Text by Beatriz Rodrigues and photo by Joana Lopes
When asked, many Japanese will say they are not religious, but it would be a mistake to take such an answer in terms of the atheistic and secularist views that are commonly experienced in the west. In fact, the lives of most Japanese are tinted by Shinto at birth, by Buddhism on their deathbed, and increasingly by Christianity at the time of their marriage. Even though they consistently reject adherence to an organised religion, they engage in religious practices, picked from diverse religions, during their live time, in what can be perceived as a sign of generosity, of the ability to incorporate in one’s own flesh diverse and perhaps even contradictory elements, and use them in order to perfect oneself and, mostly, to enhance a communal feeling.
The first part of our day in Kyoto was devoted to Buddhism, with a visit to the Kinkaju or the Golden Pavilion, as well as to Higashi Hongaji Temple, and, lastly, at lunch, with the enjoyment of a proper Buddhist meal. Buddhism, which originated in India, was introduced by Chinese influence in Japanese territory in the 6th century, and, since then, it has peacefully co-existed with Shinto. The Golden Pavilion, which receives its name from the golden leaf that covers the entire temple, emerged under our eyes bathed in sunlight, shining strongly in this strangely warm autumn day. It stands somehow as an iconic contradiction, since the stunning opulence of the building is in sharp contrast with the ascetic teachings of the sect to which it belongs – Zen Buddhism. As the outward appearance of the temple seems quite richer than its interior, one can perceive that such a show of material wealth is directed not to the practitioners of this sect, but rather to the exterior, as an expression of power.
While Zen Buddhism made its way to the west and plays a significant role in the history of the western though (an obvious example of this would be Arthur Schopenhauer, the early 19th century German philosopher, who advocated the freedom from one’s own will), the sect which has attracted the greatest number of practitioners in Japan is actually Jodo Buddhism, according to which the path to redemption is accessible to everyone and does not require the strenuous effort, the self-sacrifice demanded by Zen Buddhism. We had the chance to learn a bit more about the history of Jodo Buddhism’s foundation and its message through the visit to Higashi Hogaji Temple under the guidance of buddhist monks.
As for the second part of our stay in Kyoto, we were introduced to Noh theatre. Located in a small street, with a rather inconspicuous entrance, the theatre that we visited was an invitation to travel to feudal times, during which Noh developed as an aristocratic form of stage drama and was played out on the streets. We learned about the costumes, the masks, the instruments and the rituals of Noh, which slowly changed throughout the centuries, through the devoted hard work of multiple generations. As we were told, when an actor falls of the stage (what one would expect to happen very often, since the holes on the mask for the eyes are challengingly small), the first thing to ask is whether the mask is okay, since a broken legs takes some months to heal, but a broken mask remains broken and may never again be used in a Noh play. It seems to me that Noh is as fragile as it is demanding, maybe precisely for the same reason: its existence, built upon the sands of time, with a deeply ingrained tradition, relies upon such fine movements and subtle expressions that it is faded to decline, as it is happening nowadays, at such a time as ours, in which the swiftness of the days wears away the attentiveness of the eye.
By the end of the presentation on Noh, we had the opportunity to see one scene of a Noh play, in which the ghost of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a great warrior, relives in a dream the glory and the pains of past battles. At the beginning of the presentation, we were told that Noh can be fun, and in a sense, from this short performance, we can see how the artificiality of gestures and sounds, as well as the richness of the masks and costumes, give rise to a playful flow of imagination on the spectator’s part, as if we were witnessing a kind of make-believe. I did not, nonetheless, see Noh as light-hearted; right from the beginning, with the shrilling music played by grave artists piercing through one’s ears, an unsettling, disturbing atmosphere simultaneously traps and estranges the spectator. Such a displacement, I believe, makes one instinctively question and perhaps revise the values of harmony and order, which play such a fundamental role on so many aspects of the Japanese culture.