Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Age of Tranquility and Peace, Heian Japan #7: An Overview of Buddhism, The Middle Way

I present the seventh in my series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for an overview of the Heian era.


Last week, I offered a very cursory overview of Shinto, the native religion of the Japanese people.  Though Shinto played a huge role in Japanese culture during the Heian period, Buddhism was just as important. If you'll recall from an earlier post, it was some concern over the political power of Buddhist temples that partially motivated the move of the capital that marked the start of the Heian era.

Given the incredible complexity and diversity of Buddhism over Asia, this will be, like the Shinto overview, a very basic overview. Today, I'm going to give a basic overview of Buddhism in general and then next two weeks I'll explore some of the permutations of Buddhism that defined the religion in Heian-era Japan. In future posts, I'll delve deeper into some of these aspects as relevant and cover some of the political aspects as well. For ease, I'll use some of the more common (read: often Sanskrit, a language of ancient India) words for some of these terms, as I tend to suspect many people have at least heard them versus their Japanese counterparts. The conceptual ideas are more important than the specific terminology here anyway.

As Buddhism spread from India all about Asia and eventually to Japan, it mixed with various existing folk traditions and concepts. In some cases, this means two people might be Buddhist but have apparently opposing metaphysical positions. So, I hope what you take away from this first Buddhist entry is more just the general concepts underlying Buddhist thought, which, at the minimum, give a general enough context to understand the basics of the religion. Next week and the following week, we'll attend to more fine detail as it applies to the main Japanese schools of Buddhism during the Heian era. It's also important to note that back in Heian Japan, many people didn't exactly spend a lot of time considering the fine metaphysics of their religion (even the educated), so the general ethical ideals motivating people's people are perhaps more important than a fine understand of the metaphysics.

First, some basic background. The Buddhist religion was founded by Siddhartha Gautama. He was born in what is now part of Nepal. Though he is often referred to as the Buddha, the word itself just really means enlightened and/or awakened one.  Historians aren't totally sure of when he lived (there's competing sources), but it's approximately somewhere  around the between the 6th-4th century BC. There's differing historical opinions on who he actually was (and various biographies vary), but the evidence does suggest the son of a man of great political importance, a prince.

Now, there's a lot of differing miracles and the like that have been attributed to the Buddha, but we're going to skip past a lot of that to focus basically on the core tenets of the Buddhist message in a painfully simplistic (i.e., blog-sized manner). One can make argument the original core Buddhist message was a reformist message, of sorts, against certain strains of the dominant regional Hindu beliefs. It was not, however, some sort of direct reaction by the Buddha against those religious beliefs (indeed, there is some overlap). So, don't think of the Buddha as the Martin Luther of South Asia.

The traditional biographies inform us that the Buddha became weary with his lifestyle of ease, power, and luxury. He traveled about and witnessing poverty, death, and suffering he was previously shielded from and the reality that death came for all, he decided to become an ascetic and travel about in search of enlightenment, particularly by studying with various religious teachers in India.

At the time, the ascetic tradition was a strong part of the dominant Hindu religious tradition (which we really don't need to understand for Heian-stuff, so I'll be not be writing about that). The summary version of all of this is that the Buddha realized that extreme asceticism would not lead him to enlightenment. After 49 days of meditation under a type of fig tree now called the Sacred Fig (even the Latin name is Ficus religiosa), he achieves enlightenment (the tree also is commonly referred to, among other names, as a Bodhi Tree--an enlightenment tree). He accepted that the path to enlightenment was to follow The Middle Way, path that involved avoiding extremes of both self-indulgence and its opposite, as embodied in the extreme forms of asceticism.

The general concepts of Buddhism are supported by the belief in karma. In the most simplistic definition, Buddhist karma is collective actions and thoughts people perform throughout their life. These actions bring about spiritual effects or consequences in that they affect the cycle of rebirth. Positive karma moves one closer to true enlightenment and freedom from the endless cycle of rebirth. This rebirth can mean many things, but this is not a literal reincarnation of the exact same entity. Things get complicated depending on how one wants to define soul and what not, but it's important to note that basically there is a continuity of sorts.

Arguably, in fundamental Buddhist truth, there's no true independence of being from existence or the  universe itself. Part of the unease that comes with the cycle of rebirth comes from the spiritual denying of that truth and the fixation on individual existence. A common analogy is to think of individual entities are like a wave in the ocean. It has an independent existence of sorts but is not truly different than the ocean.

When that sort of thing is considered,  karma sets up a situation that, in a sense, modulates the factors of reality leading to the arising of a new entity (kind of like the wind blowing on the ocean or the tug of the moon). Depending on the the type of Buddhism the range of possible incarnation might be anything to animals to what would be commonly considered supernatural beings or gods. There's even certain types of Buddhism that posit that incarnation is really about the becoming of being that comes from changing experiences and deny particular concern about supernatural concerns.

What does that freedom entail? Well, that may vary based on the type of Buddhism. Some forms basically postulate things that are basically just heaven-like concepts somewhat familiar  in concept to many Westerners but others have the entity becoming one with the universe a sort of fundamental satisfaction that comes with becoming part of the true whole (or at least recognizing one is part of the true whole).

So how do obtain this freedom? Well, one must first understand the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Now there are a lot subtleties lost in translations of these concepts and my rather cursory take on them here, but taking that into account these are (this wording is my own, there are many variations on this wording):

1) Existence is suffering: This isn't about is some simplistic idea that life is pain, but rather that a sort of spiritual unease lies at the center of common existence. An unease keeping one's life and from achieving true enlightenment.
2) The suffering is caused by desire: Specifically, desire and attachment for the things of the world
3) This suffering will only stop when the desire is quenched.
4) A freedom from the suffering can be attained by those who follow the Eight-Fold Path:

1) Right View
2) Right Intention
3) Right Speech
4) Right Action
5) Right Livelihood
6) Right Effort
7) Right Mindfulness
8) Right Concentration

Again, we'll speed along as to not spend the next ten years writing blog entries, but one key thing to take away from the above is that the idea is a holistic transformation of a person. It's not a matter of just doing the right thing but rather doing the right thing for the right reason because it's natural and not calculated. In the end, a person should follow the Eight-Fold Path naturally. Though Buddhism, particularly in Japan, does share some concern with defilement with Shinto, there's arguably a stronger emphasis on mental purity and purity of intention (hence a heavy focus on meditation). Obviously, this can all start getting tremendously complicated given the self-interest inherent in people in general. Various different types of Buddhism have different ways to handle this issue.

The Heian-era Japanese schools of thought are basically subsets of Mahayana Buddhism. Without delving too deep into the the metaphysics (as this is already going to be a three-part series of long entries), this is a universalist-type of Buddhism generally concerned with the enlightenment of mankind and not just personal enlightenment. Another important aspect are bodhisattvas. In the Mahayanan tradition, in simplistic terms, these are people who have are capable of achieving total enlightenment but hold back to aid others in reaching enlightenment. Depending on the version of Buddhism, these may be merely spiritually-advanced people or even beings who are effectively almost gods.

Next week, I'll continue with Part II of this series where we'll talk about the history and metaphysics underlying some of the major Heian-era Buddhist schools of thought and finish up the following week. Given all the discussion of a lack of attachment that I've mentioned above, certain aspects of Heian court culture in particular might seem to run counter to those Buddhist ideals. Well, just as with the practice of Christianity in Europe, some of this came from many people just not living up to the high standards of religion and some from certain particularly Japanese aspects of Buddhism. I'll try to touch on those in my breakdown of the specific Japanese schools of Buddhism.

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