A look at Lady Murasaki’s Diary, part 2: religion

In our last episode, part 1, we took a brief look at Lady Murasaki’s Diary and some of her thought processes at the time. This time around, I wanted to explore the subject of religion in Heian-era Japan, which was pretty different than what you see today, through the eyes of Lady Murasaki.

Much of her diary revolves around the birth of Fujiwara no Michinaga’s grandson, prince Atsuhira, who would become Emperor Go-Ichijō later. Michinaga spares no expense to protect the birth of the prince by bringing together eminent Buddhist priests to perform tantric rites of exorcism:

Loud spells were cast [around the Empress] in order to transfer evil influences. All the priests who had been at the mansion for the last few months were present, of course, but they were now joined by everyone worthy of the name exorcist who had been ordered down from the major temples. As they crowded in, you could imagine every Buddha in the universe flying down to respond. Those famed as Ying-Yang diviners had also been asked to attend. Surely not a god in the land could have failed to prick up his ears, I felt. (trans. Richard Bowring)

All of this sounds quite unusual for the modern Buddhist reader, especially with the way that Buddhism blends with Taoism (ying-yang diviners) and possibly Shinto (references to local “gods”) so seamlessly. The Buddhist landscape at this time in Japan was much different than what people know later. Things like Zen and Pure Land Buddhism didn’t exist as separate sects yet, or even in large numbers. Tendai and Shingon were the dominant sects, both having strong esoteric/tantric elements, but even this doesn’t entirely explain things.

For this we have to go back a few centuries when Buddhism first arrived in Japan. Japan’s first introduction to Buddhism came in 552 when the king of the Korean kingdom of Baekje sought an alliance, and sent a Buddha statue as a gift. He stated that this would protect the nation of Japan from calamity. This sparked an interest in Buddhism there, but also a belief in Buddhism as a tool for protecting the state, as well as the Imperial Family. When one of the Imperial family fell ill for any reason, monks gathered to recite various sutras and texts to exorcise whatever might cause the illness.1 In later centuries, monks were always government regulated, and their primary role was to protect the state and the Imperial family. So, elaborate rituals proved very popular, including daily recitations of Buddhist texts such as the Golden Light Sutra, for its frequent references to protecting the nation that upholds the Dharma, across many state-sanctioned temples at the time.

Meanwhile, Shinto continued its tradition of working to pacify the kami and to avert calamities both on a wide scale such as disasters, and on a personal scale with protecting the Imperial Family. At this time, the main shrine in Japan was the Ise Shrine, with its traditional connection to the Imperial Family and the traditional ancestor Amaterasu Omi no Kami. However, due to its distance from the capitol, another temple at Kamo, just north of the capitol, served a more practical purpose and its role was expanded to provide religious needs for the Court nobility at the time. The Emperor’s appointed a representative (a young maiden of noble birth) to function as his representative there in all ritual matters, and this position carried a lot of clout.

So, from the official perspective, all extant religious traditions at the time worked in tandem as functions of the state, personal/doctrinal differences aside.2 Japanese beliefs at this time reflected a very real belief in ritual pollution, evil spirits and other forces that sought to cause harm, so Fujiwara no Michinaga was very concerned about something happening at such a critical time to his grandson and future heir to the Imperial throne.

Lady Murasaki continues describing the proceedings:

In retrospect, it may have been amusing, I suppose, but at the time we must have presented a sorry sight, rice falling on our heads like snow [part of a ritual to drive away evil spirits] and our clothes all crumpled and creased.

And later, as the baby was being born:

At the moment of birth what awful wails of anguish came from the evil spirits! …he [Precept Chisan] was thrown to the ground by the spirits and was in such distress that Preceptor Nengaku had to come to his aid with loud spells. Not that his powers were on the wane, it was just that the evil proved so very persistent. The priest Eikō, brought in to help lady Saishō’s exorcist, became hoarse from shouting spells all night. There was further chaos when not all of the women [mediums] managed to accept the spirits to whom they had been assigned.

Exorcisms, ritual cleansing, spells and mediums. This was how Japanese religion looked from the grand, official angle with its emphasis on protection from harm. This even reflects in more “secular” teachings such as Confucianism, when the infant prince is bathed for the first time. Lady Murasaki writes how during the bath, a selected nobleman reads aloud the Classic of Filial Piety to the infant, and during the evening bath, someone else reads aloud the Doctrine of the Mean. Both are Confucian classics, and it’s hoped that the infant will become a great leader someday, hence the ritual.

However, as evinced later in the diary, religion at the time had a much more personal and more familiar tone to it. Lady Murasaki took a particular interest in devotion to Amitabha Buddha, who was already a popular object of veneration:

Whatever others might say, I intend to immerse myself in reading sūtras for Amida [Amitabha] Buddha. Since I have lost what little attachment I ever had for the pains that life has to offer, you might expect me to become a nun without delay. But even supposing I were to commit myself and turn my back on the world, I am certain there would be moments of irresolution before Amida came for me riding on his clouds. And thus I hesitate.

And later:

But then someone with as much to atone for as myself may not qualify for salvation; there are so many things that serve to remind one of the transgressions of a former existence.

Buddhism at this time in East Asia emphasized the inability for women to accomplish the path easily, let alone Enlightenment, despite the fact that the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and early texts like the Agama Sutra often show female disciples of the Buddha attaining Enlightenment as arhats. But for women of Murasaki’s time and place, the Pure Land path often proved very popular for it’s all-inclusive promise of salvation. Still, Lady Murasaki is weighed down by her perceived faults from this life and previous lives, and wonders if she’ll ever be liberated from the cycle of rebirth. In this quote, she reveals her own difficulty in being patient with others:

Some people are so good-natured that they can still care for those who despise them, but I myself find it very difficult. Did the Buddha himself in all his compassion ever preach that one should simply ignore those who slander the Three Treasures? [Buddha, Dharma, Sangha] How in this sullied world of ours can those who are hard done by be expected not to respond in kind?

And here she expresses a very Buddhist view of ego and the obsession with self:

It is very easy to criticize others but far more difficult to put one’s own principles into practice, and it is when one forgets this truth, lauds oneself to the skies, treats everyone else as worthless and generally despises others that one’s own character is clearly revealed.

So, that’s a look at religion at the time of Lady Murasaki, both the personal and the official. In part 3, I hope to explore life in the Heian Court aristocracy, art, poetry and maybe a little romance too. :)

1 Later, Kūkai the founder of Shingon Buddhism once remarked that the popular practice of reading sutras aloud to protect people from harm was analogous to reading a medical textbook to cure a sick person. In his mind, only by putting Buddhism into practice through tantra could it have any utility.

2 This is also why later, “unofficial” Buddhist sects like Honen’s Pure Land sect ran afoul with so many groups. They had no official state sanction, and rivals used this as a justification for putting them down. Whether they had ulterior motives though, is another story.

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