of the eighth century, we find still further development and
enlargement of those latent artistic impulses with which the Heavenly
Father endowed his Japanese child. That capacity for beauty, both in
appreciation and expression, which in our day makes the land of dainty
decoration the resort of all those who would study oriental art in
unique fulness and decorative art in its only living school - a school
founded on the harmonious marriage of the people and the nature of the
country - is discernible from quite early ages. The people seem to have
responded gladly to the calls for gifts and labor. The direction from
which it is supposed all evils are likely to come is the northeast; this
special point of the compass being in pan-Asian spiritual geography the
focus of all malign influences. Accordingly, the Mikado Kwammu, in A.D.
788, built on the highest mountain called Hiyéi a superb temple and
monastery, giving it in charge of the Ten-dai sect, that there should
ever be a bulwark against the evil that might otherwise swoop upon the
city. Here, as on castellated walls, should stand the watchman, who, by
the recitation of the sacred liturgies, would keep watch and ward. In
course of time this great mountain became a city of three thousand
edifices and ten thousand monks, from which the droning of litanies and
the chanting of prayers ascended daily, and where the chief industries
were, the counting of beads on rosaries and the burning of incense
before the altars. This was in the long bright day of a prosperity which
has been nourished by vast sums obtained from the government and nobles.
One notes the contrast at the end of our century, when "disestablished"
as a religion and its bonzes reduced to beggary, Hiyéi-san is used as
the site of a Summer School of Christian Theology.

Along with the blossoming of the lotus in every part of the empire,
bloomed the grander flowers of sculpture, of painting and of temple
architecture. It was because of the carpenter's craft in building
temples that he won his name of Dai-ku, or the great workman. The
artificers of the sunny islands cultivated an ambition, not only to
equal but to excel, their continental brethren of the saw and hammer.
Yet the carpenter was only the leader of great hosts of artisans that
were encouraged, of craftsmen that were educated and of industries that
were called into being by the spread of Buddhism.[15] It was not enough
that village temples and town monasteries should be built, under an
impulse that meant volumes for the development of the country. The
ambitious leaders chose sightly spots on mountains whence were lovely
vistas of scenery, on which to erect temples and monasteries, while it
seemed to be their further ambition to allow no mountain peak to be
inaccessible. With armies of workmen, supported by the contributions of
the faithful who had been aroused to enthusiasm by the preaching of the
bonzes, great swaths were cut in the forest; abundant timber was felled;
rocky plateaus were levelled; and elegant monastic edifices were reared,
soon to be filled with eager students, and young men in training for the

Whether the pilgrimage[16] be of Shint[=o] or of Buddhist origin, or
simply a contrivance of human nature to break the monotony of life, we
need not discuss. It is certain that if the custom be indigenous, the
imported faith adopted, absorbed and enlarged it. The peregrinations
made to the great temples and to the mountain tops, being meritorious
performances, soon filled the roads with more or less devout travellers.
In thus finding vent for their piety, the pilgrims mingled
sanctification with recreation, enjoying healthful holidays, and
creating trade with varied business, commercial and commissarial
activities, while enlarging also their ideas and learning something of
geography. Thus, in the course of time, it has come to pass that Japan
is a country of which almost every square mile is known, while it is
well threaded with paths, banded with roads, and supplied to a
remarkable extent with handy volumes of description and of local
history.[17] Her people being well educated in their own lore and local
traditions, possessed also a voluminous literature of guidebooks and
cyclopedias of information. The devotees were, withal, well instructed
and versed in a code of politeness and courtesy, as pilgrimage and
travel became settled habits of a life. As a further result, the
national tongue became remarkably homogeneous. Broadly speaking, it may
be said that the Japanese language, unlike the Chinese in this as it is
in almost every other point, has very little dialectic variation.[18]
Except in some few remote eddies lying outside the general currents,
there is a uniform national speech. This is largely owing to that annual
movement of pilgrims in the summer months especially, habitual during
many centuries.

Buddhism coming to Japan by means of the Great Vehicle, or with the
features of the Northern development, was the fertile mother of art. In
the exterior equipment of the temple, instead of the Shint[=o] thatch,
the tera or Buddhist edifice called for tiles on its sweeping roof, with
ornamental terra-cotta at the end of its imposing roof-ridge, or for
sheets of copper soon to be made verdant, then sombre and then sable by
age and atmosphere. Outwardly the edifice required the application of
paint and lacquer in rich tints, its recurved roof-edges gladly
welcoming the crest and monogram of the feudal prince, and its railings
and stairways accepting willingly the bronze caps and ornaments. In
front of its main edifice was the imposing gateway with proportions
almost as massive as the temple itself, with prodigal wealth of
curiously fitted and richly carved, painted and gilded supports and
morticings, with all the fancies and adornments of the carpenter's art,
and having as its frontlet and blazon the splendidly gilt name, style or
title. Often these were impressive to eye and mind, to an extent which
the terse Chinese or curt monosyllables could scarcely suggest to an
alien.[19] The number, forms and positions of the various parts of the
temple easily lent themselves to the expression of the elaborate
symbolism of the India faith.

Resemblances between Buddhism and Christianity.

Within the sacred edifice everything to strike the senses was lavishly
displayed. The passion of the East, as opposed to Greek simplicity, is
for decoration; yet in Japan, decorative art, though sometimes bursting
out in wild profusion or running to unbridled lengths, was in the main a
regulated mass of splendor in which harmony ruled. Differing though the
Buddhist sects do in their temple furniture and altar decorations, they
are, most of them, so elaborately full in their equipment as to suggest
repeatedly the similarity between the Roman Catholic organization,
altars, vestments and ritual, and those of Buddhism, and remarks on this
point seem almost commonplace. Almost everything in Roman Catholicism is
found in Buddhism,[20] and one may even say, _vice versa_, at least in
things exterior. We take the liberty of transcribing here a passage from
the chapter entitled "Christianity and Foreigners" in The Mikado's
Empire, written twenty years ago.

"Furthermore, the transition from the religion of India to that
of Rome was extremely easy. The very idols of Buddha served,
after a little alteration with the chisel, for images of Christ.
The Buddhist saints were easily transformed into the Twelve
Apostles. The Cross took the place of the _torii_. It was
emblazoned on the helmets and banners of the warriors, and
embroidered on their breasts. The Japanese soldiers went forth
to battle like Christian crusaders. In the roadside shrine
Kuanon, the Goddess of Mercy, made way for the Virgin, the
mother of God. Buddhism was beaten with its own weapons. Its own
artillery was turned against it. Nearly all the Christian
churches were native temples, sprinkled and purified. The same
bell, whose boom had so often quivered the air announcing the
orisons and matins of paganism, was again blessed and sprinkled,
and called the same hearers to mass and confession; the same
lavatory that fronted the temple served for holy water or
baptismal font; the same censer that swung before Amida could be
refilled to waft Christian incense; the new convert could use
unchanged his old beads, bells, candles, incense, and all the
paraphernalia of his old faith in celebration of the new.

"Almost everything that is distinctive in the Roman form of
Christianity is to be found in Buddhism: images, pictures,
lights, altars, incense, vestments, masses, beads, wayside
shrines, monasteries, nunneries, celibacy, fastings, vigils,
retreats, pilgrimages, mendicant vows, shorn heads, orders,
habits, uniforms, nuns, convents, purgatory, saintly and
priestly intercession, indulgences, works of supererogation,
pope, archbishops, abbots, abbesses, monks, neophytes, relics
and relic-worship, exclusive burial-ground, etc., etc.,

Nevertheless, these resemblances are almost wholly superficial, and have
little or nothing to do with genuine religion. Such matters are of
aesthetic and of commercial, rather than of spiritual, interest. They
concern priestcraft and vulgar superstition rather than truth and
righteousness. "In point of dogma a whole world of thought separates
Buddhism from every form of Christianity. Knowledge, enlightenment, is
the condition of Buddhistic grace, not faith. Self-perfectionment is the
means of salvation, not the vicarious sufferings of a Redeemer. Not
eternal life is the end and active participation in unceasing prayer and
praise, but absorption into Nirvana (Jap. Nehan), practical
annihilation."[22] At certain points, the metaphysic of Buddhism is so
closely like that of Christian theology, that a connection on reciprocal
exchange of ideas is not only possible but probable. In their highest
thinking,[23] the sincere Christian and Buddhist approach each other in
their search after truth.

The key-word of Buddhism is Ingwa, which means law or fate, the chain of
cause and effect in which man is found, atheistic "evolution applied to
ethics," the grinding machinery of a universe in which is no
Creator-Father, no love, pity or heart. If the cry of the human spirit
has compelled the makers of Buddhist theology to furnish a goddess of
mercy, it is but one subordinate being among many. If a boundlessly
compassionate Amida is thought out, it is an imaginary being. The symbol
of Buddhism is the wheel of the law, which revolves as mercilessly as

The key-word of Christianity is love, and its message is grace. Its
symbol is the cross, and its sacrament the supper, in token of the
infinite love of the Father who wrote his revelation in a human life.
The resemblances between the religions of Gautama and of Jesus, are
purely superficial. They appear to the outward man. The inward man
cannot, even from Darien peaks of observation or in his scrutiny _de
profundis_, discover any vital or historical connection between the two
faiths, Christianity and Buddhism. In his theology the Christian says
God is all; but the Buddhist says All is god. Buddhism says destroy the
passions: Christianity says control them. The Buddhist's watchword is
Nirvana. The Christian's is Eternal Life in Christ Jesus.[25]

The Temples and Their Symbolism.

In the vast airy halls of a Buddhist temple one will often see columns
made of whole tree-trunks, sheeted with gold and supporting massive
ceilings which are empanelled and gorgeous with every hue and tint known
to the palette. Besides the coloring, carving and gilding, the rich
symbolism strikes the eye and touches the imagination. It is a pleasing
study for one familiar with the background and world of Buddhism, to
note their revelation and expression in art, as well as to discern what
the varying sects accept or reject. There is the lotus, in leaf, bud,
flower and calyx;[26] the diamond in every form, real and imaginary,
with the vagra or emblem of conquest; while on the altars, beside the
central image, be it that of Shaka or of Amida, are Bodhisattvas or
Buddhas by brevet, beings in every state of existence, as well as
deities of many names and forms. Abstract ideas and attributes are
expressed in the art language not only of Japan, Korea and China, but
also in that of India and even of Persia and Greece,[27] until one
wonders how an Aryan religion, like Buddhism, could have so conquered
and unified the many nations of Chinese Asia. He wonders, indeed, until
he remembers how it has itself been transformed and changed in popular
substance, from lofty metaphysics and ethics into pantheism for the
shorn, and into polytheism for the unshorn.

Looking at early Japanese pictures with the eye of the historian, as
well as of the connoisseur of art, one will see that the first real
school of Japanese art was Buddhistic. The modern school of pictorial
art, named from the monkish phrase, Ukioyé - pictures of the Passing
World - is indeed very interesting to the western student, because it
seems to be more in touch with the human nature of the whole world, as
distinct from what is local, Chinese, or sectarian. Yet, casting a
glance back of the mediaeval Kano, Chinese and Yamato-Tosa styles, he
finds that Buddhism gave Japan her first examples of and stimulus to
pictorial art.[28] He sees further that instead of the monochrome of
Chinese exotic art, or the first rude attempts of the native pencil,
Buddhism began Japanese sculpture, carving and nearly every other form
of plastic or pictorial representation, in which are all the elements of
Northern Buddhism, as so lavishly represented, for example, in that
great sutra which is the book, _par excellence_, of Japanese Buddhism,
the Saddharma Pundarika.

Turning from text to art, we behold the golden lakes of joy, the
mountain of gems, the floating female angels with their marvellous
drapery and lovely faces, the gentle benignity of the goddesses of
mercy, the rays of light and the glory streaming from face and head of
the holy ones, the splendors of costume, the varied beauties of the
lotus, the hosts of ministering intelligences, the luxuriant symbolism,
the purple clouds, the wheel of the law, the swastika[29] or double
cross, and the vagra,[30] or diamond trefoil. All that color, perfume,
sensuous delights, art and luxury can suggest, are here, together with
all the various orders of beings that inhabit the Buddhist universe; and
these are set forth in their fulness and detail. In the six conditions
of sentient existence are devas or gods, men, asuras or monsters, pretas
or demons, beasts, and beings in hell. In portraying these, the artists
and sculptors do not always slavishly follow tradition or uniformity.
The critical eye notes nearly as much genius, wit and variety as in the
mediaeval cathedral architecture of Europe. Probably the most popular
groups of idols are those of the seven or the thirty-three Kuannon, of
the six Jizo[31] or compassionate helpers, and of the sixteen or the
five hundred Rakan[32] or circles of primitive disciples of Gautama. The
angelic beings and sweetly singing birds of Paradise are also favorite
subjects of the artists.

One who has lived alongside the great temples; who knows the daily
routine and sees what powerful engines of popular instruction they are;
who has been present at the great festivals and looked upon the mighty
kitchens and refectories in operation; and who has gone in and out among
their monasteries and examined their records, their genealogies and
their relics, can see how powerfully Buddhism has moulded the whole life
of the people through long ages. The village temple is often the epitome
and repository of the social life of the people now living, and of the
story of their ancestors for generations upon generations past. It is
the historico-genealogical society, the museum, the repository of
documents and trophies, the place of national thanksgiving and praise,
of public sorrow and farewell, a place of rendezvous and separation, the
starting-point of procession, and the centre of festival and joy; and
thus it is linked with the life of the people.

In other respects, also, the temple is like the old village cathedral of
mediaeval Europe. It is in many sects the centre of popular pleasure of
all sorts, both reputable and disreputable. Not only shops and bazaars,
fairs and markets, games and sports, cluster around it, but also
curiosities and works of popular art, the relics of war, and the
trophies of travel and adventure. Except that Buddhism - outside of
India - never had the unity of European Christianity, the Buddhist temple
is the mirror and encyclopaedia both of history and of contemporary
life. As fame and renown are necessary for the glory of the place or the
structure, favorite gods, or rather their idols, are frequently carried
about on "starring" tours. At the opening to public view of some famous
image or relic, a great festival or revival called Kai-ch[=o] is held,
which becomes a scene of trade and merry-making like that of the
mediaeval fair or kermis in Europe. The far-oriental is able as
skilfully as his western confrère, to mix business and religion and to
suppose that gain is godliness. Further, the manufacture of legend
becomes a thriving industry; while the not-infrequent sensation of a
popular miracle is manipulated by the bonzes - for priestcraft in all
ages and climes is akin throughout the world. It is no wonder that some
honest Japanese, incensed at the shams utilized by the religious, has
struck out like coin the proverb that rings true - "Good doctrine needs
no miracle."

The Bell and the Cemetery.

The Buddhist missionaries, and especially the founders of temples,
thoroughly understood the power of natural beauty to humble, inspire and
soothe the soul of man. The instinctive love of the Japanese people for
fine scenery, was made an ally of faith. The sites for temples were
chosen with reference to their imposing surroundings or impressive
vistas. Whether as spark-arresters and protectives against fire, or to
compel reverent awe, the loftiest evergreen trees are planted around the
sacred structure. These "trees of Jehovah" are compellers to reverence.
The _alien's_ hat comes off instinctively - though it may be less
convenient to shed boots than sandals - as he enters the sacred

The great tongueless bell is another striking accessory to the temple
services. Near at hand stands the belfry out of which boom forth tidings
of the hours. In the flow of time and years, the note of the bell
becomes more significant, and in old age solemn, making in the lapse of
centuries an educating power in seriousness. "As sad as a temple bell"
is the coinage of popular speech. Many of the inscriptions, though with
less of sunny hope and joy than even Christian grave-stones bear, are
yet mournfully beautiful.[33] They preach Buddhism in its reality.
Whereas, the general associations of the Christian spire and belfry,
apart from the note of time, are those of joy, invitation and good news,
those of the tongueless and log-struck bells of Buddhism are sombre and
saddening. "As merry as a marriage bell," could never be said of the
boom from a Buddhist temple, even though it pour waves of sound through
sunny leagues. There is a vast difference between the peal and play of
the chimes of Europe and the liquid melody which floods the landscape of
Chinese Asia. The one music, high in air, seems ever to tell of faith,
triumph and aspiration; the other in minor notes, from bells hung low on
yokes, perpetually echoes the pessimism of despair, the folly of living
and the joy that anticipates its end.

Above all, the temple holds and governs the cemetery[34] as well as the
cradle; while from it emanate influences that enwrap and surround the
villager, from birth to death. Since the outlawry of Christianity, and
especially since the division of the empire into Buddhist parishes, the
bonzes have had the oversight of birth, death, marriage and divorce.
Particularly tenacious, in common with priestcraft all over the world,
is their clutch upon what they call "consecrated ground." In a large
sense Japan is still, what China has always been, a country governed by
the graveyard. These cities of the dead are usually kept in attractive
order and made beautiful with flowers in memoriam. The study of epitaphs
and mortuary architecture, though not without elements bordering on the
ludicrous, is enjoyed by the thoughtful student.[35]

In every community the inhabitants are enrolled at birth at the
local temple, whose priests are the authorized religious
teachers, and are always expected to take charge of the funerals
of those whose names are thus enrolled. So long as an individual
remains in the region of the family temple, the tie which binds
him to it is exceedingly difficult to break; but if he moves
away he is no longer bound by this tie. This explains the fact,
so often observed by missionaries, that the membership of
Christian churches is made up almost entirely of people who have
come from other localities. In the city of Osaka, for instance,
it is a very rare thing to find a native Osakan in any of the
churches. The same is true in all parts of the country. So long
as a Japanese remains in the neighborhood of his family temple
it is almost impossible to get him to break the temple tie and
join a Christian church; but when he moves to another place he
is free to do as he likes.[36]

This statement of a resident in modern Japan will long remain true for a

Online LibraryWilliam Elliot GriffisThe Religions of Japan From the Dawn of History to the Era of Méiji → online text (page 21 of 31)