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One Woman's Opinion

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A year in Japan: 1964, Part 5

by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Urbanna, Va.— We could not have asked for a better day as we started out for Kamakura, the home of the great Buddha, Daibutsu. The sun was out in full force and the winding road up the coastline of Sagami Bay was a glorious mix of sparkling blue water and distant muted green mountains. It was a perfect day for sight-seeing in Japan.

We parked our Karmann Ghia and joined the crowd hurrying up the steps to view Daibutsu. When our eyes at last landed on his massive body we gasped. He was colossal.

Built in 1252, he had reigned in the valley of Kamakura for seven centuries at 42 feet high, 96 feet around, and 92 tons. The brochure stated there were 656 curls on his head and on the forehead was a silver boss that symbolized his super-human power. From this mark Buddha emitted the light which enlightened the people of the world. 

I noticed his huge hands which rested in his lap, palms upward and thumbs touching. This was the Buddhist sign for steadfast faith. The expression on the face depicted perfect repose and passionless calm which are the main goals of Buddhism. To the millions of Buddhist followers in the world he was the one who has attained complete enlightenment, achieved perfect knowledge of truth and was free from all existences. This state was necessary to reach eternal life. Buddha also had the powers to relieve human suffering on earth.

This Buddha was cast in bronze that had been tarnished over the centuries to a greenish black. Originally it was enclosed in a spacious temple to protect it from weather; however, in 1495 (three years after Columbus discovered America) a giant tidal wave destroyed the temple along with the village of Kamakura. The Buddha was left to reign in an empty valley. 

To Christian eyes the Buddha was an exotic sight. We realized we may have been the sole Christians in the large audience gathered at the foot of Buddha to pay homage. In this land of 100 million (1964) only one percent of the population was Christian.

At one time, however, Japan almost became a Christian nation. Buddhism, originating from northern India 600 years before Christ, spread to Japan to compete with native Shintoism. With the arrival of European traders in the 15th and 16th centuries, Christianity was introduced. It spread quickly aided by missionaries from “western” countries. The Japanese leaders at that time did not oppose Christianity; however, they soon became suspicious that the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries were planning political aggression. The emperor began persecuting Christians and eventually the missionary movement came to a standstill.

I wrote the following in my 1964 journal depicting a very different world both in Japan and in the USA . . . “It is difficult for me to describe the sensations that I have in living in a Buddhist country. There are no Christian churches in this area. Sunday means nothing to the Japanese and I am always amazed to see stores open and people carrying out their duties just as though it were a normal day of business. . . .”

Even 54 years later I well remember the feeling I experienced seeing my first Christian Church in Japan. I spotted a simple cross on a steeple as I rode alone through Tokyo one day on a train. It reached high into the blue sky above, a lonely sentry in a faraway world, and I felt tears well up in my eyes. My husband was at sea at the time and I was homesick for the United States. What an emotional impact that lone cross had for me seeing it so far away from home.  

But on that day as my eyes met the Great Buddha I could not help but wonder at Buddhism and this sacred image before me. It all seemed unbelievable to those of a Christian background and yet I understood that even though religions of the world differed, they all contained a similar universal message.  

While standing beside Buddha, a Japanese lady pointed to a St. Christopher’s Medal I was wearing. She inquired in broken English if it were a token from the Olympic Games. I said no and then struggled to explain its meaning to someone who had no knowledge of Christian saints.

Later I would have equal difficulty explaining to “mamasan” (babysitter) what the figures in our crèche at Christmas meant. I realized my stab at explanation seemed incredible and she did not hide her wonder. It struck me that Christian beliefs are just as strange to non-Christians as theirs are to us.  

Our visit to Kamakura was enlightening. I decided “myths” in various religions weren’t important but the messages were. The Christian message to love one’s neighbor and make forgiveness a part of life was a fundamental key to any civilization that could unite all humankind.

(To be continued)


posted 04.04.2018

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