On Tuesday, I posted an announcement about a new translation of the Lotus Sutra. I thought it would be interesting to take a moment to peer back into the past and see how this text, and other elements of Buddhism, have often been understood in traditional Buddhist cultures. At the same time, we can’t really understand the past without reference to our own situation, so I’ll include some comments on how traditional ideas relate to our modern views. Let’s take a look at a vignette from the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari). Written in the eleventh century, the Tale of Genji is often described as the world’s first novel. Over 1,000 pages long in English translation, it records the courtships of several generations of the Japanese nobility. In fact, it is rather like a very long Buddhist version of a Jane Austin novel.

Tales like these can be one of the most reliable sources we have for information about actual Buddhist practice. Polemical texts, such as sutras or the records of famous teachers, often present an idealized picture of Buddhism designed to make the author’s group look superior to another religious or Buddhist group that they were in competition with, or to bolster financial support from the laity (this is partly how Theravada and Zen were formed, for instance, among other important schools). Non-religious historical records are frequently full of distorting idealizations as well, as they were often designed to flatter the figures involved or their descendants (indeed, in the case of the nobility, to do otherwise was often illegal, while on the other hand observations of peasant life were often marred by prejudices based on social inequality). But novels such as the Tale of Genji offer a unique window into a more accurate depiction of Buddhism. Murasaki Shikibu, the author of Genji, was a high class woman trained to minutely observe the social behaviors of people around her. She was a familiar participant in the Buddhist worldview of her contemporaries, without being beholden to any particular faction. And, importantly, because her characters were fictional, she could depict practices and behaviors in ways that were accurate enough to paint a convincingly realistic portrait for her readers, yet not offensive to any actual living persons or families. The excerpts I’ve chosen appear on pages 862-865 of Edward Seidensticker’s terrific translation of the Tale of Genji. The scene involves Oigimi, a royal princess who has fallen ill. Her father, the Eighth Prince, passed away some time earlier after becoming a monk, and ever since her health has declined. Her companion is Kaoru, a high-born man who has courted her unsuccessfully but, despite her rejection, still feels deeply for her and tries to offer what help he can: Continuous reading of the Lotus Sutra began in the evening, most impressively, twelve priests of the finest voice taking turns. There was a light in Kaoru’s room, and the inner room, where Oigimi lay, was dark; and so he raised a curtain and slipped a few inches inside. . . A large number of Buddhist monks have been assembled to chant the Lotus Sutra in the hopes that this will cure Oigimi. Sutras have been used this way in virtually all traditional forms of Buddhism (the only exception is Jodo Shinshu)—indeed, the ritual uses of scriptures are far more common than their scholarly study. Illness in the traditional Buddhist view was believed to be brought on by supernatural forces, especially demerit accumulated in previous lives. Chanting particularly powerful sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra or Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra, was a usual form of faith-healing to alleviate such illnesses. Actually, it should be more properly said that having monks chant on behalf of someone else was usual: laypeople did not perform such practices, but paid monks to do so either for themselves or for people they were worried about. Monks had the special ritual training and the purity of their vows to ensure that they would perform the ceremonies correctly and thus accumulate large amounts of merit that could be dedicated to dispel the afflicting karma. A second related function of the sutra-chanting was to drive out possessing spirits—illness was often diagnosed as caused by malign spirits, who took advantage of someone’s karmic condition to seize control of them and cause disease. These practices are still very common today, though they have taken a serious hit in many places due to the introduction of Western understandings of disease and medicine. This is one reason for Buddhism’s decline in much of Asia—traditionally approached as a system of magic, Buddhism loses much of its relevancy in the face of more effective treatments for managing sickness and other misfortunes. Oigimi still hid her face, but he was beside her, and that was some comfort to him. She strove to dispel her embarrassment with the thought that a bond from a former life must account for their being so near. . . New lectors came for the matins, and the abbot, who had been present through the night, started up at the fresh resonance and began intoning mystical formulas. His voice was hoarse with age, but it seemed to have in it a store of grace that was enough to bring hope even to this despairing household. Oigimi is embarrassed to be seen by a man whom she is not wed to, as this was taboo for a woman of her stature. As with many events in Genji, Murasaki explains that a bond of karma established by the two in previous lives drives the action of the plot. Buddhists have always interpreted the present in terms of the past, especially the unknowable past buried in the twisting karma of eons of previous lives full of misdeeds and unbreakable interpersonal bonds. The present moment then is a mixture of unshakable fate and freely-willed actions based on imperfect (that is, unenlightened) understandings of the situation. This is an important source for the alleged pessimism of Buddhism. Many commentators have attributed this quality (which can be overstated) to the Buddhist insight that life is full of suffering. But everyone over the age of ten or so knows that people suffer. Really, the pessimistic cast of much of Buddhist thought comes much more strongly from the perception that endless numbers of (by definition) unenlightened previous lives are driving us on toward yet more imperfect actions in this life, tying us ever more firmly to the wheel of samsara. As she hides her face, fresh monks arrive to chant for Oigimi’s health. With her too is the abbot of a local monastery, probably of the Tendai school (a comprehensive school that studies all the scriptures while holding the Lotus Sutra to be the highest of the Buddha’s teachings). What the translator calls “mystical formulas” are mantras, powerful strings of syllables that have often been used by Buddhist monks to generate merit and cast spells. Because the abbot has special initiations that help him to create greater merit, and the mantras can be even more powerful than the sutras, the people of the household hope he will be able to cure Oigimi. “How did my lady pass the night?” asked the abbot, going on to speak, his voice sometimes wavering, of her father. “And in which realm will he be now? I wonder. One of peace and serenity, of that I am sure. The other night I dreamed of him. He was wearing secular dress, and he spoke with great clarity. ‘I had persuaded myself from the depths of my heart to renounce the world,’ he said, ‘and had nothing to hold me back. But now a small worry has come up, to ruffle the calm. I must pause on my way to the land where I long to be. It is a cause of great disappointment to me, and I beg you to pray that I soon recover the ground I have lost.’ I could not immediately think what to do, and so I set five or six of my men to chanting the holy name—it was the one thought that came to me. And then I had another: I sent priests out in the four directions to proclaim the Buddhahood of all men.” Dreams in the traditional Buddhist worldview are understood very differently from how we approach them in mainstream American culture. A dream was as much a real event as if the dead man had actually spoken to the abbot while alive. Thus while the abbot believes the Eighth Prince has been reborn in one of the Buddhist heavens, he also understands that the prince’s spirit can return to his previous abode to convey messages in dreams. The message he delivers is very significant: although the prince left the householder’s life and exerted himself to such an extent that many feel he died as an advanced practitioner, he nonetheless is unable to progress on to nirvana. The reason: he cannot give up attachments to his former family. This is another clue to the pessimistic attitude that some perceive in Buddhism. Traditional Buddhist cultures, those that have had many centuries to digest the teachings and try their hand at producing enlightened practitioners, are universal in their opinion that the Buddhist way is a profoundly difficult one and that very few people manage to free themselves of karmic entanglements. The number one problem, as the deceased monk’s spirit indicates, is the ever-lingering attachment that one has to family. No matter if we shave our heads and retreat into the mountains to achieve perfect equanimity, on a fundamental level we still worry over our parents, siblings, spouses, and especially our children. In Murasaki’s story characters continually express the wish to renounce the world and perfect the Buddhist path, but none are ever able to fully give up their distracting concerns for their loved ones still subject to the slings and arrows of ordinary household life. The abbot thinks of two additional ways to heal the ailing Oigimi. “Chanting the holy name” means to have monks ritually repeat the nembutsu, calling out the name of Amida Buddha. The Pure Land scriptures claim that saying the name eradicates enormous amounts of demerit from previous lives, so it was a common form of faith-healing (it was also used for exorcism and other magical purposes). This story was written well before the Pure Land emerged as a separate school within Japanese Buddhism (where nembutsu often took on a less magical understanding)—at this point, it is merely a part of the mix of practices indulged in by all forms of Buddhism in East Asia. This is a good example of Tendai eclecticism: the Lotus Sutra is Tendai’s favorite sutra, but it isn’t related to Pure Land practice. The other practice the abbot tries is a Lotus Sutra tradition: he sends out monks to proclaim the universal Buddhahood of all people. This is directly inspired by the Lotus Sutra story about Bodhisattva Never Despise. He was a humble man who went about telling everyone he met that they too were going to become Buddhas some day. This made people mock him, even high-level monks. But he endured their abuse and continued imploring others to believe that they were destined for Buddhahood. Eventually he became a Buddha himself. The abbot uses this story as the justification to send his subordinate monks into the nearby towns to publicly declare to everyone that they are future Buddhas. This ritualized practice is, like the others, designed to generate merit that may free the sick woman from her trials. That it is a ritual is apparent from the fact that the monks are actually wandering the streets in the middle of the night, when few if any people are about—the point is not to communicate a message of hope to others, but to vocalize the Buddha’s teachings and thereby produce merit. Which is not to say that such practices don’t also serve to spread the Dharma, of course. Kaoru was in tears. Oigimi wanted to die, at the thought of the burden of sin she must bear for her father’s troubles. She loved to be with him wherever he was, to join him before his soul came to its final rest. . . Oigimi is accumulating sin because she is distressing her father and causing him to fail on his mission to enlightenment. This is a violation of filial piety, a Confucian-derived concept that was more or less held by all East Asian Buddhists. Here we have a good example of how Buddhist concepts—such as wrong action and demerit—are always interpreted in culturally specific ways. New Buddhists in America often think of wrong action in terms of environmentalism and progressive social action; traditional Buddhists in Japan often thought of wrong action in terms of filial piety and social obligation. Such re-interpretations are what helped Buddhism move in to new cultural areas and adapt to the changing needs within society. He thought of the Eighth Prince as the abbot had dreamed of him, and of how it must be to watch all of this from the heavens. He had sutras read at the monastery where the prince had spent his last days and ordered new rites at other temples as well. Taking leave of his affairs in the city, he set about assuring himself that no device, Buddhist or Shinto, had been overlooked. . . Kaoru’s musings offer some important points about the traditional Buddhist worldview, especially in premodern Japan. The dead cannot be seen by the living, but the reverse is not true. The dead live in the heavens or other nearby spirit realms, and they can watch (and judge) every action of their living relatives. The human world is transparent to the ancestors and Buddhas, who are pleased or dismayed by the way we act day to day. When we misbehave, we not only disappoint our departed parents and grandparents who see our immoral actions, but we actually cause them to become upset and thereby imperil their advancement toward Buddhahood. Thus our actions have a continual effect not only on our own karma, but impact the afterlives of our loved ones as well. This is a heavy responsibility. Also significant is the natural resort to both Buddhist and Shinto rites. There has rarely been such a thing as “pure Buddhism”—in nearly all times and places, Buddhism has been performed along with non-Buddhist religious/magical practices and beliefs. In Japan, the common companion religion was Shinto, a tradition based on worshipping deities of natural forces and the maintenance of ritual purity. In North America, the obvious companion religions for Buddhism are Christianity and Judaism, and we can expect to see ever greater synthesis between these groups, at least in Buddhist circles. After all, Christianity and Judaism are no more dissimilar from Buddhism than the profoundly different traditions of Daoism, Confucianism, and Shinto were, traditions that nonetheless eventually found ways to organically meld with Buddhist thought and practice. For that matter, scientific materialism, modern psychology, and individual spirituality are dominant cultural philosophies in the West, and we should expect that they too will irresistibly come to fuse with Buddhism, such that eventually future generations of American Buddhists will be unable to understand how earlier Buddhists approached their religion in ways completely uninformed by these forces. Hoping that it did not seem pompous, she said to her sister: “I begin to feel that I am almost beyond help. I have heard that a woman sometimes lives a little longer if she becomes a nun. Might you point this out to the abbot?” But the house echoed with the objections of her women. “Absolutely out of the question. Think of the poor young gentleman who has been so kind. Think of the effect it would have on him.” They refused to even consider telling him of her wishes. In our last passage, Oigimi asks to be allowed to become a Buddhist nun. Monastic ordination has always been considered a highly meritorious action, able to cure diseases, prolong life, and save ancestors suffering in the hell realms. In Murasaki’s time emperors and others in the nobility often retired into the monastery as a way to relieve themselves of the social obligations of royal life (and ultimately Oigimi’s illness is caused by her distress over Kaoru’s courtship and the loss of her father). But such decisions were not individualistic in nature—in a society where one’s identity is based on one’s social relations, the other members of the household (such as the ladies-in-waiting and servants in this passage) could block ordination. Here, they refuse to summon the abbot because they hope that Oigimi will eventually relent and marry Kaoru, as well as fearing that if he sees she has truly escaped his grasp, he will be upset (besides concern for his pain, the ladies have an unspoken fear that he would then withdraw his support from the household and thus plunge them into deeper poverty). Oigimi eventually dies without having become a nun, which implies that her afterlife will be less successful than if she had been ordained. A couple of centuries later, the newly-imported Zen schools developed a major innovation that alleviated these sorts of situations: ordination for the dead. Ordaining corpses and giving them Dharma transmission as Zen masters, the Zen schools changed the entire playing field for funeral rites (and thus the balance of power among Japanese Buddhist sects). Now there was no need to renounce the world while living. Eventually all the other forms of Japanese Buddhism also developed their own forms of posthumous ordination, making it Zen’s most significant contribution to Japanese culture (even today this is the standard funeral format). But Oigimi lived too early to take advancement of such creative spiritual technologies, and thus the people who held her back in life are left to worry about the fate of her spirit in death. This ends our short tour through the Tale of Genji, which I hope has been interesting, or at least educational. Perhaps some of you may be inspired to try tackling some of the old Buddhist romances yourself, which are a treasure trove of information about mainstream Buddhist practices (as well as literary masterpieces). There’s no need for anyone to necessarily adopt the Buddhist beliefs and practices reflected in this passage, but for those of us who love Buddhism, I think it is always worthwhile to better understand how our spiritual ancestors struggled with the Dharma in their own times and places.

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters