Throughout this cycle of articles based on the Dharma, I have focused on Japanese attitudes to the Dharma and Buddhist notions in general. Today, there are few lay Buddhist orders in Japan, so for the most part it is practiced by monastics. This is largely due to the fact that when Buddhism arrived in Japan in 6th century, it was pursued exclusively by the Imperial family so became an elite religion. The majority of the population practiced Shintoism, paying homage to the Kami, deities which initially personified natural phenomena but were later associated with family and national concerns.
Eventually ‘foreign’ Buddhism, brought from India along the Silk Roads to China and so by Kukai to Japan, was absorbed into Shintoism (the national religion), and Buddhist deities accepted as Kami–sama. However, today, these different beliefs and customs are really mixed. It is not uncommon to find families which house both a butsudan (Buddhist altar – see glossary) and a Kami-danna (a Shinto altar), and yet profess to have no religious persuasion. This seeming neutrality perhaps comes from periods of Dharma Crisis in Japanese history when it was safer not to admit religious affiliations.
In modern life, we are experiencing what are known as ‘The Last Days of the Law,’ the final stage of the deterioration of the Dharma. So, we do indeed live day after day in a Dharma crisis. The ego has become so cherished and enlarged that people often take decisions entirely in their own hands because they have placed themselves at the centre of the universe. Many of us live in a destructive way, both physically and mentally. We don’t give freely to each other, but instead conditionally, always expecting things in return. This is the materialist way of life, with no attention to building virtue, to sincerely wishing others well, etc.
Our prisons are filled with offenders often trying to cheat the system they live in – this is urban life in which status and wealth must be worn as badges. A recent film called Take (2007) portrays such an urban life of daily crisis.
Saul is lost in his life. He is good but directionless, and so tempted to get rich quick by gambling. He owes money and is threatened with an imminent deadline. He must raise the money but has no means. He visits a friend who offers to lend him the money in return for doing something. This something involves stealing a car, but Saul gets caught and badly beaten up by the owner. He is in possession of a gun and so decides to use it to acquire the money he must pay back. He holds up a supermarket and accidentally shoots the cashier. A young boy emerges from the toilet in the middle of this crime, and Saul takes him hostage to allow his getaway. He locks the boy in the boot of his car, promising he will let him out when they are at a safe distance, but he skids off a freeway and plunges on to a lower road. He is injured but desperately tries to open the trunk but cannot. The police arrive but the boy is dead. Saul is incarcerated and awaits execution. To the Christian minister accompanying him to his execution, in response to a plea for him to accept that God loves all beings, he says, ‘I was born alone, and I will die alone. Everything else in between was done of my will.’
This common loveless state, this spiritual inertia, this Dharma-lessness, of course is tragic. It is a cringing example of the human mind dominating human life, a spiritual autocracy, joyless, pointless, three-dimensional instead of multi-dimensional.
The Buddha Shyakyamuni was born a Prince into the Shyakya clan, a high caste of Brahmin priests. He renounced his privileged life to seek enlightenment in order to uncover the 4 Noble Truths and the key to accepting the suffering entailed in human existence. Then 4 years after his enlightenment, as he was moving through northern India teaching his pathway, he learned that the entire Shyakya clan were losing the war waged against them. His disciples begged him to perform a miracle to prevent their annihilation, but he insisted that karma, his family’s karma, must run its course. In terrible grief he had to accept that he was the last of his Brahmin clan to survive. His grief galvanized his determination to live for the sake of others’ happiness, to avoid creating bad karma, and to abide perfectly by the laws of Dharma. The Dharma needs to be in balance, and collective negative karma can unbalance it.
As mentioned before, The Dharma is everything in the Universe, so when it is in crisis it means that it is out of balance, which inevitably worsens human suffering. A common saying in Buddhism is that those who are enlightened are attentive to the causes of creating negative karma, whereas the unenlightened are afraid of its results.
In Japan, there was a unique approach to preserving the Dharma during such periods of crisis. Prior to the death of the physical Buddha, he reassured his bereft followers that the Dharma would live on in his teachings for all time. This is called the Dharmakaya, and will be the subject of the next post in this series. So, the Buddha’s teachings were eventually recorded in the written word around 1000 (CE) and became known as sutras (scriptures). The relics of the physical Buddha had largely disintegrated by this time, so sutras became more sacred even than Buddha relics themselves. Thereafter, sutras were enshrined in stupas (Buddha towers) built especially to preserve them.
In Japan however, devotion to sacred texts was taken to an extreme. At the beginning of 11th century, exquisite copies of sutras were made with the finest materials and artistry, and were duly buried deep in the ground. They were effectively placed in time capsules, not to be opened or recited until a certain date. This is thought to symbolize the overcoming of the human concept of time and final death. They will be waiting for the Dharma survivors after the end of the physical world, several million/billion years in the future. This is a most moving commitment to the Dharma during this present time of crisis.
During the lead up to and aftermath of World War 2, Japan had become highly urbanized. Patriotism and material confidence led to colonization and participation in military campaigns. As a reflection of these massive changes in Japanese life, many new religions appeared. This can be explained by the fact that the largely rural population had moved to the rapidly expanding cities, and so had lost touch with their local priest and temple (danka). To compensate for this, many lay orders were founded to create a substitute. Then, as war approached, the Dharma police ruthlessly examined the authenticity of these lay religions and prohibited many of them from functioning legally.
Of course, many of them were bogus organizations, but many were not. Japan did indeed enter into a period of Dharma Crisis or cleansing at this time. My own guru, fully ordained as a monastic and lay priest, came under the scrutiny of the Dharma police. His precious Buddhist instruments and sutras were confiscated, and his sangha (spiritual community) forbidden to gather publicly. He and his family were persecuted and ostracized, and one day he was arrested and put in prison. He had been betrayed by one of his potential Dharma successors.
This first-hand experience of Dharma crisis figures strongly in our training as Nirvana Buddhists today. Determination is the key. Like the Buddha Shyakyamuni, my guru was not daunted by such bitter attempts to destroy the Dharma. It deepened his faith immeasurable. So, all around us, the Dharma is in crisis and we must do everything we can to preserve it. I believe such incredible determination and potent faith will overcome any obstacle.
As all other Buddhists, my prime vow as a Nirvana Buddhist is to protect the Dharma, the Sangha, and the Buddha for all eternity. Crises of faith, criticism and persecution, will always feature in the lives of people of faith. But through purification and devotion, the systematic dismantling of the human self-serving ego, the putting of others before ourselves, we can live glorious and joyful lives on the path to enlightenment. We are daunted by nothing and no-one, and every obstacle can be overcome. Such is the legacy handed down by the great Buddha of the Shyakya Clan 2600 years ago!
Today, everyday, we can see disintegration and decline everywhere. We should not pretend that this is not happening, but instead accept it and become even more determined that goodness will be restored to people’s hearts and minds. All we can do is to help people up on to the path and show them the way with our light. We can always keep in the front of our mind the notion that everyone has the potential to be a Buddha, and that with continued purification and meditation, we can be transformed so that we can be inspirational to those who live without hope outside the Dharma.
We are not and were never alone, no matter what our religious focus is. We are each a crucial piece in the puzzle of the Dharma. If all the pieces are slotted into place, then the Dharma will once more become balanced. Actually, there’s no choice! We have no choice in this fulfilling of our obligation to all human beings. This is known as Bodhichitta in Sanskrit which we work to generate in all our Buddhist practices, and will be the theme of the next cycle of articles.