*Before you read this, just know that all of the information I’ve got on the cultures/religions mentioned have come from personal conversations and the internet. I do not claim to be an Eastern Religion expert or anything of the sort.*
Usually, it takes a very cogent, thought-out, and plausible world for me to get into a fantasy story. Things don’t necessarily need to be totally believable, but if there isn’t a decent starting point, I find it hard to be drawn in. Fantasy worlds like those of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and to some extent the collaborative lore of the Marvel or DC worlds are easy to relate to because of the origin stories and either a (mostly) fixed pantheon, alien races, or Deities.
Most Eastern (and tribal) religions really throw me for a loop. I love the “how” of Eastern and more mystical stories/myths and legends are passed on, but I want an anchor, and I never seem to find one. I scrutinize little points about where a particular supernatural being would draw its power from, where it would have come from or why so many stories speak about fate, especially about changing fate. I mean, doesn’t fate or destiny mean something that is going to happen? If so, who decided? Is it a ‘grand scheme being’, an impersonal force, or maybe something else like biological determinism? I recently realized that I was trying to experience these Eastern stories as a Western thinker. Time to do some reading.
Turns out that Japanese religions (and therefore cultural milieu) are all quite divided when it comes to the idea of what gods are, and that my view of God is so completely foreign to them and the way they see the world that trying to import my theological ideas will never work. The major religions of Japan are Shinto (which has also absorbed or taken aspects of many smaller mystical and folk religions of different Asian countries), Buddhism, and to a lesser degree Confucianism. None of them have an omnipotent or omniscient deity who created everything other than itself. Shinto has the Kami, which are basically nature spirits or spirits of great deceased people who were good or powerful in life. Buddhism, well it depends on what kind of Buddhist you ask. They can all have different answers to what role supernatural beings have in life, but worship of a deity, especially a creator, is seen as unhelpful and even antagonistic to the religion. Confucianism also doesn’t have a deity. Really, it’s more of a philosophical system that many aspire to. Their culture and even how society runs is very different from Western monotheistic points of view. Our Western culture is based off of a Judeo-Christian worldview where contradictions mean there is a problem, while Japanese culture is steeped in myth, tradition, and legend from many religions and its culture openly celebrates them all, even though many would seem to contradict each other on finer points of dogma.
Eternality, spirits shifting in and out of being, reincarnation, afterlife, and escape from the physical realm as a primary goal just don’t make sense to me. They’re so different that it hurts my head to think about. I’ve experienced many JRPG and Anime stories that talk about fate, destiny, and determinism, so I thought maybe there could be some common ground there since I love God’s sovereignty. I’ve been reading online for a few days about the Japanese culture’s view of fate and while there seems to be a lot of mention of it in their stories, I can’t find where the idea comes from. The closest thing I can find is the deity “Shukujin,” who is apparently a star god who hides in the best spots ever: inside the big dipper, behind stages, the womb, and temple basements. The name comes from “shuku” which is a word that means both “destiny/fate” and “astral constellations.” That information came from the book “The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion.” I guess the title speaks for itself. The answers to deep questions must be secrets, and mystic religions from the mid and far east have always been about secrets.
Finally, some common ground. There are deep secrets in creation, but where I am coming from there is One who wrote and keeps the secrets. In Japanese culture/religious belief, it seems that the Kami, the enlightened and deceased loved ones, still don’t have any idea how anything started or where it is going or why. Or, at least, they have no way of telling us. Eternity, both past and future, is a mystery that may never be figured out, so emphasis is put on this life (or maybe the next one, or one of the previous ones) rather than eternity. Some would make the case that Buddhism is about escaping into eternity, but at the cost of everything that makes you who you are. While this life is important, Jesus tells us that it is but a vapor, a mist in comparison to the true life that is to come: eternal life, as opposed to an eternal spiritual existence either escaping the physical plane or wandering as a ghost or living in some spirit land in the sky. He also tells us that our steps are guided by a loving, personal, eternal, and self-sustained God – not stars, planets, nature, time, people who have come before us, impersonal forces of good/evil, or karma.
All of the places people turn for answers to life’s biggest questions pale in comparison to the answers we have in Christ. Nature sings the glory of God – it worships God, it is not to be worshiped. The stars and planets have been put in the sky and are used by God to proclaim his majesty, and even to give signs/directions, but they do not reveal our deepest need, which is a Savior. Our loved ones who have passed on are held in His hands and He does with them what is right. It is not our job to take care of them by placing physical offerings at their shrine. We are commanded to love justice and seek it, but also to have and look for mercy as opposed to evening out our sins with good deeds or our own suffering, something that Karma does not allow for. We have a Savior who has not only suffered to pay our debt, but lived perfectly and given that righteousness to us, that we may stand spotless in eternity.