Joseph Anderson

Japan: Many Buddhisms

One of the anticipations I have about going to Japan is being able to spend some time in places dedicated to obscure varieties of Buddhism I know nothing about. There are so many different ways to map soul intentions into the imaginal field!


If you have any interest at all in the topic of Japanese Buddhism (and I won’t be upset if you don’t), then you simply must visit the On Mark Productions Buddhism Corner, a fabulous site dedicated to thorough documentation of Japanese Buddhist (and to a lesser extent Shinto) visual culture, especially sculpture, from about 800 to 1300.


When I first came across this site, I thought I knew a reasonable amount about Buddhism in general and a thing or two about Japanese Buddhism. Humbling! Of course when you did into any topic a bit deeper (baseball, British royalty, backgammon) the complexity and subtlety starts to show up, and you realize once again that you could spend your life happily studying almost anything and never get to the end of it. Add to that the (arguably) inherently complex and hidden nature of Japanese society, expressing a Buddhist tradition that was deeply in love with paradox and complexity before it ever arrived in Japan, and you get something wonderfully obscure and mysterious.


I want to hang around in some Buddhist temples while we’re in Japan. That should be relatively easy on one level, as there are over 1,400 of them in Kyoto alone (!), and many of them have the sorts of gardens that will be magnets for Victoria’s own curiosity. But there are barriers too – language barriers, cultural barriers, conventions I don’t understand and, from what I hear, many places that never or only rarely open to the public.


I don’t mind all that, because I feel confident that at some point I will find myself in the presence of something memorable, extraordinary, and real. In a moment it will all come together: the accumulated weight of centuries of human intentions, the amazingly well-developed aesthetic sensibility inherent in Japanese culture, the potency of the Buddhist path (one of the deepest and most refined on the planet and of great benefit to me personally) – and of course Spirit itself, happy to present itself in splendor to anyone willing to stop a moment and listen. I will enjoy that moment when it comes.


It’s perhaps inevitable in a post about a forthcoming trip to Japan, but I’m obviously living in the future. The warm April sun streams in my window right here, Beethoven serenades me, I am wearing a thrift-store Montreal Canadiens t-shirt that makes me happy (just the right amount of subtle but off-beat coolness for Seattle, and far more than I usually achieve) – and I get to share it all with you.


Japanese Buddhism is coming to me in all its delicious, mysterious, surprising and probably at times disappointing flavors. If it can teach me to enjoy the drop of goodness hanging before me in each moment, all of them as good as this one, that will be a blessing indeed.