Have you ever come across such a perfect line while reading translated literature that you just have to go check it out in the source language, comprehension be damned?
I found one such line in the Konjaku Monogatari Shu, a collection of hundreds of late Heian-period Japanese short stories, 90 of which appear in English inJapanese Tales from Times Past (trans. Naoshi Koriyama and Bruce Allen). It was a Christmas present, but I’ve already hit volume 19, tale 21 in the Buddhist moral tales section, titled “Snakes are seen in a vat of sake made from rice cake offerings.” In the context of its most delightful line though, I think I might want to rechristen the story “Buddha and the Boozer.”
But first, a quick synopsis of the barely two-page tale for context:
[Like before, the usual disclaimer: I describe weird things in Japan, not weird things about Japan. This week, I’m traveling so I don’t have time for any rigor-ish research, but just google “tomb of jesus christ shingo.” It’s the bizarre intersection between the occult fascination of a Japanese “new religion,” the credulous hucksterism of a small-time mayor looking to boost his isolated village’s image, and the indifferent villagers (only one of whom is Christian) who put up with the odd tourist in exchange for a little spare commerce. And if it isn’t obvious, Isukiri’s creed is my fictional creation]
[In case it isn’t obvious, this is not a serious post but uh… sarcasm doesn’t exist. Beep Boop. Oh and be careful with those airhorn links. They might be loud.]
Is anyone else watching Namu Amida Butsu!: Rendai Utena? Maybe that’s a trick question since I’m not really watching it either, but at around the midpoint of most seasons I like to scroll through the worst rated anime on MyAnimeList and pick out a few of the weirdest ones. And oh my god is Namu Amida Butsu weird…
To start with, the first half of the title is the literal Nembutsu, a prayer to seek love and wisdom from the Amida Buddha, most often associated with the Jodo-Shinshu school of Buddhism (depending on who you ask, technically it’s a chant, not a prayer, but hey, what is Buddhism if not a collection of obfuscated technicalities buried in esoteric terminology that Buddhists themselves can’t even agree on! And before the Buddhism Internet Defense League shows up to “technically…” me, that’s the joke). The rendai utena half of the title then refers to the lotus-shaped pedestals that hold images of the Buddha (plural). And oh my god there are a lot of Buddhas in this show… Check it, ’cause it’s weird:
The thirteen Butsu (again, technically 5 Buddha, 7 bodhisattva, and 1 wisdom king …take a breath… Fudo, Shaka, Monju, Fugen, Jizo, Miroku, Yakushi, Kannon, Seishi, Amida, Ashuku, Dainichi, and Kokuzo …and exhale…) of Shingon Buddhism protect the material world by battling monsters composed of human vice. For centuries, they have kept the world in balance. But alas!, the evil demon Mara has returned!, intent on taking revenge on Shaka-Buddha (the OG Buddha-boi himself, Siddhartha Gautama *airhorn*) by tempting humanity to sin and usher in a new decadent age. Can the thirteen Butsu, joined by the heavenly deities Bonten, Taishakuten, and Karuraten, defeat Mara and bring balance back to the world?
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 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.
When I want to write about a show that I actually enjoyed, I often disappoint myself. I waste hours of daydreaming, desk-warming time at work struggling to think of something, anything specific to praise and can only come up with something vague like “it was good because it was good.” It bothers me that I can exhaustively justify my dislikes but cannot apply the same rigor to my likes. I can easily describe distaste. But apparently, there is no accounting for taste.
With that said, I liked Gakkou Gurashi! enough to give it a try anyway. I will take this essay as a personal challenge to try to describe something I love without defaulting to criticism or conceding to the many negative or ambivalent reviews on the internet. Though the show has plenty of flaws (the deus ex …dog… could be ridiculous), the overall experience was one of the most emotionally and thematically engaging I have had with television in years.
(English: School-Live! I’ll drop the exclamation because really, who wants to type that over and over again? Also, why not translate it as a simple “School Life?” Is “live” a verb as in “IT LIVES!” or an adjective as in “LIVE FROM NEW YORK?” Questions with no answer… it’s just a hazard of Japanese English I suppose.)
Gakkou Gurashi is extremely sensitive to spoilers. The less you know about it before viewing, the better. The synopsis on MyAnimeList even says too much. For the remainder of the essay, I will assume that the reader has already seen the show. I’ll hide my thesis about the show’s themes behind the jump, because I worry that even that would spoil the whole experience.