CHAPTER VI. BUDDHISM: THE RELIGION OF THE COMMON PEOPLE
We , have briefly sketched the development of the people as a background, and now we shall attempt to penetrate a little into their life, seeking to understand their thoughts and to know their feelings. In the new Japan the old persists, and we shall start with it, the untouched life which still runs on as in the centuries gone by. Let us begin with the Buddhist religion, as throughout the whole history it has been pre-eminent in furnishing the form and fashion in which Japanese life has shaped itself.
Buddhism has covered Japan with its temples and fills the air with the melody of its sweet-toned bells; its influence has pervaded all society, and its impress on the national character remains. It came to the Empire in the formative period of the nation's life, winning its way without serious rivalry and with all external conditions favourable -Korea and China, literature, art, and eivilisation were its allies, and kings and princes were its foster-fathers.
Buddhism is divided into two great parts, the Northern and the Southern School, more divergent than are Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Northern School, called by itself the Great Vehicle, is very different from the primitive faith, and Japanese Buddhism is of the Great Vehicle- farthest in geographical position from the source and most divergent in its forms, Indian, Thibetan, Chinese, and Japanese changes concealing Gautama's teaching. His very name takes inferior place in the list of gods and Buddhas, and a glance about the temples shows the eclectic character of the faith. Here are the gods of that old faith which Gautama sought to destroy, Brahma, Indra, and many more rising victorious within the temples of the hostile faith. With these are Buddhas many, unhistoric and unreal, usurping the place of the historic Buddha, Gautama of India. Then come the Bodhisattva, creatures wholly alien to the early creed and subversive of its most distinctive features; two of these, the thousand- armed Kwanon and Amida, having the greatest throngs of worshippers. And last are native gods, heroes, foxes, ancient emperors, strange trees, curious stones, and divine mountains, with sun and moon and divinities of the kitchen and the gate, and others innumerable dividing the worship and the gifts. As the priest in a temple in Nikko said one day: "Our sect is liberal, yes, we worship all-your Jesus as willingly as the rest." The worship has many varieties: ordinarily the devotee is content with bowing his head, clapping his hands, repeating a prayer in an unknown tongue, and throwing a coin into a box. Sometimes groups of worshippers gather with common prayer and chantings to the noise of drums, with the use of incense and processionals. Much dependence is placed on magic formulae and charms; the reading of sacred books gains a "merit," as do rounds of worship in designated temples; there are pilgrimages to famous shrines and mountains with a series of festivals. Sometimes the festivals last for days, when all the attractions of the worship are in full force; the temples and surrounding groves crowded with thousands, combining picnic with pilgrimage. On fixed days sermons are preached, listened to by women and the aged; priests in their robes go around the streets, droning prayers, ringing bells, and seeking pious alms.
Few of the worshippers know the meaning of the rites, and it is "like people like priest." Only the elect of the brotherhood really understand their creed, and gaining information by inquiry is wearisome, the answers being so uniformly wrong. The many sects differ more than even our Christian denominations; some worship all of the Buddhas, the Indian gods and the native saints; some worship only Amida, Buddha of Boundless Light; some are saved by the painful way of works, and some gain heaven by the single repetition of a prayer. Some hold forth Nirvana as the reward of lioliness, and some promise a sensuous paradise in return for faith; some accept the interminable Chinese canon, some are content with a single book, and some hold all learning vain; some are philosophical, some trust to vacant contemplation, and some praise ignorance. There are orthodox and reformed Buddhists; the orthodox reject wealth, meat, marriage, and speak of Nirvana; the reformed marry, eat as they please, and expect a paradise. In all the sects, however, the noble eightfold path has been largely overgrown and the ethical influence is inconsiderable. At an early period indeed the Buddhists in China adopted the Confucian ethics, in spite of the fact that the antagonism between the two systems is irreconcilable, for Buddhism chiefly comes to mean withdrawal from the active duties of every day, and acceptance of an existence devoted to rites or contemplation, while the Chinese morality insists upon the importance of the common life. There are no sacraments, there are no priests in the proper sense, for as men devoted to the way of salvation, the only influence of the monks upon the multitude is from their willingness to help men to gain merit by receiving alms. Rigid Buddhists, laymen, maintain a careful account with themselves of merits and demerits, a system of religious bookkeeping, striking the balance at the close of the year being the chief part of their sacred activity.
The system of Buddhism in the beginning of the Tokugawa régime lost much of its influence over educated men and became for them only a system of burial and other rites. For the common people it remained, and still remains to-day, without dogma, without moral teaching, without much appeal to the intelligence, but with a large appeal to the msthetic sensibilities. Nowhere, perhaps, have the accessories of religion been more carefully studied, and in no other land is the result more attractive to the sense. Here is nothing repulsive, and the art of an artistic people finds in the places of worship its highest expression. It is difficult to realise that after all the creed is exotic, so suited is it to its environment. There have been action and reaction, and Buddhism is of all religions most responsive to outward influences, yet in all the general type remains the same.
Its philosophy, mysterious and agnostic, is a dreamy idealism which gives up the search for origins as unattainable and contents itself with phenomena. It cares nothing for logic, but is at once mystic and philosophical, its system discovering itself only to diligent search, with always room for debate as to its meaning. In its thoroughgoing historic forms it binds itself to no sharp definitions, but is all things to all men, though a certain adherence to type must be recognised. Its background is unchanging fate. The universe follows law: there are birth, growth, strength, decay, and resolution again into the primitive elements, for the world has its birth, growth, maturity, and death, like men, and after death is chaos, and then the endless round begins again.
"That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun." Not only does the universe follow for ever the same general laws, but the particulars are repeated in detail, so that there is constant revolution, but no lasting or real progress. States and individuals repeat the same old story; in the world age which is to come the history of our age shall repeat itself, as we but play over again the drama that has been played an hundred times before. "One generation goeth and another generation cometh, the sun also ariseth and the sun goeth down and hasteth to his place where he ariseth; the wind moveth toward the south and thither up into the north; it turneth about continually in its course and the wind retumeth again into its circuits; all the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; into the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again." Ecclesiastes sounds like a Buddhist sutra. But the Indian system does not stop with this material world; heaven and hell and the gods and devils share in the ceaseless and fruitless round; there is no eternal good, there is no eternity, but only everlasting change. "Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. All things are full of weariness, man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing." This is the beginning of wisdom, a good understanding shall they have that keep its precepts. Man is part of this fleeting world and is combined of offensive impurities; he is full of decay and death; let him consider his end and his strength will be an offence to him and his beauty but the witness to a sepulchre. The longest prosperity is a dream and the highest hope ends in death. Man is "such stuff as dreams are made on." "and the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind." The impermanence of all is the alpha and omega of philosophy, and this philosophy is the guide of life.
Children may amuse themselves with passing toys, but men seek permanent possessions; how shall their desires be gratified since all things pass away, and not in this world only, but in that which is to come; for if we heap heaven on heavens, and heavens on top of these, and express their duration by millions of years until our imagination is exhausted, yet the end must come: even the highest and most spiritual sphere of all is part of the universal change. The ages there are passed in bliss, but what passes, however long, at last is past; so the highest good is relative, for who knows what decree of fate may hurl the gods into hell itself? Why, then, should man be deceived by this borrowed lodging which he calls his own or struggle for its happiness, since he must go on his way so soon ? so the motive that incites to pursuit of happiness is cut as we learn the impossibility of attaining it, and we turn away from life itself.
Life comes from desire, so that if we cease to fear evil or to desire good, we shall cease to exist. The Buddha only is enlightened, since he learns this truth not merely for himself, but points out the path that leads to its attainment. Salvation is not from sacrifice or prayers; the gods cannot give it, since they need it as really as do men; the Buddha himself cannot bestow it, but can only point out the way. Men must save themselves by the noble eightfold path-right doctrine, right purpose, right tasks, right actions, right living, right exertion, right memory, right meditation. Those who walk this path must break away from home and family and live as monks. Should all accept the truth, the business of the world would stop at once and the race would die.
But men who cannot thus at once leave all can only hope for a future happier birth, when they can fulfil the law, and the ethics of Buddha are not the only means by which salvation can be attained. To feed a Buddha is better than to spend a life in toilsome obedience, and even to feed a priest is far more than giving alms to a common man; to listen to a Buddhist is to gain a merit, otherwise unattainable, but the light grows dim as the ages pass. While Gautama was alive thousands believed on him, but after his extinction the word, though it still had power, grew less and less as time went on until at last all aving power has gone and none attains salvation: but by and by, when things are at their worst, another Buddha shall come and the round begin again.
Men's deeds go from age to age; there is no soul, but in endless incarnations the sum of all our acts lives on and finds fit embodiment again in horrid shapes as insects, snakes, or devils, or it may live again in angel forms; down in an unending line through ages and through worlds for ever goes the product of our lives, and we ourselves are the product of those who have preceded us, our place and character fixed by the unchanging decree of law. There is a spiritual atavism, for law sometimes suspends the execution of its decree and happiness may seem to follow an evil life, but it is only the postponed reward of past virtue, and punishment is sure to strike relentlessly in the future; thus the saint may dwell in the highest heaven only to be hurled down at last to hell in consequence of long-past misdeeds.
The greatest sect in Japan in the number of its adherents turned away from all this system, its founder gave up even the worship of the historic Buddha and substituted a mythological being; indeed, so transformed was the faith that not a single characteristic feature was left untouched; Amida, Buddha of boundless light, has never been on earth and yet, so infinite is his merit and compassion, that a single repetition of his name gives salvation. This salvation is to no mysterious and transcendent Nirvana, but to a paradise in the West where all is happiness. In the Middle Ages this sect was foremost in war, joining politics to religion; its leaders are the most unpriestly, and of late years it has shown the most vitality, building new temples and sending its missionaries to Korea and its students to Oxford; its priests marry, and its devotees send concubines as gifts to the head of their sect.
Let us visit a Buddhist temple and see it at its best. The misty rain drifts unceasing past and we catch dimly through the rifts in the clouds the rushing torrent far below; waterfall and river and waving pines mingle their soft voices with the endless drip from roof and balcony; the matted floor yields no sound when trodden by shoeless feet; the translucent slides are pushed aside, and nothing separates the world within from the world without. As we rest motionless upon the mats there floats upon the curtained air the soft, deep tones of a mighty temple bell; it speaks to us of sorrow, of the fleeting world, and bids us compose ourselves for quiet contemplation. Slowly the curtain rises before our eyes, but hangs motionless, giving a passing glimpse of time and sense and this unreal, mysterious, phantom earth. We are resting in the dwelling of a priest, a low, one- storied cottage; its tiny rooms are partitioned by opaque screens, sliding in polished grooves; its fine-grained wood ceiling is upheld by polished wooden posts, and on the floor are clean white mats. In the alcove at the farther end hangs a verse of poetry and on the shelf beside it rests a vase with a branch of a flowering tree; beyond the polished veranda is a quiet garden, stones and walks and trees and flowers arranged to lead the mind to sacred thought.
Going out through the garden by a rustic gate into the green lane, with high, thick hedge on either side and towering pines above and dripping ferns in sheltered nooks or clinging to decaying walls of stone, we see, back amid the trees, the deep red of the temple walls and the long sweep of its great tiled roof. Within a heavy gateway is a gravelled court with rows of great lanterns, made of bronze and stone, mortuary monuments, and queer, misshapen pines peep over a narrow wall. An elaborately carved gateway, the posts enormous dragons, gives entrance to a smaller court beyond, where is the temple, decorated in gilt and lacquer, with flowers and leaves and birds and beasts minutely carved. Within the temple are shrines and images and brocaded hangings and smoking incense and deep-toned drums and silver bells and shaven priests and worshippers. We wait until the prayers are said, and after the chanting is ended and the worshippers are gone and the missals restored to their lacquered boxes we still rest and wait, recalling the long, strange history embodied in the ceremony we have seen and in the building in which we rest. Talking to the priest, he asked us:
"Do you believe in the divinity of Christ?"Heaven and hell and Amida and his boundless pity, and Gautama and his noble eightfold path, exist only in believing thought,-that is the esoteric teaching of the Great Vehicle; while for the common man there are ho-ben, pious fictions, parables told as truth and left unexplained, leading men by hopes and fears to do right. Thus Buddhism is a religion for the masses and an idealistic philosophy for the initiated few.
"Most assuredly I do."
"Ah, of course, you are quite correct, He is So then you agree with me and are a Christain?"
"Of course not, and so, therefore, Jesus is not God."
"Oh, I understand you perfectly; everything is in our thought and as we think it; and Jesus is and is not divine, as you believe or as I. In the fullest sense the world is my idea and exists only in my thought."
"I see you have studied our philosophy and I am pleased at so good an interpretation."
"But it seems to me there is one difficulty: if everything is as we think it, we have no test of truth, and things at the same time actually are and are not. Your belief is self-destructive, for surely I may deny it as you affirm it."
"Self-destructive-of course it is; so is all reason and all logic; that is my contention, there is no absolute test of truth and no proof of reasoning. If you have gone so far as to see this truth, you may very well become a Buddhist."
The earnest men among the priests seek attainment, some of them by contemplation, with longcontinued austerities and innumerable rites; some of them by attempts to understand their system, striving to reduce its contradictions to harmony and its confusions to order. Some are teachers of the young, though this vocation has been given up with the introduction of the new educational system; others are preachers to the people, and few of them are practical helpers of their fellow-men. The idlers and the immoral are in the vast majority, and people in general hold them in slight esteem. But Buddhism in Japan has also felt the new life and is slowly undergoing a transformation, to what end no one is bold enough to prophesy.
The strength of the Buddhist faith in Japan has been not in ethics but in æsthetics-it gave a new charm to life as it brought the Continental civilisation with the arts, and also an artistic atmosphere; it takes reality away, putting moonlight for the bright, hot sun; it adds the thought of a mysterious world to come with hopes and fears; it builds temples and displays a curious paraphernalia; it has grace and gentleness, and appeals to contemplation and repose; it ministers to a certain element in our common humanity.
The common people, as we have seen, never understood its dogmas, but they worshipped in its temples as at Shinto shrines. The same indiscriminating worship of the marvellous continues in our age-the simple country people have been known to stop before the first house built in European style which they have seen, bow their heads, clap their hands in prayer, offering, as to shrines, the fortieth part of a cent, and pass on. And they come in groups into Christian churches with the same acts of reverence. As they do not understand the symbols before their eyes, there remains for them chiefly-as ever when symbols take the place of thought-a crude idolatry. Doubtless something of the teaching has penetrated their minds-a belief in a future life of rewards and punishments and a mild faith in the efficacy of certain rites.
As Buddhism has incorporated the ancient Shinto with itself, so, in the belief of the people, there remain also superstitious more ancient than either of these religions-hypnotic trances, mind- reading, second sight, magic, charms, possession by demons, by foxes, by badgers-traditions of strange, uncanny beasts, and odd survivals of primitive beliefs long since disowned. But, through some inherent virtue, these superstitions are not taken seriously enough to affect the prevailing contentment and do not influence life greatly excepting for a few abnormally constituted individuals. The emotional character of the Japanese shows itself in the formation from time to time of new sects and religions, variously compounded from Shinto, Buddhist, and Confucian sources, with, in the latest, some traces of Christian influence. The sects flourish for a time, attracting multitudes of followers, and then disappear as speedily and more silently than they came.
In the ancient world heaven and earth were not widely separated, nor have the religious and the secular been held distinct by the people. There has been no such conception formed as that of mediæval Christendom, of a supernatural sphere let down out of heaven on our common earth. Indeed, the very distinction between mind and matter is not clear, for, from one point of view the mind is itself material and, from another, matter is of the mind. So, too, with the religious and the secular, it depends upon our attitude, for natural and supernatural are not distinct nor opposite, but, after all, only varying aspects of the same great facts. None the less, the supernatural has been used in Japan, as elsewhere, by unscrupulous priests as means for impressing the imagination of the common people.
The first great victory of the Buddhist faith over the masses was won when an ingenious priest in the ninth century A.D. declared that the ancient gods and heroes were incarnations of Buddha, and from that day the priests have been skilful in the invention of parables and wonders for the instruction of the ignorant. But such means, however efficacious for their immediate purpose, are full of dangers; and so the Buddhists themselves discovered, for ultimately the educated men of the Empire broke with the faith and formed a new religion in the form of a rational philosophy.
As we have stated, Buddhism made conquest of Japan when it compromised with Shinto, and swallowed it. The plain temples of the native faith were filled with the elaborate utensils of the new cult, and the native gods were adopted as incarnations of the Indian saint. But with the downfall of the Tokugawa House an attempt was made to reinstate Shinto in its simplicity. So the shrines were emptied of images and stripped of ornaments, for the Shinto temple is simply the ancient cottage slightly improved. It is small, with thatched roof, and a tiny veranda on the four sides. Within is only a mirror, but neither image, nor picture, nor ornament. And the doctrine is as empty as the shrine: there is none. Different deities are worshipped in different localities and at different times, and there are archaic rites, with simple offerings of grains and grave obeisances. The priests neither preach nor celebrate sacraments, nor are instructed in theology, nor are guides in morals. They are not really priests, but laymen, who lead in the sacred rites and repeat the hymns.
Essentially it is the worship of the marvellous, so one finds a shrine wherever there is a wonder, a strange tree or stone, a waterfall, a cave, a high mountain peak. And it is associated with the mysteries of existence, with the processes of nature, with death, and even with the simple life at home. But it has no teaching, being simply the expression of reverence. Thus there have been debates as to whether the rites are really worship or only the natural expression the people feel in the presence of the great and wonderful. So the Government would have it, since it has taken Shinto for its rites and requires participation from officials in the ceremonies, though religious liberty is decreed in the Constitution.
In the palace the ceremony is very simple. At down boughs of a sacred tree are laid before the shrine, and sticks of incense are prepared. Then, after offerings of cloth and grains, the Emperor enters, takes a bough, waves it, bows his head, lights a stick of incense, repeats a prayer, and retires. Essentially the service is the same for all, and many take part in it as a mere custom, without meaning and without denying other beliefs.
As undogmatic Buddhism has given a certain complexion to life, making common a belief in a future state of rewards and punishments, so has Shinto become associated with the divinity of the State, and its rites the expression of patriotism. Possibly it is not less powerful, in that it has no doctrines to be doubted and no laws to be violated, but is purely emotional-the most primitive form of the religious instinct surviving among civilised peoples. It can seek no converts, and its votaries do not try to understand its meaning. Its legends may be taken for fairy tales-or forgotten-its deities may be recognised as the forces of nature or as the spirits of ancestors-and participation in its rites may be explained as simple conformity to immemorial custom, and yet its essential spirit remains-an unreasoning wonder and reverence in the presence of the marvels of heaven and earth and man.