INTERVIEW : Rev. Dr. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki

untitledWe ask Rev. Dr. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki to answer our questions in simple everyday language, so that people who are not familiar with Buddhism can grasp the essence of Japanese Buddhism.





“What is Buddhism?”

Buddhism is about the teachings taught by the Buddha. Gautama Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, was born in India in the 6th Century B.C. He found the path to the enlightenment, and became a Buddha at the age of 35, and taught the path to enlightenment until he passed away at the age of 80. For 45 years, he taught monks, nuns and lay people. The words of the Buddha were gathered together by the elite monks, and these became the basic teachings of the Buddha. These are called sutras.

The reason why the Buddha shared his teachings is to guide people to perfect awakening, enlightenment. The teachings were not something meant to be memorized but rather to help us achieve enlightenment. It is said that there are 84,000 teachings in Buddhism. The way the Buddha gave the teachings is like doctor giving various prescriptions based upon his patients’ needs. The doctor cannot give the same medicine to everyone, but rather prescribes according to each individual’s conditions. The more patients, the more prescriptions. We often say the Buddha’s teachings are like a finger pointing to the moon. If you only see the finger, you miss the point. What you really need to see is the moon by following what the finger is pointing at. The finger makes you aware of the moon. The moon here represents the Dharma, the universal truth. The Theravada tradition of Buddhism tends to emphasize the importance of following exactly what the Buddha said. The Theravada tradition is practiced in Southeast Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. Mahayana Buddhism, from which Japanese and other East Asian traditions such as Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Tibetan Buddhism are derived, tends to emphasize the importance of following what the Buddha intended to say, what the Buddha was pointing at.

Buddhism is the teaching of “awakening.” The Sanskrit term “Buddha”, literally means “awakened,” or “being aware.” The unique characteristics of Buddhism as a religion are that it emphasizes this “awakening” rather than “faith” or “belief.” This awakening system is different from a belief system. Questioning plays a very important role in the awakening system, and many Buddhist sutras have many questions. What we need to be awakened is the universal truth, also known as “Dharma.” Dharma means to hold everything together. It is the contents of awakening. Buddhism emphasizes seeing things as they are, not what one believes something to be. For example, the nature of a flame of a candle is to burn. Therefore,

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whether you believe or not that the flame can burn your finger, or even if your finger accidentally touches it, because of the nature of the flame, your finger will be burn when you touch it. Whether we like it or not, all of us need to face sickness, old age and death. It is just the way our lives are. It is the nature of life and death. Realization of universal reality and truth is the focus of Buddhism. This truth can liberate us from the suffering and delusion of our lives.


“What are the fundamental teachings of Buddhism?”

The basic Buddhist principle is called “Engi” in Japanese. This can be translated in English as “interdependence” or “inter-connectedness.” The Buddha simply said, “Because this exists, that exists. Because that exists, this exists.” Things exist with causes and conditions, and nothing exists independently. Based upon this interdependence, there are three fundamental teachings – 1) Impermanence: Everything changes and nothing remains without change. 2) No-self: Even what we call ‘I’ is constructed by various elements therefore, there is no such thing as “I” with an independent existence. 3) Tranquility with wisdom and compassion to overcome suffering by truly realizing interdependence.


“How did Buddhism come to Japan?”Horyuji

Buddhism spread from India to China in the 1st Century B.C., then later to Korea in the 4th Century A.D., and arrived in Japan in the 6th Century. During the reign of Prince Shotoku (572 – 622), Buddhism became a principle religion in Japan. Prince Shotoku created the first constitution of Japan to organize a central government for the country while serving as a regent of Empress Suiko. It is called “The Seventeen Article-Constitution,” and was based upon Buddhist principles. It emphasized that peace is most valued, and clearly stated not to choose violence as a means of peace. In order to achieve a peaceful country, Prince Shotoku stressed respecting three treasures – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and introduced Buddhist teachings to guide Japanese society. Prince Shotoku later was believed by many Japanese Buddhists to have been an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion. He is regarded as the founder of Japanese Buddhism. He himself gave lectures on Buddhist sutras such as the Lotus sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra and the Queen Srimala Sutra From this time on, Buddhism became the prominent religion of Japan along with Shintoism.

During the Nara period (710 – 794), various lineages of Buddhism were brought to Japan through Korea and China. Emperor Shomu during this period sent many scholars, government officials and monks to China, and also built national Buddhist temples in all regions of Japan. Buddhism developed a strong relationship with national political power. In the Heian period (794 – 1192), two major Buddhist traditions were established. Shingon Buddhism was founded by Master Kukai, with a temple and monastery on Mount Koya, south of Osaka. Tendai Buddhism was founded by Master Saicho on Mount Hiei, north of Kyoto. Buddhism continued to spread throughout Japan. These two sects were critical to both Buddhism and national politics at that time. Buddhism came to be accepted by and practiced by the political leaders and nobility of Japan.

Kouyasan konpondaidou Saicho

From the end of the Heian period to the beginning of the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333), Buddhism further developed by spreading among commoners as well as the upper classes. Kamakura-era Buddhism emphasized a single practice. Jodoshu Buddhism founded by Master Honen and Jodoshinshu Buddhism founded by Master Shinran, emphasized the single practice of the Nembutsu, saying the Name of Amida Buddha. Soto Zen Buddhism founded by Master Dogen emphasized sitting meditation. Nichiren Buddhism founded by Master Nichiren emphasized recitation of the Daimoku, or the Lotus Sutra. All the major traditions of Japanese Buddhism developed by this time. By the Muromachi period (1336 -1573), Buddhist teachings were deeply ingrained into Japanese culture and influenced the development of many Japanese cultural traditions such as tea ceremony, nogaku theater, and renka poetry. Kinkaku-ji Buddhist temple was built by Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga and Ginkaku-ji Buddhist temple was built by Shogun Yomimasa Ashikaga. Both were major architectural wonders and are now National Treasures. Buddhist commoners gained political power, alongside the Buddhist nobility. Jodoshinshu Buddhism inspired the Ikko-Ikki movement, a peasant farmer rebellion against the ruling samurai elite. As Buddhism gained more political power, a campaign of oppression began under Shogun Nobunaga Oda, who torched many temples throughout the country – including my own family temple outside of Osaka.


At the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868), Buddhism became weakened of its political power by governmental control, but gained stability and security in Japanese society because of the establishment of the Danka-seido, a system through which all individuals and families were required to register at a temple. Buddhism became the Japanese national religion, and all priests became government officers. All temples were financially supported by Danka families through membership dues and donations. Buddhist leaders, however, did not have to convert people to their religion. As a result, Buddhism became ritualistic, educational and institutional, shifting from encouraging people to find their individual path to truth and awakening. This pattern has not changed much even now. In my opinion, although there are exceptions, Buddhism in Japan as it is often practiced today, has lost its real spiritual value, and we therefore need to bring back Buddhist values to Japan. In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the new government created a policy to support Shintoism as the state religion and oppress Buddhism. Japanese nationalism emerged and many Buddhist temples were destroyed throughout Japan. During wartime all Japanese were required to serve in the military and many Buddhists therefore became soldiers, and were put in the position of having to violate the tenets of Buddhism by killing.


“Is there any Japanese cultural event which is related to Buddhism?”

Obon is one of the biggest Buddhist cultural events. In August, people go back to their hometowns, visit cemeteries, open the family altars and invite Buddhist priests to chant sutras in homes. Food offerings are put out for visiting ghosts. Local festivals are also held featuring folk dancing, taiko drumming, and festival foods. Lanterns upon which the names of loved ones who have departed within the past year are written are floated down streams and rivers. On the hills outside of Kyoto, a giant bonfire in the shape of the character Dai (big) is lit. These obon rituals are based upon the Ullambana Sutra which discusses respecting ancestors with offerings.

Higan, marked at the time of the vernal equinox in spring and fall is also considered the time to visit your ancestor’s cemetery. Higan literally means “other shore,” which represents the shore of enlightenment.

Joya-no-Kane, the ringing of the huge temple bell 108 times at the end of the year is a very Buddhistic event. The number 108 represents the 108 blind passions that create our delusions and suffering, as well as the 108 paths to overcome the 108 passions which block us from enlightenment. As we ring the bell, we cleanse ourselves by recognizing these108 blind passions.

There are so many Buddhist words and Buddhist expressions used in our daily lives in the Japanese language. The “Iroha” song, which is used to teach the Japanese phonetic alphabet, is about impermanence and enlightenment. Greetings such as Arigato, thank you, are infused with Buddhism. The simple gesture of putting hands together before and after meals is a very Buddhist way to show our respects and gratitude.

In Japanese rituals for various occasions were standardized during the Edo period. This persists today. Generally, rituals marking sad occasions, such as funerals are done in Buddhism, while happy occasions, such as weddings are done in Shintoism.

Under the modern Japanese education system, religion is not taught in schools. Even Japanese history classes are taught without discussing Buddhism and religions. Buddhism still plays a ritualistic role in society primarily for funeral and memorial services. But even those customs are practiced less and less nowadays. I feel it is so unfortunate that the larger richer tradition of Buddhism in Japan is becoming more and more forgotten. The values Buddhism teaches – inclusiveness, peace, harmony and interconnectedness, are actually very important for many aspects of our society and modern lives. These are lessons that anyone, anywhere can learn because they can transcend religion, culture and nationality.

text : Rev. Dr. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki