Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Buddhism Dying in Japan

Never thought I'd hear this! It appears that Japan is undergoing a major religious shift, one that might spell the end of Buddhism in the country long associated with Zen. Since World War II, when it's reputation was tarnished as major Buddhist leaders sided with the totalitarian regime, membership has gradually been on the decline. Now it's known more of a religion associated with death rituals - apparently Buddhist funerals are very elaborate and can be very costly - while Shinto and Christianity are the religions preferred for weddings and other events. Membership is way down, temples are closing, priests are having to get second jobs and the popular idea is that it no longer meets the spiritual needs of the people. You can read the full NY Times article here.

I suppose that what strikes me is how religious beliefs seem to grow in one area while they die off in others. Christianity is growing in Latin America and Africa, but dying off in Europe and (depending on the denomination) in North America. Buddhism is growing in some areas, but has all but is very small in India - the nation where it began - and, as you read, Japan.

There was a time when I believed that the growth and decline of religious beliefs was God's doing. I once thought - many, many, years ago - that eventually God would straighten things out; the people who had "the right idea" would eventually win out over those who had "the wrong idea." My dichotomous thinking had divided the world into right and wrong, orthodox and heretical thinking.

Now, though, I have come to the point where I believe that there are no absolutes. No right, no wrong. Maybe better, maybe worse, but no good and evil. No religion has all the answers. No religion is perfect in all ways and answers all questions. And I say this after devoting my life to one religion and finding that it (and, I admit, I) fell far short of expectations.

So I suppose it's no surprise that the religions of the world grow and shrink as their believers are encouraged and disappointed by the behaviors of their leaders or the teachings of their scriptures. I've been there; we've all been there. All I am left with are two quotes, and I find that these are enough for me. One is a shorter version of a quote that I framed and hung in my office, while the other is from the musical Les Miserables:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
- Shakyamuni Buddha

To love another person is to see the face of God
- Les Miserables

That just about sums it up, for me at least.


No comments: