Death and death in Japanese Buddhism – Buddhistdoor Global

Remember the dead on Yamadera. Image courtesy of the author

In two of my previous essays for this column, I discussed death rites * and conceptions of death ** in Japanese Buddhism. I was recently invited to the Isehara campus of Tōkai University to discuss these conceptions of death in Japanese religions with students and faculty in the Faculty of Nursing. It was, of course, an interesting storyline, with a religious philosopher speaking about death to current and future medical professionals. The discussions we had after my presentation and at the evening reception were extremely engaging and inspired this article.

During the reception after the conference, one of the teachers asked me about Buddhist approaches, especially Dogen’s, to euthanasia. This question is, of course, extremely difficult because a) there is not a single Buddhist conception of death and moral behavior, and b) this particular moral dilemma was certainly alien to Dogen. But I would like to reflect here on how one can reflect on the moral dilemmas surrounding aging, the care of death and death using concepts and theoretical frameworks provided by Buddhist thinkers and texts in Japan.

The question of how Buddhist thinkers, institutions, and texts in Japan respond to contemporary issues regarding death is interesting for four reasons. First, in Japan, Buddhism has always been associated with death rituals since the danka the edict of 1638 required all citizens to affiliate with a local Buddhist temple via the family tomb. This family affiliation with Buddhist temples became so ingrained in Japan’s religious and social infrastructure that it remained the predominant feature of Buddhism in Japan, even after this edict was revoked in the early Meiji period (1868 -1912), and led to the curious expression “funeral Buddhism” (Jap: sōshiki bukkyō), which has become one of the main descriptors of Buddhism in Japan. Anthropologist Ian Reader coined the famous expression that in Japan people are “born Shint” (Reader 1991, 55) and “die Buddhists” (ibid. 77). Second, from its very conception, Buddhist teaching and practice has focused on the alleviation of suffering (Skt: duḥkha), identified by the first three of the four views which the young Buddha considered to be sickness, old age and death. Third, in recent years, Buddhist institutions in Japan have come to a crossroads as they face an aging population as well as an increasingly weak identification of young people, in particular, with Buddhist institutions, beliefs and practices. . This phenomenon is commonly referred to as “flight from Buddhist temples” (Jap. terabanare). Finally, the devastation brought to Japan by the March 11, 2011 tsunami deeply affected most people in Japan, prompting many Japanese to search for meaning and once again grapple with the age-old Zen question regarding the “great question of peace.” life and death ”(Japan: shôji daiji).

Dōgen’s “Shoji”. By shomonji.or.jp

These four factors combine to create a unique situation that offers both a significant challenge and exciting opportunities for Buddhist individuals and institutions in Japan. It has also inspired many Buddhists in Japan to explore innovative ways of being Buddhists in the contemporary world. As I wrote in a previous essay, *** Ven. Nemoto Ittetsu in Tokyo runs a suicide prevention program at his Daizen-ji temple; Fri. Alubomule Sumanasara, a Sri Lankan monk who is now the chief priest of Asugiriya-dai-ji and the chief advisor of the Theravada Buddhist Association in Japan, wrote on Buddhist advice on bullying and suicide; Minami Jikisai, chief priest of Reisen-ji who served temporarily at Bodai-ji on Mount Osore, * is a prolific writer on topics related to “birth and death” (Jap: shôji), meet the dead and face death in a meaningful way. Sumanasara and Minami’s books are aimed and reach a fairly large audience. Professor Carl Becker (Kyoto University) told me about new cutting edge programs such as the Department of Death and Life Studies at Sophia University (which started in 2007 at the University of Tokyo before to move to its current location) and the program in “Clinical Religious Studies” (Jap: rinshō shÅ«kyōgaku) at Tōhoku University, which is the first Buddhist chaplaincy program in Japan. Finally, Professors Suzuki Iwayumi and Satō Hiro’o conducted groundbreaking ethnographic studies of death rituals and healing in Japan. This is a growing field that offers many exciting opportunities for practitioners to adopt and apply the teaching of the Buddha in the contemporary world.

Having set the context for death rituals and healing in contemporary Japan, I would like to return to the question that was posed to me after my talk on Buddhist conceptions of death last week: What would Dōgen say to About euthanasia and similar moral dilemmas regarding the care of death. As I stated above, I will not try to put words in the mouth of a 13th century Zen master to solve a contemporary dilemma, but I can apply traditional Buddhist conceptions to possibly illuminate a serious problem. and urgent.

Some of the books mentioned in the article. Image courtesy of the author

Since Buddhism is a diverse tradition, there is no position on a metaphysical or ethical question, so I will try to engage a variety of possible answers. A first answer to the question would be based on the five precepts. The first precept very clearly prohibits any form of injury and can therefore be read as directly discouraging the practice of euthanasia. Such a ban would be supported by the general law of karma, which states that every deed, word and word directly affects our future life as well as our future lives. On the other hand, the texts of the Mahāyāna such as the VimalakÄ«rti-nirdeÅ›a-sÅ«tra suggest that bodhisattvas sometimes break the precepts in order to alleviate suffering. In this way of thinking, compassion trumps adherence to precepts. Dōgen makes matters even more complicated by suggesting that “adherence to the precepts by voice hearers is no different from the bodhisattva’s violation of the precepts” (DZZ 1: 280) **** suggesting that our actions should be “” expressions “(Japan: dōtoku) of compassion, the path of the Buddha and ultimately the Bodhisattva swear to “liberate all sentient beings.”

How this rather abstract principle translates into concrete morality then depends on the situation and may not be able to be formulated into a universally applicable principle. For Dōgen, Buddhahood is found at all times in a unique and clearly lucid way. These moments, Dōgen insists, fully but not fully express Buddhahood. Dōgen said of our topic today, “Life exists in an instant; It already exists [what came] ‘before’ and there is also [what will come] ‘after.’ For this reason, in Buddhadharma there is life and non-life. Destruction exists in an instant; because of this there is destruction and non-destruction. . . . In this life and death, the very life of the Buddhas arises. (DZZ 1: 778).

Remember the dead on Yamadera. Image courtesy of the author

* How to Cope with Death – Pilgrimages and Death Rituals in Japanese Buddhism (Buddhistdoor Global)

** Who will we be: Japanese Buddhist conceptions of the afterlife (Buddhistdoor Global)

*** Meaning in the face of the ephemeral: Reflections of socially engaged Buddhists in Japan (Buddhistdoor Global)

**** What good is morality for meditation (Buddhistdoor Global)

The references

DZZ. Dogen zenji zenshū [Complete Works of Zen Master Dōgen]. Two volumes, ed. Dōshū Ōkubo. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1969-1970.

Reader, Ian. 1991. Religion in contemporary JapanHonolulu: University of Hawaii Press.