Shingon Buddhism and Syncretism in Brazil

I found a fascinating paper on Shingon Buddhism in Brazil today. As people may or may not know, there are over one and a half million Brazilians of Japanese descent in Brazil due to Japanese migration over the last century for work. This forms the largest group of Japanese living in any place outside of Japan (including the United States).

The article is “Buddhism in Syncretic Shape: Lessons of Shingon in Brazil” by Rafael Shoji. (You can find it in PDF format as well as in HTML). The article was published in the Journal of Global Buddhism, which is an online academic journal that “has been established to promote the study of Buddhism’s globalization and its transcontinental interrelatedness.”

The abstract for this article states:

Although syncretism is frequently described in the history of Buddhism in Asia, little has been discussed regarding its presence in Buddhism in western countries, where the concept would be helpful for analysing the popularization of Buddhism and its new combinations. From this point of view, the first aim of this article is to present a new heuristic category, one that contrasts the more rigid concept of identity established by so-called "Protestant Buddhism." Given the growing dilution of Buddhist identity and its tendency toward syncretism in Brazil, this paper works with the heuristic concept of a "Buddhism in Syncretic Shape." Since this concept is useful for better understanding some groups in Brazil, it is suggested that it can also provide interesting insights for the study of Buddhism in the West. This concept will be developed through a detailed description of Shingon in Brazil, which has undergone a religious synthesis with Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religions.

The paper is full of fascinating information, at least for people interested in religious studies and especially for those interested in the adaptation of Buddhism to new countries. As many people may know, Brazil is home to a very vibrant mix of religious cultures that combine Roman Catholicism, African Diasporic religions originally coming with slaves, Spiritualism, and modern practices that combine all of these or add new ideas to the mix. Umbanda is a well known syncretic faith that combines Catholicism, Spiritualism, and African religious thought into a modern religion. Some of this syncretism appears to be making its way into Shingon and Shugendo practices in Brazil as well. An excerpt from the paper illustates this:

One interesting aspect of this temple, however, is its incorporation of some devotional and popular elements of Brazilian Catholicism. In this sense, one important characteristic of the altar is the presence of a lateral image of Our Lady Aparecida (port. Nossa Senhora Aparecida). She is venerated as the manifestation of the Virgin Mary in Brazil and is a traditional object of devotion in popular Catholicism. Being the Patroness and symbol of Brazil, devotion to her was very popular with Japanese immigrants in rural zones. The image appears beside the mandalas of Shingon, in the center is a great image of Fudô Myô-ô, the central object of Shingon devotion at this temple. Besides the incorporation of Our Lady Aparecida as a devotional image, there are around three pilgrimages each year to the city of Aparecida do Norte, an important and traditional point for this Catholic devotion. In the photos on lateral walls, the group often appears to be accompanied by Catholic priests during these visits to Aparecida do Norte. At this temple, it is also possible to affirm the presence of syncretism, due to its incorporation of Catholic elements in combination with Shingon meanings.

I heartily recommend those of you interested in both religious thought in the 21st century and the adaptation of Buddhism to the West to take a look at this. I’m not endorsing these practices (in case someone claims that I am) but as a Buddhist with a background in Roman Catholicism (as a child) and Neopaganism (as an adult), I do find it interesting.

In addition to this paper, I also found a later dissertation from 2004 by the same Rafael Shoji (whom I would guess has his PhD now) with the title, “The Nativization of East Asian Buddhism in Brazil.” This was for the University of Hannover in Germany.

The introduction to the dissertation is in German but the rest of it is written in English. By his name and Brazilian address, I would assume that Mr. Shoji is one of these Brazilians of Japanese descent, which would make the reasons for his interest in this area of study fairly obvious. You can download the dissertation here.

The abstract for this states:

This dissertation aims to describe and systematize East Asian Buddhism in Brazil. The study of Buddhism in Brazil includes a revision of the models used in other western countries given that 1) statistical data reveals that a majority of Buddhists in Brazil belong to new Buddhist movements [Sôka Gakkai, Reyûkai], 2) different ethnic relations and the presence of syncretic combinations configure a different type of reception environment. The analytical approach of this thesis includes initially a typology that divides East Asian Buddhism in Brazil into its ethnic, intellectualized and karmic streams. Ethnic Buddhism is a result of Asian immigration to Brazil. In this stream are many Japanese schools [Jôdoshû, Jôdo Shinshû] that were institutionalised with the definitive settlement of Japanese immigrants after the Second World War, although Chinese Buddhist movements have had a increasing importance, some attracting Brazilians converts [Fo Guang Shan]. An intellectualized Buddhism arose from a middle class attraction to Zen and Ch'an. With individual and independent initiatives, this branch represents the selective transplantation of global flows. The karmic Buddhism, at least, represents a search of “this-worldly” benefits through a religious practice based on the concept of karma improvement. In this sense, the blending of Brazilian and Japanese popular religiosity [Shingon], or the expansion of the new religious movements in the 1980s [Sôka Gakkai, Reyûkai] has configured the evolution toward a more widespread karmic Buddhism in Brazil. Besides the proposed typology, the analytical approach is completed by a model of religious nativization, inspired in the studies of Roger Bastide for the Afro-Brazilian religions and in linguistic theories based on relexification. It is argued that the nativization of East Asian Buddhism in Brazil is developing through three main patterns of combinations with the local religiosity. What has occurred in the case of ethnic Buddhism is the appropriation of Catholic contents due to the social integration of Asian descendents and the filling of gaps inside the religious collective memory. In intellectualized Buddhism, a more universalistic approach established the incorporation of Buddhism through mysticism and esotericism. In the case of karmic Buddhism the combination is not systematized and is frequently given through the addition of different practices with a common pursue of concrete results.

Finding work like this is part of what drives me to even consider doing a PhD in an area focusing on religion, Buddhism, and the West.