Mahayana Buddhist rituals in Japan
by Rohan L. Jayetilleke
The Second Great Buddhist Council was held in Vesali, India, one hundred years after the Great Demise (Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha) the capital of the Licchavis in the United States of the Vajjis. The bhikkhus of Vesali promulgated ten amendments to the Vinaya (Code of Discipline) codified at Sattaparni caves of Rajagaha (Rajgir) three months after the demise of the Buddha.
Thus the discordant monks segregated from the others and eighteen schools of Buddhism arose, which later dichotomized into Mahayana and Theravada.
The Mahayanists proceeded to the northern areas of India and the Theravadins in disgust moved on to southern India. This was the path of propagating Mahayana Buddhism in Nepal, Bhutan, Ladahk, certain parts of Burma, and Mahayana Buddhism from China travelled eastwards to Korea and then to Japan.
In 552 A.D. King Simai despatched some Buddhist missionaries from Korea to Emperor Kimmai of Japan with a request to afford them all facilities to propagate Dhamma in his country. The kings and people of Korea were always in a frame of mind to spread Dhamma, (Mahayana) to their neighbour Japan.
The first Buddhist monk to arrive in Japan from Korea was Shiba-Tassu, who erected the first shrine and an image of the Buddha in a straw hut, reminiscing of the Buddha's 'Gandha Kuti' the straw hut in the early years.
This concretecized Buddhism in Japan and Korean nuns had the freedom to enter the inner apartments of Japanese families and establish Buddhism.
Among the missionaries who reached the distant Japan was one from India too, bhikkhu Hodo. These initial steps were futuristic and in the seventh century A.D. the Emperor of Japan, Sotoku, with the zeal of Emperor Asoka, committed himself devotedly to spread Buddhism in Japan.
Thus groups of Japanese monks flourished from time to time. They crossed over to China for further training and instructions and organized their own sects back at home. One of the Japanese sects with a worldwide acceptance and recognition is the Zen.
The word Zen, is a Japanese derivative of Dhyana. When the word Dhyana reached China it came to be used as Chen, and in Japan Chen became Zen. This means meditative absorption.
In the eighth century A.D. Nara the first royal capital of Japan, emerged as the most important seat of Mahayana Buddhism. In 749 A.D. the largest brass image of the Buddha, the Mara-Daya-Butsu, was constructed and installed in the shrine of the city.
It is 53 ft in height, in weight 666 pounds of gold, 16,827 pounds of tin 1,954 pounds of mercury and 9,86,180 pounds of brass with shrines of Mahayana coming up all over Japan, different sects sprang up.
Presently there are 13 main sects of Mahayana Buddhism, viz., Kegon, Ritsu, Hosso, Tendai, Shingan, Joda, Joda Shin, Yuzunenbutsu, Ji-Shu, Rinzai, Soto, Obaka, and Nichiren. They have all had their origin in China. Kegon, Ritsu and Hosso retain Chinese characteristics and others are of Japanese origin.
There are five major sects, Tendai, Shingan, Zen Purland or Jodo and Nichiren. The Zen teaching is God, man and universe are one and indissoluble, though the uninitiated may conceive them as independent sectors. This oneness of all life is known in Zen language as Jiji muge hokkain. Zen too has three divisions, Rinzai-Soto, Obaku and Soto Zen.
Rituals and ceremonies
The Buddha as recorded in the Majjhima Nikaya says, "It would matter little, Ananda, if there were discussions as to the necessities of life, or about the rules of the Order; but as to the Aryan Path, Ananda, as to the Aryan Way, if discussion should arise among the monks in regard to this, then such discussion would cause misfortune and loss to many, ruin to many, misfortune and suffering to gods and men".
The rituals and ceremonies are only symbolism and paying obeisance to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. So long as they do not promote attachment (lobha) enmity (dosa) and ignorance (moha) there is no prohibition in the conduct of rituals and ceremonies, whether be it Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism.
The core of the Dhamma is the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path, leading to Nibbana here and now. Therefore, wherever Buddhism took root the indigenous rituals, ceremonies and festivals were given a Buddhist orientation and adopted by the Buddhists.
There are plebeian religious needs of the people from primitive times. Max Weber defines them as the needs for emotional experience of the super-worldly and for the emergency aid in external and internal distress needs which arise out of the recurrent crises of people and which could be satisfied by two possible types of soteriology; magic or a saviour" (The Religion of India, translated and edited by H. H. Gerth and Don Martindale (Glencoe) Illinois 1958, pp. 236-237). In this process of external aid, the most convenient and affectionately reliable is the departed.
All religions advocate life after death either in two places heaven and purgatory until some day of judgement, or in a wheel of birth and deaths. Thus the practice of animism, pleading the dead for aid arises.
In the Indian primitive culture as well as the Vedic, is found the term 'yaj' and 'yagna' meaning fit for worship and prayer or oblation. This term 'Yag' through the passage of time had been transformed into 'yakshs' or demon. The Vedic people believed that their departed relatives were in another world; and even after one's death and funeral rites (cremations) within six hours.
The sepulchres, stupas, tombstones, statues, pagodas pyramids are present day symbolism of cultish animism of the primitive ages. In the ancient ceremonial arts of Buddhism there developed, more monastic rituals, public ceremonies, festivals pageants and aesthetic practices than of Confuciasim, Islam, Shinto or Hinduism. These are composed of ceremonial elements of indigenous beliefs and customs.
The ancient Hindu cult of offering garlands or scattering flowers on an idol was absorbed into early Buddhism as Buddha-puja. In the migration of Buddhism to Japan, this floral tribute ritual evolved into a magnificent flower-arrangement ritual called Ikebana.
The drinking of tea in China, the motherland of tea, by the monks to keep their bodies warm and facilitate the chanting of Sutras, on moving into Japan became the aesthetic ceremony of O-vhang yu or Sado. The Hindu practice of the use of incense to purify an idol became a ritual of inhaling fragrant incense smoke., called Kodo by the laity, in Japan.