Monday, July 7, 2014

In which I research Buddhism

One of the characters in my novel is potentially a Buddhist, probably Jodo Shinshu Buddhist (aka just Shin Buddhism), which is one of the most common forms among Japanese immigrants.  Part of the reason I made this decision is because it's something I'd like to learn more about.  So that's what I did.

This is stuff you could learn by browsing Wikipedia (as I did), but I'm just picking out my favorite facts:
  • While Hindus believe in reincarnation, Buddhists believe in rebirth.  Reincarnation involves the transmigration of a soul, but Buddhists don't believe in an unchanging soul.  Rebirth is instead the continuation of the pattern of self.  Rebirth sounded like an ancient response to reincarnation, but instead it appears that reincarnation only came to dominate Hinduism after Buddhism began.
  • Tendai Buddhism is a kind of Buddhism based on the Lotus Sutra.  The Lotus Sutra claims to have been written during the time of Siddartha Gautama (the founder of Buddhism), but it was stored in the realm of the snake gods for five hundred years.  This seems to me about ten times more outlandish than the Christian belief that the gospels are accurate accounts despite being written down 50-100 years after Jesus.
  • There's actually a Christian saint based on the story of Gautama.  In the Christian version, Josaphat is a prince in India, whom astrologers predicted would become a Christian.  So his father tries to isolate Josaphat, but he sneaks out, becomes a Christian, and then soon converts his father, who abdicates the throne and becomes a hermit.  Medieval Christianity sure produced some bad fiction.
  • Buddhism claims to be compatible with science (but that's what they all say), but some Buddhists claim that Buddhism *is* a science (which says to me that their particular form is not compatible with science).
  • There's a Pure Land Buddhist tradition of Sariras, pearl-like relics found among the ashes of cremated remains.  They are taken to be evidence of enlightenment.
And specific to Shin Buddhism:
  • Shin Buddhism is a kind of Pure Land Buddhism started in Japan around the 12th century.  They believe that achieving enlightenment is impossible for most people without assistance, so they call on the Amida Buddha in his boundless compassion.  It's called Pure Land Buddhism, because enlightenment is equated with going to a Pure Land, a sort of paradise realm.
  • The idea of calling upon a religious figure for help getting into the right afterlife is superficially similar to Christianity (early Christian missionaries thought so too), but it's actually an independent tradition.
  • Shin Buddhists contradict many stereotypes of Buddhism in the US.  They do not meditate, and do not have monks.  It was sort of founded as a rejection of these practices.
  • Possibly one of the most famous Shin Buddhists in the US is George Takei.
  • Shin Buddhism in the US is one of the most LGBT-inclusive traditions around.  They've been performing same-sex marriage ceremonies for over forty years.  But this is not so true of other Buddhisms, or even of Shin Buddhism in Japan.