Why is Kannon so popular in Japan?

I have difficulty believing it’s a major factor, but a recent very insightful piece on BBC Radio 3 about Christmas in Japan mentioned in passing that many secret Christians in the Tokugawa period transferred their affection for Mary mother of Christ to this (usually) female Buddhist Bodhisattva, also known as Kwannon in Japanese and Guanyin in Chinese.

The relevant Wikipedia page also has a brief mention of that use of Kannon statues, along with the details “During the Edo Period in Japan, when Christianity was banned and punishable by death, some underground Christian groups venerated Jesus and the Virgin Mary by disguising them as statues of Kannon holding a child; such statues are known as Maria Kannon. Many had a cross hidden in an inconspicuous location.”

However, the popularity of this figure is by no means limited to Japan, so I can’t imagine that had a large impact overall.

In case you’re wondering, yes that is where the company Canon got its name from.


Why don’t Japanese Buddhist monks do alms rounds?

Begging for food every day is one of the most important parts of being a Buddhist monk, as it reinforces your humility and is the only way to make it possible to have the tiny number of possessions that you should be limited to. I’ve now forgotten the book the info came from and the period it happened, but a couple of months ago I was very interested to hear that doing alms rounds was banned by the Japanese (Edo-era?) government. As Japanese Buddhist priests generally have the reputation of being as money-grubbing as medieval Catholic monks, I very much doubt they’d be rushing to do so if it became legally possible though…

Why did samurai follow Zen?

I’d always assumed it was the discipline of meditation, standing under waterfalls etc that was the main appeal to the militaristic samurai, but this passage on its appeal to the totally unmilitaristic Chinese aristocrats suggests the often idle Tokugawa-era samurai might have had other reasons:

“during the prosperous period of Tang China, the spontaneous, aesthetic spirit of Chan Buddhism appealed to the elite, who had ample leisure time to pursue sudden enlightenment, not necessarily through the monk’s strict regimen of meditation, but through experiencing art and poetry, or merely communing with nature”

Buddhism A History by Noble Ross Reat pg 157

Why has Zen had more influence than other forms of Japanese Buddhism?

There are several parts to this question. The first is why it had more influence on Japanese art and, arguably, society than Pure Land Buddhist sects such as Nichiren which have always had more adherents. The next question is why that is also true of those sects’ influence abroad.

The main reason Zen had more influence in Japan was that it was the sect of choice of the samurai class who controlled society, whereas Pure Land Buddhism generally appealed more to ordinary people. Aesthetic appreciation was also more a part of Zen than other sects, hence its outsized influence on the arts. Both of those aspects are relevant to its reputation amongst foreigners, many of whom were upper class aesthetes who were naturally attracted to the minimalist, subtle upper class Zen-influenced art.

Why do we use Japanese names for Chinese Buddhist sects?

For example:

“The esoteric Zhen Yan (Chen Yen) or Tantric school – better known by the Japanese name Shingon…” and “Chan Buddhism, better known by the Japanese name Zen…” from the chapter on Korea in “Buddhism A History” by Noble Ross Reat (pg 176-177)

I wonder if Buddhism was spread by Americans who were in Japan during the occupation, the same way that (Western) futons were. There is also the fact that both of the two mentioned in those quotes became much more successful than they ever were in China. Might well find out the answer to this is I ever finish the book…

Why did Nobunaga and Hideyoshi attack Buddhist sects?

I’d always assumed it was because Confucianism more suited the philosophy and needs of military strongmen, but apparently the reasons were even more directly military:

“‘The Tendai establishment on Mt Hiei was razed to ashes by Nobunaga in 1571 because of its participation in an unsuccessful military alliance against the strongman… After Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582, his ally Hideyoshi took charge of the campaign to unify Japan… In 1584, an army of fifteen thousand Shingon troops unwisely attacked Hideyoshi’s stronghold in Osaka”

Buddhism: A History by Noble Ross Reat pg 213

Why are most Japanese Buddhist priests not celibate?

unlike any other Buddhist country, apparently. It all seems to boil down to one person in one particular circumstance leading to huge consequences, as is sometimes the case:
“Shinran’s most influential innovation was his open, unabashed abandoning of celibacy…Shinran… paved the way for hereditary succession to the leadership of the sect… This stable leadership succession was of particular importance during the turbulent times in which the sect originated and consolidated its following”
Buddhism A History by Noble Ross Reat pg 203- 204
It doesn’t explain what, if any, religious justification he had for this, but it does say that he thought most of the trappings of the priesthood and religious practice were pointless so I suppose that could be it.

Why aren’t the Japanese more interested in reincarnation?

Despite the vast majority of Japanese people having a Buddhist funeral, I think you’d probably find more believers in reincarnation in the UK or America. In fact, the Japanese use the word karuma (karma), and I’m pretty sure that’s been borrowed from English rather than directly from Sanskrit.

I wonder whether a real belief in reincarnation would clash too much with the Confucian and Shinto beliefs. For one thing, how could you pray to an ancestor who had already been reborn as a mouse or firefly?

Why is Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy that Canon is named after) male in some countries but female in others like Japan?

“he is generally with so tender an expression on his face that, in the Japanese imagination, he has undergone a sex change” Read the rest of this entry »