How to Cope With Death – Pilgrimages and Death Rituals in Japanese Buddhism

I have discussed pilgrimages in Japan in a previous article on this site.* This month I am teaching a course in Japan that involves visits to pilgrimage sites primarily associated with the True Word school of Buddhism. A common theme to all of these sites is that they offer rituals that console those who have lost loved ones and commemorate those who have passed away. While visiting these places with my students, I began to reflect on how Buddhism in Japan provides practitioners and devotees with ritual and metaphysical frameworks to deal with the most difficult of all life events: that of death. dead.

Our first stop in Japan was the western part of Yamagata Prefecture. Nestled comfortably in the foothills of Mount Yudono are two temples, Dainichibo and Churenji, each of which enshrines a so-called sokushinbutsu. “Sokushinbutsu“literally means “Buddha in this body” and refers to an extreme form of Buddhist practice in Japan that reached its peak during the Edo period (1603-1868) and was banned by the Japanese government in the early 1900s. Meiji era (1868-1912) because it was considered a form of suicide.

Dainichibo, the temple that enshrines the most famous sokushinbutsu,
Shinnyokai. The fabric rope allows the practitioner to “shake hands”
Mahavairochana Buddha (Dainichi Nyorai). Photo by Mark Lovelace

The term “sokushinbutsurefers to Buddhist practitioners who spent years in the mountains feeding on nuts, berries and tree sap while engaging in ascetic practices. Some sources set the duration of this practice at three years, while some anecdotes state that some practiced for up to ten years. In the second phase of the practice, the practitioner’s diet is limited to salt and water. In the third and final phase, the practitioner enters a box inside a cave, renounces all food, and engages in uninterrupted chanting of sutras and mantras until the physical body ceases to function. . At this point, according to devotees, the practitioner transforms from a mere mortal into a “Buddha in this body”. These self-mummified bodies, two of which would contain internal organs, are venerated as a “living Buddha” (J. ikite iru hotoke). The sacred bodies of Shinnyokai in Dainichibo and Tetsumonkai in Churenji attract many pilgrims, the latter also being associated with cases of healing and other miracles.

On the second day, we went to Rishakuji in Yamadera, a temple famous for housing mukasari ema and enshrining the spirit dolls. The term “mukasari emarefers to post-mortem wedding photos. Spirit dolls are representations of the ghosts to whom deceased celibates are married. During the wars of the early 20th century, many families of fallen soldiers faced the dilemma that their children had died unmarried and were therefore doomed to eternal doom. To remedy this predicament, Rishakuji and some other temples provided space to commemorate those who had gone celibate and their spiritual spouses. Later, an equivalent practice was provided for women. The purpose of this tradition was to alleviate the suffering of both those who had died in unfortunate circumstances and their surviving family members, who were troubled by feelings of anguish and regret.

Rishakuji at Yamadera, a temple that houses mukasari ema and spiritual dolls. The view is of the Oku no in in the valley. Photo by Mark Lovelace

On the third day, we continued to Sendai, where we visited memorials to victims of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. In Sendai, we stayed in a Zen temple, Fukujuin, which, like most Buddhist temples in Japan, serves a community (J. danka) in that it houses the local cemetery and consecrates the i hate, or the memorial plaques of the deceased. In Japan, most funerals are performed by Buddhist priests. The Soto Zen funeral ceremony uses texts and prayers similar to those recited in the jukai (“receive the precepts”) ritual. Indeed, during this funeral, the priest administers the “Three Refuges” (in the Buddha, the Dharma and the sangha) and the precepts to the spirit of the deceased, on whom a kaimyo, or “name of the precept”, is then granted. This name is also known as homo, or “name of the Dharma”. In other words, at the funeral, the deceased is officially admitted into the Buddhist sangha.

The last stop on our pilgrimage so far has been Mount Koya. Mt. Koya comprises the spiritual center of True Word and, as many True Word priests will insist, of Japanese Buddhism. The heart of Mount Koya is the large cemetery surrounding the Oku no in, the mausoleum where Shingon’s founder, Kukai (774-835), is said to reside in eternal meditation. Kukai, who inspired the sokushinbutsu practice, coined the phrase “to become a Buddha in this body” (J. sokushinjobutsu). While his philosophy evokes the bodhisattva ideal and the non-duality of samsara and nirvana, his devotees believe that he has overcome the cycle of birth and death and attribute to his presence a power that will enable them to enjoy of a peaceful life, devoid of suffering and lasting happiness after death.

Garan, the great stupa of Mount Koya, home to the five Buddhas of
Shingon Buddhism. Photo by Mark Lovelace

How can we understand these approaches to death and their effect on those who survive the deceased? First, it is important to note that these practices are not representative of all of Japanese Buddhism, or even Shingon Buddhism. Buddhism in Japan is very diverse in its practices and beliefs. Obviously, the practices discussed in this article contradict the Buddhist teachings of reincarnation and nirvana. This, however, is not unique to Japan. Many forms of Buddhism outside of Japan include a plethora of practices and beliefs regarding death, many of which cannot be reconciled with the Buddhist principle of “no-self” (Skt. anatman). Like everywhere else, Buddhist practices in Japan are influenced by a variety of traditions. For example, the mukasari ema reflect a Buddhist response to a Confucian need based on Shinto beliefs about the self.

But how to understand these practices? In a certain sense, they can be interpreted as “skillful means” (Skt. upaya) insofar as they teach people unable to understand the “three characteristics of reality” (Skt. trilakshana: “not-self”; “Suffering” [Skt. duhkha]; and “impermanence” [Skt. anitya]). These are expressions of “wisdom” (Skt. prajna) and “compassionate” (Skt. Karuna) as they allow the faithful to deal with the loss, regret and pain that comes from the loss of a loved one, opening up a space that allows people to grapple with the mystery of death and bringing help in the form of a ritual. Ultimately, these forms of ritual deepen our awareness of the human condition, our impermanence, and our interconnectedness. They encourage us to appreciate life and strive to embody compassion and wisdom.

* Walking with Kukai – Becoming a Buddha: A Pilgrimage in Shingon Buddhism