You might have heard before that Japan is a country that has a mix of religions that seemingly overlap. People go to temples (Buddhism) for certain rituals, and to shrines (Shintoism) for others. And these same people that go to shrines and temples may, in fact, call themselves Christian.
It is a concept that is quite difficult for a lot of people from the West to understand. This is even more so if you are deeply religious. I remember telling a friend in the States about how people like to listen Christmas songs here, even ones that are obviously about Christ’s story. And he made commented about how people are so sacrilegious here. But, religion is significantly less, shall we say, ‘charged’ here than it is in America or Europe.
But, it has influenced Japan in a lot of subtle ways. The book that I reviewed last week is a good introduction to all the religious influences that have shaped modern Japanese culture. Even though people may not visit a temple on a regular basis or truly believe in Buddha and the many gods of Shinto, it does in many ways shape the culture.
And since going through that book, which I highly recommend you do, I’ve started to really understand a lot of the reasons why things are the way they are. I mean there are numerous, everyday things that cause foreigners to shake their heads in disbelief, but are still rigid parts of the culture. And if you ever want to feel at home here, or are going to be doing a lot of business here, or simply want to understand some of the themes that come up in manga and anime, it is important to do a little in depth learning of the culture from time to time.
Not a religion in the Western Sense
In the West, we think of religion is worshiping a god, and all other gods are totally not cool. In fact, worshiping more than one god in the past could have gotten you burned at the stake or tortured. So, it was best to stick to the one god.
And I, myself, confirmed in the United Methodist Church (but, currently not practicing, sorry mom), basically saw religion in this way. And if you belonged to a different church, you worshiped a different god, or you worshiped the same god but in different way. It is a pretty simple system really, nothing too complicated.
Zen Buddhism, however is more of a practice. There really isn’t a ‘god’ that you should be worshiping and it is not well known for causing division between religions. In this way, it is very suitable for being ‘blended’ with other religions whereas for Western religions, a lot of times, there can be only one.
After reading up on the religious influences on Japanese culture I thought I would read a little more on Zen Buddhism. I tried to read books previously on Zen Buddhism and had failed miserably. It takes a lot of patience and careful thought sometimes to understand all of it.
So that is why I was glad to find Dharma Delight (US), a beautifully illustrated book that explains with great artwork some of the key points of Zen Buddhism. You can kind of think of it as a primer for Zen. It does a pretty good job of giving you a healthy introduction without putting you to sleep. You can easily get through this book in a week.
The author and artist is the same person behind projects like Parpa the Rapper. And if you remember that game at all, you will recall the bright and clear artwork that made that game so cool looking. It makes this book a real pleasure to read and look through.
The book covers some of the key points of Buddhism with drawings as well as some stories that attempt to illustrate what Buddhism is about. This isn’t a bullet pointed clear presentation on Buddhism. That simply isn’t possible. But it does do a great job of presenting the stories as clearly possible.
The second section of stories is very figurative and take a lot to digest. If you have the patience and time to think your way through them, I found them to be very enlightening and helpful for understanding what Buddhism is and means. I still don’t completely understand, but I can at least say I have a faint idea.
Meditation is Cool
Even if being Zen is not totally your thing. Even if you are a devout Christian and have no interest in other relgions, meditation is a powerful tool. Numerous world leaders and athletes make use of it on a daily basis. Getting started can be a bit rough, but meditation in the zen way – zazen could help you a lot.
Meditation is especially effective for taking tests. One of the biggest difficulties that people have with the test is remaining focused through the whole 3+ hours. Meditation is the controlled practice of focus. If you suffer from a low attention span and start thinking about that movie you want to watch 10 minutes into a test, you might want to try some form of meditation.
I haven’t tried it personally, but it seems like Zen Buddhism can offer some helpful guidance in keeping your focus and walking through meditation so that you can get the most out of it. If Zen is a bit too crazy for you though, there is an excellent app that I use on a regular basis – Headspace. They have a cool, free, 10 day course that can really help your focus. I have been using it every day recently, and I find it helps to keep my head clear.
How about you?
What are your experiences with Zen Buddhism? Let me know in the comments below.