April 30, 2015

Pop culture Buddhism


Buddhism arrived in Japan as early as the third century. Then and for the next thousand years, China would be the mirror in which Japan saw its own reflection (thereafter replaced by Europe and the especially the United States). Like Constantine and Christianity, Buddhism found friends in high places who assured its rapid adoption.

Via this conduit, the accompanying organization structures and the written language were absorbed both into the body politic and the society at large. So even if you managed to extract the theology, the cultural framework of Buddhism is bolted into the bedrock of Japan.

Imagine that popular pagan practices--such as the spring solstice and winter equinox--hadn't be "Christianized," but had lived and let live. That's essentially what happened with Buddhism and the native-born Shinto sects in Japan. Two completely different but (mostly) non-antagonistic, non-exclusive religions progressing on parallel tracks.

This balance was upset during the Edo period (1603-1868). Buddhist temples were anointed the primary keepers of the census, to which even Shinto priests were subordinated. As a result, not unusual is the situation in episode 7 of Gingitsune, where a large Buddhist temple sits on the grounds of a small Shinto shrine.

The religious roles were reversed with the restoration of Imperial rule in 1868. But Buddhism quickly rose to become the defining ideology of the military class.

This association lives on in the martial arts and the (much more complex than Christian) end-of-life rituals. Just as importantly, Buddhist and closely-associated Confucian concepts underpin the equivalents of "Judeo-Christian values" and the "Protestant work ethic."

Because Zen and the martial arts are so tightly linked, Buddhism is the go-to source for cranky old warrior priests with paranormal powers and kung fu fighters (with the exception of home-grown sumo wrestling, which is closely aligned with Shinto).

The Soka Gakkai sect created the Komeito or "Clean Government" party in 1964. "New Komeito" incorporated as an independent party in 1998 (cutting official ties to the sect) but adheres to a socially conservative platform and consistently partners with the center-right LDP, helping it form ruling majorities for most of the past fifty years.

The Komeito is a "serious" political party and Buddhism is the "serious" religion, so your "Father Brown" types are going to be Buddhist.

After all, death, judgement (karma) and reincarnation are their jurisdiction. The equivalent expression of "He's gone to meet his maker" is "He became a Buddha." A dead body is often colloquially referred to as a hotoke, meaning a Buddha (仏).

This is most evident in the police procedural. Upon encountering a dead body for the first time, a police officer will pause, bow his head, and press his hands together (gasshou). It's the rough equivalent of crossing yourself, but is a far more ubiquitous gesture on Japanese cop and coroner shows than in their U.S. counterparts.


Because of those end-of-life connections, in the horror genres, Buddhism can be counted on to provides hell and hungry ghosts. Shinto spirits tend to be of the more mischievous kind (as in the aforementioned episode of Gingitsune), though their anarchic natures can wreak no end of trouble along with plenty of inexplicable weirdness.


But Buddhism cultural references are not all Sturm und Drang.

The Chinese classic Journey to the West, based on a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk's travels to India, has inspired dozens of anime, such as Saiyuki and the mega-franchise Dragon Ball. The title of the low-brow harem anime Ah My Buddha is a play on the somewhat higher brow Ah My Goddess, whose characters also reside in a Buddhist temple.

Saint Young Men (already a classic) is a clever sit-com about Jesus and Buddha hanging out together in Tokyo. As both religions accept them as mortal human beings somewhere along the line, I see nothing undoctrinaire about depicting them as such.

Related posts

Pop culture Catholicism
Pop culture Shinto
Anime genre horror
Ghostbusting in Japan

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