Buddhist Customs and Traditions in Everyday life

NOTE: This article refers to Buddhist customs and traditions of the Japanese in general. Some of the facts stated in this article are not applicable to the teachings of Jodo Shin denomination.

Rites and Rituals

Daily Practice of Lay Followers

Annual Services at Buddhist Temples

Visiting the Family Grave

Prayers

Home


Buddhism has so widely and strongly permeated into the life of the Japanese for over one thousand years that no Japanese can eliminate its influence from daily life as long as they remain members of the Japanese society. In reality, everyday life of the Japanese is, with or without awareness, inseparable from Buddhist rites and rituals as well as Buddhist way of thinking.
Throughout the country, there are as many as 75,000 Buddhist temples of various Buddhist sects. These temples were constructed and had been supported by the lay followers as well as the government throughout many ages. Even now, most of them are still supported economically by the members of the temples. Until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, all Japanese Buddhist denominations and schools had been well protected both economically and politically by the government. They lost state patronage during the Meiji period. Thereafter, in order to sustain temple buildings and conduct socio-religious activities, they had to rely upon monetary donations or offerings from the congregation.
After the end of the Second World War in 1945, many Japanese lost their faith in Buddhism, especially the younger generation. Since then, the economic situation of Buddhist temples became increasingly more difficult.
Many old temples which had been well protected by the nation, were not able to provide for themselves. On the other hand, however, being stimulated by western people, many Japanese have started to show greater interest in the old traditional culture of Japan. In order to meet the needs of the people as well as to solve their economic difficulties, many old temples in Kyoto and Nara have opened their doors to the public. Anyone can visit these old temples and appreciate the typical Japanese architecture and arts preserved in these old temples by paying a nominal admission fee. Millions of Japanese as well as tourists from foreign countries visit these temples each year. However, it is very doubtful whether this can be construed as a religious act or not, because most of the visitors do not show much interest in Buddhist religion. Their interests lie mainly in old Japanese culture.
Most popular among the temples are Todai-ji Temple with its Giant Buddha Image, Yakushi-ji Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple, and Horyu-ji Temple, the oldest wooden structure in the world, in Nara; Kinkaku-ji Temple or Golden Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji Temple or Silver Pavilion, and Ryoan-ji Temple with its Rock Garden, in Kyoto. Some of these temples are trying to attract a larger number of people by performing religious activities. Generally speaking, however, Buddhist activities at these old temples are very seldom held.
Then what constitutes Buddhist activities by other temples in contemporary Japanese society?

Home  Top


Rites and Rituals

The distinctive activity of Buddhist temples in Japan at present is observance of rites and rituals. It is no exaggeration to say that nine out of ten Japanese would go to Buddhist temples when they lose members of their family for funeral and memorial rites. According to statistics, more than seventy percent of the Japanese population is registered as Buddhists. It would be expected, therefore, that most Japanese would ask Buddhist priests to perform the funeral and memorial services for the deceased. Strangely enough, however, many of these Japanese who have requested Buddhist services do not admit being Buddhists themselves. Then what is the reason for their going to Buddhist temples for the funeral and memorial services? Because it has a long standing custom and tradition in Japanese society. Again it can be said that there is no alternative, unless one is a Christian. It seems almost mandatory that Japanese conducts funeral and memorial services at a particular temple to which his family belongs. For that reason, in spite of the fact that most Japanese do not show any interest in Buddhism as their own personal faith, they conduct funeral and memorial services at Buddhist temples simply out of consideration to social custom and tradition.
Fortunately or not, these rites are the main source of income for the maintenance of most of the present-day Buddhist temples in Japan, as well as support of the priest's family.

Home  Top


Daily Practice of Lay Followers

It has long been a tradition of Japanese lay Buddhists to observe a short service in front of the family altar every morning and evening before meals.
At the morning service, the first food of the day and fresh flowers are offered. Though not many, there are still quite a few Buddhists who hold a short service at the family altar daily, since, according to recent survey, more than sixty percent of the Japanese families possess a Buddhist alter.
At these daily services, all the family members of the used to participate and chant a short scripture led by the head of the family. Unfortunately, however, most of the members of the family, especially the younger generation, do not pay any attention to these services at present. The only Buddhist custom which seems to be still preserved among most of the Japanese is the expression of gratitude "Itadaki-masu" before a meal, and "Gochiso-sama" after a meal. The original meaning of "Itadaki-masu" is "I express my hearty gratitude and thankfulness to the Buddha and to those who have given me this meal, putting the meal on my head" and that of "Gochiso-sama" is "I appreciate the effort of those who prepared this delicious meal at the expense of their busy time as well as that of the Buddha." Although the original meaning of gratitude is not realized, most Japanese usually say these words three times a day before and after meals.

Home  Top


Annual Services at Buddhist Temples

Most Buddhist temples in Japan observe special annual services and festivals such as Flower Festival, the birthday of Gautama Buddha; Spring and Autumn "Higan" (Equinox Week) Devotional Services; "O-Bon" Festival; the General Memorial Service, and so on. Every temple also holds at least one gathering a month when a special sermon is given to the congregation.
Besides these, each denomination or school has its own special services such as the birthday and the memorial day services of the founder of that denomination or school. On such occasions, many people come to worship, although the majority is aged and consists mostly of women. Many young people participate in the Flower Festival parade in April, and the O-Bon Dance, which is held at the time of O-Bon Festival in mid-summer. They enjoy parade and dance, but do not ordinarily attend the services which are held at the worship hall of the temples. They are not interested in purely religious activities, whether it is associated with a Buddhist Festival or not. For them such an occasion affords them an opportunity to pass the time enjoyably. O-Bon Dances are held throughout the country even at the present. In many cases, however, especially urban areas, this festival is held in an open field which has nothing to do with Buddhist temples. The O-Bon Dance itself, which is the manifestation of one's gratitude to the deceased members of the family, is preserved. But the original significance of such a practice is, unfortunately, completely forgotten by most of the present-day Japanese.

Home  Top


Visiting the Family Grave

Millions of people go to visit cemeteries where the family grave is located during the "Higan" weeks in spring and autumn. After cleaning the gravestone with water, they pay homage to their ancestors as well as the deceased family members, by offering fresh flowers, incense, and some food.
Some families also hold a short service in front of the grave, performed by Buddhist priests. They visit family grave, expecting that their children and grandchildren also would do the same after they pass away. It seems that there is no religious consciousness in the minds of those who visit the graves. They simply go to the grave following a long tradition in Japanese society, without realizing that it is a kind of religious practice. They attach no religious significance to this particular activity. There is another characteristic of Japanese Buddhism which had compromised with the rite of the ancestral worship in its history. It is also a general custom for the Japanese to visit the family grave on the memorial day either every month or every year, depending upon the individual. Since the graveyard is usually within the compound of the family temple, visiting the family grave is the time when they pay their respects at the family temple.

Home  Top


Prayers

Many Japanese also visit Buddhist temples to request the rite of prayers whenever they face some major difficulties, such as in case of serious illness, taking entrance examination to school or college, asking to be blessed with a baby, or asking for a safe birth of a baby, and so on. They expect that the rite of prayers is effective for curing the sick, success in examination, safe baby-birth, etc. As mentioned above, millions of Japanese go to visit either a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple to pray for good health, success, and prosperity of the family throughout the year, especially during the first three days. Most people visit at New Year's, only certain temples which are believed to be effective for worldly success.
These special temples also issue various charms. For example, most of the cars in Japan have at least one charm for accident-free driving. In spite of the fact that drivers do not have their own religious faith, those who keep these charms in their cars actually believe that they would be able to drive the cars safely because of these charms. There is a famous Japanese saying "Man turns to the gods when in trouble." In this case, "gods" mean everything superhuman. Any object of worship in both Buddhism and Shintoism, in some cases even in other religions, could be the object of prayer. Even young people in Japan who do not believe in any personal religion in their daily life, also pray whenever they encounter some troubles. Furthermore, following a custom long held in Japan, they pray in front of an object of worship, whatever it might be, for the success of their undertaking. It is believed that Buddhist customs and ways of thinking which have long been a tradition in Japan will not be completely removed from the social surface. Most Japanese will continue to pay homage to various objects of worship in Japanese Buddhism.
Strictly speaking, Buddhist religious practices as such in everyday life in Japan is practically non-existent, except for the rites and rituals.
Nevertheless, Buddhist thoughts has permeated into the minds of the Japanese so widely and strongly that unaware they are living an everyday life in Buddhist customs and Buddhist ways of thinking. As far as the Japanese society is concerned, it will be almost impossible for any other religion to replace Buddhism. At the same time, it will also be very difficult for Buddhism to restore its influence as an active, living religion for the majority of the people as in the past, although it should continue to preserve its customs and traditions among the Japanese people. It appears that the only way for Japanese Buddhism to become a vital and influential religion for the people would be to show the significance of its teachings through actual practices and other activities in present-day society.

Home  Top