Dororo: a reminder that Buddhism is indeed a religion

Dororo and Hyakkimaru, but there are much worse things to worry about than monsters.

I have a pet peeve: in these exact words, people saying “Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion.”

That’s a real quote, and unlike my typical tyrades against a vague composite of online commenters, I’ve met such people in person. And ohhh let me tell you, my arguments pulverize them in the shower the next morning! But even if I’m too cowardly to confront them outside of my imagination with anything more than a tepid “nah, that’s not really true,” I don’t see how anyone could deny the evidence attesting to Buddhism’s religious features. For example:

  • How about the temples and sacred pilgrimage sites, where devotional laity pray and priests study scripture?
  • How about the 31 planes of existence, where deities reside and the dead reincarnate (including one realm of exceptional suffering for those with evil karma)?
  • How about the chants and holy sutras, which can open a path to enlightenment and reincarnation in the “Pure Land” (such as the sole phrase “namu Amida Buddha” from Japan’s Jodo Shinshu sect)?
  • Or in my own life, how about the Buddhist missionaries who accost random strangers on busy Tokyo streets (flee into the crowd!) and deserted rural trains alike (no escape…)? Is ours a world of suffering, you ask? Try to endure an hour-long, one-sided conversation listing all the celebrities who have joined Soka Gakkai International, a Nichiren Buddhist organization. And no thanks, I don’t want a pamphlet.

After I’ve run through too-many rhetorical questions though, I always have to ask one more: why not both?

Buddhism is a very old, very diverse idea studied by thousands of scholars from divergent schools and practiced by millions of ordinary people across languages, cultures, and traditions. I won’t deny the philosophical value of Buddhism. But at the same time, no one should either deny that many people have genuine faith in the impossible-to-define “religious-y stuff” like deities, reincarnation, and cosmological planes. Why try to cram such a vast intellectual tradition into those exclusive categories, Philosophy OR Religion? Buddhism is Philosophy AND Religion, and whatever else its individual practitioners might want to call it. The distinctions don’t distinguish anything because it’s all just Buddhism. The categories don’t matter. Why cling to them?

But whatever, I’m just arguing with the shower again.

I’ve only gone on that rant to explain why I find Dororo from this winter 2019 anime season so refreshing. It provides such strong pop-culture evidence against the narrow claim that Buddhism is exclusively a philosophy. Unlike the typical agnostic fantasy stories that rip creatures out of folklore to turn up the rule of cool, Dororo presents a genuine moral tale concerned with issues like hell, demons, and deities; salvation, sin, and prayer. The show’s barely begun, so I’m not here to make any judgements on the series. However, I did think that it would be interesting to run through the first four episodes to demonstrate Dororo’s consistent depiction of popular Buddhist faith as it exists in Japan, untied from the commercialized and secularized versions of Zen best known in the Western world.

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