Monday, 1 February 2016

Buddhist Photographs of Japan (1865)

These wonderful photos of Buddhist temples and religious gardens were recently displayed on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) website. This is only a selection from hundreds of images which quite recently came to light. With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the new government adopted a strong anti-Buddhist attitude, and a movement to eradicate Buddhism and bring Shinto to ascendancy arose throughout the country due to the strong connections of Buddhism to the Shoguns.

During the Meiji period (1868–1912), after a coup in 1868, Japan abandoned its feudal system and opened up to Western modernism. Shinto became the state religion. Within the Buddhist establishment the Western world was seen as a threat as well as a challenge to stand up to. Buddhist institutions had a simple choice: adapt or perish. Rinzai and Soto Zen chose to adapt, trying to modernize Zen in accord with Western insights, while simultaneously maintaining a Japanese identity. Other schools, and Buddhism in general, simply saw their influence wane. The edict of April 1872 ended the status of the buddhist precepts as state law and allowed monks to marry and to eat meat. According to historian Yoshiharu Tomatsu this "codification of a secularized lifestyle for the monk coupled with the revival of the emperor system and development of State Shinto were fundamental in desacralizing Buddhism and pushing it to the margins of society".

I am not enough of a scholar to say whether these temples are Rinzai, Soto Zen, or monuments of a Buddhist sect soon to fall into disfavour, but it is interesting to ponder how peaceful they look even whilst their future hung in the balance. 

North Utsire

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