Category Archives: buddhism

Buddhist Heian Art : The Lotus Sutra

Gold on indigo-dyed paper - from the later part of the Heian period.

This illustration is from the later part of the Heian period, approximately a century after Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu lived, wrote, and gossiped about each other. Considering that Buddhist compassion and forgiveness has been in the news lately following Tiger Woods’ televised apology, which contained references to his childhood visits to Thai Buddhist temples, this particular worked seemed timely. The Lotus Sutra emphasizes the Mahayana belief that Buddha’s compassion is open to all, regardless of position in life. Heian aristocrats would take comfort in such a belief, despite the fact that had a noted lack of empathy for the poor that bordered on disdain.


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Filed under art, beauty, buddhism, Murasaki Shikibu, Shonagon

Heian Syncretic Sculpture

Zao Gongen, the protective deity of a Shinto-Buddhist cult called Shugendo

This statue of Zao Gongen can be seen in the East Asian Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Zao Gongen was the spirit of Mt Kimpu, which is south of Nara.  He had previously been holding a thunderbolt scepter, which is now missing. The Fujiwaras, everyone’s favorite ruling clan, were among the adherents of Shugendo, a syncretic Shinto-Buddhist cult.

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Filed under art, buddhism, Fujiwara, nara, Shinto

The 1300th Anniversary of Nara

Nara is home to the largest Buddha in Japan, built about half a century before the Heian period officially begins.

The Heian period officially starts in 794, the year that Imperial Capital of Japan moved from Nara to Heian Kyo, or modern day Kyoto.  This year is Nara’s 1300th anniversary, and there will be myriad festivals and celebrations in the city throughout the coming year.

Todaiji, the Temple housing the giant Buddhas.

Nara is a very charming small city, totally underrated in comparison to Kyoto. While it is understandable that many visitors to Kansai would bypass it in favor of the much-larger Kyoto, it’s a shame, because Nara never became a huge city and retains the feeling of a small ancient imperial capital.

Also, there are tame deer you can hand-feed buckwheat cookies.


Filed under buddhism, festivals, travel, Uncategorized

Belong to Contradictory Religions

A major confusing aspect to life in Heian era Japan is that of religion. One cannot simply ask, which religious group did Heian Kyo aristocrats follow? The answer would be every religion that they had been exposed to.

Shinto shrine in Nara

The traditional religion of Japan is Shinto, which roughly translates to the way of the Gods. However, Shinto did not have a name until the introduction of Buddhism to Japan via Chinese ambassadors, back when they were still welcomed, and Buddha was initially viewed as an additional deity to be worshipped.

Shinto and Buddhism, however, are fairly contradictory ways of viewing the world. Put very simply, Shinto is an animist faith of many spirits and gods that involves joyful acceptance of the ways of nature, which man is inextricably a part of, whereas Buddhism is an agnostic philosophy about the inherent suffering humans experience with a resulting emphasis on passionlessness.

As a result of this philosophical mishmash, Heian aristocrats stayed in Buddhist monasteries for weeks on end, but followed Shinto rituals of purity. A certain Buddhist melancholy is pervasive in the art and literature of the period, but pagan Shinto celebrations of agriculture were happily continued.

Great Buddha of Nara

It’s true that both can be applied to different aspects of life, and still are in Japan today. However, now there is even more religious confusion. A wedding in modern Japan will typically involve Shinto traditions, but a funeral will be Buddhist. Confucian thought governs social roles.

Tokyo Tower

Christmas is celebrated in a commercial sense, with gigantic Christmas trees on display in large cities.  The Japanese have less concept of “belonging” to a religion, but rather follow traditions or concepts from multiple faiths without anxiety over the inherent contradictions or any discernible cognitive dissonance. Or do they?


Filed under buddhism, Shinto

Retreating to the Monastery

An ascetic retreat.

An ascetic retreat.

Michitsuna no Haha, otherwise known as the author of the  “The Gossamer Years”, an account of her life as Kaneie no Fujiwara’s much ignored second or third wife, frequently sought respite from the misery and boredom of her sedentary aristocratic life in Buddhist monasteries in the mountains. Wives in Michitsuna’s time frequently lived at home with their parents, rather than in a new home with their husband, and their husbands would visit them. Irregular visits were common, and a total cessation of visits altogether was akin to a divorce. The strange, undefined marital customs of the time, which included polygamy and concubines, as well as affairs and discarded wives, meant a great deal of emotional turmoil and, at times, material hardship for noblewomen of Heian Kyo.

Unmarried aristocratic women generally had a fucking blast. Sei Shonagon and her fellow ladies-in-waiting were amusing themselves with idle chatter, bizarre wagers, constant travel and ceremonies, poetry contests and games of Go. Such was not the life of a married aristocratic woman in the capital. An unmarried woman  could discreetly have affairs, drink too much sake, gamble, or publicly deride powerful men for their crappy poetry. However, a married woman or daughter was expected to live a sedentary, indoor life, hidden away behind various screens and curtains, unseen. As such, boredom gave way to extreme introspection, as “The Gossamer Years” demonstrates.

Sitting alone in a room all day with little contact from Kaneie, all poor Michitsuna finds herself able to do is write and think about him, and wonder whether she will see him again. The only action that appeared to help her to feel better was to retreat to a Buddhist monastery in the mountains, to such a degree that her son, the only biological child she had with Kaneie, had to stop her from taking a nun’s vows multiple times.

Despite the glamor and enviable high culture of the period. there were many drawbacks for certain citizens, and that included aristocratic women.

….On the other hand, life in the palace for royalty and their attendants was essentially The Real World: Kyoto. I might take my chances.

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Filed under buddhism, diaries, insularity

A Break in the Mountains

I have only just returned from a long trip away from my native soil, and though it is decidedly un-Heian to travel abroad, that is what I just did. Heian-era Japanese became more and more isolated from the world. They no longer sent ambassadors to China and Korea, thought of India, the birthplace of Buddhism, as further away than the moon, and perhaps a place of myth, and did not invite foreign emissaries to the royal court at Heian Kyo. The isolation was such that the Chinese court the Japanese were imitating was that of several hundred years before. This would be the equivalent of Italians today imitating 18th century France. That’s right, weird.
No, people did not venture abroad. Rather, the main traveling that aristocrats of the time did would be to stay for a long time at various Buddhist monasteries, where they would grow spiritually through an austere existence, or simpley wait out the latest gossip about themselves. In that spirit, let’s imagine that rather than having gone on a cruise to Central America, I went took a break in the mountains at a monastery. In a Heian interpretation of said vacation, I have written haikus to impart the important details.
Oooh, iguana farm!
Dominant males rest in trees.
Yes, they are all loose.

Majestic toucan
observes me below and squawks.
I want some fruit loops.

Feeding Honduran
parrots fallen orange pieces.
They all love me now.

You look like Sharpay
from High School Musical 3,
Honduran child says.

Top of Altun Ha,
dense jungle all around me.
My legs still don’t hurt…

Mayan Calendar:
will the world end in three years?
See 2012.


Cozumel – clear springs
abound. This is the island
of fertility.

Mexican ponies:
so very tiny, and quite
ill-tempered as well!

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Filed under buddhism, china, poetry, travel