Buddhism

  • 11 Jul
    Japanese Buddhism is hard to define

    Japanese Buddhism is hard to define

    Today most Japanese do not regard themselves as religious, but most follow cultural practices that originate with Buddhism and Shinto. Japanese Buddhism focusses largely on keeping the traditions of one’s ancestors. For many Japanese people their active involvement in Buddhism only involves following traditions such as daily honouring their ancestors at the family shrine (a majority of homes have one of these) and participating in funerals when family members die. Usually most of the regular work relating to these traditions is done by one member who represents the family, often the oldest brother or his wife.

    When I talked with Japanese friends and missionary colleagues in Japan about Buddhism, it quickly became obvious that while Buddhism is a major religion in Japan, most Japanese people can’t articulate exactly what they believe. I learned that the influences on their worldview come not just from Buddhism, but also from Confucianism and Shintoism, and teasing out the difference between these three is nearly impossible.

    However, learning a little about the influence of Buddhism on Japan is helpful as we think about how to pray for this land.

    The traditional date for the introduction of Buddhism to Japan from the mainland is 552 AD.When it arrived, Shintoism and animism were already ingrained in Japan, but “Buddhism tends to gather indigenous religions under its broad umbrella. Thus, it dominates and integrates local belief structures, but does not dislodge nor destroy them” (from here).

    Buddhism, as an organized religion, was promoted by the Japanese authorities to stamp out Christianity during the Edo period of national seclusion (1639-1854). Families were forced to register with the local temple to prove that they had no affiliation with Christianity. To be a patriotic Japanese person became inherently linked with being Buddhist. To be a Christian was a betrayal of the nation, a crime that was punishable by death. The majority of the uneducated masses meekly complied with the rules to stay out of trouble.

    This passage from Daughters of the Samurai (a well-researched historical novel by Janice P. Nimura, 2015) illustrates how restrictive Japanese society was when its borders were opened in the 19thcentury:

    ‘Our historians bid us to obey the maxims, to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, to change nothing in them,’ a senior official in Edo told Henry Heusken, secretary to the new American consulate. ‘If you do this, you will prosper, if you change anything, you will fall into decay. This is so strong that if your ancestors bid you to go by a roundabout way to go to a certain spot, even though you discover a route which goes directly there, you may not follow it. You must always follow the path of your ancestors.’

    Almost a century and a half later, Japan enjoys full religious freedom, but there are still many traces of this adherence to the ways of the ancestors amongst the Japanese. Active involvement in Buddhism has waxed and waned over the centuries, but even today, there is a strong sense that to be Japanese is to participate in Buddhist traditions.

    Though few even understand what Buddhism teaches, Buddhist thought backed up by Confucian philosophy and Shinto animism, permeates the psyche of most Japanese whether they are conscious of it or not.

    By an OMF missionary

    1. Dale Saunders, Buddhism in Japan(Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1964), 91.

    Will you pray for Japan?

    • Pray that Japanese people searching for meaning or fulfillment would find hope in Christ.
    • Pray for Japanese Christians, that they would have great discernment in living their lives in a land permeated by a worldview so influenced by Buddhism.
    • Pray for missionaries, that they would know how best to present the gospel to those they come in contact with.

    Pray

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    Learn more about OMF Japan.

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    Find out about serving with OMF Japan.

  • 11 Jul
    Buddhism in Japan: a complex topic

    Buddhism in Japan: a complex topic

    Sometime in 2013, I found a document in Japanese in my pigeon-hole at church. A glance at it told me that it was about how to evangelise Buddhist believers in Japan, the title: “The main points for the Strategic Evangelisation of Buddhism.”

    A couple of years later, I decided to translate this paper because I thought it would be useful to me and other OMF missionaries in Japan. It was written by the pastor of Nara Gospel Church—Nara was the old capital of Japan from which the power of Buddhism increased in the 700s AD.

    It was 12 pages of dense, sometimes very technical Japanese. It covered the types of Buddhism that are common in Japan, the main festivals, home Buddhist altars (butsudan), the basic teachings of Japanese Buddhism, and some of its history.

    Long and complex sentences made my brain hurt. Trying to unpack specialist terms into simpler language stretched me. Creating an easily read document for non-native speakers of English added to the challenge.

    Several years later I’ve just finished translating and formatting it as a bilingual document and producing a vocabulary list. It’s become a sizeable 50-page document in the process. I asked many people about concepts and words that I was not sure about. I’ve learned much that will help me and others reach out to people here in Japan.

    The deep and lasting impression I have out of undertaking this task is how utterly different Japanese Buddhism is to Christianity. The concepts are so strange to me. The stories it tells are confusing. Its festivals and ceremonies are completely foreign to Christianity. Many of the people involved are unheard of outside of Japan.

    This tells me the following truth (which I knew already, but it was good to be reminded of again): If I want to preach the gospel of Christ to Japanese people who have been brought up in this Buddhism-soaked atmosphere for centuries, then I need to explain the gospel repeatedly, clearly, and simply. I also need the Holy Spirit to take my words and make them live! May it happen Lord!

     

    By Peter, an OMF missionary

    Will you pray for Japan?

    • Pray for wisdom for missionaries trying to understand Buddhism in Japan so that they can communicate the gospel effectively.
    • Pray that the Holy Spirit will take efforts at evangelism and use them to speak to Japanese hearts.
    • Pray that more Japanese Christian leaders will teach those in their churches how to best to communicate the gospel to their fellow countrymen.

    Pray

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  • 04 Jul
    Religious confusion in Japan

    Religious confusion in Japan

    When you think of Buddhism, what do you think of? It probably depends on which part of the world you are in or from and even which country or region. To get a better understanding of Japanese people’s thoughts about religion, I have been asking my friends and acquaintances in Japan, “What is Buddhism?”

    At the English Language café where I help, students have to introduce themselves by including something about their country and religion. The other day three Japanese students introduced themselves:

    One said, “I don’t have a religion.”

    And the second, “My home is bukkyo (a Buddhist household)”. I asked her what that meant. She said, “I go to the temple at New Year and maybe when I want to pray for something, such as success in study.”

    The third student said, “My household is Shinto.”

    I asked them about the difference between Shinto and Buddhism. They proceeded to debate amongst themselves, with one talking uncertainly about washing yourself before entering the temple, whilst the other one corrected her saying that you wash at the shrine, not the temple. Between them they did not seem to be able to fully agree on what was done at a Buddhist temple and what was done at a Shinto shrine.

    The short exchange above reflects quite a few of the answers I received from those I asked. Most said that Japanese people do not really have a religion, but if they did, their family would be a Shinto household or Buddhist household, or sometimes even both. However, sometimes they would mention one and it would turn out that they actually meant the other.

    I’ve discovered that it can be easy to confuse the two because you sometimes see a building labelled as a temple and yet behind the sign is a simple gate with two vertical pillars connected on top by two horizontal bars—a Shinto gate (tori).

    One reason for this confusion dates back to a time when Buddhism and Shintoism were combined, as I discovered during a recent visit to Nikko. The Nikko national park hosts one of Japan’s world heritages sites containing a Buddhist temple and two shrines within 50.8 hectares. All three used to be united, combining Buddhism and Shintoism, until after 1868 when the new government issued a Separation Order in which all institutions had to belong either to Shintoism or Buddhism.

    Whatever the reason, it is clear is that many Japanese do not think of themselves as religious. Even when they do say that they are either from a Shinto or Buddhist household, they are not really certain of exactly what Buddhism (or Shintoism) is and have often not really thought about it. Rather they seem to just do the rituals accordingly because it is their family custom.

    If they have not thought much about their own beliefs, how much harder it is when introducing the Christian gospel to them!

    But it is good for us to consider whether there are things that we also do as a tradition or custom but are not aware of the origin or reason for it. May we all reflect on these things and truly question what their true meaning is and hence be guided to search for and find the true meaning of life—true life that is found only in Christ.

    By Margaret, an OMF missionary

    Will you pray for Japan?

    • Pray that missionaries would have wisdom in introducing the gospel to Japanese people.
    • Pray that we would be humble in considering our own traditions and customs.
    • Pray that Japanese and missionary alike would be guided towards Christ in whom is found the true meaning of life.

    Pray

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    Learn more about OMF Japan.

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    Find out about serving with OMF Japan.

  • 02 Jul
    Taiwan is a bi-lingual country

    Taiwan is a bi-lingual country

    We have often been with Taiwanese friends where both Mandarin and Taiwanese are used interchangeably. One sentence is spoken in Mandarin, followed by another sentence in Taiwanese. Or, a sentence may begin in Taiwanese and then finish in Mandarin.

    The people in central Taiwan where we serve are functionally bi-lingual. That is, they speak both Taiwanese and Mandarin in everyday life.

    There are two generalizations about language in Taiwan:

    The first is that people over 40 years old speak Taiwanese while those under 40 speak Mandarin. The second is that people in the North of Taiwan speak Mandarin, whereas people in the South speak Taiwanese.

    These generalizations are oversimplified and are not really accurate.

    The truth is that people all over Taiwan communicate (speaking and listening) in both Mandarin and Taiwanese on a daily basis.

    Tina leading a church service in Taiping

    Incoporating both languages

    A local church in Taiping uses an interesting solution to incorporate both languages in the worship life of the church.

    The church runs a worship service every Sunday. On the first, third, and fifth Sunday of the month, the church service (songs, preaching, prayer, and announcements) is conducted in Mandarin. On the second and fourth Sunday, the church service is conducted in Taiwanese. During informal fellowship gatherings at the church, both Taiwanese and Mandarin are used interchangeably.

     

    The bi-lingual nature of Taiwan

    The bi-lingual nature of life in Taiwan is a reality that we live with. This is why missionaries have to commit to learning language and engaging with people well.

    In addition to the two major languages (Mandarin and Taiwanese), many Taiwanese are of specific ethnic backgrounds. So, they may also speak other languages such as Hakka and many of the aboriginal tribal languages.

     

    – Nathan, Ministry Team Leader

    (Taping, Taichung City, Central Taiwan)

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  • 02 Jul
    Ghost month

    Ghost month

    The seventh month of the lunar calendar is called “Ghost Month” in Taiwan.

    In Taiwanese folk religion, the spirit world consists of three types of beings: gods, ancestors, and ghosts.

    The gods are the highly respected and powerful spiritual beings.

    Ancestors are family members who have already died. They require living relatives to offer ongoing resources in the spirit world.

    Ghosts are the spirits of people who died but are not being sufficiently supplied by the offerings of their living relatives.

    Offerings for hungry ghosts laid out during ghost month

    During Ghost Month, ghosts are released from the underworld to roam the earth for one month. They can harm people who don’t provide for their needs. So, food and drinks are offered to them at the beginning, the middle, and the end of this month to satisfy their hunger.

    The largest of the food offerings happens during the middle of the month. Homes and businesses place tables with offerings out the front. Even fast food restaurants, tea shops, and grocery stores have tables set out to offer food and drink to the hungry ghosts.

    People place burning incense sticks on the offering arrangements. Anything the incense ash falls upon is believed to become spiritual in nature for the ghosts to consume.

    After the offerings are given, the people who give the offerings will either consume the food themselves or share it with others.

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  • 02 Jul
    Japanese Buddhists saved by faith?

    Japanese Buddhists saved by faith?

    Kota Shrine with Shinran statue

    “We are Buddhists!” Mr. Suzuki informed us in a stern tone as if he wanted to make sure that we knew our boundaries as missionaries when we invited their daughter to our church-based English classes. I thought, Interesting, and why are you sending your daughter to our classes, if you have such strong religious convictions?

    Over the course of several years, our friendship with the family grew and we enjoyed numerous interesting discussions about the Christian faith and aspects of Buddhism. I remember how surprised we were to hear that the Buddhist branch they belong to also teaches salvation by grace. Shinran, the twelfth-century founder of True Pure Land Buddhism (Jōdo Shinshū), stressed that salvation was not attainable through effort or through accumulation of merits, but only by faith in the grace of Amida Buddha.

    When we heard about the teaching of True Pure Land, I thought, Well if this is true, then what we thought was unique to the Christian faith, is also central to this branch of Buddhism. It felt as if the wind was taking out of our “evangelistic sails.” All that the followers of Amida Buddha need to do is to invoke his name in faith: “Namu Amida Butsu” (I take refuge in Amida Buddha). The goal is to be reborn in the Pure Land, where there is no evil and people live long healthy lives. In other words, the followers of Shinran’s teaching share a hope that looks not too dissimilar from the Christian one. Although I am usually annoyed by the ignorance of the popular secular media when they suggest that all religions are the same, in this case, we were not quite sure how to make the Christian faith uniquely attractive to our friends.

    Recently, I have come across an interesting testimony by a True Pure Land monk (Buddhist monks choose Christ, Dawn Press, 1989), who has become a Christian. He shares that when he started to investigate the origins of True Pure Land Buddhism, he noticed that Shinran almost completely reversed the original Buddhist doctrine and made it into an attractive philosophy. The former monk realized that the Christian promise of eternal life, by contrast, is not based on enticing teaching, but on the historical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    However, we are not sure how to communicate this essential difference to our Japanese friends. From experience, logical reasoning will rarely lead to a change of heart and allegiance. Especially in Japanese Buddhism, which is often deeply ingrained into the psyche and is a way to stay connected to one’s family and ancestors.

    The Suzuki family attended our church service several times. They heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only the Spirit can convince them of their need of Jesus. Once again we are reminded that prayer is essential to mission work.

    Names changed for privacy

    By OMF missionaries

    Will you pray for Japan?

    • Pray that the Holy Spirit will convict the heart of Japanese people relying on Buddha to save them.
    • Pray for wisdom for missionaries as they seek to communicate the essential difference between Christianity and Buddhism.
    • Pray that Japanese will not be attracted by human-made philosophy, but instead find truth in the Bible.

    Pray

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  • 21 Jun
    My Buddhist Friend’s Story

    My Buddhist Friend’s Story

    My Taiwanese friend, Jane*, is a devout Buddhist.

    I remember a class in high school on Buddhism, learning the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and words like enlightenment, nirvana and karma. But high school was a long time ago and I was curious as to exactly what my friend believed. So I asked Jane if she would share with my coworker, Amy, and I more about her beliefs. We sat down with our coffees, ready to talk.

    An individual experience of Buddhism

    Jane said,

    “Everyone experiences Buddhism differently. What I share with you is only my experience of Buddhism.”

    Jane shared with us for over an hour and not once did she talk about ‘noble truths’ or the ‘eightfold way’. Instead she talked about loving her family, the importance of listening to others, respect and treating all people equally.

    Each week Jane travels an hour to attend a class run by a Buddhist teacher. The class lasts about an hour and includes studying Buddhist Scriptures. As she talked about the class, she raised her hand as if to hit a small gong. I’ve seen Buddhist monks do this on TV.

    I asked her the significance of this. “Oh, that’s just a gong to help us know when to move onto the next part of the class.”

     

    Studying Buddhism?

    Curious about how they study the Buddhist scriptures I said, “You have seen Amy, I and others in the coffee shop study the Bible together. Is that how you study the Buddhist scriptures?”

    Jane said, “Oh no. We must be in a quiet place. It is important not to bother people around us.” It seems to be a much more private practice.

    Jane continued. “There are thousands of Buddhist scriptures. From the time that Buddha died, (he had to die as he was a human), his enlightened spirit has been inspiring teachers to write more scriptures. The teacher must write down exactly what he hears the Buddha say and include the name of the teacher who is receiving the lesson, where it happened and the date. The scriptures are then classified into different topics which address things like family and work.”

    At the end of the class, the teacher  encourages people to go home and spend time with their family. My friend Jane is particularly devout so stays behind to teach a class herself.

    Jane acknowledges that there are some good and some bad Buddhist teachers out there. She chose her teacher, who lives in Japan, because she believes that what he teaches matches up with his life. He particularly teaches the importance of treating people with love and respect in public as well as in private like with your family. If she does something wrong, Jane is quick to repent. She bows her head and quietly prays to Buddha.

     

    The Four Noble Truths?

    Our time was coming to an end. “Jane, thank you so much for sharing what you believe with us. But please, what about ‘The Four Noble Truths’ and the ‘Eightfold Path’?”

    Jane looked shocked. “The Four Noble Truths are very deep. This is only for teachers. Many Buddhists don’t even know about those things,” she said.

    Really? Jane’s experience of Buddhism was not what I had read about. I guess it’s true – You never really know someone unless you sit down with a cup of coffee and ask.

     

    – Linda, Church Planter

    (Donggang, Pingtung County, Southern Taiwan)

     

    * name changed for privacy

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  • 11 Apr
    The god who spoke

    The god who spoke

    On Aug. 15, 1945, a ‘god’ spoke. When Emperor Hirohito of Japan directly addressed his subjects for the very first time, life came to a temporary standstill around the world. Hirohito’s announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender not only ended a war and brought peace, but it also ended the myth that the emperor of Japan was divine. He spoke and the world changed.

    Because of this historical event, much changed in Japan as well. A new constitution was adopted and war was renounced. Democratic ideas took root in Japan and the emperor was reduced to a figurehead. Japanese industries flourished and a new middle class emerged resulting in a booming economy. The phrase “Made in Japan” stamped on manufactured goods was no longer derided as symbol of cheapness or inferiority, but esteemed as a mark of quality and success. Expensive vacations, quality education, designer clothes, and the latest electronic gadgets could be purchased by the masses and it seemed the lone threat to a peaceful, prosperous society was the legendary Godzilla!

    Certainly much changed after the emperor spoke, but in some regards nothing changed. The god of war had only been replaced by the gods of materialism and education. At the same time, the traditional gods of Japan continued to be venerated through worship at Shinto god shelves or Buddhist altars in homes throughout the country. Japanese still make periodic pilgrimages to the local shrines or temples for various life events and rely on purchased good luck charms for success and protection. Such things continue to retain a strong grip on the Japanese heart so even though the Only True God has spoken, few in Japan seem to be listening.

    On May 1stof this year, a new emperor will ascend the throne, replacing his elderly father, and inaugurate a new era. This assures that the oldest monarchical house in the world will continue. But, unlike their predecessors, post-war emperors now frequently appear in public as the traditional shrouds of secrecy surrounding them have been partially lifted. Their voices are now familiar, but when will the voice of God break through to Japanese hearts and inaugurate the coming of God’s kingdom rule upon this land?

    Let’s plead with God, like the Israelites did in Egypt. Plead that God would speak to Japanese hearts and that there would be an outpouring of the Holy Spirit like we’ve never seen before.

    By Mike, an OMF missionary

    Will you pray for Japan?

    • Pray that Japanese people will hear and seek the only true God.
    • Pray for spiritual breakthrough in Japan.
    • Pray for the leaders in Japan, that they would also know and follow the true God.

    Pray

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  • 21 Jan
    Partnership in Puxin (Part 3): What have been your biggest challenges and blessings in partnership?

    Partnership in Puxin (Part 3): What have been your biggest challenges and blessings in partnership?

    House church plant in Puxin

    (read Part 1 and Part 2)

    A challenge

    The whole thing was a challenge.

    Like the average person, the way I communicate with locals is often not very smooth. I make one phone call, realised I’ve left out something important, and had to make another phone call back to back with the same person.

    And when I make these perceived mistakes, it’s easy for me to ruminate on it and think over it. My challenge is to direct those moments to God in prayer.

    The challenges that come with partnership is just a part of our lives. There are other challenges in other parts of life and ministry. The blessings come when we can share our challenges, struggles and pain with our partners.

    A blessing for all

    One of our most challenging ministry contacts is the Lim family, but we’re able to involve brother Wang in the whole process. He visited the family with us, attended the baptism, accompanied us during a police report, and when the family stopped attending our house church, he remained a healthy and concerned attitude. This is how this partnership become a blessing for all parties.

    – Jason Tam, Puxin Township, Changhua County

  • 14 Jan
    Partnership in Puxin (Part 2): What have been some of the keys to making your partnership work?

    Partnership in Puxin (Part 2): What have been some of the keys to making your partnership work?

    Prayer with partners in Puxin

    (Read Part 1: What does partnership with the local church entail?

    Read Part 3: What have been your biggest challenges and blessings in partnership?)

    Prayer and Decision making

    In the case of the potential partnership with the Evangelical Formosan Church pastor (see part 1), we prayed with our team mates Lizzy and Cheryl quite desperately. In general, partnerships and communications involve a lot of decision making and a lot of micro decision making. There’s a lot of space to make mistakes, and relationships are at stake. So we pray for God’s grace in every step, and God’s mercy for the missteps.

    Personally, when I interact with senior men in Asian contexts, I tend to be overly reserved. So in my case, I need to intentionally be open and honest about my thoughts and vision for the ministry. In the case of Presbyterian church, that seems to help things move forward.

    A dance

    Finally, I like the analogy of dancing when I think about partnership. We have a different pace and tempo. So a key to making our partnership work is to find out what our pace is, and to make something smooth and graceful out of it.

     

    – Jason Tam, Puxin Township, Changhua County

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