Asiatic Religions Discuss Changes in the Religious Term Paper

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  • Subject: Mythology - Religion
  • Type: Term Paper
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Asiatic Religions

Discuss changes in the religious culture between 1750 and present day in at least one country from each of the three regions of Asia we have studied (East Asia, South Asia, and South East Asia)

Changes in modern Asian religions: Japan, India, and Thailand

Buddhism is a religion which began on the Indian subcontinent but which has spread across East and Southwest Asia. Its portability as a religion may partially be explained by its ability to blend with other religions and folk traditions. For example, the two dominant religions of Japan have historically encompassed Buddhism and Shinto: two different religions that most citizens profess to one degree or another. A common phrase "born Shinto; die Buddhist" highlights the comfort with which both of these religions exist side-by-side. However, Buddhism in Japan has been undergoing some notable changes in recent years.

Buddhism has been practiced in Japan for 1,440 years and 78% of Japanese people identify as Buddhist (Watanabe 1993). However, many temples have been forced to close in recent years. "Robust economic growth has boosted living standards and the costs of meeting them, compelling more priests to take outside jobs. Changing social attitudes have made the priesthood less attractive -- making it tougher to find successors in a country where temples have come to be handed down not so much from master to disciple, but from parent to child" (Watanabe 1993). This reflects how Buddhism in Japan has a unique, institutionalized character. It was declared the state religion by the Tokugawa regime to counteract the influence of Christianity which "created the unique Japanese danka system, under which every household was forced to register with a temple" (Watanabe 1993). The Meiji Restoration sought to restore Shintoism, a native faith often likened to 'nature worship' and subsequently persecuted many Buddhists and allowed Buddhist priests and nuns to marry (a move most thought was designed to weaken the religion) (Watanabe 1993). The Meiji effort to extinguish Buddhism was not successful and merely served to foster the current, syncretic blend of Shinto and Buddhism characteristic of most Japanese faith practices today.

The syncretic nature of Buddhism in modern Japan may come as a surprise to Westerners who have mainly been exposed to austere Zen Buddhism. However, Zen, even amongst Japanese who practice Buddhism beyond that of going to temple on New Year's and during funerals, is practiced by a relatively small percentage of Buddhists. Pure Land Buddhism is far more popular in Japan (Wilson 2009). And the state-based nature of the support for Buddhism in Japan has, in the eyes of some, reduced the fervor and genuine belief structure that is necessary to support a religion in modernity. "As a result of the household link, Buddhism's chief duty was transformed from the original Indian ideal of promoting individual enlightenment to holding funerals, requiems and other rituals of ancestor worship aimed at honoring a clan's lineage" (Watanabe 1993).

The strength of the institution of the Buddhist temple has been replaced by others in modern Japan. "The irreplaceable role that temples once played as a community's spiritual core -- acting as schools, medical clinics, nursing homes, administrative offices and recreational centers -- has diminished. Now, although some aspects of the faith are thriving, mainstream Japanese Buddhism is struggling to maintain its economic foundation and its moral and spiritual authority" (Watanabe 1993). Buddhism has been reduced to its rituals and lacks a spiritual core: "many see the inside of a temple only when a local head priest is asked to arrange a traditional (and expensive) funeral for a dead relative" (McMurray 2008). The priesthood is in crisis and many cash-strapped temples are taking novel approaches to attracting new believers, including opening up outdoor cafes, beauty salons, and even jazz lounges where patrons are served sake. "Dozens of Buddhist monks and nuns took to the catwalk in colourful silk robes as part of a public relations exercise at Tsukiji Honganji temple in Tokyo. The event, called Tokyo Bouz Collection, opened with the recital of a Buddhist prayer to a hip-hop beat and ended in a blur of confetti shaped like lotus petals" (McCurry 2008).

However, despite the struggling yet still-central status of Buddhism in Japan, it is important to note that it was in the Southeast Asian nation of India, rather than Japan, that Buddhism was born. But Buddhism did not take hold in India with the same tenacity as in other nations of the region. Hinduism, the majority religion in modern India, was based on a hierarchical notion of caste, or a schema of death and rebirth whereby generating good or bad karma in the present-day life would result in either a higher or lower-level order of rebirth. Social inequality, including the creation of a class of 'untouchable' persons was justified. In contrast, "anyone, irrespective of caste, creed was welcome to take refuge in the teachings of Buddha…There was no exclusive allegiance nor was lay deity required to perform regular religious service -- essentially everything was voluntary" (Why Buddhism prospered in Asia but died in India, 2012, Asian Tribune). The democratic and non-institutionalized nature of Indian Buddhism, however, was one of the reasons why it struggled to take hold.

Buddhism has experienced pockets of revival in India at times. In the 1950s there was a movement amongst many of the 'untouchable' classes to embrace Buddhism. However, "out of 28 Indian states and 7 union territories Buddhism's reach has become minimal. It is in the state of Maharashtra that 74% of total Indian Buddhists reside followed by Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Karnataka, UP, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh" (Why Buddhism prospered in Asia but died in India, 2012, Asian Tribune).

It must be cautioned that is important not to paint Hinduism with a 'broad brush' and suggest that it is an inherently discriminatory religion, given that many different manifestations exist, and some sects are more democratic than others. For example, the Hindu sect known as the "Bishnoi, whose 600,000 members are spread across northern and central India, abide by principles that encourage harmony between man and nature, including rules against eating meat and felling trees" (Kapur 2010). Regardless, it cannot be denied that most of India's modern religious and political struggles have primarily been defined by divisive relationships between Hindus and Muslims, as exemplified in the partition that resulted in the creation of the states of India and Pakistan.

A neighboring Southwest Asian nation where Buddhism did take hold is that of Thailand. Much like Japan, the religion has evolved over the years, blending with other native faiths, which has caused many scholars to characterize it as 'syncretic.' Thai Buddhism has also operated under the umbrella of significant state support. "In Thailand, the study of religion is by and large synonymous with the study of the dominant Theravada Buddhist tradition, and most scholarship over the past four decades has naturally been devoted to the state-sponsored religion," which has been characterized as much as an institutional product vs. A popular one (Kitiarsa 2005: 461). In the context of Thai social values, "Buddhism provides a coherent and integrated system of beliefs, practices, and specialists -- sustained by a codified orthodoxy of the Sangha, political authority, and the Thai masses," although there has been considerable variation in terms of how the religion operates on a popular, folk level in terms of how the state religion has interacted with folk beliefs (Kitiarsa 2005: 462).

Many of the ways in which Buddhism operates in the real world might seem incompatible with the philosophy of Buddhism but so-called "Buddhist magic allows people to satisfy their desire for magic, while it is incompatible with the principles of Buddhism, whilst remaining within the framework of Buddhism" (Kitiarsa 2005: 464). For example, although Buddhism suggests the need for detachment from all worldly things, on a…

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