It’s the last day of Obon, and the spirits of the dead are preparing to leave Kyoto on their journey back to the otherworld. What is it with Japanese and spirits? Ghostly figures haunt their imagination, and Noh is filled with restless souls. From The Tale of Genji to offerings at the family altar, the dead are ever present.
Here in Kyoto it’s the day of Daimonji when the surrounding hills are lit up with five different emblems to guide the dead spirits back from where they came. Two of the hills show the kanji for ‘big’ to signify the Great Teaching of Buddhism; one contains the characters ‘myoho’ to signify Glory to the Great Law; another is a ship to ferry the souls back home; and the last is a torii, as if a gateway to another world.
Daimonji offers a great example of how syncretic Shinto-Buddhism remains the default mindset, despite the artificial separation of Meiji times. Personally I think one could go even further and say that ancestor worship is the country’s real faith. ‘Ancestor worship has been the main current in forming Japanese religion,’ writes Doi Masatoshi in his study of ‘Religion and the Social Structure of Japan’.
As has often been said, the term is a misnomer. You don’t worship ancestors in the sense you worship God. And it’s not really about ancestors, so much as one’s immediate family. You talk to them, cherish their memory and try to ensure they have a comfortable afterlife. You put out their favourite food and drink at graves and places of remembrance. You treat them in short as if they were still living, which in a sense they are. They’re alive in the heart of those who survive them.
Since Shinto’s concern is with this world, the afterlife is traditionally given over to Buddhism. Memory of the dead is cultivated at a Buddhist altar, with food set out for the deceased and announcements made to them of important family events. The dead become hotokesama (buddhas), though in the Shinto view of things they also become kami after their death, first as an individual and then merging into an ocean of kamihood. In some regions it was customary to move the ihai (mortuary tablet) from the Buddhist altar to the kami shelf to signify the transition. The dead thus become kamisama and hotokesama. Even after death Japanese cling to their syncretism!
Psychologists have suggested there are benefits to ancestor worship, and researchers at the University of Graz in Austria found that thinking of the hardships overcome by previous generations helped boost performance in exams and interviews. It provides too consolation for the heart-rending sense of finality that death brings. Filmmaker Koreeda Hirokazu (director of Afterlife) claimed that ‘even after my father’s death I was able to continue to develop my relationship with him.‘
There’s a moral dimension too, for the notion that one’s dead parents are watching provides a very real stimulus for moral rectitude because of a reluctance to face them with a guilty conscience. At the same time the practice cultivates a sense of gratitude, which is said to lie at the heart of Shinto and Japanese culture at large. No matter how bleak the circumstances, no matter how dark the future, one’s in possession of the miracle of life and one owes it to one’s ancestors. Arigatou gozaimasu!