Buddhism in the Heian period reflected in the Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji (TG) by Murasaki Shikibu written in the late 10th Century describes an aristocratic worldview in the Heian period (794-1185) and allows therefore a closer look at the religious and spiritual understanding of the Japanese upper class in this timeframe. While Shinto influence is mentioned in the novel, Buddhism, as a popular religion once introduced to the official court practice by Prince Shotoku in the 6. Century, is in the TG a part of everyday life. Worth discussion is which role Buddhism plays in these years for the nobility by analysing the actions of the characters of the novel. But also interesting to look at is how Murasaki Shikibu as the author religiously interprets the path her characters take. Before discussing Shikibu’s view on Buddhism the characters’ access to Buddhism will be focused on by first, discussing official appearance and second, private practise.
In the TG Buddhism provides a religious and philosophical setting for court life. First, Buddhist rituals are performed; second, a desire of the characters for escaping from the wheel of life (samsara) can be witnessed. Rites are established as institutions to deal with specific tasks and events of the daily life. Therefore, at court Buddhism is often used in a pragmatic way to ask the deity for whether recovering from illness, having a safe childbirth, or exorcism of evil spirits. For example illness is explained as being “strangely attacked by a spirit” (TG, 73). Monks are expected to perform “exorcism” or prayers (TG, 54/74/ 87/172) in order to fight the disease as mediums or healers (TG, 172). The rites are performed along with Buddhist prayers or chanting. Often the Lotus Sutra is sung by priests (TG, 176). Official ceremonies or services can be ordered by the nobility. Even the Abbot of Mount Hiei attends birth ceremonies with other “most holy monks” (TG, 177). This provides the conclusion that a lot of Buddhist monks are regularly working for the imperial court to perform the ceremonies and to make sure the Emperor and the nobles in the palace receive spiritual support.
The aristocrats turn personally to monks and nuns in difficult life periods, as well. Genji himself often consults Buddhism to solve problems, but asks for discretion. One time, he is involved in his secret lover’s death and turns to a nun in a temple in the Eastern Hills for help (TG, 75). After 49 days he sponsors secretly a service for her at the Lotus Hall on Mt. Hiei, too (TG, 85). Another time, Genji is sick himself and goes to an ascetic on the Northern Hills. After he tried to recover from the fever by performing rites himself he emphasizes discreetness in consulting the monk. It can be assumed that Buddhist monks are very influential at court by being involved in the personal concerns of the nobility. This can be underlined by considering the relatively short distance between the important Tendai Buddhist temple on Mount Hiei and the capital Heian-kyō (today Kyoto) which hosts the imperial court.
 Shinto and Buddhist officials are present at court. The Heir Apparent’s daughter for example becomes the High Priest of Ise (TG, 163) and purification rituals at the Kamo Shrine are mentioned (TG, 168), but often the nobility calls upon monks from Buddhist temples from Mount Hiei as well (e.g. TG, 175). A distinction between Shinto and Buddhist priests is not made in the novel.
 While in Shinto kamis (spirits or gods) have to be satisfied through worship or proper act in order to act in the human favour in the different sects of Buddhism theoretically this dependence to a possessive spirit is not made. Moreover, personal acts of purification or dedication are required, since illness can be caused by karma. In Japan Buddhist sects made adjustments to the spiritual needs and expectations of the people by including certain rites.
 “ […] but the single most obstinate spirit refused to move, until the mightiest healers were surprised to find their efforts frustrated.“ TG, 175.
 “[…] and he had many prayers and rites done for her in his own apartment within the residence.” TG, 172, “Whenever the Prelate performed a memorial service for her grandmother, Genji provided the finest offerings.” TG, 133.
 If the renowned ascetic can’t heal him he won’t lose his reputation since nobody knew he was involved (TG, 87).
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- Kati Neubauer (Author), 2008, Buddhism in the Heian period reflected in the Tale of Genji, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/133377