Dororo: a reminder that Buddhism is indeed a religion

Dororo and Hyakkimaru, but there are much worse things to worry about than monsters.

I have a pet peeve: in these exact words, people saying “Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion.”

That’s a real quote, and unlike my typical tyrades against a vague composite of online commenters, I’ve met such people in person. And ohhh let me tell you, my arguments pulverize them in the shower the next morning! But even if I’m too cowardly to confront them outside of my imagination with anything more than a tepid “nah, that’s not really true,” I don’t see how anyone could deny the evidence attesting to Buddhism’s religious features. For example:

  • How about the temples and sacred pilgrimage sites, where devotional laity pray and priests study scripture?
  • How about the 31 planes of existence, where deities reside and the dead reincarnate (including one realm of exceptional suffering for those with evil karma)?
  • How about the chants and holy sutras, which can open a path to enlightenment and reincarnation in the “Pure Land” (such as the sole phrase “namu Amida Buddha” from Japan’s Jodo Shinshu sect)?
  • Or in my own life, how about the Buddhist missionaries who accost random strangers on busy Tokyo streets (flee into the crowd!) and deserted rural trains alike (no escape…)? Is ours a world of suffering, you ask? Try to endure an hour-long, one-sided conversation listing all the celebrities who have joined Soka Gakkai International, a Nichiren Buddhist organization. And no thanks, I don’t want a pamphlet.

After I’ve run through too-many rhetorical questions though, I always have to ask one more: why not both?

Buddhism is a very old, very diverse idea studied by thousands of scholars from divergent schools and practiced by millions of ordinary people across languages, cultures, and traditions. I won’t deny the philosophical value of Buddhism. But at the same time, no one should either deny that many people have genuine faith in the impossible-to-define “religious-y stuff” like deities, reincarnation, and cosmological planes. Why try to cram such a vast intellectual tradition into those exclusive categories, Philosophy OR Religion? Buddhism is Philosophy AND Religion, and whatever else its individual practitioners might want to call it. The distinctions don’t distinguish anything because it’s all just Buddhism. The categories don’t matter. Why cling to them?

But whatever, I’m just arguing with the shower again.

I’ve only gone on that rant to explain why I find Dororo from this winter 2019 anime season so refreshing. It provides such strong pop-culture evidence against the narrow claim that Buddhism is exclusively a philosophy. Unlike the typical agnostic fantasy stories that rip creatures out of folklore to turn up the rule of cool, Dororo presents a genuine moral tale concerned with issues like hell, demons, and deities; salvation, sin, and prayer. The show’s barely begun, so I’m not here to make any judgements on the series. However, I did think that it would be interesting to run through the first four episodes to demonstrate Dororo’s consistent depiction of popular Buddhist faith as it exists in Japan, untied from the commercialized and secularized versions of Zen best known in the Western world.

Fitting its religious themes, Dororo opens to a deal with demons. Daigo, an ambitious daimyo of the Sengoku era, sacrifices 12 of his unborn son’s body parts in exchange for the power to dominate his realm. As a result, the baby is born a bleeding husk with no eyes, ears, nose, limbs, or even skin. Daigo orders the the infant drowned, but a midwife instead floats him to safety in a basket (~Moses-style~). Downstream, a surgeon named Jukai finds the basket, equips the boy with a prosthetic body, and names him Hyakkimaru. Jukai soon discovers that despite Hyakkimaru’s many disabilities, he has superhuman speed, strength, and sense, including the ability to see good and evil in “the fire of the soul” of all living things. Recognizing the child’s demon-killing destiny, Jukai installs two swords in his prosthetic arms and trains him in the way of the blade (it’s a samurai drama, after all). So, joined by the young thief Dororo, Hyakkimaru sets off to hunt down each of the demons in possession of his body and take revenge on his sinful father.

Dororo originated as a 1967-1968 manga and 1969 anime series by Osamu Tezuka, the so-called “God of Manga” (probably best known today for Astroboy). Tezuka himself was a “humanist rather than a Buddhist,” and as such I’ve been careful to call Dororo a depiction of popular Japanese Buddhism rather than a product of it. However, someone does not need to have faith to present believers sympathetically (and in any case, Tezuka seems to have had a strong interest in Buddhism; consider his famous manga Phoenix, a story about reincarnation, and Buddha, a fictionalized biography of Gautama himself).

From the very first scene, Dororo announces its focus on Buddhist faith. As his wife begins labor, Daigo enters a temple called the “Hall of Hell” to make his deal with the demons. However, a priest attempts to stop him:

Priest: One who steps into this Hall of Hell has made a choice. To cast off Buddha and the gods in favor of the demons … to tread the path of evil. It is to no longer be human. If you cross this line, hell will surely await you.

Daigo: Priest, we are already living in hell. The holy path to Buddha you pray for exists nowhere.

Daigo then whips out his sword to slice the priest, who manages one more short monologue while he bleeds out (remember, samurai drama):

Priest: I thank you, sir. This will be my salvation. This world is indeed hell, just as you said. The prayers I offered seemed more and more pointless. I always feared that some day I would begin to doubt Buddha. I am glad to die before that day comes. Sir Daigo, please stay away from the demons. Do not let yourself succumb to evil.

Daigo: It is too late for that … [to the demons] I refuse to rely on the mercy of Buddha or the gods. What I am about to say to you is not a prayer. I came to make a deal.

First, two cheap points on the scene: both Daigo and the priest 1) elevate the Buddha to the same level as “the gods” of Japan’s indigenous Shinto faith and 2) conflate the philosophical claim that life assures suffering from Buddhism’s First Noble Truth with the cosmological claim that “this world is indeed hell.” More specifically, it’s impossible to ignore the religious preoccupation with moral action resulting in cosmological consequence. Daigo guarantees himself a place in hell for choosing evil and on the flip side the priest feels assured of his salvation for his faith alone. How’s that for “philosophy, not a religion,” eh?

To extend the point, it’s important to note that Daigo damns himself to hell for his spiritual sin, not his worldly crime. The priest thanks Daigo for killing him, thus freeing him from the possibility of doubt in the Buddha’s teachings. The moment both demonstrates the continued possibility for Daigo’s salvation after the crime and the priest’s own worldly imperfection, expressed through the inefficacy of his prayer. And, if such an imperfect man can forgive his murderer, surely the enlightened Buddha can extend mercy as well. But Daigo rejects that mercy, thus committing himself to “the path of evil” that will only lead to hell. He doesn’t lose his humanity for the murder; he loses it for his lack of faith. The spiritual sin is far worse than the worldly one.

Not exactly subtle, huh?

Of course, Dororo’s religious themes aren’t always so unsubtle. In episode four, Dororo and Hyakkimaru encounter a traveling peddler at a roadside temple. Dororo strikes up a conversation, asking why she came to pray. She explains that she wants to reunite with her brother, a soldier who went missing five years ago. It’s all very convenient for the plot, because shortly after Hyakkimaru finds the brother down the road …except he’s just finished murdering a group of travelers with a demonic sword that had possessed him during the war. The two men duel (~samurai drama~), but Hyakkimaru senses no evil in the brother’s soul and spares him after knocking the sword out of his hands. Free from the curse, the brother returns to town with his long-lost sister. Her persistent prayer had finally been rewarded.

But that’s not the end of the story. Though the sister realizes that the brother had murdered the travelers on the road, she shows him compassion. To remind him of his old life and encourage him to return home, she offers an origami crane, symbolic of healing and the path of mercy discussed by Daigo and the priest. But much like Daigo, the brother has been seduced by demonic power. He refuses the crane and pushes his sister away before running off to reclaim the demonic sword from Hyakkimaru and Dororo. This rejection of mercy represents a genuine spiritual sin, for when the two duel again (*double* samurai drama), Hyakkimaru destroys the sword and the man both. As he dies, the scene cuts to a shot of two paper cranes: the brother’s tainted blood-red with sin, and the sister’s still pure and white.

Dororo doesn’t just deal with demons though: on several occasions, specific Buddhist deities intervene in worldly affairs to assist the virtuous. For example, while in labor Hyakkimaru’s mother calls out to the bodhisattva Kannon (“the Goddess of Mercy” in the subtitles, Bosatsu Kanzeon in the original Japanese). By rough analogy, bodhisattva function something like Christian saints, serving as a model of virtue while helping people along the path to salvation. In Japan, Kannon is probably the most popular of such bodhisattva due to her reputation for granting miracles to prayer, especially for those related to childbirth. And, in Dororo, she does just that: when Daigo’s demons send a bolt of lightning to claim Hyakkimaru, a Kannon statuette in the room intervenes by redirecting part of the blast to destroy itself instead.

The Kannon statuette after her sacrifice. Notice the baby: Kannon is protector of childbirth

Jizo, another popular bodhisattva in Japan, also makes an appearance. Like Kannon, Jizo has a special reputation for protecting children. It’s no coincidence then that a Jizo statue stands on the road outside of the Jukai’s prosthetic workshop, where he treats young amputee victims. In episode 3, the statue seems to cause Jukai to trip and fall down a riverbank, where he finds the baby Hyakkimaru among the reeds. It’s a less dramatic intervention than Kannon’s, but still a small miracle in it’s own right.

It’s gets more complicated though. Jukai also has a secret: he had once participated in the mass-crucifixion of rebels (fun fact: crucifixion predates Christianity in Japan. See page 13 here). Realizing the horror of his actions, he devoted himself to medicine, not out of a desire for atonement or forgiveness, but to fulfill a personal destiny he felt within himself. Jizo’s intervention in Jukai’s fate then becomes a double miracle via the Buddha’s path of mercy: not only does it save Hyakkimaru’s life, but it also gives Jukai a second chance at his.

Jukai slips on a rock under the gaze of Jizo.

Beyond deities like Kannon and Jizo, Dororo also deals with Buddhist spirits. In episode two, a village hires Hyakkimaru and Dororo to kill a monster. However, Hyakkimaru ignores the monster when he sees the green goodness in it’s soul. Instead, he notices “the murky color of blood, the worst color of all” in the soul of the village mayor. When Hyakkimaru attacks, the mayor reveals herself to be a demon in disguise. They fight (samurai drama…), Hyakkimaru wins, and the mayor’s assistant confesses that the village had made a deal with the demon, feeding it travelers so that they could steal their gold. Dororo learns that the spirit-monster was actually the first such sacrifice, returned from the dead to punish the sinful village with the torturous sound of a pilgrim’s bell.

Pilgrims, sin, spirits, sacrifice, demons, souls, atonement, destiny, miracles, saint-like beings, prayer, virtue, curses, possession, temples, faith, hell, evil, enlightenment, salvation, and gods… working backwards through this post, Dororo consistently depicts Buddhism as a religion. However, to return to my shower argument with the philosophy proponents, I can still imagine one open question: Does Dororo present an authentic Buddhist faith?

Given Tezuka’s apparent interest in Buddhist thought, I’m inclined to say yes. Dororo’s focus on faith seems consistent with my own observation of Buddhist practice in rural Japan. Even 500 years after the Sengoku era and 50 after Dororo’s original publication, many modern Japanese people still believe in deities and spirits, prayer and miracles, and karmic reincarnation. No one should deny their experience in a secular quest to classify Buddhism as an exclusive philosophy.

At the same time though, I don’t think the question would matter even if it had a rigorous answer. As I argued in the introduction, given the vast diversity Buddhist thought, no one can fairly claim to know a single, authentic Buddhism. Even if some secularized Western Buddhists want to distance their own practice from the “religious” label, they must acknowledge that in much of Asia, a huge array of supernatural beliefs still appear in many versions of Buddhism. Those older, religiously-minded traditions belong just as much to the Buddhist heritage as the newer secular-Buddhist philosophies spreading in the West. Again, the categories don’t matter. Why cling to them?

But whatever, I’m just arguing with the shower again. Dororo’s an interesting show regardless.

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