Monday, February 28, 2011
Standing on the Promises ... of Religion?
STANDING ON THE PROMISES … OF RELIGION?
What this essay is about.
I started to write this essay as a lecture, addressed to a group of religious leaders meeting in Los Angeles. They had asked me to tell them how young people regard religion in Japan today. Traditional religions worldwide are seeing a lack of interest in their youth, and since I have lived in Japan as an academic part of every year for forty years, and am still involved in Buddhist/Christian dialogue here and there, I was basically a reporter in the field.
Some Buddhist priests from India, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia and Tibet were in the audience, as well as some Catholic and Episcopal priests and Protestant ministers. A fair number of non-Asian and Asian American Buddhist leaders were also present. But the largest group of listeners consisted of lay people just there out of curiosity. That last group had little or no knowledge of Asia and its religious heritage.
The lecture was delivered, but this essay is not the lecture. Instead it is my rambling account of many issues that could not get full treatment in a short lecture. Those and other issues came up in discussion after the lecture, and I was urged to write down in more detail what was behind my remarks from the speaker’s platform. That is what I have attempted here.
In this essay, as in the lecture, I focus on the promises that Christianity and Buddhism make to their adherents, especially to the young as they encounter religion for the first time. My first premise is that today the promises are not discussed as much as they were in the past, and that kids are left with routines and customs that they consider inconsequential. My second premise is that many Christian and Buddhist kids have found something else that satisfies their spiritual yearnings (and answers their questions) in other ways.
Tracing my thoughts that led me to these conclusions, I offer my experience as an example of what one American Christian boy took away from his religion. I relate what my upbringing was like, in terms of religious promises. Church music played a role, with two hymns born out of the slave trade and U.S. Civil War being key (and with surprising connections to Japan.)
As unique as my case may seem, it is similar to what other young Christians of my generation took away from their religious training. It contrasts significantly, however, with what young Americans in Christian mega-churches today seem to find “promising”.
The second half of this essay grapples with the situation of young Japanese and their tentative links to traditional Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. Since many Westerners listening to my lecture (and presumably many reading this essay) have little knowledge of those faiths, I spend some time comparing their promises to those in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim matrix of the Western world in order to gain some perspective.
After exploring those basic differences between religions East and West I try to explain why it is that all Japanese, including the youth, tend to regard themselves as not religious despite their careful observances of Shinto and Buddhist rituals. That disconnect came about, I suggest, because of political policies that were put into place in Japan some 500 years ago in order to keep Japan’s class structure secure.
The final paragraphs of this essay take up the subject of Buddhism’s influence in the 20th century on Westerners, especially of Zen in the U.S., and also the more recent influence of the worldwide anime phenomenon coming from Japanese comics, animation, and gaming industries.
Seeing kids everywhere caught up in the virtual thrills and spills of this extraordinary development, and watching them go back and forth quite easily between that and their everyday worlds makes me wonder if in fact they don’t have the answer: enjoy the ride but don’t subject what you ride on to your very human analysis of truth.
The Upbringing of One Christian American Boy.
As a retired university professor and administrator I’ve been a teacher all my life, watching young men and women grow up, literally in front of my eyes. If I had entered some other profession, that of a businessman or scientist, for example, I would have had much less reason to know about young people and their attitudes towards life.
But as a teacher I have had to adjust to the changes in my students from generation to generation in order to be an effective teacher. I have had to find out what they believe in and see things through their eyes before presenting any set of ideas to them that I consider important.
Most of my students have been American-born, but I have also had the opportunity to teach generations of international students, some of whom were born and raised in Japan or whose parents are of Japanese ethnicity. And I would say that the respective views of the world that American and Japanese students grew up with in the sixties are not the same as they are today. In fact, their views have more in common than not.
One way of describing the change would be to say the religions of their ancestors have become mere traditions without much meaning. What their religions taught about life and death are no longer of primary concern for them. They are much more interested in practical, 21st-century things than something as unknowable as what happens after death.
In this essay I have jotted down some thoughts I’ve had about what our religions promise us. I have had a lifelong interest in religions, Christianity and Buddhism in particular, and have thought deeply about the religious promises they offer. What effect do those promises have on us as children growing up in Buddhist and Christian homes? The promises that religions make to us when we are growing up are at the heart, I believe, of who we become as adults, shaping our faith and our view of the world around us (even in our world of watered-down religions!)
My parents were third-generation “believers” in a Protestant group known as the Church of Christ, one of several groups (including the much larger First Christian and Congregational groups) that had their origins in Scotland in the 19th century. There are no ordained ministers in the Churches of Christ. All baptized believers are ministers of the Gospel -- the “Good News” -- of Christ.
A study of the Bible, in various translations, was paramount. In many families the scriptures are studied (or were, in my day) in the “original” languages of Greek, Latin, and even Hebrew.
But what I remember as much as Bible study is the music in my church. When I was a little boy growing up in Oklahoma, on Sunday mornings and evenings, and on Wednesday nights, as well, I sang many songs in church.
Times have changed a bit, but in my day (1930’s) Church of Christ children were required to sing. Everyone had to sing. Singing was the way we spoke to God. We expressed our faith in God, our dependence on God, our praise to God, and the hope we shared to be with God after we died. We just sang, without the aid of organ or piano.
As it turns out, I was something of a child piano prodigy, and my musical tastes were exclusively classical. So I thought the church music I grew up with was decidedly inferior to the music I was playing in recital. But the simple tunes I heard in church affected me emotionally almost (but not quite) as much as Bach and Mozart. The first song I remember learning the words to, and singing in church with my whole heart, was “Standing on the Promises”. The words go like this: “Standing on the promises of Christ my King/ Through eternal ages let His praises ring: Glory to the highest I will shout and sing/ Standing on the promises of God.”
The song’s rousing chorus was the part of the song that thrilled me most. It features an overarching melody on the second and third beats sung by sopranos and altos, supported by a steady beat of 1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&, sung by tenors and basses. So at the top of the range we hear “Stan-ding, Stan-ding …” while at the bottom comes the rhythmic “Standing-on-the-promises, Standing-on-the-promises …”
The other verses of the song assure us that God’s promises cannot fail, even when we feel threatened by outside forces or our own ignorance and fear. I was assured by this song that God’s grace, His love for me and His superior wisdom would save me from my selfish, misguided ways, and would allow me to go to heaven when I die. “Standing on the Promises” humbled me like nothing else. It made me feel weak and vulnerable, incapable of doing anything without a superior power to protect me.
There is a rather surprising Japanese connection to this song that very few people seem to know about: it was written by two men who were colleagues in the Pennsylvania Military Academy, and teachers of American Civil War officers who went to Japan to train conscript Japanese soldiers in the new Meiji Period army! (See the movie, “The Last Samurai”?)
Ostensibly, the Civil War in this country was fought to free African American slaves. The sentiment behind “Standing on the Promises” is clearly anti-war, written as a Christian lament for the bloodiest war in American history.
The composer Kelso Carter (1849-1928) based his lyrics on the poem “Promises of Perfect Love” by his teacher John Sweney, who fought in the American Civil War. Carter gave up military life to be a Methodist minister for the last forty years of his life, and wrote hundreds of hymns about the forgiving nature of Christ to comfort American soldiers and their families.
Jews and Christians believe that God’s grace was given first only to the small group of people in the Near East known as “the children of Israel” whom God had “chosen” to be his people. The good news of the Christian era is precisely the notion that God in effect changed His Mind and appeared on earth in human form (at the beginning of the so-called “Christian era”) to let everyone know that there would no longer be a chosen people, as far as God was concerned, but that everyone on earth could receive His grace.
As a child I didn’t even understand what grace was, but my parents explained that “grace” was synonymous with “love” and “compassion”. I grew up understanding that God loves me and will overlook my shortcomings, just as long as I am sorry for what I’ve done, and so long as I forgive the “trespasses” of others. Later I came to see this very special form of love as the very foundation of Christian belief.
An older Christian hymn that underscores this same point is the famous “Amazing Grace”. Once again we have a song that celebrates the love of God that believers can receive. Is there anyone who has never heard that song? It is sung at funerals and on other solemn occasions in the Western world. It, too, has a link to Japan: it was one of the first hymns introduced in Japan and elsewhere in Asia by protestant missionaries. I was astounded when in 1964 I heard kids in Japan singing it in the nursery school our son was enrolled in.
The circumstances that produced these two hymns -- “Standing on the Promises” and “Amazing Grace” – take us back to two important periods in English and American history. And it cannot be emphasized enough that they both have as much to do with the struggle for civil rights in our countries as they do with God’s grace.
“Amazing Grace” was written in 1773 by John Newton, whose sense of remorse at having participated in the slave trade when he was a young sailor in the Royal Navy, led to his becoming a clergyman in the Church of England. At first Newton’s words to the song were not sung but were chanted or recited by the congregation. It was not until 1835 that his words would be sung to the “New Britain,” the folk tune people recognize as “Amazing Grace” today.
Appropriately, given its birth during the very height of the slave trade, “Amazing Grace” quickly became a standard African American spiritual. Ultimately, “Amazing Grace” (or more precisely, the “New Britain” tune) became, for believers and non-believers alike, the standard tune played at funerals and on the battlefield. When it is played on bagpipes the effect is strangely soulful, like taps played on a trumpet.
These two Christian hymns promise that God’s love is available to all sinners, even soldiers who fought to free slaves and the slave-owners who fought to keep them. Up until recently all American Christians understood the civil-rights and anti-war sentiments that inspired the songs. People on both sides of the issue of slavery could find comfort in these and other songs. They automatically took a position of utter humility at the feet of a power greater than themselves.
But now these songs have lost the religious and political views that inspired them. “Standing …” is seldom sung anywhere any more, and “Amazing Grace” has become the wordless funeral icon that I described earlier. Even teenagers in American Christian mega-churches are singing very different songs today in worship of God and His Son.
Instead, they have chosen to perform rock-style songs of mystical, ecstatic states of personal devotion. Their hope is for a feel good relationship with an Awesome God who promises them personal favors that are not available to non-believers. Of course they are still standing on the old promise of life after death in Heaven. But that seems to be secondary to feeling good now about themselves. In this they are not far removed from the New Age devotees of rock crystals and yoga groups found from California to Paris.
Shinto and Buddhist Echoes in the Lives of Japanese Kids.
Japanese youth come from a very different tradition than the Christian (or Judeo-Christian-Muslim) tradition of the West. Their tradition is based on the ancestral texts of Shinto, and the Indian Buddhism imported from China in the 6th century (when these two religions were made the official faiths of the Japanese people.) Some of those teachings have had a direct impact on young people outside of Japan and even overlap, in some ways, the mysticism of Western New Agers.
But whereas Western youth since the 1950’s have used Asian teachings to create rather strict and orthodox revivals of Eastern religions (as seen in the large Zen meditation and Tibetan study groups throughout the world), Japanese youth have gone in exactly the opposite direction. They have pretty much abandoned the faith behind the old ways, and merely engage in ceremonies and rituals as time-honored customs. They are indeed adapting parts of their native religions in their own search for meaning in life, but their adaptations are far from orthodox.
I have always been puzzled by how many Japanese people can say they are not really religious. When visitors to Japan point to Shinto and Buddhist festivals and rituals as “religious” the common response of Japanese citizens is something like “Oh, but they are not religious, they are just Japanese customs!”
Well, yes, but they are based squarely on religious beliefs that are as distinctive to Japanese religion as Christmas, Easter, and the Holy Eucharist are for Christians, and as Hanukkah, Yom Kippur, and the Passover Seder are for Jews. So what are the cultural/religious impulses that have captured the hearts of young Japanese? What should Westerners know about Japan’s religious history?
Westerners are so focused on God that they have a hard time understanding the Hindu/Buddhist teachings about karma, reincarnation, and ultimate enlightenment. They cannot imagine a religion that does not worship a single supreme being (known respectively as Elohim, God, and Allah) as creator of the universe.
They often mistakenly think Buddhists worship the historical Buddha as God, in the Western monotheistic sense of the word, instead of the “True God” of the ancient Talmudic-Christian- Islamic scriptures of the Near East. By Western logic this automatically makes Buddha a “false god” and Buddhism a “pagan” religion. Even when Westerners learn more about the Hindu/Buddhist system, they find it hard to remove a creator god from their concept of religion.
Shinto rituals such as Oshogatsu (new year celebrations), Miya-mairi (presentations of newborns), Shichigosan (childrens’ 3rd, 5th, and 7th birthdays), Hina-matsuri (doll’s day celebration for girls on March 3), Koi-nobori Matsuri (flying carp kites for boys on May 5th), Seijin-shiki (coming of age ceremonies for 20-year-olds), etc. involve formal visits to Shinto ancestral shrines where national, local or family spirits are venerated. Acts of purification and reports to the spirits from the living are made at these times as well as on a daily basis at the family altar, the kamidana, which is sometimes replaced by or combined with the Buddhist altar, or butsudan.
Seasonal changes, also, can involve special Shinto as well as Buddhist rituals, and virtually all of Japan’s traditional arts are connected to the two religions. The so-called tea ceremony meal (chaji), for example, is essentially a Japanese version of the vegetarian temple meals of Chinese Buddhist priests, who are expected to see the food itself and the way it is received as a symbol of the basic Buddhist teaching about the oneness of all things.
Japanese versions of temple meals (especially those in Zen temples) are the basis for the tea ceremony meal and all classic cuisine (kaiseki) restaurant menus. They also contain elements based on purified foods served to the ancestral spirits at Shinto shrines. Likewise, Japanese flower arranging (ikebana) is inspired by Shinto lessons about ancestral spirits as well as Buddhist lessons about the varieties of sentient beings and their place in the scheme of reincarnation and ultimate Buddhahood.
So why do many Japanese priests and teachers of traditional arts today not talk about the meanings behind rituals, or even, in some cases, not know anything about the teachings that inspired their ritualistic arts? It is one thing for ordinary Japanese not to be interested in religion. But why do the experts seem uninterested?
I believe something happened in the early 17th century, something political, that caused the amnesia and the rift between religion and culture that we see in Japan today. The event has roots that go all the way back to the beginning of Japanese history, when waves of immigrants from the Chinese and Korean mainland made their way across the so-called Sea of Japan to the islands we know as Japan.
Japanese scholars have shown convincingly that the first wave began as early as the 4th century B.C.E. That was followed by successive waves or groups of immigrants, all from the mainland, and when they arrived in the islands each group established its own territory. They often had to do battle with two groups of Caucasian aborigine people (known to archeologists by their pottery and burials as Jomon, the earlier group, and Yayoi.) Some 900 years later the aborigines were fully subdued and pushed to the northeastern-most areas of the Japanese island chain, where their descendants (known as Ainu) live today.
By the 6th century the Yamato group, or clan, in the Nara basin had established itself as rulers of a united nation, made up of representatives from each of the forty some-odd territories (corresponding rather closely to the 49 prefectures of Japan today.) Each group seems to have been divided up into leaders, protectors, record keepers, craftsmen and farmers.
To a considerable degree, there was no intermarriage between classes. Instead, an attempt was made to marry within classes, so that descendants of leaders would seek to marry leader-class counterparts in their (or even another) territory, protectors in theirs, etc. This may have been a clever move to unite the country, taken by the Yamato clan, early in the country’s history.
In any case, the new Japanese nation officially began in 552, when a successful attempt was made to make written Chinese and many other aspects of Chinese culture the cloak with which Japan was to dress itself forever. Many adaptations were necessary.
The record-keepers, for example, had already become the Ancestors.com of their day, making sure that ancient myths were preserved and marriages were conducted in suitable ancestral shrines. This class clearly had to be preserved. The name Shinto (lit., the “Way of the Ancestral Gods”) was chosen to distinguish it from the new religion, Buddhism.
Chinese Buddhism had to be modified to fit Japan’s needs, and the first order of business was to assign it the duty of educating the populace (since Japan had no standard writing system for its spoken language.) Temples functioned as schools for Japanese of all classes until modern times. They also provided all Japanese with funerals that would include cremation (a new concept) and “Buddha” names at death to insure the best possible reincarnation (another new concept.)
To make the old religion fit the new was imperative. The government seemed determined to make Japan a player in the greater East Asian world by ensuring that every Japanese citizen was up to speed in religion, as in language, architecture, law, everything else. Every Buddhist “deity” (any fully enlightened being, i.e. Buddha) whose powers were recorded in Chinese texts were coupled with a Shinto ancestral spirit in what is known as Ryobu Shinto, thus allowing for dual representation in Japan’s religious vocabulary.
With these modifications in place, Shinto offered each Japanese person a position in a Japanese family lineage for life (and beyond), while Buddhism offered the same person an education and the possibility of reincarnation leading to Buddhist enlightenment. No two religious concepts could be more contradictory than these two – Shinto versus Buddhist – but they have been packed away in the Japanese heart with almost no discord for over 1400 years.
Japanese social classes, including the class consisting of Shinto/Buddhist priest families, became especially clearly delineated in 1603, when the Tokugawa military government spelled it all out. What had been somewhat unclear, about what role any family would play in Japanese society, became a matter of laws and regulations. At that point until 1868, when Japan reformed itself in Western style under the Emperor Meiji, it was in fact against the law to marry outside your class or to do anything your class was not legally responsible for doing.
Where religion was concerned, the hundreds of thousands of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples were only open to the sons (usually first sons) of priests, who were then expected to take over the religious responsibilities when their fathers died, and pass them on to their first sons before they died. This inherited head-of-family (iemoto) system was in place in every class and family then, and is to a lesser degree, even today.
I think it is understandable, under those circumstances, why over the centuries Japanese people stopped saying they were religious, or even doing any of the religious duties normally expected of people of faith. Japanese who did not belong to a family of Shinto or Buddhist priests were not expected to meditate, learn scriptures, or perform rites. They had responsibilities of their own and had no business with religion, other than to show up at important ceremonies.
Religion was a profession for priests, not for people in the other classes who had professions of their own: aristocrats were nominal leaders, samurai were the protectors (and throughout much of Japanese history the de facto rulers) of the country, merchants were craftsmen and businessmen, and farmers produced the food for the nation. These duties were performed by people who knew their place, their class, and took their jobs very seriously.
It must have been puzzling to the beatniks and hippies who knocked on the doors of Japanese Zen temples in the 1950’s asking to come in for meditation. Up until then Buddhist priests in Japan had never even thought of allowing anyone who was not the son of a Japanese priest to undertake training in their temples.
In that sense someone like Dr. Daisetsu (D. T.) Suzuki was a pioneer who opened the doors of Japanese Buddhism for the whole world to enter. By writing about Zen and Japanese culture in English he provided an opening for Alan Watts and a flood of future Zen students in the West (including me) to explore the Japanese version of Zen Buddhism, to study under teachers in Japan, and to establish temples all over the world.
Other denominations of Japanese Buddhism have not caught the attention of Westerners as much as Zen. Nor have the Japanese priests of those sects sought out “foreigners” the way Zen teachers have. Instead, they have been content to meet the needs of the ethnically Japanese communities scattered over the world.
The promise of all Buddhist groups is to help you reach Enlightenment, with a capital “E”. With a small “e” the word can mean something as mundane as finding out about a difficult person, as in, “Thanks for enlightening me about him! No wonder she wanted a divorce!” But the Enlightenment means something a bit deeper, and is exclusive to Buddhist understanding of the nature of reality.
In a nutshell, what we see as reality, according to Buddhism, is our mistaken perception of things. And as long as we continue to act on that false sense of reality we will experience countless lives and deaths (reincarnation) in which our perceptions can be brought closer to full understanding, or not, as the case may be. A reality without our distortions, is Enlightenment.
But shedding our mistakes in perception and entering a reality that is empty, and yet full, of ourselves and everything else, is very hard to do. The promise, however, is that it is possible. Buddhist denominations each have their own methods for helping us reach Enlightenment.
Our perceptions are mistaken as long as we think of ourselves as separate from others. So the simple definition of Buddhist Enlightenment is an understanding of self-as-other that is all compassionate and wise. An Enlightened Being (Buddha, Bodhisattva, etc.), therefore, may be thought of as an enlightened part of myself. Such conundrums prove to be too much for some denominations. Their type of Buddhism looks to some assistance outside the self, and is referred to by scholars as “other-power” (tariki) Buddhism.
Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, for example, in its Jodo-shu and Jodo-Shin-shu forms, looks to Amidist scriptures for help in getting beyond the rigorous disciplines of mind and body. Jodo-shu believers are taught to repeat the name (nembutsu) of the Buddha Amitabha (J. Amida) described therein. Shin-shu believers are given the promise of outside assistance in their quest for Enlightenment, simply by a sincere faith in the promise of Buddha Amitabha as described in Pure Land texts.
Both denominations assure believers that when they die they will be reborn in a Pure Land, where their own ignorant perceptions and actions (i.e., their karma) in past lives will not be present, and they will receive help from Amitabha Buddha to develop sufficient wisdom and compassion to reach exalted states of understanding and to be of use, then, to all beings caught in ignorance.
The Nichiren denomination can also be regarded as one that offers believers assistance in the difficult journey to full self-understanding. In this case, the scripture itself, the lengthy Lotus text, will be the focus of devotion. The Bodhisattva of Compassion (Avalokiteshvara) -- better but mistakenly known in the West by the Chinese name, Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy – is the featured Buddhist deity of the Lotus scriptures.
The oldest Buddhist denominations to take root in Japan and still flourish today are the so-called esoteric ones, Shingon and Tendai. They, too, rely on outside help for humans on the road to Enlightenment, this time through the powers of literally thousands of Awakened Beings described in the ancient texts. The priests of these sects perform elaborate rituals that summon esoteric deities, on behalf of lay believers, but the latter also are given many prayers and sacred words to use in daily devotions.
Zen is the only Japanese Buddhist denomination that scholars refer to as a “self-power” (jiriki) faith, because it insists we and we alone are responsible for our progress or failure on the Buddhist path to Enlightenment. All three major streams of this denomination in Japan – Rinzai, Soto, and Obaku -- put the emphasis on the practice of seated meditation (zazen).
Although the names of all the major figures in each of the Zen lineages are recited by priests daily, and scriptures are recited in honor of all Awakened Beings, beginning with the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, the focus for all Zen students, priest and lay practitioner alike, is seated meditation. Profound silence is considered optimal for deepening any understanding of the self and its place in reality.
Now, here is my point about Buddhism as it exists in Japan today: If I walk up to a Japanese person I do not know on the street and ask them if they are religious, they will say no. But if I ask what denomination of Buddhism their family belongs to they will usually remember that it is one of the denominations mentioned above. Or they might say something like, “Well, my father’s family is Zen, but my mother’s family is Shingon.” That much they know. But if you ask them something about the belief system of the types of Buddhism in question, they will almost always draw a blank.
Something similar happens if you bring up Shinto. The average Japanese person’s understanding on this subject is that their relatives on their maternal and paternal sides are venerated in this or that Shinto shrine, and that they themselves pay regular visits whenever possible to the shrines they were taken to as children. They believe that Shinto gods (kami) are connected to them in some way and that those gods live in those shrines and hear any announcements or requests they make.
Shinto is in fact an exclusive Japanese club. There is no point of a non-Japanese person going to a Shinto shrine to speak to spirits. I often go ring shrine bells and clap my hands in the accepted manner with Japanese friends, but it is all in good fun. As an outsider I can enjoy all the stories connected to the ancestral gods of the nation and of individual Japanese families. I find them endlessly fascinating.
They are full of magic and mystery, with an element of familiarity that reminds me of Star Wars. In Shinto there always seems to be an ongoing struggle between good and evil, just as there is in science fiction, classical myths and all Western religions. An array of sometimes shocking subjects (such as sexual organs) can decorate Shinto shrines, to the delight or horror of visitors.
Instead of accepting others as myself, as I must in Buddhism (and am encouraged to do in Christianity), I can sit back and be entertained by the human-like character of ancestral spirits in Shinto. They don’t pull any punches (or turn the other cheek.)
They can be angry, mean, happy or sad, just like me, and they reportedly act on those feelings with impunity.
The Anime Phenomenon as Religion?
In terms of doctrinal teachings, all Japanese living or dead, as well as the landscape of the Japanese islands themselves, are kami. What could be more exhilarating than that? It is no surprise to me that the new religion of Japan may be seen in the fantastic world of manga and anime, the comic books and animated films that have mesmerized several generations of young Japanese, and is increasingly capturing the minds and hearts of young people everywhere. Even adults in America and Europe are seen dressed as their latest anime heroes at the annual conventions in London, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, and other cities the world over.
Anime fans fill huge arenas to see and celebrate the latest series of kami-like creatures, and even dress up like their favorites. In Japan it started after WWII with, ironically, the cartoon hero “Atom Boy”. From daytime TV cartoons to comic books and ultimately to the tech-heavy game world, the movement took on a life of its own.
Nintendo’s Pokemon (shorthand for “pocket monsters”) started as a game that would acquaint Japanese children with ways to deal with and “tame” frightening monsters (including foreigners and anything else that looked threatening) by learning the monsters’ secrets and knowing what their powers and weaknesses were.
On some level, perhaps, the Japanese anime phenomenon may have grown naturally out of a nation that was almost destroyed by an awful power, leaving everyone feeling helpless and not knowing what to do. A similar power is described in some Shinto myths, but what happened in August of 1945 was real. Dealing with its aftermath became a very useful skill.
Comic books, anime, and games utilizing the latest advances in technological wizardry gave physical form to the threat and its match. Super villains and heroes with thrilling powers were born. To a very real degree the virtual world of anime replaced first the world of Japanese teenagers, holed up in their rooms where their parents expected them to study for exams, and gradually has replaced the mundane world of millions of anime fans, happy to move into a fantasy world that is exciting yet manageable.
Anime is like a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster that threatens your endurance but not your life, because you know it will come to a stop at the end, leaving you a bit wobbly but safe. At a very young age I remember looking with fascination at the illustrations of the Crucifixion and other gory scenes in the family Bible. When I closed the book it was like coming down from some hallucinogenic high that nobody talked about but knew to be real. I felt privy to a giant secret.
Perhaps those images broke through social barriers that defined acceptable behavior in my world. I didn’t have to torture or be tortured, kill or be killed, or actually experience any of the things I could imagine and see graphically depicted. That gave me a freedom of sorts, the freedom to suspend belief, to enjoy the ride but not have to stay on it all my life. The ride I have in mind here metaphorically is probably the ride that religion offers us.
At some time very early in my life I got off the ride, meaning I no longer believed the traditional teachings I grew up with. Once I stopped believing in the ride the ride no longer held an attraction for me. It was impossible for me to separate the ride from what I was taught about it. If I didn’t have faith in the teachings the ride somehow disappeared. I couldn’t look at the ride objectively or enjoy it for what it was. Ironically, the keepers of the ride convinced me that I had to believe in it to have anything to do with it. So I lost my faith.
The Christian ride is amazing in all its parts. Riders are taught
that a supreme being created the universe, peopled it and everything else in it, set rules for first humans Adam and Eve, punished them (and all their descendants) for breaking a rule, declared a tiny band of people in the ancient Near East to be his chosen people, changed his mind some 2000 years ago, came to earth for 30 years only to be crucified as a criminal, and now sits on the right hand of the supreme being (himself) participating directly in the lives of his followers, waiting to send some of them to heaven and others to hell after they die, with the heavenly prize going to those who love him.
There is nothing wrong with the ride. I have long ago learned how to enjoy the Christian ride without believing in it, which is to say, without insisting that each turn and swoop is true beyond a shadow of human doubt. Unfortunately I did not learn to do this until after my sons were grown. We seldom took them to church, and if I discussed religion with them it was as a detached scholar, looking at all religions as childish. “I am truly sorry and humbly repent,” as the prayer book says.
My doctoral research in late l6th-century Japanese history and religion at Kyoto University, and subsequent studies there for forty years, took me into dozens of Buddhist Zen temples, not just as a scholar but as a practitioner. For the latter I have my Japanese professors to thank, because they told me I would never understand Japan without beginning a rigorous program of Zen meditation and training.
I am a work in progress, a Christian who found himself taking Zen Buddhist priest vows before he knew it. (My priest name is “Cold Cliff”, Kangan in Japanese.) At first the long hours (and pain) of seated meditation and the regimented schedule of study and temple chores nearly killed me. But eventually I came to feel that Zen meditation was my salvation. As one of my Zen teachers said to me, “You’re a Christian. Just pray on your sitting pillow! Sit and see!” Which is exactly what I did. Zazen will always be my window to all that I can see, hear, feel, know and imagine.
In Seattle I taught full time at the University of Washington half of each year, leading students the other half in a study-abroad program in Kyoto. All the while I was training with (and eventually instructing) young Japanese novice priests. Before long I had created the University of Washington Zen Center, and my wife was helping me conduct meditation retreats (sesshin) for students, while also assuming responsibility for raising our two sons, dragging them back and forth across the Pacific until they were teenagers.
Over the years several of my students joined me as priests in the Cold Mountain (Kanzan) Rinzai Zen order, which has its origins in the 8th-century temple of the same name in Suzhou, China. The most active Zen group in this lineage in the U.S. is the one directed by my former student Dr. Kurt (“Cold Perception”) Spellmeyer, of Rutgers University. A few of my other students became priests and leaders in other Zen denominations. For all of them, as for me, the promise of Zen Buddhism is an awareness that grows with time.
I did not write this essay to persuade readers to cling faithfully to their religions, whether Christian or Buddhist or anything else. Nor would I have them drop their religions entirely. My study of Japanese religions and my observations about how people in Japan seem to continue religious customs without bothering to subject them to a truth test, and even my account of Japan’s amazing anime phenomenon, are meant to show how rewarding it is to take the ride of religion, even in a new and exciting version where faith in details is beside the point.
My granddaughter Jessica spent a week with us recently. She is 25 years old and has been an avid anime fan for many years. She and her friends enjoy the virtual reality of anime and games but have their feet firmly planted in the here and now. They seem to have learned how to accept miracles without believing in or acting upon them. Jessica’s love of animals is pure and inspiring. She learns from them, as she does from her friends. In fact, everyone and everything is her teacher.
Jessica doesn’t close the door on religion, but she has felt the sting of some churches closing the door on her because she has “not accepted Jesus Christ” as her Lord and Savior. Christians have a bad habit of doing that, thinking they are following the “Great Commission” by treating people so coldly. We took her with us to a couple of services at St. Margaret’s Episcopal in Palm Desert where we are members. I was delighted when I heard her strong voice reciting the Nicene Creed and singing along with every hymn. She even took the Holy Eucharist.
Some people would say my granddaughter is not a believer, doesn’t believe the words, and so she should not participate in Christian worship at all. I say they are missing the point. For her the Christian story is not words, or anything to believe in, but something to experience.
While she was here she began showing me the various worlds of anime that she had on her laptop. She recounted the names of various characters in her latest favorite series, as well as their powers, complicated relationships and how they function in the narrative. I’m sure she has never considered them historical figures, or creatures who can interact with her in her world, but the birds-eye view of their world teaches her a great deal about how things work.
So is anime a religion? Or is it nothing but a passing fad, or worse, a cult for kids trying to avoid reality? Are people in Japan religious when they honor holidays and ceremonies from the Buddhist and Shinto traditions but don’t know or care about doctrines behind them? Or are they just being hypocrites? What do they get out of such activities? Are Westerners who no longer belong to traditional synagogues, churches or mosques just being honest? Are they being more honest if they go to a mega-church of feel-good fellowship? Are atheists and non-religious people happier than others who do not accept anything that does not stand the test of science and proof?
I’ve come to believe that religion should not require you to divide the world into true and false, right and wrong, us and them, good and evil, lost and saved. Religions are based on human needs and feelings, and should be enjoyed for the satisfactions they provide us. But we should not take them so seriously that we use them to kill, persecute, ostracize, or ignore each other.
Religions are like drugs that offer us glimpses of the unknown, the fantastic, the grotesque, the forbidden. Like our dreams they teach us about ourselves. Some religions can harm us, just as any of our habits and drugs of choice can, so we must take them on with care. Even so, I say take them. They offer a splendid ride.
Glenn T. Webb
February 28, 2011
Palm Desert, CA