Buddhism and daily life of the Japanese warrior

What is Buddhism?

About 2500 years ago, an Indian prince named Siddhartha renounced his throne to commence a spiritual journey. This culminated in his enlightenment while sitting in meditation beneath a banyan tree at Bodhgaya, Bihar. From then on, Siddhartha became known as Gautama Buddha – meaning ‘The awakened one who dispels ignorance with spiritual knowledge’ – or, more simply, the Buddha. He spent the next forty-five years touring India and teaching of a spiritual path through life, which included ethical behaviour and meditation. His philosophies are the foundation of Buddhism.

Over many centuries, Gautama’s life has inspired artists who have worked in close collaboration with monks, nuns and lay patrons to create extraordinary devotional images intended for worship and meditation. The essence of the art depicts Buddha and other enlightened beings, notably bodhisattvas, whose spiritual realisations are expressed in their perpetual vows to strive for the welfare of all that exists.

As Buddhism travelled throughout Asia and subsequently to the West, diverse art styles became associated with it, including the depiction of local deities who had been incorporated into the religion. Images of wrathful guardians are intended to protect practitioners and express the transformative power of Buddhist teachings, whose essence is profoundly peaceful and compassionate.

Samurai and Buddhism

For samurai, their violent vocation meant that death was ever present. They sought more direct and individual Buddhist practices, which at times were merged with local beliefs such as the worshipping of sacred mountains. The samurai’s ascendancy coincided with the arrival of Zen Buddhism, which was transmitted by monks such as Daruma from India to China and then Japan.

In China, Zen Buddhism was influenced by Daoism, Confucianism and cosmology. Chinese monks travelled to Japan to teach at the great Zen temples in Kyoto and Kamakura and transmitted these beliefs. They also brought with them a range of ceramics and brush and ink paintings from China. When Zen arrived in Japan, many complex local beliefs existed, which included the worship of wrathful protectors such as Fudo Myoo, who was beloved by the samurai.

Temples were the best place to be an artist. There monks pursued the arts of brush and ink and of garden design and advocated the efficacy of tea for mediation. In a period rife with warfare, a quiet revolution in the arts took place in the eastern hills of Kyoto, under the patronage of a failed shogun.

The rise of the samurai and establishment of the first military government in eastern Japan coincided with distinct shifts in belief systems and cultural pursuits. The selection of works in this section highlights the ethical and moral codes, sacred beliefs and the arts of the samurai.

Japan, Netsuke, Daruma crossing the sea on a reed, 1850-1900, Japan, ivory, 3.8 cm; M.J.M. Carter AO Collection 2004, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Investigate the influence China has had on Japan. Find works of art in the collection made by Chinese artists. Compare these to works of art made by Japanese artists and discuss the similarities. What things did the Japanese adapt and how did they create their own style?

What aspects of Japanese or Chinese culture has influenced life, art and culture in Australia?

Research other belief systems that are different to your own for example, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, and Judaism. What does worship look like in these religions? What can we learn from these belief systems? How do they compare to those we follow today in Australia?

Imagine you are the new ruler of Australia and could create 5 rules Australians had to live by, to ensure we all lived in a kind and cohesive society, what would the new rules be?