About 90 million people in Japan (out of a population of 128 million) identify themselves as Buddhists today, though most are probably not very devout and many also engage in Shinto practices. Buddhist rites are used at almost all funerals.
Only a few anime series contain explicit Buddhist messages (examples include Air (TV), Kino’s Journey and Planetes) but Buddhism permeates Japanese culture to such an extent that a Buddhist subtext can show up in almost any anime.
Origins of Buddhism
The Buddhist religion was founded by an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563 to 483 BCE). Siddhartha had a privileged life with every material luxury, a beautiful and devoted wife, and a fine young son, but he was distraught over the amount of suffering that he saw everywhere. Determined to find a solution to the problem of human suffering he left his kingdom and his family to become a wandering holy man.
He studied under several of the leading holy men of his time, and in accordance with their teachings he sought religious enlightenment though asceticism, taking this to such a extreme that he almost starved himself to death. After this experience he concluded that too much self-denial is as bad as too much luxury, and decided to seek a “Middle Path.”
At the moment of awakening the Buddha exclaimed: “Wonder of wonders! All living beings are truly enlightened and shine with wisdom and virtue. But their minds have become deluded and turned inward toward the (egocentric) self; they fail to understand this.
For seven days he pondered what to do. He had sought to free everyone from suffering, but had only succeeded in freeing himself, and there was no way to explain what he had found in words. He considered remaining silent and withdrawing into nirvana. Then (according to one version of the story) a god appeared to him and implored him on behalf of all living beings to show everyone the path to enlightenment.
Therefore he set out to guide others, not really attempting to inform them of the truth, but rather to show them a way in which they could find the truth for themselves.
(This, as I understand it, is what makes Gautama Buddha so special. In principle anyone can become a Buddha, and eventually everyone will, but it is extremely rare for someone to attain enlightenment without the help of a teacher, and even rarer for one to go on to teach others.)
Gautama Buddha went on to teach for 45 years, building an ever-increasing community of followers (including his son, and eventually his wife.) In the centuries after his death Buddhism spread northward through Tibet, China and Korea, reaching Japan in the 6th century CE.
Some Buddhist Terminology
I will first give each term in the Sanskrit form familiar to Buddhists around the world, then in parentheses I will give the Japanese form that you might hear in anime.
Avidya (mumyou) Ignorance, delusion, the first cause of suffering.
Bodhisattva (bosatsu) A Buddhist saint (see below).
Buddha (butsu or hotoke) Anyone who has attained complete liberation. It is common in Japan to use the term “butsu” not only for true buddhas, but also for lesser beings like bodhisattvas and Wisdom Kings. A true Buddha is commonly given the Japanese honorific nyorai “Perfected One”, thus the Historical Buddha may be called “Shaka Nyorai” (from “Shakya”, the name of Gautama’s clan.)
Dharma (hou) means either the teachings of the Buddha, or the ultimate truth that the teachings are supposed to lead you to. Other Asian religions give somewhat different meanings to the word.
Dukkha (ku) Suffering, pain, discontent.
Kalpa (gou) A unit of time; approximately 4.32 billion years. Buddhists tend to take the long view of things.
Karma (inga) is the principle of cause and effect. (Also gou with different kanji for karmic actions.)
Nirvana (nehan) Complete liberation.
Samadhi (sanmai) A state of complete concentration or unperturbed contemplation.
Saṃsara (rinne or seishi) the endless cycle of birth and death.
Smriti (nen) Mindfulness.
Sutra (kyou) One of many texts on spiritual practices and the nature of enlightenment, based on the teachings of the Buddha and commentaries by his disciples and their successors. These are not “holy writ” in the Western sense since words can only approximate the truth. However many traditions ascribe great spiritual power to the texts, claiming that merely reciting them will benefit all living beings.
Vijnana (shiki) The false consciousness that arises from the senses.
Some Basic Principles
This is the point where I ought to start listing Gautama Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, and Eightfold Path, etc., but ordered lists are boring and I mainly want to focus on ideas that you might encounter in anime. If you really want a proper systematic introduction to Buddhism you should probably consult someone who knows more about it than I do. Anyway here are a few basic concepts, most of which can probably be boiled down to two simple syllables: You’re screwed!
Everybody knows the term “karma”, but most Westerners think of it as a system of cosmic justice that ensures that everybody gets what they deserve. The Buddhist concept is somewhat different. “Karma” just means the principle of cause and effect. Everything that happens is determined by previous actions according to the laws of nature, which are inflexible and mathematically exact.
Karma is not concerned with justice. It is not concerned with anything; it is impersonal and mechanical. In anime it is often symbolized by a system of interlocking grinding gears. The effects of your actions ripple out across the universe, quite possibly harming the innocent or benefiting the wicked. And the effects of your actions also remain with you, as we will see below.
However karma differs from the Western model of Newtonian determinism in that intentions do make a difference. Actions motivated by anger and hatred tend to cause harm and create more anger and hatred. Actions motivated by love tend to make people happy, but only temporarily since everything in the world of karma is transient. Enlightened actions bring people closer to enlightenment.
The Monkey Mind
Karma not only controls physical phenomena, but also the contents of your mind. Buddhist writers compare the mind to a monkey that jumps willy nilly from branch to branch in response to external stimuli. In general you can’t expect your mind to do what you want, any more than you can expect the external world to conform to your wishes.
In the Buddhist view, suffering is a subjective phenomenon that is caused by the mind’s natural tendency to form attachments and aversions. If you desire something then you suffer because you do not possess it. Even if you acquire the thing you love, you will suffer since you must eventually lose it, since everything in this world is transient and ephemeral.
If you have an aversion to something then you suffer because it exists. Even if you manage to destroy it, this will not end your suffering because nothing is ever truly destroyed; it will only reappear in another form.
So to eliminate suffering you just have to avoid attachments and aversions. Ha ha! Gotcha! Wanting to avoid attachments and aversions is just another aversion. (Or, conversely, desiring enlightenment is just another attachment.)
Mindfulness is a state in which you are aware of your surroundings, your body, your thoughts and your feelings in a way that is alert and insightful but accepting and non-judgmental. Attaining and maintaining this state is one of the keys to achieving enlightenment. Most Buddhist spiritual practices are intended to promote or enhance this state.
Rebirth and the Six Realms
Suffering does not end when you die. When you die you will be reborn in a form determined by karma, and since suffering is an inescapable part of life you will continue to suffer.
Buddhists prefer the term “rebirth” to “reincarnation”, partly because Buddhism (unlike Hinduism) rejects the notion of an immortal atman or soul. There is something that is reborn when a person dies, but rather than an immutable soul it is just a bundle of karma. You might say that what you consider your “self” is just the sum total of your previous actions.
A common metaphor is passing a flame from one candle to another. There is continuity but it is not the same flame. By the same token, when you are reborn you are not the same person. (Of course you are not the same person you were 10 years ago, so why would you expect to be the same person in a different body with different experiences?)
Rebirth in Anime
Reincarnation occurs constantly in anime, but only a small minority of shows acknowledge the point that the reincarnation is not the same person. The point is made in the ending of Cardcaptor Sakura, in the final confrontation between Eriol and Yue. In Air (TV) the reincarnations of Kanna and Ryuya are quite different from the originals.
The point is quite central to Inuyasha. According to Inuyasha, if you could use a time machine to visit your future self, not only would you not say “This is me,” you might very well say “I really hate this person!”
The Six Realms
The world of Samsara or rebirth is divided into six “realms.” Traditionally these are thought of as actual physical places where one can be reborn, but some modern writers treat them as mental states that any human can occupy. Numerous variations on the Six Realms can be found in anime, ranging from whimsical to literal.
The lowest realm is Naraka (jigoku or naraku.) This is for people who are consumed by anger and hatred. Unlike the Western idea of Hell, this version is not permanent. If you are reborn in Hell you will eventually die and hopefully be reborn somewhere else. However escape from Hell if very difficult, for the inhabitants are filled with malice and try to dray each other down. Thus anime images of Hell usually feature dozens of hands dragging you down into the darkness.
This helps to explain storylines in which a character gives up a quest for vengeance, sometimes frustrating viewers who feel the quest is well-justified. Anyone consumed by a desire for revenge is Hell-bound, no matter how justified the desire may be. (On the other hand a samurai might say that it is worth going to Hell to avenge an insult to his honor, and many Japanese would admire his purity of purpose.)
Preta (gaki) is the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, inhabited by people who are filled with greed or lust. The Hungry Ghosts are tormented by insatiable desires that can never be fulfilled. (In colloquial Japanese the word “gaki” can be used to mean “spoiled brat.”)
Tiryagyoni (chikushou) is the only other realm that ordinary humans can directly perceive. The realm of animals is characterized by stupidity and ignorance.
Humans live in the realm of Manusya (nin) and have a mixture of positive and negative traits. Though humans are weak and short-lived this is considered the most advantageous realm, since it offers the best opportunities for attaining enlightenment.
Asura (ashura) is the realm of the demigods or “jealous gods.” Like humans the Asura have a mixture of positive and negative traits. They have super-human powers but are proud, combative and jealous of their honor.
Deva (ten) is the realm of the gods. They are not immortal but they are very long-lived, powerful, noble and spiritually pure. Most of the gods of other religions can be found here.
It is important to remember that the goal of Buddhism is not to go to Heaven. The gods have a privileged existence, but their pleasure is offset by the knowledge that they are still subject to karma and the cycle of rebirth, and ultimately they have nowhere to go but down. Like everyone else, their only hope of escaping from an endless cycle of suffering is to attain enlightenment.
Popular Buddhist Deities
The veneration of bodhisattvas plays a central role in Mahayana Buddhism (the form practiced in Japan). A bodhisattva (busatsu) has achieved all the spiritual attainments necessary to become a buddha, but out of great compassion voluntarily chooses to remain in the cycle of birth, death and suffering so as to help others to attain enlightenment. Bodhisattvas can choose when and where they will be reborn and can remember their previous lives. One might appear with all the power and majesty of a god, or in the form of the lowliest of humans. In traditional iconography bodhisattvas are commonly shown wearing crowns, while true buddhas wear monk’s robes.
In Kamichu! Benten appears as a catgirl rock star.
Buddhist Objects and Symbols
The Wikipedia entry is probably a good place to start, with linked articles on a wide range of related topics.
Onmark Productions has a site that is a treasure trove of information on Japanese Buddhism.