Research Trip Report, 1st Unit

the Symposium "Critique of Japanese Buddhism" at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies


The symposium "Critique of Japanese Buddhism" at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies on June 14 was made up of three speakers, two English-speaking and one Japanese scholar. With Brian Victoria (Oxford University) and Matsumoto Shiro (Komazawa University), two of the most outspoken critics of Japanese Buddhism were invited. In their talks, both scholars extended their renowned criticism to new fields. The third speaker James M. Shields (Bucknell University), who belongs to a younger generation of scholars, took impetus from Critical Buddhism in discussing doctrinal questions. The critical discussions regarding Buddhist doctrine at the symposium shed new light on Ircp 1st Unit research on Inoue Enryo's pioneering role in modern pan-sectarian Buddhist philosophy. The following is a report by Rainer Shulzer (Ircp Visiting Researcher).

Matsumoto Shiro questions the authenticity of large strands of East Asian and Japanese Buddhism for their ontologically affirmative notions of self, Buddha nature, or the human soul. He argues that the overall pattern of an alleged affinity between the human soul and the Absolute is the very standpoint of Brahmanism; pointing out that this is the selfsame notion the Buddha rejected in his teaching of non-self.

In a very detailed paper "About the Kyoto School's Understanding of Buddhism," Matsumoto showed that the same criticism may also be applied to Nishida Kitaro and Nishitani Keiji.

In the title of his presentation, Brian Victoria asked the question "Can »Nation-Protecting Buddhism« be rightly called Buddhism?" Victoria's negative answer is based on his belief that Buddhism, in order to preserve its integrity, must stay aloof from the political system. As a universal religion Buddhism must not confine itself to national interests as guarded by politics, but strive for the salvation of all sentient beings. This criticism not only applies to Buddhist nationalism in modern Japan, but is also extended to the general problem of an East Asian Nation-Protecting Buddhism spanning a period of over 1500 years.

The fact that James M. Shields was the first and not the last speaker of the symposium was seemingly not so much due to the logical order, but due to the principle of seniority. Whereas Matsumoto and Victoria confined themselves to negative accounts of Japanese Buddhism, in his paper "Rethinking Buddhist Materialism," Shields pointed with affirmative intentions to a doctrinal option for Critical Buddhism.

He started out from an alliance with the world-immanent and progressive spirit of Meiji New Buddhism and suggested commonalities with Marx's materialism. Rather than idealist speculation, both Marx and the engaged New Buddhists intended pragmatic attempts to improve social conditions. Shields went on to explore this link by pointing to the idea of universal liberation from alienation and dehumanization in early Marx. Shields constructive suggestion for Buddhist critical theory contrasted strongly with the destructive criticism of his senior colleagues. Moreover, where Shields rejects any notion of "true" Buddhism, Matsumoto in theoretical respect (i.e., the doctrine of non-self) and Victoria in practical respect (i.e., the doctrine of universal salvation) implied substantial claims about essential Buddhist doctrines. This further complicated the discursive formation represented by the three speakers.

The subsequent discussion lasting almost two hours reflected this complexity through a great variety of questions and comments. Generally, Shields paper was taken up with warm interest, while the criticism of Matsumoto as well as that of Victoria (apart from his unsubstantiated depiction of King Ashoka) did not face any general disagreement.

The comments by Sasaki Shizuka (Hanazono University) and Sueki Fumihiko (convener and moderator), in addition to the questions from the audience, gave evidence of an excellent level of scholarship in the room.