I found this absolutely intriguing and fascinating Tedx Video on religions in Japan. It had a very powerful message, which I felt is exactly what our chaotic world needs right now. It’s a pity there were no English subtitles, so I took some time off to translate his presentation. Here you go!
Below is the original video.
About 35 years ago, I was born in a temple here in Kyoto. I grew up in the temple as a child.
However, later on, I went to a Catholic high school.
I was born and bred in a temple but was educated in a catholic school. This is an extremely rare case, but I was very fortunate that my family, relatives and friends all accepted me as I was.
I had an opportunity to go to Ireland when I was in university. As you all might know, Ireland is a very pious Catholic country. When I stayed at a place booked through airbnb, I told my host mother about my background. My host mother’s face turned blue and said to me, “How is it possible that you can do that in your country?!!”
“If you were to do such things in Ireland, you will be killed!” she added.
As I was very young then, I was unable to respond to my host mother’s question.
The perceptions and ways of thinking about religion are very unique in Japan. For example, many Japanese celebrate Christmas, the birthday of Jesus Christ, sound the bells at the temple on New Year’s Eve, and visit the shrine on the first day of the year.
To non-Japanese, Japan might seem like an unprincipled and uncultured country. However, there is generally a wide sense of acceptance and accommodation when it comes to religion, here in Japan.
I thought that this difference in religion perspectives is actually reflected in the difference in food culture. Let’s draw a comparison between Japanese and Western food. In Western food culture, when you order a full course, there will always be a main dish, which is the highlight of the meal. In contrast, in a formal Japanese meal, there is no main dish. Let’s take a look at the traditional Japanese kaiseki course; from the appetizer to the final dish, there isn’t a concept of a particular main dish.
Similar to the Japanese food culture, the Japanese perception of religion is not fixated upon one particular religion, but predicates upon the respect for the universal factor among all religions- the sense of ethics and philosophy.
Therefore, the Japanese perception of religion is not about “believing in something”, but “respect for something” or “respect for others”. This is the Japanese style of practicing religion.
Consequently, although there are many people in Japan who practice a variety of religions, we respect each other’s religion. In fact, in my temple, Myoshinji, we chant Buddhist sutras to Shinto gods. There are even shrines that are situated within temples.
In this way, Japanese Buddhism is very flexible. Save for several exceptions, Japanese monks are allowed to marry and do not have many strict rules, apart from the tough training period where we refrain from eating meat and fish.
However, in Japanese culture in general, it is considered poor behavior to leave food behind or put it to waste.
So, if people from India, the origin of Buddhism, look at the Buddhism in Japan, they might think this is not the real Buddhism.
In Theravada Buddhism, which is mainly practiced in India and several countries in South East Asia, there is a strict observance of the mandate, a focus on the learning process and the practice of meditation. However in Japanese Buddhism, the focus is on commemoration of one’s ancestors and up keeping of one’s etiquette in daily life.
So, if this “religion” that we have been practicing for the past 3500 years cannot be called “Buddhism”, how else can we call it?
Well, we can only call it “Japanese Buddhism”.
Japanese Buddhism was deeply influenced by Chinese culture and the indigenous Japanese Shintoism, and was transformed to suit the culture of this country. Therefore, it is natural that Japanese Buddhism has different ways of practices from the original Buddhism that Buddha created.
Be it India, South East Asia, or Japan, the Buddhism that we practice can be traced back to the same roots of the original philosophy and creed.
Now I think we can draw an analogy of the differences in Indian and Japanese Buddhism to Indian and Japanese curry.
In India, people eat spicy curry like this. Incidentally, curry also originated from India. So when people from India, the origin of curry, eat the mild and savory curry we are so used to in Japan- I’m sure many of you love it, they might say this is not real curry.
So how else can we call this curry, or what we have long thought to be curry?
Well, I guess we can only call it “Japanese curry”.
As a matter of fact, the ingredients and the way of cooking might be different from that of Indian curry. However, the process, in which we add in fish, meat and vegetables into curry roux, boil it and eat it together with rice or bread, it is the same in India and Japan.
I was in the department of agriculture at university. During my undergraduate days at university, we carried out an experiment related to curry.
In this experiment, we prepared two rooms- one room with its environment set to the typically hot and humid Japanese summer, the other with its environment set to the typically hot and dry Indian summer.
Then, we invited 30 people of various nationalities, and asked them to eat and compare Indian and Japanese curry in the two rooms. We then questioned them which curry was more delicious.
In the Japanese room, more than 20 out of 30 people responded that the Japanese curry was more delicious. The same 20 people were then asked to repeat the experiment a few days later, in the Indian room. This time round, more than 20 out of 30 people responded that the Indian curry was better.
In other words, we can conclude that the Japanese curry tasted better in the Japanese environment (the room set to the Japanese summer), whereas the Indian curry tasted better in the Indian environment.
Hence, we can see that the food culture of a particular region is heavily influenced by the climate and its environment.
We can say the same for religion. It is influenced by the country’s history, culture, tradition and other factors, and is refined such that it fits the region and its people.
I am convinced that, this high level of tolerance and accommodation of other religions that we are so used to in Japan is something that we could and should spread to everyone in the world. I believe it would be an amazing idea to share this with the whole world.
A few years before, at Amagasaki city in Hyogo Prefecture, a marvelous radio program was created. It was called “It’s 8pm, God and Buddha!” By the way, it was originally named “It’s 8pm, gather the deities!”
This radio program is broadcasted every Wednesday at 8pm for 30 minutes. A listener would send in his or her personal problems, and at the radio program, there will be a Shinto priest, Christian priest and Buddhist monk who will talk about the solutions to his or her problems.
This is truly revolutionary. A Buddhist solving problems using his philosophy, this is very common. But think about this, we have 3 people of different religions coming together to solve the same problem. This is probably the first attempt in history.
To the listener, it will be great to know that there are many ways to solve a problem, instead of sticking to one solution.
Let me give another example- a revolutionary event I organized this year in February. This is it- religious ekiden (marathon).
Ekiden marathon is a popular tradition in Japan that takes place every year, but did you know that this ekiden tradition began here in Kyoto about 100 years ago?
So, in this ancient and religious city of Kyoto, the origin of ekiden, we have people of various religions coming together to participate in this marathon event.
Note, this is not a competition among religions. For example, the first runner is a Shinto priest, the second a Buddhist monk, the third a Christian priest and the forth a Islamic imam. These four people of different religions form a team to complete the marathon.
In our world today, there are many dialogues and meetings going on to resolve misunderstandings among religions. However, unfortunately most of these take place in closed-up meeting rooms.
In comparison, our ekiden marathon event is open to everyone. In fact, runners run alongside these teams of various religions. There is also a sense of solidarity within the team. The message is clear to the public. Furthermore, as this is a running event, we will have young religious leaders taking part in it.
Actually, this event is not limited to Japan. It took place in Luxembourg, in Europe. In fact, there is a trend of marathon events, to resolve religious conflicts, taking place all around the world.
So in this state of confusion our world is experiencing, we have religious leaders perspiring and going all out to spread a religious message. This is something very important.
If I were to meet the host mother I met at the airbnb home in Ireland now, I will be able to respond to her question full of conviction.
Well, it’s true that all religions have their own beliefs and practices, and I think that is important. However, there is something more important than that. It is to respect and co-exist with people who have varying beliefs from you.
We have people with different religions living in Japan, but there have virtually been no religious conflicts before.
However, if we switch on the television, we see news of people going head to head with others or getting into fights with others just because of the difference in religion.
I think that is completely absurd. The root of religion does not lie in blindly believing in one thing.
There are many people in the world. All of us want to fulfill the purpose of our lives, reassure ourselves and be grateful of our lives. Religion plays the part of giving us the strength to do all of the above.
The role of and reason for having a religion is to provide assurance. In Japan, we have various religions, but we respect one another and live in peace and reassurance.
However, there are different regions, cultures and traditions in the world. Therefore, I think there is no need to limit this “way of self-assurance” to just one. It is all right to have more than one way of self-assurance, that is, more than one religion.
In these two years, I was invited to Vatican City to meet the Pope. In April, I met Dalai Lama at a symposium in Kyoto, which I was invited to.
Actually, the unique Japanese perception of religion is gaining attention from many religious leaders in the world.
Therefore, I hope to disseminate this wonderful culture of respect, accommodation and acceptance of religion from here, in Kyoto, to the world.
The world will no doubt become a better place.
Thank you for listening.