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The Coexistence between Economic Development and Religious Devotion- Based on the Present Situation in Japan by Eigen Onishi

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My name is Eigen Onishi from Japan. First of all, I would like to show my sincere appreciation to all those who have organized this conference giving me this wonderful opportunity to share ideas and understanding. I also would like to show my sincere respect to all the masters and the teachers here. Perhaps, my English might not be good enough for you to understand all I am trying to say but please pretend to understand as I am not accustomed to public speaking so I need all the confidence which I can master to do so.

I came here from Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto, which used to be the capital in Japan for over 1000 years. The temple has a history of over 1200 years and it has been one of the biggest religious symbols of mass public devotion and support. In other words, it has been the spiritual hometown for Japanese people, which is really unique unlike most other temples in Japan. Now, there are over 4.5 million visitors each year both from Japan and all over the world for a variety of reasons.

Based on my experience serving the temple and living in Japan, I am going to talk about the possibility for coexistence between economic development and religious devotion.

The Historical Background and The Current Problems in Japan

To begin with, I would like to briefly mention the historical background and the current problems in Japan. Since the modern period, especially at the end of World War II, Japan’s national policy has strongly prioritized economic development, and Japan is now one of the most economically advanced countries in the world. During this period, material happiness has been an absolute must in society without paying much attention to religious and spiritual aspects.

The Japanese economic development now seems to have reached its peak and material happiness can no longer be encouraged. However, lots of problems caused by the rapid economic development still remain, such as an annual suicide rate of over 30000, bullying at schools, indiscriminate murder, excessive individualism and apathy. In the end, mental and spiritual aspects have finally started to be focused on because they are expected to be helpful, not only for these problems themselves, but also for human suffering in heart and mind.

The Activity of Japanese Buddhism

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Secondly, I would like to explain how Japanese Buddhism has played its role in the situation. Japanese Buddhism is Mahayana Buddhism and its characteristics are quite unique. Most Japanese Buddhists intentionally put themselves in a position in society to contribute both in the spiritual field and in the cultural, artistic, educational and welfare’s ones. However, Japanese Buddhism does not always keep with helping the suffering of people because each sect tends to prioritize formalization, ritualization and systematization.

The Japan’s national policy has officially guaranteed the freedom of religion. On the other hand, the policy has actually prevented Japanese Buddhism and other religious groups from doing religious activities because of a misunderstanding about the freedom of religion. For example, Japanese Buddhist temples sometimes organize rituals and exhibit their Buddhist images, historical and cultural assets in a museum for those who can not visit them regularly due to a long distance. However, any religious activities are often prohibited in the museum because it seems to support a particular religion in a public space, which could be against the Japan’s policy. This case is an example of the position adopted on the freedom of religion. Needless to say, it should be a free choice for people among all religions, in other words, they should all be respected. Unfortunately, the understanding takes a wrong turn because it is actually regarded as eliminating religious freedom.

Under these circumstances, there is the movement to try and recover the reputation of Japanese Buddhism but it is not certain yet when Japanese Buddhists will be able to take full responsibility for their actions which they are supposed to do.

The Original Religious Sense in Japan

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Thus, there are many problems caused by rapid economic development, and it will be a long way to go for Japanese Buddhism and other religious groups to take full responsibility. The current situation seems to be totally negative but there is actually hope which comes from the original religious sense in people’s hearts and minds.

Japanese people do not seem to have a specific religion because they commonly take babies to shrines, have weddings in churches and hold funerals in temples. People sometimes make fun of these customs which do not show devotion to a specific religious faith. In addition, Japanese people still have a negative impression of religion mainly caused by the Aum Shinrikyou religious group, which committed mass murder in Tokyo subway stations. However, Japanese people are not originally exclusive but tolerant of religion so a variety of religion can coexist. Besides, Japanese people possess an inherent ability to possibly have religious sense, because they traditionally have potential for devotion and profound respect for life and nature in their hearts and minds through ancient culture.

The Two fundamental teachings in Buddhism during Economic Development

Under the current situation, the original religious sense can be hope, through the spiritual and mental foundation. Now, there has to be something which should be part of the foundation for true prosperity in economic development. This is a sense of true community. In fact, it has been gradually diminishing although it was greatly valued in the past. Therefore, Japanese society has been destroyed. Why is the sense of true community so important? Buddhism answers the reason why with two fundamental teachings.

The first teaching is about the true nature of life consisting of two theories. In Buddhism, human beings must face four inevitable stages; birth, aging, sickness and death. No one can avoid these because nothing is permanent, which human beings tend to ignore because of technical and medical developments. Life and death are intertwined. Death is, so to speak, the sense of impermanence and finality which gives the opportunity to consider the value of one’s life with true appreciation, which is the first theory. The second is the causation theory, in other words, all phenomena are produced by a result of cause and effect. Therefore, it is important to realize that life is maintained by so much selfless giving from all beings in the world. These two theories explain the true nature of life as the first teaching. Based on its understanding, the sense of true community, not only with others, but also with all beings has to be preserved.

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The second teaching is the significance of benefiting others and saving sentient beings from suffering. There are three categories; giving wealth, doctrine and freedom from fear. Economic development certainly creates material happiness. Desire can be hope but it can also reach greed as one of three poisons in the mental status according to Buddhism. If people are so greedy, they only focus on their own benefits without much sympathy for the suffering of others, which leads to social crisis. Having religious devotion means having God and Buddha in heart and mind, so people can be humble enough to be able to get along with their desire and to abandon all self-centered greed. Then, they can start to think not only about their own benefits but also other’s ones, which Japanese Buddhism strongly preaches. If everybody does so, the true community is naturally created. It is easier said than done. It is not certain if people are inherently good enough to be able to create the true community by helping each other. There is a really well-known theory in Japanese Buddhism which supports the idea of the true community. The theory is the Buddha-nature which says that all beings equally possess the seeds of Buddha-nature. In this sense, people all have the seeds of Buddha-nature so they have the potential to create the true community by benefiting others and saving sentient beings from suffering.

Thus, these two teachings explain how important the sense of true community is. Economic development is supposed to be for human happiness, and it can not be without the sense of true community. Unfortunately, Japan has been a typical example.

The Conclusion

Why do people need religion? There are two reasons why they do. It is natural that all human beings do not want suffering but happiness. In order to accomplish that, religion can help them as a guide and to form wisdom because religion is basically the teaching of true happiness. Besides, human beings are originally so irreligious and selfish that they consciously or unconsciously focus on their own benefits. However, they can be willing to consider not only their benefits but also other’s by having religious faith in their hearts and minds. Simply put, the religious faith gives them an opportunity to truly become unselfish, and the unselfishness is essential for continuous peace in society.

Japanese Buddhism can be perceived to be the worship of idols and images. These do not precisely describe the figure of Buddha but just symbols for praying. Besides, they are not always needed. Buddha means the teachings of Buddhism and ideal mental status based on them. The idols and images are basically the embodiments with the ideal status. “Buddhism is not anywhere far away but it is as close as in your hearts and minds.” This is the expression of Kukai, who was one of the most influenced monks in Japanese Buddhist history. The most devoted Buddha is Kannon Buddha, which roughly translates into the enlightened being of mercy and compassion. According to Kannon sutra, it manifests itself in 33 incarnations to save all beings. There could be Gods and Buddhas from Indian, Chinese and Japanese tradition as well as kids and evils in daily life.

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As explained before, the most well-known theory in Japanese Buddhism is the Buddha-nature, which says that all beings equally possess the seeds of Buddha-nature. Therefore, all beings in the world could be devoted as Buddhas, and the person right next to you in this hall could be one of them. Especially, there are two major Buddhas for people to pray with appreciation and devotion in Japanese Buddhism; the first is so much selfless giving from all beings which maintains life, and the second is called “On,” which translates into uncountable benefit, obligation of gratitude, kindness and benevolence.

As mentioned in the self-introduction, our temple has many visitors from all over the world with a variety of reasons. They can be religious belief, cultural, historical and traditional interest, school trips and so on. For whatever reasons, the visitors hopefully have a moment to feel peaceful and face themselves in hearts and minds. During the moment, they are supposed to confess what they appreciate in front of Buddhas. In addition, these processes can be opportunities to realize life is supported by uncountable beings.

Society does not exist without relationships not only with people but also with all beings, in other words, the sense of true community. Of course, there is no continuous economic development. After all, true economic development has to coexist with religious devotion which preaches the importance of sense of true community.

There are various values, cultures, religions and so on in the world but world peace and harmony is certainly possible no matter how various human beings are as long as they sincerely try to preserve a sense of true community.


Author: Eigen Onishi