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Religion In Japan – My Simplistic Take

by Suzanne Fluhr on October 31, 2010 · 25 comments

Golden Pavilion – Kyoto

The Japanese with whom we were able to discuss 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.

Shintoism has colorful ceremonies to celebrate birth and marriage and worships multiple deities. At Shinto shrines one can purchase pre-printed fortunes, but least one be too bummed out by a bad prognostication, one 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.)

In Shintoism, there is no provision for a heavenly afterlife, so people apparently prefer to be Buddhist when they are getting ready to die.  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 one leads an exemplary life, upon death, Amida Buddha himself will descend from heaven to fetch the deceased along with all of his 52 assistants. Even if a person lives the life of a total SOB (you know who you are), s/he can still go to heaven, but Amida Buddha is just going to send two of his lowliest assistants to fetch them. Presumably, these two are not going to be enough to get you into the HOV lane at rush hour.

As in Christianity, a good deal of treasure and the best art seems to be devoted to religion in Japan. For example, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto (see photo) 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.)

In Kyoto, with a group of other trailing spouses, I visited a Zen Buddhist temple where 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 which 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 that 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), upon which he would come over and smack us 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, insisting that this helped. According to the monk, Zen master monks can meditate 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.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Laurel H. Tinney July 14, 2012 at 2:45 am

I love the idea of Japan’s Kami, which are essentially spirits of nature. You probably heard about them when you were investigating the religion of this stunning country. One of my college courses last fall was comparative religion, and I learned a lot about Shintoism. I absolutely love Japan’s kinship with nature! The Japanese find the divine all around them, in beautiful or powerful places — mountains, waterfalls, rocks.. animals… even wind and rain. How fabulous!! What a wonderful way to connect with your higher power!!!

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avatar Mira Ahipara March 23, 2013 at 6:04 pm

I can see you are one intrepid traveler. I wonder if you have ever been to New Zealand.

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Suzanne Fluhr Just One Boomer March 23, 2013 at 8:11 pm

I have indeed been to NZ — twice. I even blogged about our hike on the Milford Track. http://www.boomeresque.com/the-finest-walk-in-the-world-the-milford-track-south-island-new-zealand/
I see that you are a NZ travel specialist. I have bookmarked your site for any future visits we are lucky enough to make to NZ.

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avatar Johanna August 19, 2014 at 1:09 am

Oh Suzanne, some of your writing made me giggle … “Amida Buddha is just going to send two of his lowliest assistants to fetch them. Presumably, these two are not going to be enough to get you into the HOV lane at rush hour.” Brought a smile to my dial!! lol! But I was also fascinated by your other briefings about religion and Japan.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr August 19, 2014 at 3:30 am

As modern and secular as Japan is in some ways, as in many places, religion clearly inspired the best art and architecture.

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avatar Donna Janke August 19, 2014 at 1:36 am

I haven’t been to Japan, but I have experienced a meditation session in the lotus position and can relate to your pain. I recall ten to fifteen minutes feeling like an eternity and my entire lower body being numb at the end. I was unsure I’d be able to move. Not all meditation practices require that position. Many just suggest you sit in a comfortable position.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr August 19, 2014 at 3:29 am

I definitely was not at one of the sessions where it was suggested that we “sit in a comfortable position”.

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avatar Leigh August 19, 2014 at 9:43 am

I like the Japanese attitude toward religion. But I’m not so sure about meditation in a cross legged position either. I know my husband would be suffering instantly – hardly the basis for deep thinking except about pain. I wouldn’t be far behind.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr August 19, 2014 at 3:42 pm

I guess if you start meditating as a young person as a “novice monk”, you stay more flexible. The hitting on the shoulders with a stick to be distracted from the pain was quite amazing.

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avatar Carole Terwilliger Meyers August 19, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Interesting read! I definitely need a chair.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr August 19, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Excellent idea. The chair thing for meditation. Why not?

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avatar Marilyn Jones August 20, 2014 at 2:47 am

Very interesting…I learned a lot from your article. I’d love to visit Japan!!

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avatar Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru August 20, 2014 at 7:59 am

I meditate, but I’m sure if I tried that position I’d pop a hip. Give me my nice wicker chair! Interesting how the afterlife aspect triggers a late life Buddhist conversion, eh? Ritual, convenience, peace of mind.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr August 23, 2014 at 2:44 pm

That’s the thing about “religion” qua “religion” that gives me pause. Too much of a smorgasbord.

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avatar Anita @ No Particular Place To Go August 20, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I loved your description of your experience with Zen Buddhist meditation and the lotus position! Your story sounds like something that I could see happening to me and I’m sure the pain (or they might simply say “discomfort”) kept you from fully appreciating the glories of the inner life and the tranquility of a simple religious life…!

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr August 23, 2014 at 2:45 pm

But, that may be why they call it “transcendental” meditation. You’re supposed to be able to float above the pain. Moi: No can do.

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avatar Shelley August 20, 2014 at 4:48 pm

I’ve seen the little fortunes tied to trees, but I assumed the reverse – that they tied them to make them come true, haha. Smacking with a stick to distract from pain, what an idea! I wonder if I should test it on hubby who has been complaining of sore feet.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr August 23, 2014 at 2:46 pm

If you should try that pain distracting technique on your husband—please do not mention by name. 😉

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avatar Neva @ Retire for the Fun of it August 20, 2014 at 8:46 pm

My daughter took us to a Zen Buddhist meditation and fortunately my husband’s knees were younger then. It made me chuckle to comprehend how they have the afterlife covered, while instilling a bit of fear with the two slow guides. I enjoy yoga and find the poses very peaceful, even though I’m not doing them correctly yet.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr August 23, 2014 at 2:47 pm

As far as I could determine; however, you have to jump through a lot of hoops (lives) before reaching Nirvanna.

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avatar Michelle August 22, 2014 at 9:30 pm

I was baptized as and am Catholic, but have adopted a cafeteria plan as I have grown older. I am a spiritual person, but don’t identify with any one religion 100% except when I get very old or sick and then I might be 100% Buddhist 😉 The photo of the temple is so beautiful.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr August 23, 2014 at 2:48 pm

It seems to me that the cafeteria plan makes the most sense—-that and praying to all the above on airplanes.

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avatar Carolann July 1, 2015 at 8:52 pm

I’ve never been to Japan but would just love to go there someday. I love the spirituality and much prefer it over the dogma of religion. Nice photos!

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