Thursday, 22 March 2007

Japanese Nationalism and the Universal Dharma

Hiroko Kawanami surveys the manoeuvering of various Buddhist groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as they tried to avoid being squashed by the new, highly oppressive State Shinto, which the Imperial Court employed in order to modernise Japan for competition with Western powers.

Of all the Protestant Christians who worked with Buddhists during the liberal-flavoured early decades of the 20th century, the Unitarians were the most active, and were deeply engaged in inter-faith dialogue with the Buddhist associations.

Of course, the various older and newer Buddhist groups and teachers did not speak with a single voice - there was a fascinating diversity of opinions on the place of Buddhism in individual and social life. The most active group, sadly, was a fiercely nationalistic version of the teachings of Nichiren (a 13th century 'saint'). He had taught - rather like theonomists, advocates of Christendom and most Muslims - that a stable and peaceful society could be established only if the political power accepted and practised the 'right Buddhist law', in other words, worshipped the canon of the Lotus Sutra (109). A former Nichiren monk, Tanaka, reinterpreted his sect's teachings to bring them in line with the state's religious ideology, emptying them of any egalitarianism or political critique. Tanaka won support among the nationalistic Buddhists and right wing politicians and consequently exerted considerable influence upon prominenst people of his generation... If his project was fully realised, in his view, the Emeror woulf become a righteous Buddhist king (cakravartin) who would eventually rule the world (110).

Buddhist groups that spoke out against imperialism, fascism and war were forced to disband and their influence was not significant. After WWII there was an explosion of new religious groups, many of which claimed affinity to various Buddhist teachers and teachings. The energy and range of activities of these groups is quite remarkable (111-3), proving that religion and everyday life are by no means naturally divorced from each other. Thoroughgoing biblical Christianity recognises that political claims are at root 'religious', or, better, are claims about worship. This is abundantly clear in the waxing and waning of the Emperor and Imperial Cult in Japan and in the political fortunes of Soka Gokkai, a new Buddhist organisation that flourished in the 60s and 70s, at one time wielding significant power in the (lower) House of Representatives and (upper) House of Councillors through its party, Komeito (Clean Government Party), as well as establishing 100 branches worldwide. Of course, it was not all plain sailing, and Kawanami ends the section with some pathos: As Soka Gakkai became increasingly criticised for theocracy in 1970, President Ikeda announced its separation from Komeito... Nevertheless, Soka Gakkai had become too powerful, and consequently the relationship with the Buddhist priests of Nichiren Shosu deteriorated. In 1990 Soka Gakkai was excommunicated by the Nichiren Shosu sect, and Ikeda was removed from his position as representative of Nichiren Shosu's lay association. This resulted in an acrimonious situation which left the issue of the spiritual afterlife of its lay members unresolved. (114-5)

Kawanami's conclusion is sober about the condition of Japan and Buddhism's less-than-distinguished history and prospects. Both politicians and priests fail to command respect, while temples seem to exist simply to raise money through the introduction of new ceremonies for the curious. However, many of the techniques of the newer religious organizations have been appropriated from the ascetic practices of traditional Buddhism. In this sense, we may be seeing the traditional Buddhist spirit emerging in new religious contexts. It can also be said that in this age of disenchantment, people are reacting by discovering ways of providing themselves with a type of inner strength, a feeling of self-valuation, and a sense of belonging... (120)