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Religions of Japan

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Religion in Japan

The culture of Japan has interested me for many years. Their value system, established so long ago, is still very much alive and well in the modern-day Japanese society. It was not until recently that I discovered the underlying backbone that supports this system, and has enabled it to survive for so many centuries. The religions of Japan are in my opinion the number one contributing factor to the people being able to hold onto traditional value and moral systems while, at the same time being able to adapt and become a major influence in the modern world.

I am going to attempt to delve deeper into the religions practiced in Japan, going back to their roots, and trace up to modern day society in Japan. I will also attempt to illustrate the way these religious practices, teachings and traditions have helped to shape the way the people of Japan have come to approach life with patience, compassion and tolerance toward their fellow man.

Although most modern day Japanese people practice more than one religion, a practice known as syncretism, Japanese religious beliefs have their roots in Shinto. Shinto is considered to be one of the earliest native religions to the islands of Japan.

The word Shinto comes from the combination of two kanji characters; shin which means "gods or spirits", and to which translates to "way." Therefore Shinto is literally translated to "the way of the gods."

Shinto is among the earliest religions practiced in Japan, and is indigenous to the area. Shinto has no holy book, no founder, and no "holiest site." Shinto is essentially a set of rituals and teachings designed to concentrate on how the living fit into this world. The afterlife is of little concern. The central belief of Shinto is that "kami" or spirits can be contained in anything; from a tree to a waterfall or rock. This leads to a profound love and respect for nature. Also, when a child is born, the local Shinto shrine will add the child's name to a list kept at the shrine and declares the child "Ujiko" or named child. Upon death, a named child becomes "Ujigami" or named spirit. Children that die prior to being named or having their names listed become "Mizuko" or water children and are believed to be the causes of troubles and plagues.

There are no commandments or rules in Shinto other than to live a simple and harmonious life with nature and people which is accomplished by the four affirmations of Shinto. The four affirmations are tradition and family, love of nature, physical cleanliness, and "Matsuri" or festivals dedicated to the Kami.

The family is viewed as the central means of passing on Shinto beliefs and traditions.

Although it is unclear where Shinto's origins stem from, it still is the dominant religion in Japan, and was the state religion until World War II. After the war, its status as the state religion was lost, and traditions and teachings once prominent in the culture were no longer emphasized.

The second main religion to exert its influence on Japan is Buddhism. Buddhism first arrived in Japan from Korea in the 6 century, and during that time many of Shinto began to lose many of its followers to Buddhist teachings.

It wasn't long however until the Japanese people realized that both religions could work together hand in hand, and this practice of syncretism is what most modern day Japanese follow. It is not unusual to see a Buddhist shrine in Shinto temples. The mental clarity and detachment from material desires in this world brought about by the practice of Buddhism enables one to become a much better practitioner of another religion such as Shinto.

To further understand Buddhism, we must visit its origins. The original Buddha and Buddhism's founder is Siddhartha Gautama. He was born in India during the 5 or 6 century BCE. Gautama was born into a wealthy family, and according to tradition, shortly after his birth the seer Asita stated that he would either become a great king or a great holy man. Because of this, his father tried to ensure that he was never exposed to suffering, and was carefully kept away from sad, sick, or dying people. His father placed upon him a life of opulence to attempt to prevent him from seeking a spiritual path in life.

At the age of 29 it is believed that Gautama came across what became known as the Four Passing Sights. They were an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and a wandering holy man in search of the answer to problems such as birth, old age, pain, sickness, and death. He then decided to give up his life of wealth and privilege and live a life of physical and mental austerity.

After nearly starving to death without coming any closer to spiritual enlightenment, he discovered what became known as the middle way.

It was at this time that Buddha developed the principle of the four noble truths. The first is suffering. Buddha believed that life inherently involved suffering, which is caused by the notion of self. Desire and the notion of Self are the root causes of all suffering; the second noble truth. The third is the belief that cessation of desire and removing the notion of Self will lead to cessation of suffering. This is accomplished by following the Eight-Fold Path of enlightenment to cease suffering; the last noble truth.

The ultimate goal of a Buddhist is to achieve Nirvana, which is a state in which all desires have been extinguished and one can go through life without desire to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.

The profound influence that Buddhism has exerted on the Japanese culture becomes apparent almost immediately upon arrival in the country. Both traditions and their religions are a major contributing factor in how Japanese people approach life and act towards their fellow man, with politeness, patience, and tolerance.

Another religion practiced in Japan was introduced to the country by way of China. Taoism has had a major influence on Japanese thought, especially pertaining to Buddhism. Buddhism's praise of detachment, tolerance and propensity to act in harmony with nature all parallel Taoist beliefs.

The basis of Taoism is the belief in the "Tao" or way. The Tao represents the creative rhythm of the universe. As with Shinto, Taoists believe nature is filled with spirits that manifest themselves in items such as plants, animals, stones, and mountains. It is because of this belief that things in nature are treated with great respect.

Taoists believe that the spirits of ancestors and recently deceased relatives remain close to their living descendants for some time.

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