Japan, Buddhism and Karmic Relations

One of the fascinating things about being a “textbook Buddhist” (someone who learned Buddhism later in life through books) and marrying someone who grew up Buddhist, is learning how Buddhism and culture intertwine.1

Something you occasionally hear in Japanese language is the phrase en ga aru (縁がある), or the opposite en ga nai (縁がない). In a loose sense, this could be translated as “it was meant to be (or not)”, but I think something gets lost in the translation. The key word is 縁 (en) which is a Buddhist term inherited from Chinese culture (also called 仏縁 butsu-en) meaning a karmic bond: something that happened, possibly in a previous life, that brings about an event, or a bond between two people. In the devotional sense, in can also mean a bond between a person and a Buddhist deity such as Amitabha Buddha, or the Bodhisattva Kannon. It has many nuances.

The Buddhist notion of karma is, needless to say, a hopelessly difficult subject, and a frequent point of confusion even among Buddhists themselves. A brief explanation can be found in an early scripture, the Nibbedhika Sutta ( AN 6.63 ) in the Pali Canon:

[The Buddha:] “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect….and what is the diversity in kamma? There is kamma to be experienced in hell, kamma to be experienced in the realm of common animals, kamma to be experienced in the realm of the hungry ghosts, kamma to be experienced in the human world, kamma to be experienced in the world of the devas. This is called the diversity in kamma.

Translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This concept is revisited and explored further in later Mahayana-Buddhist texts, such as chapter four of the Earth-Store Bodhisattva Sutra, when it discusses how karma passes on from lifetime to lifetime until it is exhausted:

“Then the Buddha told Earth Store Bodhisattva, “Beings who have not yet obtained liberation have unfixed natures and consciousnesses. Their bad habits reap bad karma; their good habits bring rewards….Throughout eons as numerous as dust motes they remain confused, deluded, obstructed, and afflicted by difficulties. They are like fish swimming through waters laced with nets. They may slip through and keep their freedom temporarily, but sooner or later they will be caught.”

Translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society, courtesy of City of Ten Thousand Buddhas

The concepts of karma and rebirth play into the Buddhist view of time, which is very, very long (compare with the Abrahamic notion of time which tends to be shorter).

This is all pretty academic though. In the context of Japanese culture, this same idea can also be found in the Japanese phrase: sode furiau mo tashō no en (袖振り合うも多生の縁), which means “even when the sleeves of two people brush together, this is the result of a past life”. This is a romanticized way of saying that there is no random coincidences in life. Past karma plays into many things we see and experience. Thus, the term 縁 in popular Japanese denotes the idea of karma, and by extension “fate”.

Further, there’s an amusing relationship between the two Japanese words 縁 (en) and 円 (en). The first we already discussed, but the second just means something round, including coins. Hence, in Japanese culture, it’s customary to throw a 5-yen coin2 (5円玉, go-en-dama) in to donation boxes at Japanese Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines. These wooden boxes with the grilled top, such as the one shown above, are called saisen-bako (賽銭箱) in Japanese.

Making that one little donation, or praising a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva even once,3 or the words and deeds you speak to others all create karmic bonds if there weren’t any, or strengthen the ones that are already there. So, it’s important to consider what karmic bonds you are fostering, and also what you may have created in the past. Even if you have much negative karma from the past, don’t be discouraged, you have nowhere to go but up. 😄

Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

P.S. The logical, rational side of me tends to resist the idea that everything is tied to karma, but it does agree that there are no coincidences in life. Everything arises from some kind of causes or conditions, however improbable.

1 In so doing, I also have come to realize how Christianity and western culture intertwine. Things like vocabulary, cultural practices, how we look at things, etc.

2 Of course, you can throw in more or less than this. I tend to have a lot of leftover change toward the end of my visits in Japan, so I tend to donate it. Also, many smaller, less popular temples/shrines may struggle to make ends meet, so those little coins do help.

3 From the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra:

If persons with confused and distracted minds
should enter a memorial tower
and once exclaim, “Hail to the Buddha!”
Then all have attained the Buddha way.

Translation by Burton Watson

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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