Category Archives: Shinto

A Brief Look At Yoshida Shintoism

Shinto is an interesting religion, somewhat similar to Hinduism, in that there is no formal doctrine and structure to it. Instead, as the native religion of Japan, it arose as a grass-roots collection of traditions and deities that eventually became the Shinto tradition.

However, when Buddhism came to Japan, things changed. Buddhism was a well-organized religion with doctrine, meta-physics, training, practices, etc. The first six schools of Buddhism in Japan were all devoted to study and interpretation of complex Buddhist schools of thought.

Shinto was never able to compete against this, so it became a kind of “secondary” religion in Japan. Shinto kami were often interpreted as manifestations of well-known Buddhist deities and so on.

However, there were attempts to organize Shinto along Buddhist lines in order to protect and preserve its traditions. One of the most well-known, before the modern era, is a Shinto sect called “Yoshida Shinto” (吉田神道) or “Yuiitsu Shinto” (唯一神道) meaning “the one and only Shinto”. It was started by a priest named Yoshida Kanetomo (吉田兼倶 1435-1511), who’s family suffered great misfortune during the dreaded Onin War. In the aftermath of the war, Kanetomo was determined to revive Shinto teachings, and and according to the Japanese Wikipedia entry, he synthesized Shinto, Buddhist and Confucian teachings of the time.

Kanetomo explained the relationship between the three religions using the example of a tree:

  • Buddhism was the blossoms.
  • Confucianism was the leaves and branches.
  • Shinto was the root and foundation.

In particular, Yoshida Shinto used elements of esoteric Buddhist practice but applied toward Shinto teachings and such.

Like most Shinto schools, it bases its teachings of core, ancient Japanese texts such as the Kojiki, Nihon Shoki, etc., but its interpretation of these texts had influences from Buddhism and Confucianism along with folks beliefs.

Today, the influence of Yoshida Shintoism is not very extensive, but Yoshida Jinja, the home shrine is still a venerable shrine within Japan, and otherwise pretty mainstream. The website mostly seems to talk about general Shinto services and practices.

Still, it seems like it was an interesting experiment, one of many that arose during late-medieval Japan, to reconcile Buddhism and Shinto in a way that asserted “native” Shinto religious sensibilities more.

Understanding Ofuda


Today is a double-post again. It’s the New Year and many people visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan (and overseas), and often buy something called ofuda (お札). Formally, they are called shinsatsu (神札), but people almost always call them ofuda. Ofuda are typically long, flat tablets made of paper, wood, or a little of both.

Here is a simple ofuda I bought a few years ago at Yushima Tenmangu:

Do It Yourself Kamidana

Sometimes you see more unusual shapes, like this one from the famous Ise Grand Shrine (ise jingū 伊勢神宮). A friend gave us this one recently:

Ise Shrine Ofuda

This one is a folded piece of white paper with an inscription inside. Plus there is a small thin stick wrapped in a white ribbon.

Like omamori (small charms you can purchase at a temple/shrine), ofuda are said to contain the essence of the Shinto/Buddhist deity in question. In Shinto, it is believed that a kami can divide and multiply ad infinitum.

In a Buddhist context, deities can project themselves wherever they are needed.1 So, the ofuda represents a projection of that deity. Ofuda seem most common at Shingon-sect (真言宗) temples based on limited personal experience. You seldom find them in certain other Buddhist sects such as Jodo Shinshu.

Ofuda are much larger than omamori typically. Also, unlike omamori, they are often used as a centerpiece for a home Shinto shrine or kamidana. This is not required. Often, when people buy ofuda, they just put them on display in the house, but for the devout, you can use it as a devotional object in Shinto. You can also use them as a centerpiece for a Buddhist altar too, in some cases.

To confuse matters, some omamori look like ofuda. How can you tell the difference?

Even Japanese people get confused. There are a lot of sites that answer this question. One website explains it like so (apologies if I mis-translated):

  • Ofuda provide protection for the whole household (safety and health at home), or just embody the deity in question.
  • Omamori are for things that are more personal and near-and-dear to the person: protection from car-accidents, success in school, etc. You keep omamori on your person.

If you are not sure, you can ask the temple/shrine you received it from. They know best.

The important thing is to not enshrine an omamori.

Anyhow, assuming you have an ofuda, the process for enshrining the ofuda is pretty much the same, regardless of Shinto or Buddhism:

  1. Place the ofuda facing south or west. This means its back is facing north/east. In some websites, south is the preferred direction, but west is fine too.
  2. If you have a kamidana (home Shinto shrine, 神棚) or butsudan (home Buddhist altar, 仏壇) place it in center. If the butsudan already has a central figure (a honzon 本尊), place it to the side and slightly below.
  3. If you don’t have a shrine/altar, you can also do the following:
    • Place it on a high, clean, well-lit area, where people tend to congregate. A bookshelf for example.
    • Place a clean, white sheet of paper, folded in half, underneath it, or a clean white cloth like a handkerchief.
    • Install the ofuda there.
  4. You can offer things like water, a small cup or rice (or any grain, or even breakfast-cereal for us Americans).
  5. When paying respects:
    • In Shinto bow twice, clap twice, think or say something and then bow once more.
    • In Buddhism, put your hands together near your heart and bow.
  6. Keep it neat and tidy from time to time.

But as I said this is all optional. If the only thing you do is place it in a well-lit area on top of a clean folded paper or handkerchief and leave it, that’s enough for most people.

Also, like omamori, they should be returned yearly if possible for ritual disposal. This is just a courtesy. People sometimes keep ofuda for years and forget to return them. I kept the ofuda above for 3 years because I had no chance to return it. Finally, I took it to a different temple for disposal. But the polite thing is to return them after a year as a gesture of gratitude where possible.

This process of yearly renewal is an important of Japanese religion regardless of whether it’s Buddhism or Shinto.

Anyhow, that’s a brief look at ofuda in Japanese religion. Thanks and happy new year!

1 The Earth-Store Bodhisattva Sutra provides a dramatic example of this.

Shinto In The 21st Century


Hi Everyone,

Recently, I found this interesting article by the Japan Times about efforts to keep Shinto relevant in the 21st century. The article talks about the efforts to reach out foreign guests and let them experience Shinto life in its own terms, how it approaches nature and so on.

One interesting point in the article is the following:

After becoming a priest at Kamigamo Shrine, Inui saw tour guides give foreign tourists misleading information about Shinto by explaining it in terms of monotheism.

He came to the conclusion that the best way to prevent foreign visitors from developing erroneous perceptions is for priests themselves to communicate with them, so he strived to develop his English skills at the Interfaith Center of New York while working there under a temporary transfer program.

I have kind of noticed this problem too: Japanese religion has difficulty articulating itself to foreign audiences.

The problem is complicated because Westerners tend to compare Shinto and Buddhism in the same monotheistic terms as Christianity, which is confusing. English is based on Christian-culture, and so many of our religious words have a Christian origin. Even Buddhist-English terms like “monk”, “pray”, “nun” and so on all have Christian connotations.

Likewise, Japanese priests, unfamiliar with English or monotheistic religions, struggle to articulate their beliefs. I’ve seen how some Shinto/Buddhist books will translate teachings directly from Japanese to English, and the word-choices are just wrong or misleading unless you are already familiar with the religion.

This is a big challenge for both sides I guess: learning to understand each other. I’m glad to see people like Rev. Inui who are trying to help bridge the cultural/language gap though. :)

P.S. Photo above is from Wikipedia, showing part of the Upper Kamo Shrine in Kyoto.

Taboo in the Heian Period of Japan

Fengshui Compass

Recently, while reading reading the Gossamer Years, I found the book contained a thorough explanation of the notion of “taboo” and “purification” in the Heian Court in Japan. I wanted to share this with others.

Aristocrats and the Heian Court had a very complex system of purification ceremonies, periods of abstention, and other rules that derived from Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, and in particular Chinese geomancy. This system was called onmyōdō (陰陽道) in Japan. These rules and restrictions were taken very seriously by the Emperor and his court, and often helped dictate policies, or help deify angry spirits. These rules and rituals also appear regularly in works from the time such as the Pillow Book, the Gossamer Years, the Diary of Lady Murasaki, etc.

For example, one of the biggest taboos involved travel. The kami Taihakujin (太白神), also known as Hitohimeguri (一日回り), was the kami of directions. Every day, he would move to one of the 8 directions, and it was forbidden to travel in that same direction that day. Thus if Taihakujin was dwelling in the northwest, travel toward the northwest was forbidden. As stated before, the literature of the time frequently mentions travel bans and such. Also, Taihakujin would sometimes travel to the sky or the earth, and on those days, travel was free in all directions.

But, it got more complex, because there were other gods too. For example, the kami Tenichijin (天一神) also known as Nakagami (中神) stayed 5-6 days at each of the 8 directions, and travel was banned in that direction depending on the year you were born. Yet another kami, Daishōgun (大将軍), stayed in each direction for 3 years, and although small errand were fine, larger projects were considered inauspicious. And yet another kami Dokujin (土公神) would dwell in different parts of the home depending on the season (the oven in spring, the gate in summer, etc) and doing repairs where Dokujin dwelled was forbidden. So if you had a broken gate in the summer, you had to wait until fall to fix it.

But it wasn’t just the movement of the gods. Births and deaths were considered “traumatic” events, and there were bad days for cutting hair, for visiting sick people, etc. For this reason, there were many kinds of “abstinences” or monoimi (物忌み) that involved elements of Buddhism and Shinto. In the case of Shinto, these were intended to to purify oneself in a Shinto context to avoid misfortune caused by evil spirits. In a Buddhist context, these abstinences would also repay any past, bad karma, create merit, etc. Some abstinences were quite strict and one had to essentially shut themselves in a room for a day and see no one. Other abstinences were less-strict, but usually such people couldn’t receive guests or travel during such times. Pilgrimages to holy sites (Shinto and/or Buddhist) were common. Fasting and other activities were often required. Women who were having their period were automatically subject to abstinences and were not allowed to enter Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines due to the defilement of blood.

Lastly, every one night in 60 was a special night called kōshin no hi (庚申の日) where people had to stay up all night without sleep, or they risked death from certain poisons in the body. These “all-nighters” were mentioned in the Pillow Book a few times.

It’s amazing anyone got anything done back then.

When I first watched the famous Japanese film Onmyoji, a lot of it didn’t make sense to me. But once I started reading about Heian Period culture, and the beliefs back then, the film was a lot more interesting to me. Plus, I like Nomura Mansai and Sanada Hiroyuki anyway. :)

But in any case, the world of the Heian Court was a real world of demons and evil spirits, taboos and angry kami. Because I am a computer-engineer living in 21st century USA, it’s hard to imagine living in a world like that, but people from that era would find my world just as strange. It reminds of the Zelazny book Jack of Shadows and the dialogue about seeing reality (posted here):

“You were both correct,” said [the demon] Morningstar. “It is the same thing that you both describe, although neither of you sees it as it really is. Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it. For if it is uncontrollable, you fear it. Sometimes then, you color it incomprehensible. In your case, a machine; in theirs, a demon.”

21st century man, like the men of the Heian Period in Japan, each struggle to control reality around them, and to label the unknown.

Happy Setsubun 2013!

Setsubun (節分) is a holiday I have posted about before, but usually it happens on a weekday and I am at work, so I can’t really celebrate with my wife and daughter. It is one of many little “seasonal” holidays in the Japanese calendar. This holiday originally existed at the beginning of each season but from the Edo Period onward (1600-1868), it was practiced once a year only. Now it has moved to the solar calendar, hence February 3rd.

Setsubun is a fun little family holiday that involves driving out bad luck (symbolized by demons “oni“) and bringing in good luck. Parents will often put on an “oni” mask and let the kids throw roasted soy-beans at them. Or, you can just throw soybeans at the door. The kids recite:

oni wa soto Oni, get out!
fuku wa uchi Luck, come in!

People will also eat, especially around the Kansai Area, a kind of sushi-roll called ehō maki (恵方巻), which seems to bring more good luck.

Anyway, since we live in the US, we have to improvise a little. We couldn’t find roasted soybeans, even at the local Japanese supermarket,1 so instead we bought roasted cashews. They taste good, and were lightly salted. Traditionally, you are supposed to eat as many as your age. Since I’m 35, I have to eat a lot of cashes. :p

Also, I had to make an Oni mask for myself:

Setsubun mask

Here’s me wearing the mask I made:

Setsubun mask 2

The mask was supposed to be cute and funny, but the eyes turned out pretty scary. My wife was started when she saw it. :p

I took a video of the Setsubun,2 and it was really cute, but then I decided to edit it a bit into a Hollywood-style movie preview (think Jerry Bruckheimer films)

Enjoy and Happy Setsubun!

P.S. A bit late today as it took a while to get this video completed.

1 One more reason why I don’t go there much anymore….

2 I have a much funnier video when she was 4 years old, and tried to do kung-fu on me to get rid of the demon.

A Brief Glance At Ancient Roman Religion

Lararium, Pompeji

Normally, when I talk about religion on this blog (a favorite topic of mine), I usually talk about Japanese/Korean religion, with Buddhism in particular. But since I also study Latin a little bit as a hobby, I also got curious about Roman religion as well, so this blog post was intended to be an exploration of pre-Christian Roman religion. Christianity is a well-known subject, and the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity is a fascinating, but well-known subject already. The earlier pre-Christian religion isn’t as well-known so this post will help people learn more.

I found a really good website on the subject recently. Normally, people assume that the Romans just borrowed Greek religion, and that’s it. But as the article shows, this is only partially true. The Romans had a different approach to religion than the Greeks, and they expressed it somewhat differently, even if the gods were similar.

While reading a few sources on ancient Roman religion, I got the impression that it vaguely resembled Japanese Shinto or Chinese Taoism/Folk religion, but we’ll explore that a little later. First, let’s look at who the Roman gods were.

The Early Pantheon

During the days of the Roman Republic, Roman religion had a trinity of three gods: Jupiter the king and god of thunder, Mars the god of war and agriculture, and Quirinus who was also a god of war and the god of the Roman state. Jupiter has some resemblance to the Greek god Zeus, and Mars vaguely resembles Greek Ares, but they are not entirely the same. Quirinus has no resemblance to any Greek gods, and also gradually became less and less important.

In the early religion, the priests were called pontifex, and the most important priest was the pontifex maximus. Some high-ranking pontifexes were assigned to specific gods or goddesses and were called flamen. There were 15 flamen, and if one died, a different pontifex took his place. The flamen assigned to Jupiter was the most important. But Roman religion also had priestesses too. The priestesses, called Vestalis (vestigial virgins) were devoted to Vesta in particular, but Vesta was very important because she was the goddess of the hearth. Every Roman household venerated Vesta because they could not eat without a hearth and a fire. So the vestalis had strong influence in society, but had the obligation to be celibate most of their lives. Vestigial virgins were also found in ancient Japan at the Kamo Shrine, but were always daughters of the Emperor.

The trinity mentioned above also changed over time. When the Romans defeated the older Etruscans, they adopted Etruscan religion and the new trinity became Jupiter, Juno his wife who was a goddess of woman and protector, and Minerva his daughter who was the goddess of wisdom, culture, technology, etc.

The Later Pantheon

As the Roman Empire spread, it adopted more and more cultures, these became a part of Roman religion. The Egyptian deities, especially Isis, became popular especially on a personal level for example. Another example is Cybele, who is a goddess from Phrygia and a protector. The traditional Roman gods, especially Jupiter, were still the official state religion, but in home shrines and such, people favored other, more practical gods.

Also, some people, especially the military, took an interest in a new religion called Mithraism, which might have come from Persian culture, but developed in new, Roman ways. Unlike the other gods, Mithraism was a fairly structured religion on its own, and had priests, rites, ethics, etc.

Since newly conquered areas often became citizens of the Roman Empire, their traditions could spread more easily than before, and Roman religion became very mixed at this time.

Roman State Religion

Romans strongly believed in the importance of ritual in maintaining peace, strength and prosperity of the state. This meant that there were set holidays and rites each year to the gods and goddesses to help maintain order in society. Jupiter was always the head of the Roman state until the Christian era, and his temple in Rome on the Capitoline Hill was the most important in the entire empire.

Other rituals existed too. For example, when a victorious Roman general returned from battle, a special Roman religious ceremony called triumphus was held to give thanks to Jupiter. The ceremony was very solemn, and only given to a general who achieved a great victory, but that general would spend the day almost as a king or god. Also, when declaring war, the Roman priests prayed to Jupiter for protection and victory as well.

But Roman state religion was not just focused on war. Most state temples, or templum in Latin, were focused on maintaining good relations with the original Roman deities. If the priests carried out the rites correctly and on the correct dates, the god or goddess would be pleased and Rome would prosper, but if they didn’t, society would suffer punishment instead. This also meant that Roman religion had many holidays and festivals, and some lasted days. For example, a major festival in Roman culture was Lupercalia which was a kind of “spring-cleaning” in Roman culture mean to drive away evil spirits. The assigned flamen would initiate a sacrifice followed by a feast, then two young men who were anointed would run around the city and whip people to purify them.

This concept of devotion and consistent loyalty to the Roman gods was called pietas (compare with English “piety”) and the Romans were often proud of this, and believed it helped their Empire grow. They sometimes compared themselves to the Greeks who sometimes held a more cynical view of their own gods.

On the other hand, Roman religion tried to avoid superstitio (English “superstition”) or excessive emotion or devotion, so religious expression, especially in public rituals, was supposed to be both pious and stoic. This was a very Roman trait.

Roman Personal Religion

State religion and personal religion in Rome were not quite the same. Every home in Roman society had a personal shrine called a lararium usually devoted to the family’s lar or protector spirit. Usually the head of the household (pater familias) would make daily offerings to the lar, but the wife was in charge of making offerings to the goddess Vesta, and to the penates who were other household spirits. For example, during a meal, the mother might throw a bit of food into the fire as a way to offer thanks for the meal. Other personal gods such as Isis or Sybele would also be in the shrine. The shrine would be devoted to the lar first, but also have statues and figures for the penates and other gods/goddesses.

Romans also paid respects to their ancestors as well, usually making offerings, keeping their image in the lararium shrine mentioned above. The offerings might be food, incense or even coins.

Lastly, another popular figure of devotion was the genius. The genius is a more vague figure, but symbolized divine power found in many things. It is vaguely analogous to the idea of kami in Shinto religion.


Roman religion was based on two important principles: it was practical and dealt with daily or political issues, and it was based on maintaining order and prosperity through religious observance. It was highly eclectic because of the nature of the Empire, but was generally proscribed superstitious elements as much as possible.

I believe these principles of devotion, order and ritual bear some vague resemblance to Japanese Shinto and Chinese folk-religion/Taoism. Similar to Shinto and Chinese religion, there is a cosmic order to the gods and goddess, each with an assigned role, and a practical function for society and family. Ancestor veneration was also a key element.

Many of these elements are probably found in other ancient (or modern) religions in the world, and I think this speaks to Human consciousness and subtle forces that help define religion and culture.

P.S. Kind of a slow week this week due to Thanksgiving. Regular schedule resumes next week.

Make Your Own Shinto Shrine

Do It Yourself Kamidana

Hi all,

As part of my last trip to Japan in August 2012, I visited a famous Shinto shrine named Yushima Tenmangu near Ueno Park.1 I visited there in 2010, and prayed that I would pass the JLPT N2 exam, and after 2 years I finally succeeded. So, per Shinto custom, I returned to offer thanks and express gratitude.

While there, I picked up an ofuda (お札), which is something you can sometimes get at Shinto shrines. It’s basically a large card you can put into a Shinto home altar, or kamidana (神棚) and is considered a manifestation of that particular kami. Shinto teaches about the ability for kami to be divided infinitely, so that each “piece” is just another manifestation of that kami, and perfectly valid for an altar. You can read more about ofuda here.

Now, usually, people visit Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines and get a charm or omamori for luck, protection, or just as a charming souvenir. That’s fine when you casually visit temples and such, but if you have been to a shrine repeatedly and feel a certain connection, and are willing to make a commitment, you can build on that relationship by purchasing an ofuda and making your own shrine at home. It’s not required, it’s more like taking that relationship to the next level. For me, I really like that particular shrine, plus I get inspired a lot by the life of Sugawara no Michizane (now “Tenjin”) as a poet and scholar. One nerd to another, I guess. 😉

Anyhow, the ofuda was the smallest one they sold. It was ¥1000 (about $12), and some were as high as ¥3000 or more. It is a heavy card wrapped in a thin, white paper which you can see through.

The shrine included some instructions with this, presumably because anyone who is buying this is probably setting up a new home shrine. One section explained how to enshrine an ofuda:


My translation skills aren’t very good, but what I believe this says is:

Enshrine the ofuda so that it is facing south or east. For homes that do not have a kamidana shrine, there are also small-sized ones that you can get and hang on a wall, or kamidana for Western-style rooms too.

The kamidana shrines themselves are sold online in places like Rakuten International (helps to know even a little Japanese), among other places. Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America lists them as well, but I am not sure if they sell them online. You might want to contact them about that. They do provide ofuda though for those who live far away.2

But I didn’t really feel like investing in a proper kamidana, and the excerpt above suggested other ideas (wall-hanging kamidana, etc), so I thought I would just make my own. Originally I just propped it high up on my bookshelf, but it just didn’t look very “sacred”, so I decided to do a little more.

I took a large balsa-wood box I once used as my original Buddhist altar, and found that the ofuda fit almost perfectly.3 What luck! However, it still might fall out, so I took some clear tape and made tabs on the top and bottom. The tape is clear, so it doesn’t get in the way, and it bends, so it’s easy to remove the ofuda later.

It’s pretty amateur, but it works. For now.

Regarding offerings, the same instructions provided some basic advice:


Which I believe says:

Before the kami, you offer uncooked-rice, water, the first produce of the season (fruit, vegetables, fish, etc), souvenirs4, or anything that you want to offer in gratitude. Then, bow twice, clap twice, and bow once more before the altar.

There’s even a certain way to position the offerings according to the instructions. For the three basic offerings (water, rice and salt): you can position them like so:

  • Uncooked rice (back row, closest to shrine)
  • Water (front-row, left side
  • Salt (front-row, right side)

So, from above, it looks like a triangle, pointing toward the shrine. If you offer alcohol as well (this is done in Shinto, but never in Buddhism), you can put two cups in a “middle row”, further apart, so that from above it looks like a circle, not a triangle.

Although my main altar at home is Buddhist, I am glad to finally setup a small kamidana as well to round-out the spiritual life in our home. I don’t pay respects very often, but I am still glad it’s there. Japanese homes often have both, and this helps complete the setup. The one I setup is very basic, amateur and probably not “official Shinto”, but I did the best I could with limited resources and living far away from Japan. Hopefully others will find this useful.

1 Funny story, it was raining horribly. Thunder, lightning, rain, everything. I couldn’t stay long, and with my umbrella, I was a little worried about being hit by lightning. :p

2 Since Tsubaki Grand Shrine is somewhat close to Seattle, I’ve been there once before a long time ago. Nice people. Since I travel to Japan regularly, I usually am satisfied with the shrines there, but if you can’t go to Japan, definitely check these guys out.

3 I took out the Buddhist image from altar and taped it inside the front cover of a copy of the Amitabha Sutra, which my daughter had put stickers on. Although not my favorite translation of the sutra, that book is dear to me (since it reminds me of my daughter), and I felt it was a safe and appropriate place to put the Buddhist image.

4 The notion of “souvenirs” in Japan is fairly different than in the US. More on that in a later post. Think of them as sweets and such, not silly postcards or t-shirts. 😉

Shinto Shrines in Japan: An Introduction

While filming the tenth video in the Beginner Buddhism series, we also had some time to film a smaller video on visiting Shinto shrines in Japan:

This was a famous Shinto shrine very close to Setagaya Kannon-ji, called Komatsunagi Shrine (駒繋神社). Similar to the Buddhism videos, this video is an introduction to etiquette and what you can expect to see in a Shinto shrine.

The film was kind of impromptu since it was after lunch and before we resumed filming the Buddhist video. But it seemed like a good opportunity, so we did it anyway, and I think the video turned out pretty well.

Once again, thanks to fellow blogger “John L” from Buddha and Tea for his help.

Is There More Than This?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a quote from Roger Zelazny’s Isle of the Dead:1

Even if they had been real gods, what did it matter? What was it to me? Here I was still, right where I was born a thousand or so years before, in the middle of the human condition—namely, rubbish and pain. If the gods were real, their only relationship with us was to use us to play their games. Screw them all.

…. I washed my hands in a puddle that had formed nearby. It felt good on my burnt finger. The water was real. So were the earth, air and fire. And that was all I cared to believe in. Let it go with the basics. Don’t get cute and sophisticated.

I don’t know why it started, but lately I starting thinking about this quote, especially the second-half. Religion is a subject that interests me a lot, but I started thinking to myself “is any of it useful?”

Mahayana Buddhism, which includes things like Zen and Pure Land Buddhism among other things, has some incredibly sophisticated strains of philosophy in it including Madhyamika (Middle-Way), Yogacara (Conscious-Only) and Avatamsaka (Flower-Garland) schools of thought. I’ve studied them off and on and they’re incredibly powerful, incredibly deep. They make some of the Western philosophers I learned about in school look like amateurs.

But then again, what if it’s just all a bunch of mind-games. Maybe just people being “cute and sophisticated”.

Countless generations have come and gone before, countless generations will surpass me too. My life is short, and will be forgotten. But is that really my problem?

Is my interest in religion just me over-thinking things? Am I just being melodramatic about life, and need to just unwind and relax? Go play Nintendo more or something.

Maybe all we really have is just the four elements, and a lot of rubbish and pain. Maybe the Powers-That-Be are just a bunch of capricious jerks.

P.S. Taking a “break” from my vacation. Just had to write this one down.

1 Although it’s a little-known science-fiction book written in 1969, it’s a pretty profound book dealing with how different people face death, religion and other subjects.

A Brief History of Confucianism in Edo-Period Japan

I spent part of last year reading a fascinating collection of essays under the title of Confucianism and Tokugawa Culture by Peter Nosco and other contributors. The book and the essays examine the Edo Period, the Tokugawa Shogunate, and how religion played a role during this long and influential era. It showed a fascinating evolution of thought from the early Edo Period, when the country was finally united, and later with the rise of the Mito School of Neo-Confucian scholars, who ironically created a system of thought that helped create a sense of nationalism that led to the Meiji Restoration. This post is an effort to summarize some of the interesting points explored in the book. Religion in the Edo Period, or any period of history is a complex subject, but there were some really interesting things I’ve learned while reading the book.

Herman Ooms’s essay (chapter 2 in the book) shows how during the Warring States Period, there was little in the way of ideology, apart from practical matters. War was constantly unfolding, and the focus was on practical knowledge and administration. However, as research shows, the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa clan, though successful was met with considerable resistance by peasants and other groups. Writings from the time show many had felt either a strong devotion to the Emperor, to the Buddha (in the case of Buddhist sects) or to Jesus Christ in the case of Japanese Christians. The warrior class were unwanted overlords in a sense. The Tokugawa, after winning the security of the nation had to build a new image for themselves as a way of obscuring the raw military power behind a sense of ideology and legitimacy.

For this reason, the early Tokugawa Shoguns, especially the 3rd Shogun, Iemitsu, attracted a number of scholars, priests and others who would help proselytize the new Tokugawa-era of peace. Many of these scholars were Neo-Confucians, influenced by the Chinese Confucian master Zhū​ Xī​ (朱熹, pronounced “Joo Shee”), who sought to broaden Confucius’s rational and ethical teachings long ago into a rational world-view. Oom’s article shows that a number of the Neo-Confucian scholars who were employed by the Tokugawa clan were ex-Buddhist monks. The first was Fujiwara Seika, followed by his student, the famous Hayashi Razan (another ex-monk) and his son Hayashi Gahō.

Hayashi Razan is among the most well-known Neo-Confucian scholars in the Edo Period, but Ooms article shows how his influence was smaller than many people believe. Razan competed with a number of rival Neo-Confucian scholars also employed by the Tokugawa government (bakufu), particularly another ex-Buddhist monk Yamazaki Ansai. Also, Razan and Ansai, like many of his rivals, attempted to synthesize Neo-Confucian ideas with Shinto religion in various ways. As Ooms writes:

Traditional Shinto, needless to say, makes available mythologizing strategems, whereas Neo-Confucianism provides the other kind of reasons most appropriate for this situation: arguments constructed from principles. (pg. 45)

The Yoshida sect of Shinto, previously attempted to explain Shinto teachings and the world in a grand unifying theory (all kami and all nature were manifestations of a particular, single great kami) as a counter to Buddhism’s dominance in Japan for centuries, and Neo-Confucian scholars borrowed a lot of its ideas to present a picture of the world unified by nature, man, the kami and so on with the Shogun as the “pole-star”.

By the time of Razan’s son, Gahō, things were starting to change though. Gahō served the Lord of Mito Domain, Tokugawa Mitsukuni, and as Gahō’s diary shows, scholars in Mito domain were having further doubts about how to define their role. In tradition Confucian thought, the Emperor or king unified everything militarily, politically, religiously, etc. However, in Edo Period Japan, the Emperor still “reigned”, but the real power was with the Shogun. The Shogun wasn’t a “prince” of the Emperor, even though he did have a rank in the Imperial court, but his power wasn’t dependent on the Emperor either. So, where did the Shogun fit into Confucian teachings?

The Mito Domain was the smallest of the three “collateral” domains that supported the Tokugawa Shoguns, and Mitsukuni was deeply influenced by Confucian teachings, so much so that he made his older brother’s son heir instead of his own son, as a matter of selflessness and Confucian principle. Mitsukuni recognizing Mito Domain’s smaller role compared to the other two domains of Owari and Kii, sought to prove Mito Domain’s worth to the Shoguns by becoming trusted defenders and advisers. Thus Mitsukuni invested considerable resources into gathering scholars, including Gahō, to compile Neo-Confucian treatises, historical records and so on. This gave rise to the Mito School.

But as mentioned previously, the role of the Shogun in Japan was a very tricky issue in Confucian thought because the Emperor of Japan should be entrusted with all the power, with the Shogun as a loyal retainer. Even Mitsukuni himself, was torn by this contradiction. According to one account, Mitsukuni would put on clothes appropriate for the Imperial Court and his rank there every New Year morning and bow to Kyoto where the Emperor lived and tell his close vassals, “My lord is the emperor. The present shogun is the head of my family. One must take care not to misunderstand this situation.”

And yet, people still did. Gahō was among many scholars at the time who tried to explain the history of Japan in such a way that fit traditional Confucian models, but without criticizing his employers the Tokugawa Shoguns. This proved surprisingly difficult, and Mitsukuni approved of Gahō’s efforts, but then commissioned a huge work called the Dai Nihonshi (大日本史, “Great History of Japan”). The huge volume was edited, compiled and extended long after Mitsukuni passed away, but it’s continued reverence to the Emperor as the true sovereign of Japan helped undermine Tokugawa rule which had become less effective in later centuries. Questions about returning power to the Emperor gained greater and greater over the generations until the final Meiji Restoration.

Meanwhile, some felt that Neo-Confucian scholars in Japan had gone too far in relying on Neo-Confucian thought and not enough on Confucius’s original teachings. Ogyū Sōrai led a movement to study the original Confucian teachings and apply them to Tokugawa society while returning to Confucianism’s “roots” before Neo-Confucianism. The Confucian Classics were no longer readable by people at that time so Sorai spent considerable time learning how to read ancient Chinese and conveying the teachings as close to the original as possible. He pointed out that Confucius never considered himself a sage, but rather someone who faithfully transmitted the teachings of the Ancients. Likewise, Sorai intended to do the same.

Additionally, many scholars, of the Edo Period sought to link Shinto religion with Confucian thought, which eventually led to the “National Studies” movement or kokugaku (国学) led by Motoori Norinaga. The National Studies movement was centered around Japanese nationalism and Shinto religion first, while actively opposing Buddhism and Confucianism as foreign imports that dampened Japanese spirit, but ironically Confucian influence could be seen in the way it expressed devotion to the Emperor and such.

This small post attempts to summarize 260 years worth of Confucianism that took on a deeply complex and intertwined nature, and constantly evolving. So the details here are pretty scant, but it shows how Neo-Confucian thought served as a new religious model for the Shoguns,1 and as a mean of not just preserving the State, but also elevating society.

P.S. One-off reference post that I have wanted to publish for a while.:-)

1 Similar events happened around the same time in Korea under the Joseon Dynasty, though Neo-Confucian thought took a somewhat different course. I hope to explore this in an upcoming post soon.