Prayer—Empty Ritual or Meaningful Communication?
JANUARY 1 to 3 is the most important holiday in Japan, lasting several days as everyone seeks to start the new year right. Well over half the population of Japan visited a shrine or temple during the first three days of 1979 to pray for success and good luck during the coming year.
If you had gone with them, what would you have seen?
Here is a person ceremonially cleansing his mouth and hands at a fountain by the entrance gate to a Shinto shrine. Now he walks up to the shrine and puts something into a large offertory box. Next, he reaches overhead and grasps a thick multi-colored cord. As he whips it, a wooden block clashes against a bell, making a dissonant “Clank! Clank!” He releases the cord and claps his hands together several times, then holds them together as he makes a number of deep bows. Turning, he leaves. Thus a prayer has been said.
But who heard it? Was it merely empty ritual? This worshiper sincerely believes that his prayer was heard.
Before leaving the shrine precincts he will jostle his way over to a booth to buy a talisman or amulet, perhaps a simple piece of paper with Chinese characters written on it, or an arrow with good-luck charms dangling from it.
What did he pray for? Most likely peace, security, happiness and wealth. As one Shinto priest put it: “They offer 100, 1,000 or 10,000 yen [$.50, $5, $50, U.S.] but they pray for hundreds of thousands, even millions. They give little but want much.”
While many Japanese visit temples only at the beginning of the new year, just as certain nominal Christians visit churches only at Easter, the devout make regular visits. Many homes feature a kamidana, a shelf for Shinto images, and/or a butsudan, the family Buddhist altar. Here family members can offer up prayers by lighting a candle from which they light incense. Kneeling before such an altar, they first strike a chime with a small wooden stick and then recite over and over again a written prayer or some memorized words such as “Namu-Amida-Butsu” (Glory to Amida Buddha). This may be repeated in singsong monotony for 20 minutes, even for hours.
What of those Japanese who profess Christianity? They might be found going into a church building where they kneel for a few minutes, praying silently or perhaps in a whisper. Some read their prayers from a book. Among them are persons who pray here frequently, while others come only at times of special trial. Others, with a string of beads, recite a memorized expression each time a bead is advanced in their fingers. At intervals during this ritual they may fix their gaze on a crucifix or the image of a particular saint.
There are so many ways that people offer up prayers! Without doubt they are participated in by devout and sincere persons. But regarding all such prayers we do well to ask: Is meaningful communication taking place—or is it just empty ritual?
[Picture on page 5]
Written prayers tied to branch at a Shinto shrine