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Seeking Solace in Religion:
The Spread of Buddhism

Robert Oxnam :: Also interesting is a comparison of Japanese Buddhism and Western Christianity, both of which spread rapidly in feudal societies. It's intriguing to think about the sharp differences in the two theological outlooks, but also about some similarities in their respective impacts on social and cultural life.

Donald Keene :: Of course, Buddhism didn't begin in the medieval period. The Japanese first became acquainted with Buddhism at the end of the sixth century. And after some struggle with the believers in Shintô, the two religions came to co-exist, and most Japanese believed in both of them at the same time. What is important in the medieval period is that Buddhism — which up until this time had been a religious discipline started mainly by priests, monks in monasteries, or else by people who were scholars — became the religion of many ignorant people who turned to religion for comfort in times of despair.

H. Paul Varley :: Buddhism offered much. It ultimately offered to all the people release from a life of suffering. Buddhism believes that this existence is a place of impermanence, all things are in flux, things are constantly changing, nothing actually is real. And as a result of this, people suffer, because people have desires, they try to acquire things and hold onto them, but they can't, because they're not real. So, it's suffering. So, it's a very powerful message, a very powerful concept about existence, about life itself and the offering of great rewards to those who pursue Buddhist practices to achieve release from this suffering, which was conceived in terms of transmigration. You're born, you die, you're reborn and so forth, in an endless sequence, and the suffering only increases because your bad karma from an earlier life affects you in this life, and so forth.

So, it's a grim description of life itself, but of course, it holds ultimate rewards — release from this suffering, entering into nirvana, entering into a state of bliss.

Donald Keene :: In the medieval period there was enough, a good deal, to be despondent about. First of all, there was the warfare, the warfare which began at the end of the twelfth century, which is considered to be the beginning of the medieval period. And the warfare goes on, with longer or shorter interruptions, until the end of the sixteenth century. And that is, in fact, the medieval period, from the end of the twelfth to the end of the sixteenth century.

During this time people who saw their houses destroyed, whole cities destroyed in warfare had to believe in something that didn't change, something that would comfort them and something, also, for them to think about as a salvation after death. They didn't want to believe that this world ended with the terrible things that they had witnessed.

[Excerpt from An Account of My Hut, written in 1212 by Kamo no Chômei]

On the twenty-ninth day of the fourth moon of 1180, a great whirlwind sprang up in the northeast of the capital. ... Every house, great or small, was destroyed ... engulfed by the wind. ... The tops of the gates were blown off ... fences were swept down. ... Innumerable treasures from within the houses were tossed into the sky. ... A smoke-like dust rose, blindingly thick, and so deafening was the roar that the sound of voices was lost in it ... must be the blasts of Hell, I thought.

... Countless people were hurt and crippled. ... The whirlwind moved off in a southwesterly direction, leaving behind many to bewail its passage.


Excerpt from Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Donald Keene, ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1960), p. 199.