In Part 11 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s “Death in the Japanese Tradition”, he compares and contrasts the Christian view of death with that of the Japanese Buddhist.
On the basis of the preceding discussion in Part 10, I would like to propose three significant points of comparison and contrast between the Japanese-Buddhist and the Western (Christian-based) view of death. See my Buddhism: Japan’s Cultural Identity (Kodansha International, 1982, Chapters 4 and 5).
1. The Gap Between Life and Death in Japanese Buddhism and Christianity
Firstly, the gap between life and death in the Christian view is much greater than that which exists in the Japanese Buddhist view. Evidence abounds for this. The manner in which the deceased is treated in Japan suggests that he or she is never very far from the land of the living. For the first forty-nine days, the spirit remains in the home, and does not leave until the assisting ceremony, the shi ju ku nichi (the forty-ninth day ceremony), is performed. The importance of the photograph and the kaimyo in the butsudan indicates the belief that the deceased has a real, but new Buddhist identity, and is present. In all probability, this is derived from the Shinto tradition, from its interaction with Buddhism in the earlier period.
“The Christian view, in contrast, emphasizes the distance between life and death.”
The Christian view, in contrast, emphasizes the distance between life and death. The grave is silent and mysterious, unknown and frightening. The passage from life to death has a finality that leaves little room for ideas of connection communication. Photographs of the deceased are never found at the funeral ceremony. Indeed, they might even be questioned as implying the possibility of communication between the living and the dead. In Roman Catholic Christianity, such official communication is limited to prayers to a select number of officially recognized saints.
The underlying popular view of death is simply and clearly exhibited without the aid of religious institutions in the treatment of the grave. In the Christian tradition, the most that may be taken to the graveside is flowers. In churches where the graveyard surrounds the church, local families sometimes place flowers on the family grave on the way home from a Sunday service. However, with the increase in popularity, and in Japan, the necessity of cremation, the family grave is becoming a thing of the past, and few people really want the bother of keeping it tidy. In contrast, the Japanese family carry fruit, rice dumplings, water and flowers to the grave, and behave towards the deceased as though he or she were still alive. The giving of the kaimyo is clear evidence of a post-death identity. In the Christian tradition, this is quite as unknown as it is unthinkable.
In Japan, it is not uncommon for someone to plan a grave in his lifetime and erect a headstone for himself, the lettering on which will change from red to black after his burial. This continuity of life and death implicitly present in Buddhism, is notably absent in Christian thought and practice.
2. The Moral Significance of Death in Japanese Buddhism and Christianity
A second important point of contrast is that within the Christian tradition, even at the level of popular belief, there is the idea that death has moral significance. God determines the time of birth and of death, and therefore death may come late or early, depending upon the will and purpose of God. Since judgment is believed to follow death, the moral quality of each individual’s life assumes tremendous importance. The individual’s death is caught up in the mystery of God, and has significance beyond that of a mere physical event. Death therefore, may be said to have moral significance, since it determines the span of life upon which moral judgment will be made by God and man. Thus the Christian, in popular preaching, is encouraged to live every day as though it were his or her last. This means, in effect, living every day under the moral scrutiny of God.
“death in Buddhist thought is altogether devoid of moral significance”
In contrast again, death in Buddhist thought is altogether devoid of moral significance. Life is part of a chain of rebirths. Therefore death is no more than an organic and inevitable part of the life process itself. The chain of rebirths ends when Buddha confers upon the believer the right to enter the Buddhist elysium. There is no moral significance attached to death, in the form of a last judgment after death and the hope of heaven is not a vision to be striven after but rather the expected and natural destination of the soul after death. Since the ultimate goal of life is extinction, Hinayana Buddhists merely accept it.
3. The Link Between Death and Sin in Western Thought
From this second area of contrast, the third arises. In Christianity, death is usually understood as a consequence of humanity’s fallen and therefore imperfect condition. There is moral evil within human nature, and death, the last stage in the process of human decay, carries an almost repulsive odor about it. The abundant literature about ghosts, vampires and the living dead who return to prey on the blood of the young and innocent, along with the popular terror in which nighttime graveyards are shrouded because of witchcraft and the black arts, testify to this. (The Dance Macabre was first depicted in a book by Hans Holbein, published in 1538).
The association of sin and death in the West goes back into the mythology of the Hebrews in which God expelled Adam from the paradise of Eden into the mortal world where he and Eve were condemned to face suffering and sorrow, decay and death as has been noted.
“There is, in Japan, no corresponding sense of disgust at death.”
There is, in Japan, no corresponding sense of disgust at death. There is, to be sure, a sense of impurity attached, but not revulsion. Mourners at a funeral receive salt to sprinkle in their doorways before entering their homes. Salt is a powerful purifying agent. This rite is of Shinto rather than Buddhist origins, and is not restricted to funerals. Salt, is thrown by sumo wrestlers during the ritual preceding each bout. One of Japan’s top professional baseball teams, during the 1977 Japan series lost a game because of three costly errors on the third base. Before the next game in the series, the third base was sprinkled with salt. The origin of the custom may go back to the same set of considerations that motivated the hygiene regulations recorded in the ancient Hebrew Book of Leviticus. In a hot climate, hygiene required that corpses should not be touched unless unavoidable and that such touching resulted in ritual impurity. The Japanese ritual sprinkling of salt may be for the same reason; death is not a matter of disgust, only of ritual uncleanness.
In the Christian tradition, death is a blemish on life, while in Japanese Buddhist thought, it may even restore lost innocence. Death in the West may have an atoning function under certain circumstances, but it can never restore lost innocence.
4. Interpretation of the Contrast
The contrast may be approached from numerous directions although some of the basic points may emerge in one form or another. Two are noted here because they appear to have a degree of self-evidence that is prima facie apparent irrespective of other differences in perspective. For convenience I have labeled these the metaphysical and ethical components of the contrast.
Metaphysically: Christianity is Death-Defying while Buddhism is Death-Denying
If we follow the characterization of death in Buddhist Japanese and western Christian thought, the significance of the contrast may be stated as follows. The Christian tradition, which affirms resurrection, may be called a death defying metaphysic in which death, the last enemy, is finally conquered. The eschatology of the closing book of the New Testament, namely the Revelation of St. John, vibrates with the sense of victory over death, that ceases to exist when it is cast into the lake of fire. Death is destroyed. Death is defeated. The Easter story in all Christian traditions, climaxes in the rising of Christ from the grave.
The Japanese Buddhist tradition, quite bereft of this sense of death as an enemy to be defied, might better be described as a death denying metaphysic, in which the bleakness and finality of death is set in a key that makes melodious what is a source of disharmony in the Christian tradition. Death may even be viewed as a form of release from the existence of suffering, while in the Christian tradition, although death after a painful disease may be looked on as release, it is also regarded as defeat. The sense of conflict there is absent from the Japanese metaphysic.
Ethically: there is an anti-suicide emphasis in Christianity
The difference in attitudes has had some notable effects upon the central value systems found within Christianity and within Japanese Buddhism. The importance and precious nature of human life is stressed more in Christianity than in Buddhism. For example, the Buddhist attitude towards death helped to reinforce, if not encourage, suicide tendencies. The Christian tradition, while not having scriptural warrant is strong in its opposition to suicide. The adage in the Hebrew Book of the Proverbs of Solomon that a living dog is always considered better than a dead lion, however great the lion may have been or however miserable the dog may be states a clear position.
The number of suicides found in Buddhist literature is very great, and instances of shoshin and shinju narrated in Japanese literature are performed on the strength of the promise of mercy found in Amida Buddha. Couples performing shinju may recite the Nubutsu invoking, Amida. From the Christian point of view, suicide would be understood as lack of faith and not evidence of faith in the promise of God. As we shall see, this contrast takes on great importance in other contexts.
To close with a dissenting footnote, In modern Japan, according to Iga Mamoru, The Thorn in the Chrysanthemum, Suicide and Economic Success in Japan (CA: University of California Press, 1986 p.71, Christianity may actually have in a paradoxical way promoted a suicide tendency among intellectuals because of its intensifying of self-awareness and a sense of guilt. ‘Self-awareness’ produces internal conflict in that country where ‘selflessness’ or merging into society is the basic value. He quotes several cases where this thesis would seem to apply. He may be correct with regard to certain types of intellectuals in Japan, but I would question the applicability of his theory beyond its defined province.
Image | K. Kendall
This is Part 11 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.
The next instalment, Bushido: The Way of Death will be published next Thursday on June 02, 2016.
Part 1: Death in the Japanese Tradition: An Introduction
Part 2: Buddhism & Burial: Attitudes to Death in Ancient Japan
Part 3: Death and the Dead in Japan’s Literary Classics
Part 4: Parallel Worlds: Folk Religion, Life & Death in Japan
Part 5: Kami and Ancestors
Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society
Part 7: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan
Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults
Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism
Part 10: Cross-Cultural Comparisons on Mourning and Object Loss
Part 11: Japanese Buddhist and Christian Images of Death: Comparisons and Contrasts
Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death
Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai
Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa
Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi
Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan
Part 17: Lingering Images in Popular Culture
Part 18: Terrorism, Violent and Tomorrow’s Citizens
Part 19: The Death and Burial of Emperor Showa
Part 20: The Modern Ritualized Death System