On Secular and Radical Buddhism

In a number of influential books and articles, Stephen Batchelor has proposed, developed, and defended something he has called (among others) “secular Buddhism” and “Buddhism 2.0”.1 The idea of such a secular or scientific or naturalistic or otherwise not traditionally religious kind of Buddhism isn’t new – it has been especially popular among 20th and 21st Western converts to Buddhism, but there have been Asian precursors as well.2 Nevertheless, the idea is also somewhat controversial. Adherents of “secular Buddhism” like Batchelor typically consider it a return to the roots of Buddhism and to the original teachings of the Buddha, but others – such as Donald Lopez – have argued that a secularized or “scientific” Buddhism would (have to) discard too much doctrine to still be recognizably “Buddhist”.3

A formatted version of this article (pdf) for e-book readers or printing is available here.

A book-length follow up on this article, A Buddha Land in This World, has been published in 2022. The e-book version (pdf) can be downloaded for free here.

I’m not sure whether it is really that interesting to debate whether secular, scientific, etcetera Buddhisms are really “Buddhist”. I’m inclined – like many others, by the way – to think of the rather large family of varieties of “Buddhism” as something like a tree with many branches coming from the same stem and roots. Any branch or leaf on that tree is Buddhist in at least some sense. The history of Buddhism is littered with attempts to prune away larger or smaller branches (by denouncing them as heretic or “non-Buddhist”), but the tree metaphor illustrates the futility thereof. If one succeeds in pruning away a branch of an oak tree, then that separated branch doesn’t cease to be oak. Perhaps, this is an overly liberal view of what it means to be “Buddhist” – even a leaf that drops of an oak tree in autumn remains an oak leaf – but I don’t think there is a useful alternative. There is no single essence of Buddhism that any set of ideas must include to be considered “Buddhist”, for example. In fact, most varieties of Buddhism reject essentialism, and therefore – rather paradoxically – the rejection of essences would probably be part of a hypothetical essence of Buddhism, making that very notion incoherent.

In any case, many secular, scientific, etcetera Buddhisms are unambiguously branches (or leaves) of the Buddhist tree. (Exceptions would be philosophies that grew from different trees and merely borrowed some elements from Buddhism.) Many other branches or leaves might want to cut them off, but that – again – is futile. They grew from the tree of Buddhism and remain very much part of it, even if they differ significantly from many other branches. (And anyway, all branches and leaves differ significantly from the stem and roots.)

I’m not part of that tree myself, by the way – I’m a mere curious observer. Some parts of the tree intrigue me, others I find quite attractive, and yet others I find just strange or even repulsive. For various reasons, I find the idea of a more or less secularized or naturalistic and more philosophical than religious Buddhism particularly interesting, but I’m not some kind of “secular Buddhist” either (obviously, because that would put me on the tree, and I just wrote that I’m not part of the tree). I have little affinity with recent Western secularized Buddhisms like Batchelor’s, however, and much more with some varieties of “radical Buddhism” developed in the 20th century in Japan and elsewhere in (East) Asia. It seems to me that “radical Buddhists” like Seno’o Girō have much more to offer than “secular Buddhists” like Stephen Batchelor. This article is an attempt to explain why I think this is the case.

secular Buddhism

As far as I know, the term “secular Buddhism” was coined in the first decade of the 21st century. I do not know who coined the term, but it gained prominence when Stephen Batchelor published an article titled “A Secular Buddhism” in 2012.4 (He also used the term “Buddhism 2.0” in that paper to refer to his version of secular Buddhism.) The opening paragraph of that article explains how Batchelor interprets the term “secular” and thus what is “secular” about his “secular Buddhism”, and much of the rest of the paper is an attempt to explain what is “Buddhist” about his approach. What would make “Buddhism 2.0” Buddhist rather than something else – in Batchelor’s view – is that “it would . . . be founded upon canonical source texts, be able to offer a coherent interpretation of key practices, doctrines and ethical precepts, and provide a sufficiently rich and integrated theoretical model of the dharma [i.e. Buddhist doctrine] to serve as the basis for a flourishing human existence.”5 This raises lots of questions about which texts deserve canonical status and why, and which practices, doctrines, and ethical precepts should be considered essentially Buddhist and which not, and it seems that there is little agreement among (historical and current) schools of Buddhism about what the answers to those questions could be.

The term “secular” is used by Batchelor in three overlapping senses: (1) to denote a contrast or opposition to what is religious; (2) to refer to “this age”, “this generation”, and “this world”; (3) to refer to the transfer of authority away from the church(es) and to the declining role of religion (and religious authority) in people’s lives. The third sense doesn’t appear to play a major role, but the other two do, and not just in Batchelor’s “Buddhism 2.0”. Secular, scientific, etcetera Buddhisms are non-religious (i.e. sense 1), and purport to be relevant to this age and this world (i.e. sense 2). A more cynical reading of the second sense of “secular” is “useful and fashionable”, and there certainly is much to say for that cynical reading.

the cult of the authentic

One particular way in which secular Buddhisms are fashionable is in their uncritical acceptance of the modern Western normative ideal of authenticity. This ideal is rooted in 19th century Romantic thought, but has more recently become incorporated by capitalism in various ways. One fashion of authenticity is the misguided (and rather un-Buddhist) ideal of being authentic,6 but at least equally important is the fashion of authentic consumption – that is, the attempt by consumers to acquire and/or experience authentic “things” (in the broadest possible interpretation of “thing”).7 Thus, a Western tourist under the influence of this cult of authentic consumption will only want to see and experience authentic buildings (including authentic ruins), authentic landscapes, authentic cultures, authentic foods, and so forth, and will reject hybrids and modern and Western influences on (or “corruptions” of) the “pure”, traditional, original, authentic ideal. And similarly, a Western Buddhist under the same influence will want to find – or construct (!) – the most “authentic” Buddhism possible and will reject what she sees as corruptions, deviations, and non-purely-Buddhist (i.e. “inauthentic”) influences. Much Western Buddhism is fashionable in exactly this sense – i.e. it aims to consume some kind of “authentic” Buddhism – and most secular Buddhisms appear to be especially heavily influenced by the cult of the authentic. Typically, they aim to reconstruct the original teachings of the Buddha, purified from later, inauthentic corruptions and other “inauthentic” influences.

Authenticity is a misguided ideal, however, and Stephen Batchelor appears to realize this. He writes that:

The more I am seduced by the force of my own arguments, the more I am tempted to imagine that my secular version of Buddhism is what the Buddha originally taught, which the traditional schools have either lost sight of or distorted. This would be a mistake; for it is impossible to read the historical Buddha’s mind in order to know what he “really” meant or intended.8

However, it also seems that the seductive force of the ideal of authenticity is strong, as much of Batchelor’s work is an attempt to reconstruct the life and original (i.e. authentic) teachings of the Buddha.9 And arguably, that is also the most interesting part of his work.10 Nevertheless, Batchelor is right that authenticity is unachievable – we cannot “read the historical Buddha’s mind”. It is, perhaps, worth noting here that in the pre-twentieth century Buddhist tradition no one ever tried either. The whole idea of reconstructing the historical Buddha and his “real” historical message is alien to Buddhism and even clashes with widely held Buddhist beliefs about (historical) factuality.11 So, in a sense, the reconstructionist project appears to be a very “un-Buddhist” project.12

A more important question than whether reconstruction is possible or properly “Buddhist” is whether authenticity is – or should be – an ideal at all. Authentic ruins may be more interesting to visit than fake ruins, but Buddhism is not like a ruined building – rather, it is a collection of values, beliefs, and ideas that serves certain purposes and there is no a priori reason to assume that a more “authentic” version of those values, beliefs, and ideas serve those purposes any better than less authentic versions. Actually, the contrary is considerably more plausible. Thales is arguably the father of Western science and philosophy. If authentic beliefs would be more valuable than later “corruptions”, then we should reject Newton, Einstein, and everything modern science (and philosophy) has taught and return to Thales’s original teachings. For example, we’d have to reject plate tectonics and explain earthquakes by claiming that land floats on water.

As mentioned, one of the most interesting parts of Batchelor’s work is his attempt to reconstruct the life and teachings of the historical Buddha. The story he tells is convincing, but the more human the Buddha becomes, the more he becomes like Thales. That is, he becomes the father of a certain tradition, but nothing more than that.13 Being just human, the Buddha no longer has any special authority and there is, therefore, no special reason to believe his teachings.14 In other words, the more authentic the reconstruction of the Buddha’s teachings and their origins, the less reason there is to accept them. The only reason there would be to accept the teachings of a fully humanized Buddha is that (there is sufficient evidence that) they are true or that they “work”. Batchelor himself adopts a kind of vulgar Pragmatism that confuses the notion of truth with the criteria to assign truth status (i.e. justification – see: Some Remarks on Truth and Justification) and thus more or less fuses the two notions,15 but that matters little here. What does matter is that acceptance of some theory or idea (regardless of whether it is supposed to be true or that it “works”) should depend on nothing but evidence – the source or author of that theory or idea is utterly irrelevant. Consequently, the ideal of authenticity is self-undermining: the authentic Buddha has no authority.

There is, furthermore, something unpleasantly arrogant and condescending about the search for the “true” teaching of the “true” Buddha because that search always involves an implicit devaluation and rejection of everything that doesn’t satisfy the implied standard of purity. I already mentioned above that there is a long tradition of accusations of corruption of the “true” teaching within Buddhism. In terms of the tree metaphor adopted above, this is like one branch or leaf of the same tree accusing another branch or leaf of being an aberration and not really belonging to the same tree. This is somewhat absurd, of course, but it becomes especially absurd – and, as mentioned, unpleasantly arrogant and condescending – in case of secular Buddhism, even if the rejection of the “untrue” or “inauthentic” branches is often left unmentioned. Western, secular Buddhisms typically do not originate from within the Buddhist tradition, so in a sense, they are more like something – a fungus, perhaps – growing on the tree than like a part of the tree itself. The cult of authenticity then, is like a fungus that grows on or near the roots of the tree and that considers itself to be a more authentic part of the tree than the branches and leaves, just because it is closer to the roots.16

This latter point is relatively superficial in comparison to the much more fundamental issue mentioned before. An attempt to go back to the authentic teachings of the Buddha makes sense only if one accepts that the Buddha had some special, supernatural access to truth and wisdom, much like Mohamed’s direct line of communication with Allah, but a secular Buddhist cannot possibly accept that. For a genuinely secular Buddhist, the Buddha is merely of historical interest, and authenticity is not a normative ideal. If anything, a secular Buddhist should appreciate the results of centuries of open debate on doctrine much more than the sketchy ideas that started that debate (although it must be admitted immediately that open debate about doctrine has only occurred sporadically and has mostly been overshadowed by sectarian or scholastic dogma).

purification beyond the authentic

Some secular Buddhists aim to go further even than reconstructing something as close as possible to the Buddha’s original teachings – they want to purify those teachings from non-Buddhist influences as well. Hence, they aim for something that is explicitly unauthentic, for something more “pure” than (historical) reality. Stephen Batchelor adopts a variant of this attitude, for example. He writes that “my starting point in dealing with dogmatic statements is to bracket off anything attributed to Gotama that could just as well have been said by another wanderer, Jain monk, or brahmin priest of the same period”.17

In his Buddhism as Philosophy, Mark Siderits suggests something like this as a possibility as well, but more as a theoretical exercise than as a normative ideal.18 A charitable reading of Batchelor suggests that his approach should be understood much in the same way – his point in “bracketing off” is not so much hyper-purification, but arriving at a more interesting theory. And many other secular (and radical) Buddhisms “bracket off” ideas on similar grounds.

There is a long list of candidate ideas that could be “bracketed off” on these grounds (i.e. on the grounds that they were part of the shared cultural background rather than particular to the Buddha’s thought). An obvious example is reincarnation or rebirth (suggested by Siderits). Mind/body dualism (and other varieties of substance dualism) is another example. The belief in gods and spirits; the theory of karma (which is, of course, closely related to the idea of rebirth); and so forth. One may wonder, however, how many of such background ideas can be discarded without changing Buddhism into something else entirely.19 In any case, much of Buddhist doctrine would have to be radically rethought. Batchelor, of course, realizes this very well and much of his project is aimed at doing exactly that.

A potential problem, however, is that this “bracketing off” of problematic ideas may clash more violently with the attempt to reconstruct the historical Buddha than Batchelor and fellow travelers seem to realize. Again, the idea is to discard anything that clashes with the secular worldview and that was part of the common or shared intellectual background, but there may not be much in that category. Problematic ideas such as the theories of karma and rebirth (or reincarnation) where not universally accepted in the time of the Buddha.20 They were widely shared, but also debated, and they were rejected by the Cārvāka school, for example. Furthermore, they were explicitly endorsed by the Buddha. Hence, the ideas that some secular Buddhists want to “bracket off” were more or less controversial ideas that were explicitly part of the Buddha’s teachings. One can still choose to bracket off those ideas, of course, but one cannot honestly pretend that the result is still the authentic teaching of the historical Buddha.

useful and fashionable

The ideal of authenticity is not the only thing that is fashionable about secular Buddhism. Stephen Batchelor’s second sense of “secular” focuses on “saeculum” as referring to this age, this world, and this generation.21 His point is that secular Buddhism should be relevant or useful in this world and to this generation. This is, of course, an extremely fashionable idea – in modern, capitalist consumer society what is useless is worthless – although the extent of fashionability depends on how exactly secular Buddhism is supposed to be useful.

There are two features of modern culture that are especially relevant here. Firstly, modern culture is extremely individualistic or even narcissistic.22 And secondly, since the 19th century “useful” has become inseparable from the originally utilitarian concept of “utility”, which itself – under the influence of the hegemony of liberalism and mainstream economics – has effectively turned into a synonym of “profitability”. Hence, something is useful to the extent that it is profitable. There are many ways in which something can be profitable, however. It might help you make more money directly. Or it might help you cope with the conditions of life more effectively. Or it may help in creating acceptance of the status quo (i.e. hegemony) and thereby make your employees less likely to dissent or revolt. And so forth.

Stephen Batchelor states explicitly that he does “not envision a Buddhism that seeks to discard all trace of religiosity, that seeks to arrive at a dharma that is little more than a set of self-help techniques that enable us to operate more calmly and effectively as agents or clients, or both, of capitalist consumerism”.23 However, one may wonder how successful he is. His re-interpretation of the dharma (i.e. Buddhism) is thoroughly individualist (and thus, very fashionable in that sense, at least). For example, item 7 of his Ten theses of secular dharma is that “the community of practitioners is formed of autonomous persons who mutually support each other in the cultivation of their paths. In this network of like-minded individuals, members respect the equality of all members while honoring the specific knowledge and expertise each person brings”.24 The same individualism permeates his rethinking of the doctrine of “no-self”,25 emphasis on self-reliance,26 and response to social ills.27 The “secular dharma” may be “grounded in a deeply felt concern and compassion for the suffering of all those with whom we share this earth”,28 but it remains focused on the practice of autonomous individuals. As in liberalism and mainstream economics, the individual takes center stage and is the only actor worth considering. This is, of course, very fashionable, but it also denies the “secular dharma” a social or political role, which makes it rather useful for those who profit from the status quo as well. Individualistic concern with suffering without social, communal, and political action to alleviate that suffering is impotent and harmless to those who profit from the continuation of suffering.29

In the end, what most secular Buddhisms achieve is a kind of acceptance of suffering, rather than a desire to end it. Individualist Buddhism is aimed at changing oneself rather than changing the world. Almost as an afterthought, Batchelor’s 8th Thesis of secular dharma preaches “empathy, compassion, and love for all creatures who have evolved on this earth”,30 but just sharing in others’ suffering (that is what “compassion” means) is insufficient – without a serious commitment to change the world (rather than just oneself) this so-called “empathy” or “compassion” is nothing but a pornographic indulging in pity.31

Buddhism has always been made useful, of course, and being useful is not objectionable in itself. The issue here is not whether secular Buddhism is useful, however, but whether it is fashionable, which includes a certain kind of usefulness. As mentioned, Batchelor rejects a reduction of secular Buddhism to “a set of self-help techniques that enable us to operate more calmly and effectively as agents or clients, or both, of capitalist consumerism”,32 but he is also rather apologetic of “Buddhist” practices that are exactly that. Furthermore, he points out that it has always been like this: to a large extent Buddhism has always been “dumbed down” to a kind of self-help techniques that enable the adherent “to operate more calmly and effectively” in the world she happens to be born in.

An oft-heard complaint among traditional Buddhists is that the mindfulness movement is a “dumbing down” of the dharma. This elitist objection fails to recognize that Buddhism has been dumbing itself down ever since it began. It is doubtful that those who condemn the mindfulness movement on such grounds would likewise condemn the practice of millions of Buddhists that consists in repeating over and over again the name of the mythical Buddha Amitabha or the title of the Lotus Sūtra. Mindfulness is becoming the Om Mani Padme Hum of secular Buddhism. Instead of mumbling a mantra while spinning a prayer wheel and once a week going to the monastery to light butter lamps, modern practitioners may sit on a cushion for twenty minutes a day observing their breathing and once a week attend a “sitting group” in a friend’s living room. In both cases, those involved may have little understanding of Buddhist philosophy or doctrine but find these simple exercises rewarding in helping them live balanced and meaningful lives.33

In a sense, Buddhism has always been “secular”. It has always been adapted to the circumstances of the time and place where it was practiced. Lay Buddhism has always been a “dumbed down” tool to help people cope with their situation and the suffering around them. (And monastic or institutional Buddhism has almost always functioned primarily to serve that lay application and/or the state.) However, while adopting and incorporating cultural practices and fashions may be an effective way to make a body of ideas more acceptable and “useful” in some age and context, this doesn’t automatically make it “better” in any sense of that term. Being “secular” (or fashionable) in this sense is not a normative ideal. In the contrary, I’m inclined to say that by implicitly adopting the narcissistic individualism of our age, secular Buddhism only diminishes Buddhism. Adopting bad fashions makes something worse, not better.

the secular and the religious

The secular contrasts with the religious, and consequently, to understand what it means to be secular (in this contrastive sense) requires an understanding of what it means to be religious. Unfortunately, there is no single uncontroversial definition of religion.

Religions consist of a wold view and a life view. (Or Weltanschauung and Lebensanschauung in German. Unfortunately, English doesn’t have a good translation of the second term. “Life view” is a literal translation and is consistent with the translation of the first term as “world view”.) A world view is a collection of ideas about how the world works, about what exists and what doesn’t, and so forth. A life view is a collection of ideas about the meaning of life, about right and wrong, and so forth.

Obviously, defining religion as world view plus life view is insufficient, because (some of) the sciences and part of philosophy34 are also collections of ideas about how the world works and about what exists. Those, however, are usually considered to constitute a secular, rather than religious world view (although there is a lot of religiously based philosophy, of course). And ideas about the meaning of life and about right and wrong also belong to philosophy.35 So, the question is, What exactly distinguishes a religious world+life view from a secular world+life view? It seems to me that the answer to that question consists of two parts – one metaphysical and one epistemological.

Firstly, religious world+life views appeal to the supernatural, while secular world+life views do not. Or in other words, religion is supernaturalist and secularity is naturalist. This is a metaphysical difference between religion and secular world+life views. Religious views contend that supernatural agents, forces, causes, and so forth exist, and thus that there are supernatural explanations. Secular/naturalist views reject that idea – there is nothing beyond physical nature/reality.

Secondly, it is often claimed that religion is dogmatic while secularity is not, but that is not exactly true. Religious “dogmas” also change over time, and more or less dogmatic thought also occurs in science and philosophy. The real difference between the two kinds of views is epistemological: it concerns the status of revelation and certain kinds of testimony as sources of knowledge. Revelation is knowledge with a supernatural origin (like the knowledge Mohamed and other prophets received from God directly). Testimony is “second-hand knowledge” – things you read in books or heard from others. Religions recognize a special class of texts or stories (i.e. oral transmissions) that qualify as sources of knowledge. Examples include the Bible, the Quran, and various Sūtras. Hence, what distinguishes religion from secularity (in addition to the previous point) is that the former recognizes revelation and/or specific testimony as sources of knowledge, while the latter does not.

It is often claimed that Buddhism is compatible with secularity in the metaphysical sense. That is, supposedly Buddhism is atheist and does not depend on supernatural explanations. This is not exactly right, however. Most varieties of Buddhism – along with all other religious world+life views – adopt substance dualism (or sometimes a variety of idealism). Substance dualism holds that there are minds and bodies and those two are different kinds of substances. This kind of dualism contrasts with monism that holds that either only the material/physical exists, and thus the mind is a material/physical process (in the brain), or that only the mental exists, and thus that apparent physical/material reality is just in the mind. (The latter view is called idealism and appears to be adopted by some varieties of Buddhism such as Yogācāra.) Substance dualism is an untenable position, however. It conflicts with the laws of physics (the preservation laws of matter/energy, particularly) and it makes the supposed interaction between the material and the mental incomprehensible.36 The only way to make sense of the notion of mental substances is by making the mind a supernatural category, and consequently, world+life views that hold that minds are not (reducible to, emergent from, or identical with) physical/material things/processes are supernaturalist, and therefore, religious.

However, giving up on substance dualism (and/or idealism) would lead to some other big changes as well. Without mental substances and related supernaturalities, it is impossible to make sense of karma and rebirth or reincarnation, for example.37 As mentioned above, some secular Buddhists don’t find this objectionable, because those ideas were – supposedly – part of the shared background in which Buddhism developed and are, therefore, not an “authentic” part of Buddhism. But many other core ideas of Buddhism – its understanding of suffering (i.e. dukkha), the twelve-linked chain of causes, and so forth – are deeply influenced by, or even dependent on, these notions. There are, of course, many other Buddhist ideas that do not depend on supernatural assumptions, but one may wonder whether cutting away everything that doesn’t satisfy the criterion of secularity – if possible at all – would leave enough to recognize that remainder as “Buddhist”.38

Furthermore, it is also debatable whether most secular Buddhisms are really secular in the epistemological sense mentioned above. Of course, they don’t recognize revelation as a source of knowledge, but they invariable give special status to certain kinds of testimony – namely, the parts of the Pali canon or other texts that they believe to most accurately capture the Buddha’s original teaching. That teaching is more or less accepted as true and exempt from rejection. (That is, it may be reinterpreted, but it can never be rejected.)

In science and philosophy (and thus in “secularity”) views are adopted provisionally – at least in theory. Thus a philosopher may consider herself a Quinean, for example, meaning that she largely agrees with the philosophy of W.V.O. Quine. But if she would find solid evidence and/or valid arguments against most of Quine’s theories that she considers important, then she might still continue studying Quine, but she wouldn’t consider herself a Quinean anymore. By analogy, a (real) secular Buddhist accepts a significant portion of Buddhist teachings provisionally, recognizing that counter-argument and counter-evidence may lead her to the rejection of those theories.

This, however, is contrary to the very purpose of religion. Religious world+life views are not supposed to change fundamentally or to be open to refutation and rejection, because – as Ernest Becker has argued in The Denial of Death – people need these world+life views to provide a more or less fixed ground for stable self-identities and to (unconsciously) manage their fear of death.39 Secularity can provide such a fixed ground, as the secular world view (i.e. the rejection of supernatural forces and explanations, and the rejection of revelation and a special class of testimony – see above) itself may effectively be (more or less) exempt from scrutiny and rejection. But the same cannot be true for something that is combined with secularity – a consistent secular view trumps anything else. Consequently, a (real) secular Buddhism is essentially secular, and merely provisionally Buddhist.

However, religious terms of identification are almost never understood as being provisional, and this makes the term “secular Buddhist” somewhat misleading. That is, “secular Buddhist” is most likely to be understood as essentially Buddhist and provisionally secular, but that is an impossible position because provisional secularity is incoherent. For this reason it is debatable whether there is something that can be appropriately called “secular Buddhism”. There may be secular world+life views that take inspiration from Buddhism or that (provisionally) borrow Buddhist ideas and hypotheses, but that’s (almost certainly) not enough to classify as “Buddhist”.

Now, it can be argued, of course, that the term “Buddhist” shouldn’t be interpreted religiously – parallel to Hindu, Muslim, or Christian, for example – because Buddhism is as much a philosophy as a religion. “Secular Buddhist” would then be more similar to “secular Hegelian” (i.e. a secular world+life view combined with a provisional acceptance of key parts of Hegel’s philosophy) than to “secular Christian”. This is sophistry, however, for two reasons. Firstly, outside philosophy departments almost no one thinks of Buddhism as a philosophy. “Buddhist” is a religious label; not a philosophical one. And secondly, the (usually reverent) attitude secular Buddhists take towards the Buddha and his teachings (or their interpretation thereof) is religious more than secular (by the standards explained above), and the same is true of the reasons and motivations for secular Buddhism to accept some kind of Buddhism in the first place. Ultimately, “secular Buddhism” is an attempt to construct some purified (“authentic”) form of Buddhism, and not a kind of secularity with (provisional) Buddhist influences.

unfashionable and uncomfortable

The preceding sections may have given the impression that I somehow oppose secular Buddhism, but that’s not exactly the case.40 There are many currents of Buddhism that I find interesting because of the role they played in the intellectual history of Asia, for example, or for sociological reasons, or because they advocated philosophical ideas that I find intriguing or wise, or for other – generally somewhat academic – reasons. Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, for example, is interesting for the way it “democratized” Buddhism (i.e. making Buddhism less elitist), but at the same time I see no merit in Pure Land Buddhism as a belief system or philosophy. Something similar applies to secular Buddhism – I find the phenomenon interesting mostly for sociological and other reasons, but I see no merit in secular Buddhism as a belief system. What I find most interesting about secular Buddhism is its uncritical (i.e. unconscious) adoption of currently fashionable narcissistic individualism. I see secular Buddhism as an attempt to soften what I called “cultural psychopathy” elsewhere,41 but without giving it up completely because it is firmly in the clutches of the hegemony of psychopathy. But this is more or less what secularity in the second sense distinguished by Batchelor means: acceptance of the cultural (and thus hegemonic) status quo. While I find this interesting from a sociological point of view, it is far removed from what attracts me personally in Buddhism, and even further from my attitude towards narcissistic individualism or cultural psychopathy. If secularity implies implicit acceptance of the cultural status quo, I’d prefer some kind of anti-secular and unfashionable Buddhism.

As mentioned above, Stephen Batchelor writes that he does “not envision a Buddhism that seeks to discard all trace of religiosity, that seeks to arrive at a dharma that is little more than a set of self-help techniques that enable us to operate more calmly and effectively as agents or clients, or both, of capitalist consumerism”.42 However, I have a hard time seeing secular Buddhisms as anything else than just that. Effectively, they are nothing but collections of practices centered on (mindfulness) meditation allowing individuals to better cope with the stresses of everyday life in modern capitalist society. From a historical perspective this is simultaneously somewhat appropriate and peculiar. It is appropriate for the reason already mentioned by Batchelor in the long block quote above: Buddhism (as well as other religions) has always been simplified to offer comfort to lay believers. It is peculiar, however, because mediation never played that role. Meditation does not play a central role in all branches of Buddhism, and in those in which it is important, it is usually just monks (and nuns) who meditate. And most importantly, as Donald Lopez has also pointed out,43 meditation in Buddhism is more often intended to evoke stress than to relief stress.

In the Visuddhimagga,44 one of the most influential texts in Theravāda Buddhism, Buddhaghosa writes that two kinds of meditation are essential. Those two kinds are meditation on loving-kindness (mettā) and on death. In the section on death as a meditation subject,45 he writes that meditation on death is successful only if it leads to a state of shock called “saṃvega”.46 The point of this kind of – supposedly essential – meditation is shock and stress (which should in turn lead to moral and religious motivation47) rather than to tranquility or stress relief.

Buddhaghossa’s second kind of essential meditation isn’t much more fashionable either. The point of meditation on loving-kindness is to come to identify with others needs and interests as strongly as one would normally identify with one’s own. It is the very antithesis of the narcissistic individualism and pathological selfishness (i.e. cultural psychopathy) that permeates modern society. Mindfulness and other kinds of meditation in secular Buddhism are primarily aimed at improving one’s own happiness or strengthening one’s own coping mechanism. (And compassion is a mere afterthought – see above.) But this gets things completely the wrong way around.

The chapter on meditation in Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, which is at least as influential in Mahāyāna Buddhism as Buddhaghossa’s text in the other main current, also suggests that the main purpose of meditation is to identify with other’s needs and interest. Śāntideva calls this “the exchange of self and other”.48 But Śāntideva also makes a key point that secular Buddhism and the mindfulness movement conveniently ignore: “When happiness is liked by me and others equally, what is so special about me that I strive after happiness only for myself?”49 The narcissistic (and culturally dominant) answer to Śāntideva’s (rhetorical) question is to just simply assume that I am special, but the fact is that I’m not special, and neither are you. You and me are just some random ignorant fools who have no greater title to happiness than anyone else. And someone who calls themselves a “Buddhist”, but consistently prioritizes their own happiness, completely misses the point.50

So, while I’m sympathetic to the general idea of a “secular Buddhism”, there are facets of the concept of the “secular” (in this context, but perhaps also in other contexts) that I find problematic at best. I have no gripes with “secular” as far as that concept contrasts with “religious” or “supernatural” (i.e. “secular” as some king of shorthand for “naturalist in metaphysics and epistemology”), although this aspect of secularity would override anything that is combined with it, making the very notion of “secular Buddhism” unstable or even incoherent (see above). Neither do I object to the idea that Buddhism should somehow be made relevant or useful to this age or saeculum, although I think it should be “relevant” or “useful” by its own standards rather than by current cultural-political fashions.

What I most object to – but that should be clear already – is secularity as (implicit) fashionability: particularly the cult of authenticity and the uncritical (or unconscious) acceptance of hegemonic narcissistic individualism. Again, authenticity is not a normative ideal. Bodies of thought develop and evolve and the root of a tree is not in any way “better”, “truer”, or more real than the leaves. Knowledge builds up over time, but the cult of authenticity assumes it is the other way around: since the mythical starting point there just has been deterioration. That is a nonsensical idea, however. Like any other philosophy or theory, Buddhism developed in response to criticism, opposition, new ideas, and new inventions. The Buddha knew much less than some of his later followers, and certainly much less about the modern world. And consequently, rather than trying to dig down to the roots, it may be more useful to take more than two millennia of Buddhist philosophy in India, Sri Lanka, Tibet, China, Japan, and elsewhere seriously.

Most philosophical development took place in the Mahāyāna branch of Buddhism, and consequently, giving up the mistaken ideal of authenticity corrects another flaw of “secular Buddhism” – that is, while in Western secular Buddhisms compassion is a mere afterthought and the focus is always one’s own individual well-being, compassion takes center stage in Mahāyāna. And because of that, Mahāyāna may be the right antidote against the fashionable narcissistic individualism that has been (unconsciously?) adopted by secular Buddhists (and most other Western Buddhisms).

Furthermore, secularized or modernized versions of Mahāyāna Buddhism have been proposed (and to greater or lesser extent developed) in Asia for well over a century. Interesting examples include Taixu in China,51 Gendun Chopel in Tibet,52 Han Yongun in Korea,53,and Uchiyama Gudō and Seno’o Girō in Japan.54 The last two of these – as well as several unmentioned others – have been grouped under the header of “radical Buddhism” by James Mark Shields and Patrice Ladwig.55 They define the notion of “radical” in “radical Buddhism” as a “position that is (1) politically engaged; and (2) in opposition to the hegemonic socio-political and/or economic ideology (or ideologies) of a given period” and a “radical Buddhist” as “anyone engaged in the explicit or implicit use of Buddhist doctrines or principles to forment resistance to the state and/or the socio-political and/or economic status quo”.56 Obviously, this notion of “radical Buddhism” is something very different from Batchelor’s and other Western “secular Buddhisms”, but many radical Buddhists – perhaps, Seno’o Girō most notably – aspired to secularize Buddhism in important respects as well, and consequently, there are interesting similarities, but even more interesting differences. But before we can have a closer look at those I need to make a few remarks about the roots of Buddhist radicalism.57

reality and compassion

There are two aspects of Mahāyāna thought that are particularly important in the present context. One is the apparently rather esoteric metaphysical distinction between ultimate and conventional reality and some of its extensions and interpretations. The other is the Bodhisattva ideal, which is a defining characteristic of Mahāyāna thought.

the conventional and the real

When you see a table, you see that thing as a table and, unless you have never encountered a table before and have no concept of “table”, you cannot really do otherwise. We experience things as belonging to certain conceptual categories – we see trees as trees, houses as houses, and so forth. Thus, in looking at a landscape like the following picture, I do not just see the landscape as it is given by independent, external reality.

Rather, I see hills as hills, a village as village, clusters of farms as farms, fields as fields, and so forth. In other words, the things in the scene come pre-classified and I cannot consciously see the scene independently from or prior to that classification.

landscape with overlay
Our minds place a kind of conceptual overlay over reality – something like the following drawing – and that conceptual overlay determines how we experience reality (and how we remember it) as much as the scene it tries to capture, categorize, and tame.

The original scene or the first picture can be thought off as being roughly analogous to the Buddhist concept of ultimate reality; the conceptual overlay depicted in the drawing is then analogous to conventional reality – the world as we experience it, mediated by our conceptual categories. A related distinction has been made in Western philosophy by Kant, for example – the first picture is then analogous to “the things in themselves” or noumenal reality and the third to phenomenal reality. There are important differences, however, and there are very different interpretations of what exactly ultimate reality is and how it relates to conventional reality within Buddhism as well. Furthermore, different schools of Buddhism would probably object to the analogy on different grounds, and consequently, the analogy should not be taken too far – it’s a tool for explanation, but nothing more than that.

The main point of contention between philosophers and schools of thought concerns the relation between ultimate or noumenal reality and conventional or phenomenal reality. Essentialists hold that the boundaries drawn by our conceptual overlay correspond with given boundaries in nature or external reality. Or in other words, classification of some things as trees, or shrubs, or houses, or hills, and so forth are not arbitrary but are – more or less – given by the way things are. Noumenal (or external or independent – there is no lack of terms to choose from) reality comes pre-classified into many different kinds and our conceptual apparatuses track these naturally given classifications. Consequently, noumenal reality and phenomenal reality are really pretty much the same. Such essentialism has been the default position of much of Western philosophy (especially in the Middle Ages), but it also has been attacked by many.58

Anti-essentialists reject this picture. According to anti-essentialists conceptual boundaries are – at least to some extent – arbitrary. In some cases this is kind of obvious – where we draw the boundary between hills and mountains, for example, is not plausibly determined by nature, but is just a matter of definition – but in other cases it may be less obvious. Anti-essentialists typically hold that things in the same category have no shared essences and that there are gray areas between categories – we draw the boundaries between those categories by arbitrary convention. Thus, while essentialists believe that reality as we consciously experience it – that is phenomenal or conventional reality – is directly given by nature or the world itself (i.e. noumenal or ultimate reality), anti-essentialists belief that reality as we experience it isn’t given, but is constructed by us. Phenomenal or conventional reality is a social construction. And consequently, while for the essentialist our conceptual distinctions correspond with “real” distinctions (in noumenal or ultimate reality), for the anti-essentialist they don’t.

Nevertheless, an anti-essentialist can take very different attitudes towards conventional or phenomenal reality and the conceptual categorizations it is based on. She can take a more negative attitude and stress the fact that conceptual boundaries do not track “real” boundaries, and therefore, that conceptual categories are effectively mistaken and that any apparent reality based on it is illusory. Or she can take a more positive attitude and stress that the conceptual boundaries are partially caused by external reality (for example, because they are drawn in gray zones and are thus not completely randomly), and therefore, that conceptual categories only show a partial view or perspective – and are thus incomplete rather than mistaken. (On a side note, I have argued for something like the latter in a number of papers,59 and this metaphysical issue was really what got me interested in Buddhism in the first place.)

Buddhism is anti-essentialist, which has a number of interesting and important implications, but different schools, currents, and thinkers have taken different attitudes towards conventional reality and have differently conceptualized various aspects and details of the ultimate/conventional reality distinction. One particular implication of Buddhist anti-essentialism is worth mentioning here because it bears directly on a fundamental tendency of “secular Buddhism”. Because conventional reality is only a partial view at best and completely mistaken at worst and any description is necessarily in language and thus a description of conceptualized conventional reality, any description is only partial and incomplete at best (and illusory at worst). Or in other words, anti-essentialists reject the idea that there is one and only one true description of something. This also applies to history – any description of historical facts is just one particular perspective thereon (if one takes the positive attitude – it is utterly mistaken if one takes the negative attitude). And consequently, from a Buddhist anti-essentialist point of view, the project of reconstructing a single, authoritative account of the historical Buddha and his teachings makes about as much sense as declaring that the only right way to see a cup is from the side and with its ear on the right.60

Due to historical circumstances, the epicenter of philosophical activity and innovation in Buddhism gradually moved in a roughly northeasterly direction. From India (and Sri Lanka) to Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. Perhaps, for cultural reasons this move more or less corresponds with a shift in attitude from more “negative” to more “positive”.61 (One reason to believe that culture played a role in this is that – aside from Daoism, perhaps – classical Chinese philosophy was more “down to earth”, and therefore, closer to the positive attitude.)

Because the negative attitude never allows one to (truthfully!) say what something is, and only what something is not (because all conceptual classifications are mistaken), the negative attitude is characterized by negative language or apophasis (or apophatic discourse). In contrast, while the positive attitude recognizes that any conceptualization is only partial, one-sided, provisional, and incomplete, this does not imply that conceptualizations are inherently wrong. In other words, despite these caveats, the positive attitude allows one to say what something is – at least provisionally, partially, etcetera. In contrast to apophatic discourse, such positive discourse is called kataphatic discourse.62 Robert Gimello argues that much Mahāyāna philosophy (especially in China) developed out of “profound dissatisfaction with the seemingly relentless apophasis of Nāgārjuna”. Alternatives to the view of Nāgārjuna and the Mādhyamika school based on his thought stressed “the spiritual utility of positive and affirmative language” – “they chose … eloquence over silence”.63

For Nāgārjuna (2-3rd century), ultimate reality was “emptiness”, and emptiness was itself empty (i.e. beyond conceptual description, and thus apophatic). While later Indian thinkers often took a somewhat less negative/apohatic attitude, Nāgārjuna’s shadow was long. A few centuries after Nāgārjuna, Dignāga (5-6th century) and Dharmakīrti (7th century) emphasized that conceptual categories are social conventions with roots in the ultimately real, but even this was couched in apophatic terms. Conceptual construction was supposed to take place through a process called apoha that avoids positive or affirmative statements. That is, we learn a concept of “cow” not by classifying things as cows but as not non-cows.

Nāgārjuna’s theory of the emptiness of emptiness entails that even ultimate reality is only conventionally real. Chinese Buddhism, however, turned this on its head – from Nāgārjuna’s conventionality of the ultimately real it developed into the ultimate reality of the conventional; that is, a kataphatic affirmation of conventional reality.64 In Fung Yu-lan’s Short History of Chinese Philosophy the result of this transformation is summarized as follows:

The reality of the Buddha-nature [noumenal reality] is itself the phenomenal world, (. . .). There is no other reality outside the phenomenal world, (. . .). Some people in their Ignorance, see only the phenomenal world, but not the reality of the Buddha-nature. Other people, in their Enlightenment, see the Buddha-nature, but this Buddha-nature is still the phenomenal world. What these two kinds of people see is the same, but what one person sees in his Enlightenment has a significance quite different from what the other person sees in his Ignorance.65

the Lotus Sūtra

One of the most important texts for Chinese Buddhism (and its Japanese and Korean offspring) is the Lotus Sūtra. The Lotus Sūtra is a very strange text. It is supposed to be the Buddha’s final teaching, but it appears to be mostly about itself and it is filled with exaggerated exotic imagery of flying jeweled stūpas, gigantic audiences, and supernatural feats. The Lotus Sūtra represents pretty much everything many Western secular Buddhist dislike about Buddhism as a living religion in East Asia, which is probably most neatly illustrated by an anecdote in Donald Lopez’s book about the Sūtra.66 In his university course “Introduction of Buddhism” he starts with a series of lectures on more or less philosophical topics addressed by Buddhism – the kind of topics Western Buddhist and Westerners with an interest in Buddhism are typically interested in, ranging from more metaphysical questions to meditation and the Four Noble Truths. Much of the second half of the course is dedicated to the Lotus Sūtra, however, which tends to provoke disappointment and even outrage in students. The Lotus Sūtra is too fantastic, too supernatural, too inauthentic (its earliest parts date to the first century), too religious (and not enough philosophical), and so forth for secular Western preferences. He quotes a student as asking: “How can people accept the words of one monk who decided to write a text to completely change Buddhism?” To some extent, the outrage and rejection is understandable. It is indeed extremely unlikely that the Lotus Sūtra was taught by the Buddha, and the text is indeed overly self-referential and overly ornate, but there it is not true that it represents a radical deviation from other/earlier teachings and there is more lurking below the ornate surface than a casual glance might suggest. Like many religious texts, the Lotus Sūtra requires patience and study.

I’m not sure how and why the Lotus Sūtra became as important and influential as it is, but one of the reasons may be related to the foregoing. The “reality” described in the Sūtra – the one with the flying stūpas, shaking earth, and various other supernatural fables – is the reality seen through the eyes of enlightened beings and thus, supposedly, ultimate reality. But that fantastic ultimate reality is not a different world – it is the world we live in and are familiar with, it is merely seen with (or through) different eyes. As Gene Reeves has pointed out, the Lotus Sutra – despite its fantastic imagery – is radically world-affirming.67 Conventional reality and ultimate reality are not different worlds. Rather, there is just one world, which can be perceived or thought about in different ways.

The Lotus Sutra was the principal text of the Tiantai 天台 school of Buddhism, the first Buddhist school that developed entirely in China. Tiantai spread to neighboring countries and became especially influential in Japan as Tendai (the Japanese pronunciation of 天台). 12th century Japan saw a series of important developments and innovations in Buddhist doctrine leading to the establishment of new schools and sects, but their (intellectual) founders – Hōnen 法然 (Pure Land Buddhism), Nichiren 日蓮, and Dōgen 道元 (Sōtō Zen) – were all originally Tendai monks. Before discussing some of those (Nichiren particularly), we need to pay some attention to Tiantai’s founder, Zhiyi (Chih-i) 智顗 (6th century), however.

Above, I tried to explain that one can take different attitudes towards the relation between ultimate and conventional reality. A more negative or apophatic attitude rejects language as a reliable tool to understand or represent ultimate reality, while a more positive, affirmative, or kataphatic attitude considers language an imperfect, but still useful tool that can at least produce a partial view of ultimate reality. And while Indian Buddhism was more apophatic, Chinese Buddhism took a much more positive approach. Zhiyi very clearly exemplifies this shift from apophatic (negative) to kataphatic (positive/affirmative) discourse. Thus, Paul Swanson writes that:

affirmation of the use of language tempered by the awareness of its limitations is exactly the position taken by Chih-i [Zhiyi], who is constantly re-affirming the inadequacy of language to describe reality, yet immediately affirms the necessity to use language in the attempt to describe the indescribable and conceptualize that which is beyond conceptualization.68

The latter point is important to keep in mind when reading Buddhist writings from China and Japan: language is necessary but inadequate to describe ultimate reality (which by definition is beyond – or before – language), and consequently Buddhist monks and philosophers often had to resort to dense metaphors. A reader who fails to look beyond those metaphors would completely miss the point, however.

In his Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra 妙法蓮華經玄義, Zhiyi argued that the Lotus Sūtra teaches the non-duality of reality:

The (ultimately) real is identical with the conventional, and the conventional is identical with the (ultimately) real. True nature is like a pearl: the pearl is analogous to the (ultimately) real and its function is analogous to the conventional [-ly real]. The pearl is identical with the function and the function is identical with the jewel; they are non-dual, but two; it is merely a [conceptual] division between [what we call] the (ultimately) “real” and [what we call] the “conventional”.69

Hence, for Zhiyi, Tiantai, and pretty much all the thinkers, sects, and schools that were influenced by Zhiyi, reality is non-dual. Ultimate reality and conventional reality are not two different realities, but two different perspectives on one and the same reality. (Although it can be debated whether “perspective” is the best term.) Consequently, the apocryphal Chinese Treasure Store Treatise 寶藏論 asserts that this implies that upon reaching enlightenment and learning to see ultimate reality “there is nothing to be realized, nothing to be attained, and yet if there is no realization or attainment, the mind will forever be confused”70 And the Japanese Zen philosopher Dōgen wrote that “opening flowers and falling leaves [the phenomenal world] is nature (such) as it is. However, fools think that there are no opening flowers and falling leaves in the world of Dharma-nature [ultimate reality]”.71 In other words, the conventional is not ultimately unreal. However, Dōgen emphasized that this realization should not lead to the opposite kind of foolishness: “Although people now have a deep understanding of the contents (heart) of seas and rivers, we still do not know how dragons and fish understand and use water. Do not foolishly assume that all kinds of beings use as water that what we understand as water”.72 So, while the conventional is not ultimately unreal, it doesn’t represent the whole of ultimate reality either, but merely one particular perspective.73

Nichiren – like Dōgen a former Tendai monk – considered himself the only real follower of Saichō 最澄 (8-9th century) who brought Tiantai to Japan and established Tendai. Japanese Tendai had become corrupted (in Nichiren’s view) with esoteric influences and had deviated from the one and only true teachings of the Lotus Sūtra. Thus, Nichiren’s philosophical roots were growing in Tiantai soil, and consequently, he emphatically rejected metaphysical dualism. Lucia Dolce, for example, writes that: “For Nichiren … there is only one … world. Vulture Peak, the place where the Lotus Sutra is taught represents both this world of ours and the most perfect world, the only possible ‘paradise’. There is no other reality, neither for humanity, nor for the Buddha”.74

social reality

If you are wondering what all these metaphysical ideas about different kinds of or perspectives on reality have to do with radical Buddhism, this last quote about Nichiren might give you a clue about the answer. Again, a bit of unpacking is necessary, so bear with me a little longer.

Supposedly, only enlightened beings like Buddhas can see ultimate reality. Because of this, the notion of ultimate reality has sometimes been associated with less metaphysical and more mythical notions and the same is true for the ultimate/conventional distinction. Conventional reality, then, is not just the world as we experience it, but the world we live in – the world of endless suffering (caused by ignorance and the cycle of death and rebirth) – and ultimate reality is the world of the Buddha(s). Thus, notions like “Buddha lands” and paradises came to be associated with the notion of ultimate reality. The goal of enlightenment, then, was not just to see ultimate reality, but to go there – to go to this paradise-like or Utopian other world.

But if one gives up on dualism – if there is just one world – then this radically changes. Then, there is no other world. There is just this one world. But that doesn’t mean that this world is already a Buddha land or a paradise. What it implies is that such a Buddha land, paradise, or Utopia can only be realized in this world. Furthermore, the Buddha’s teachings do not just imply that it can be realized in this world, but that it must be realized in this world. Recall that ultimate reality is not something one “sees” already, but something one needs to learn to “see”. Analogously, if there is just one world and ultimate reality is a perspective or aspect of that one world, then that perspective or aspect isn’t there (i.e. seen) already, but waiting to be realized. Or in other words, aiming for enlightenment (i.e. “learning to see”) is aiming for the realization of a Buddha Land (or something like it) in this world. This was for Nichiren the logical conclusion of the Lotus Sūtra and Tiantai/Tendai thought. And thereby, Buddhism suddenly became political – and radical.75

This last statement requires some qualification. To some extent, Buddhism has always been political,76 but as Patrice Ladwig and James Mark Shields point out, Buddhism almost always allied itself with hegemonic rule, and usually those rulers didn’t behave much like ideal Buddhist kings. “Indeed, this alliance [between Buddhism and states] has on occasion taken on violent and militaristic forms that sustain the rule of regimes that are in power in Buddhist countries”.77 And Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer note that there has been a “widespread propensity among states to adopt Buddhism as official religion and for Buddhism to provide the rationalization for the state’s sanctioned use of violence”.78 In other words, Buddhism has always been political, but its political role has (almost) always been in support of the powers that be. With Nichiren that changed – traditionally, the role of Buddhism was to serve the state, but Nichiren turned that around and required the state to serve Buddhism. Consequently, he and his followers routinely “admonished” the state for not following the right path (i.e. that of Nichiren’s interpretation of the Lotus Sūtra).

Many Buddhist modernizers and radical Buddhist of the early 20th century were heavily influenced by Nichiren. The predominant reading of Nichiren – especially by proponents of so-called “Nichirenism” – was nationalist, or even fascist, and indeed provided “the rationalization for the state’s sanctioned use of violence”. The cornerstone of the nationalist reading of Nichiren was a quote from his Establishing the Peace of the Country 立正安國論: “First we should pray for the nation, and after that we should establish the Buddhist law”. The quote has usually been interpreted as signifying that for Nichiren the state has priority over the Buddhist law, but that interpretation is absurd for a number of reasons.79

Firstly, the word “state” 國家 (or 国家 in modern Japanese) occurs only twice in the text. In all other cases Nichiren used the word kuni 國, which means something like land, country, district, or area including its inhabitants, but which has no nationalistic connotation.80 This should be kind of obvious, as the notion of the nation was only invented in Europe much later and imported in Japan in the 19th century. In the two cases were Nichiren used 國家 he was clearly referring to the state or government. Kuni 國, on the other hand, was a neutral term – the topic of the text was creating peace and harmony in some area (kuni), and not the creation of some harmonious state.

Secondly, the idea that Nichiren prioritized the state is obviously incorrect if the quote isn’t lifted out of its context.

The country is prosperous because it relies on the Dharma. The Dharma is valuable because of the people. If the country would be destroyed and the people exterminated, who can [still] revere the Buddha? How can one [still] have faith in the Dharma? [Therefore] One must pray for the state first, and then establish the Dharma.81

Hence, what Nichiren is saying here is that to establish something like a Buddhist paradise, we must first ensure peace, harmony, and prosperity. In other words, a functioning (and benevolent!) state is a prerequisite for establishing the Dharma, but that doesn’t make the state a priority. That would be confusing means and ends. (And once again, for Nichiren, the role of the state is to serve Buddhism, not the other way around.)

Thirdly, Nichiren repeatedly states throughout his writings that he “vowed to summon up a powerful and unconquerable desire for the salvation of all beings, and never falter in [his] efforts”.82 He didn’t just aim for the elevation of Japan or the Japanese people, but he considered himself a Bodhisattva aiming for the liberation of all of mankind. Nevertheless, he did believe that Japan had a special role to play in saving and spreading Buddhism, and in saving/liberating people elsewhere.83

While early 20th century “Nichirenism” was on the extreme right of the political spectrum, Nichiren himself cannot really be located on the same spectrum. The reason for this is that Nichiren’s political diagnosis and solution is fundamentally at odds with the modernist assumptions that ground contemporary political ideologies and the left/right spectrum. “Famine and disease rage more fiercely than ever, beggars are everywhere in sight, and scenes of death fill out eyes” writes Nichiren in Establishing the Peace of the Country.84 These are the symptoms. Nichiren’s diagnosis of the underlying “disease” (not his term) causing these symptoms is insufficient reverence of the Lotus Sūtra by the people (and state). And consequently, his recommendation for a cure aims to rectify that. But chanting the title of the Lotus Sūtra (Nichiren’s remedy) is – obviously – not a policy that fits on the left/right spectrum (or any other political spectrum, for that matter).

the Bodhisattva ideal

While the extension of metaphysical ideas gave Buddhism a (potential!) political role, the Bodhisattva ideal gave it a (potential!) goal. A Bodhisattva (in Mahāyāna) is someone who has vowed or spontaneously committed himself85 to liberate every sentient being (humans, animals, and so forth) from the suffering associated with the cycle of death and rebirth. A Bodhisattva is an enlightened being like a Buddha and destined to become a Buddha, but not before saving/liberating everyone (and everything) else.

The foremost quality of a Bodhisattva is compassion – it is his compassion that drives him to commit himself to liberating/saving everyone else (before entering Nirvāṇa himself). The Buddhist literature is littered with stories of acts of extreme generosity and altruism by Bodhisattvas. One of the most famous such stories is that of Prince Sattva offering himself as food to a hungry tiger and her cubs. Parts of chapter 8 of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra give a glimpse of the mindset of a Bodhisattva: “Those who have developed the continuum of their mind in this way [i.e. Bodhisattvas], to whom the suffering of others is as important as the things they themselves hold dear, plunge down into the Avīci hell as geese into a cluster of lotus blossoms”.86 Somewhat less flowery, he writes about what it takes to achieve the Bodhisattva’s mindset (i.e. bodhicitta). The key – as mentioned before – is what Śāntideva calls the “exchange of self and other” – that is, identifying with the needs, concerns, and suffering of others as if they were one’s own: “in order to allay my own suffering and to allay the suffering of others, I devote myself to others and accept them as myself”.87 This doesn’t necessarily imply a life of suffering for the Bodhisattva himself, however, because “All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others”.88 This is not what motivates a Bodhisattva, however. A Bodhisattva finds happiness in alleviating the suffering of others because that is the kind of person a Bodhisattva is – that is what it is to be a Bodhisattva.

A second key characteristic of a Bodhisattva is that he is something like a teacher, and that he selects (teaching) methods that are most appropriate (i.e. most helpful) for a particular audience. This is called “skillful means” (or “skill in means”, upāya-kauśalya), and is one of the main topics of the Lotus Sūtra. Gene Reeves explains that what it means to be a Bodhisattva in the Lotus Sutra is “using appropriate means to help others”.89 One of the most famous stories illustrating skillful means in the Lotus Sūtra is the “Parable of the Burning House” in which a father lies about magnificent carriages waiting outside to lure his children out of a burning house. (Apparently, they are too engrossed in their play to notice the fire.) The point of this story and other stories like it is that a Bodhisattva can (and should) use any means to save people (and other sentient beings) from suffering if that is the only way to do so. For a truly compassionate Bodhisattva, the end (of alleviating suffering) justifies the means.

In Mahāyāna everyone is encouraged to try to become a Bodhisattva and to take a vow or vows towards that end. The most famous Bodhisattva vows were formulated by Zhiyi, the aforementioned founder of Tiantai, in his Exposition on the Dharma Gateway to the Perfection of Meditation 釋禪波羅蜜次第法門:

These are the four Bodhisattva vows. … Even though sentient beings are unlimited [in number], I vow to liberate/save [them all]. … Even though the kleśas90 are innumerable, I vow to stop [them all]. … Even though the Buddhist teachings are inexhaustible, I vow to know [them all]. … Even though Buddhahood is unsurpassable, I vow to attain [it].91

It should be fairly obvious that realizing these vows would require much more than what is humanly possible, but making a vow doesn’t commit one to succeeding, merely to trying, and it’s the intention (i.e. the trying) that matters. In the Bodhicaryāvatāra Śāntideva wrote:

If the perfection of generosity consists in making the universe free from poverty how can previous Protectors [i.e. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas] have acquired it, when the world is still poor, even today?
The perfection of generosity is said to result from the mental attitude to relinquishing all that one has to all people, together with the fruit of that act. Therefore, the perfection is the mental attitude itself.92

Of course, if one has a genuine intention to save everyone, one will try to get closer to that goal, even if it is just a little bit. And if one has a genuine intention to learn everything that matters (here limited to Buddhist teachings, but we’ll encounter different views below), then there is a fairly good chance that there will be at least some success. But still, what ultimately matters is not (just) the success, but the genuine commitment to save all sentient beings. That compassion is what defines a Bodhisattva.

radical Buddhism

The definition of “radical Buddhism” proposed by Patrice Ladwig and James Mark Shields is explicitly politically neutral. As mentioned above, they define “radical” in “radical Buddhism” as a “position that is (1) politically engaged; and (2) in opposition to the hegemonic socio-political and/or economic ideology (or ideologies) of a given period” and a “radical Buddhist” as “anyone engaged in the explicit or implicit use of Buddhist doctrines or principles to foment resistance to the state and/or the socio-political and/or economic status quo”.93 Consequently, they include many of the “Nichirenists” and other fascist Buddhist “radicals” of the early 20th century in the “radical Buddhist” category. While this is understandable and probably also defensible from a historical point of view, there is something awkward and apparently contradictory about this classification. That is, the supposed “radicals” on the far right were not really “in opposition to the hegemonic socio-political and/or economic ideology” – in the contrary, they wanted to strengthen it. One could, of course, say that they wanted to radicalize hegemonic rule, but that’s not the notion of “radical” as Ladwig and Shields define it, and under their definition, it is very debatable whether these right-wing movements and ideologues where “radical Buddhist”.

Furthermore, including “Buddhists” on the extreme right under the “radical Buddhism” header is also dubious for other reasons. Even if those right-wing extremists were radicals in some sense, the “radical Buddhist” label suggests some kind of radicalized Buddhism, and it is hard to see anything like that. They certainly didn’t radicalize the Bodhisattva ideal, or the compassion and loving-kindness associated therewith. They used a cherry-picked selection of Buddhist sources and (misinterpreted) quotes to defend their ideology,94 of course, but that doesn’t really seem sufficient for the qualification either. “Fascist crypto-Buddhists” seems more appropriate. Regardless of what one would one to call those right-wing extremists, I will ignore them in the following, as they have nothing interesting to teach.

If fascists and other right-wing extremists are excluded, there aren’t many “radical Buddhists” left – certainly not in Japan, were Buddhism often was (and still is) allied with the far right.95 There have been some leftist modernizers of Buddhism outside Japan, such as Han Yongun in Korea,96 but most of those were hardly radical. Hence, this leaves us with just three: Uchiyama Gudō 内山愚童 (1874-1911) and Seno’o Girō 妹尾義郎 (1890-1961) in Japan, and Taixu 太虛 (1890-1947) in China. Uchiyama was arrested for treason and executed in 1911 and is certainly interesting as a historical figure, but he wrote little and what he wrote has very little to offer in terms of a theory for or of radical Buddhism.97 Taixu is best known (and very influential) as a reformer, but was a radical anarchist during at least part of his life. He wrote a lot, but only a few of his writings can be considered “radical” and those are characterized by Justin Ritzinger as “the work of a young activist, not a mature thinker” and as “more than a bit of a mess”.98 Furthermore, Taixu’s more radical writing are extremely Utopian and impractical.99 This, then, leaves us with just Seno’o, but that might very well be enough.

Seno’o Girō and the Youth League

Seno’o Girō joined the right-wing Nichirenist movement in 1918, but slowly drifted to the left. In 1931 he founded the Youth League for New Buddhism 新興仏教青年同盟.100 In 1936 he was arrested and imprisoned for treason. After five months of interrogation he confessed his “crimes” and pledged his loyalty to the emperor, for which he never forgave himself. In 1942 he was released from prison, but he stayed in the shadows after that.101

Seno’o and his Youth League were “radical Buddhist” in a sense of “radical” only mentioned in passing in the previous section. Contrary to right-wing “crypto-Buddhists”, they radicalized certain key ideas and tendencies within Buddhist thought, particularly those explained in previous sections. Someone who is “radical” in the sense intended here accepts and advocates some (often philosophical or political) idea(s) in a more unwavering, uncompromising, and consistent fashion than what is considered the norm. To “radicalize” some idea(s) in this sense is to emphasize implications or conclusions that were previously overlooked or downplayed, but that in a rational, consistent reading really follow from that idea or those ideas. (Jonathan Israel uses the term “rational Enlightenment” in more or less this sense of “radical”, for example,102 and the “radicalism” of radical environmentalism and radical feminism – at the very least – overlaps with it.) “Radical Buddhism” in this sense means a (rational!) thinking through of the theories, trends, and tendencies of Buddhism or some large and important part thereof with an emphasis on consistency and concrete implications. To some extent, the kind of Buddhism advocated by Seno’o and the Youth League was something like a radicalization of ideas by/in Nichiren, Tiantai/Tendai, the Lotus Sūtra, and related thinkers and texts – it was, however, also a transcendence thereof.

In his History of Japanese Buddhism: The Modern Era, Kashiwahara Yūsen reports that:

In the founding ceremony [of the Youth League for New Buddhism], the following three-point mission statement was adopted:
1) Looking up with great respect to the Śākyamuni Buddha,103 the greatest person that mankind has been endowed with, we vow to realize the establishment of a Buddha land in accordance with the principle of brotherly love.
2) Recognizing and denouncing the wrecked existence of all the established sects that have desecrated the spirit of Buddhism, we vow to promote a Buddhism appropriate to the new age.
3) Recognizing that the capitalist economic system goes against the spirit of Buddhism and obstructs the livelihood and welfare of the general public, we vow to reform this and realize the society of the future.104

In short, the mission of the Youth League was to (1) to realize a Buddha Land (i.e. a more or less Utopian society) in this world,105 (2) to reform Buddhism and reject sectarian Buddhism, and (3) to reject and reform capitalism. The last point (and to some extent the first two as well) is also evident in a proclamation read in the first meeting of the Youth League in 1931. “Recognizing that the suffering in present society is mainly caused by the capitalist economic system, and cooperating [with others] to fundamentally correct that, New Buddhism pledges to [focus on] the welfare of the general public.”106

The first stated goal in the Youth League’s mission statement – realizing a Buddha Land in this world – is just straight up Nichiren’s interpretation of the Lotus Sūtra and Tiantai/Tendai philosophy (see above), but there is an obvious difference between the Youth League and Nichiren with regards to their ideas about how to realize that Buddha Land – that is, the third stated goal. The second stated goal also reminds of Nichiren’s critique of the established Buddhist sects at his time (about 6 centuries earlier). Nichiren also believed that he was formulating a Buddhism appropriate to his age and also repeatedly claimed that the established sects had desecrated Buddhism. So, two out three goals in the Youth League’s mission statement align closely with Nichiren’s ideas. Translate those two into Late Middle Japanese and they could have been written or spoken by Nichiren.

In the year of the Youth League’s founding, Seno’o Giro published a pamphlet or book titled Turning towards a New Buddhism 新興佛教への転身. It is in dialogue form and opens with an answer to a question about his aims in writing it:

Firstly, rejecting the corrupted established religious organizations, I want to show the true value of Buddhism to the current era. Secondly, I want to unify divided Buddhism and suppress the ugly rivalry between the sects. Thirdly, I want to realize an ideal society of love and equality by participating in a movement to reform the capitalist economic system, which conflicts with the spirit of the Buddha.107

Seno’o’s aims are very similar to those of the Youth League he founded, and that is no coincidence, of course. The first and second of Seno’o’s aims are combined into the second goal in the Youth League’s mission statement, while Seno’o’s third aim is split up into the first and third goals in the mission statement.

Two years later, Seno’o published another book or pamphlet with the title New Buddhism on the Way to Social Transformation 社会変革途上の新興佛教 in which he listed six “demands of modern/contemporary society” 現代社会の要求:

Firstly, contemporary science advocates atheism, denying the reality of superhuman gods or Buddhas.
Secondly, contemporary science advocates “aspiritualism”,108 denying the doctrine of nirvāṇa that recognizes a life after death.
Thirdly, people nowadays are not satisfied with fairytale-like happiness, but desire the enjoyment of complete happiness in actual daily life.
Fourthly, desiring stability in economic life, the general public nowadays demands a reform of capitalism.
Fifthly, awakened mankind sublates109 nationalism and is elated by internationalism.
Sixthly, adherents of progressive Buddhism break with sectarian Buddhism and desire its unification.110

These “demands” make very clear how Seno’o and the Youth League approached Buddhism. Their “New Buddhism” 新興仏教 was an atheist Buddhism without gods, spirits, or souls, and without an afterlife or nirvāṇa. It was a – more or less – naturalistic Buddhism with as deep a respect for modern science as for the teachings of the Buddha. (But note that the rejection of an afterlife follows from the adoption of Nichiren’s anti-dualistic worldview as well as from the scientific worldview.) Furthermore, the third to fifth demands reveal that “New Buddhism” was also a very humanistic and ethical Buddhism, focusing on worldly happiness and worldly suffering, on well-being and misery (rather than on the much more abstract notion of dukkha). This is not really new, of course. The same relatively practical focus can be found in the writings of many other (left-leaning) Buddhist modernizers and engaged Buddhists.111 However, the “New Buddhist” focus on worldly suffering also reminds of how Nichiren described the main problems of his time: “Famine and disease rage more fiercely than ever, beggars are everywhere in sight, and scenes of death fill out eyes”.112

transcending the Lotus Sūtra

Above, I claimed that Seno’o and his Youth League radicalized and transcended Nichiren (and related thinkers and texts), but while I mentioned similarities with Nichiren in the foregoing, I have not really substantiated this claim yet. For that, I first need to say something about an important passage in a famous letter written by Nichiren:

The true path lies in the realities of the world. The … [Sūtra of the golden light] states, “If one profoundly discerns secular dharmas, that is precisely the Buddha-Dharma.” And the Nirvāṇa Sūtra states, “All secular and external scriptures and writings are in each case the Buddha’s teaching. They are not heterodox teachings.” When the Great Teacher Miao-lo … cited the passage from … the Lotus Sūtra, “All worldly affairs of livelihood and property in no case differ from the true aspect,” comparing it with the other [passages cited here] and elucidating its meaning, [he explained that,] although the first two sūtras have a profound intent, [in comparison] they are still shallow and cannot approach the Lotus Sūtra. Where they explain secular dharmas in terms of the Buddha-Dharma, this is not so of the Lotus Sūtra. It interprets secular dharmas as immediately comprising the whole of the Buddha-Dharma.113

Background of the passage is, of course, Nichiren’s anti-dualism: there is just one world. But if there is just one world, there is also just one epistemology and just one science. Then, there is no fundamental difference between Buddhist insights and scientific insights – insight is just insight, and truth is just truth. Thus, secular dharmas (theories, teachings, doctrines) are Buddhist teachings – or in other words, Buddhism ought to incorporate (and adjust to) scientific knowledge. (Note that the Dalai Lama, for example, has expressed a similar sentiment on numerous occasions, and that, by implication, if scientific insights change, Buddhism must change with it.114)

There being just one world – this one – Nichiren’s aim was to establish a “Buddha Land” (i.e. a more less Utopian society along Buddhist lines) in this world. He observed, however, that the world he lived in was very far removed from the ideal. The world he lived in was one of poverty and disaster. To the best of his knowledge the cause of all this misery was a corruption of Buddhism, insufficient reverence of the Lotus Sūtra by the people and state, particularly. So that needed to be rectified. Science and philosophy have progressed considerably since Nichiren’s time, however, and to the best of our knowledge (or Seno’o’s knowledge) the causes of misery are very different, and consequently, the remedy must be different as well. Nevertheless, the starting point – there is one world and a Buddha Land must be realized in that one world – and the general line of reasoning leading to the suggestion of a remedy are the same.

Recall that the “Proclamation” of the Youth League stated that “the suffering in present society is mainly caused by the capitalist economic system” (see above). Seno’o repeatedly made similar claims. As an explanation of the cause of misery, this seems considerably more plausible than Nichiren’s – given all we know, it’s rather hard to believe that a lack of reverence of the Lotus Sūtra is the cause of poverty in the “developing” world or of the destruction of our planet’s climate system, which is already causing massive suffering in most parts of the world, and which is even threatening mankind’s survival. That neoliberal capitalism is to blame for these is undeniable, on the other hand. Erik Reinert, Ha-Joon Chang, and others have documented how capitalist ideology has ruined the “developing” world, preventing it from really developing.115 Mike Davis. John Rapley, and Naomi Klein have written about the misery and suffering resulting from capitalism’s quest to enrich the few.116 Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and many others have shown that climate change is driven by capitalism and that the same ideology is to blame for the lack of willingness to prevent climate change from becoming catastrophic.117 And so on. And so forth. So, contrary to Nichiren’s diagnosis, Seno’o’s isn’t far-fetched. In the contrary, it seems to be spot on: capitalism is the main cause and origin of suffering in the world.118 And therefore, to realize a “Buddha Land” in this world, capitalism needs to be reformed or replaced.

Seno’o’s anti-capitalist conclusion follows from premises that he mostly shared with Nichiren and followed a line of reasoning that is also identical to Nichiren’s. It is in this sense that Seno’o and the Youth League radicalized Nichiren and the Lotus Sūtra: they took those to their logical conclusion. But in doing so, they also transcended Nichiren and the Lotus Sūtra. While for Nichiren the Lotus Sūtra was both the starting point and end point of his argument (it provided the anti-dualist premise and the solution/conclusion), in case of Seno’o the Lotus Sūtra and associated ideas were more like a ladder that, once used to climb up, can be discarded.119 That is, the Lotus Sūtra and the philosophy based on it lead to the anti-dualist premises that there is just one world and just one epistemology, but plays no further role beyond that. In other words, Seno’o has left the Lotus Sūtra behind (or transcended it).

Furthermore, contrary to Nichiren who believed that the Lotus Sūtra was the Buddha’s final and ultimate teaching, Seno’o was well aware of the key findings of academic research on Buddhism of his time and argued that the Lotus Sūtra and other Mahāyāna Sūtras did not literally record the Buddha’s sermons at all. In his Turning towards a New Buddhism, Seno’o wrote that:

When the times change and social conditions and culture advance, Buddhism develops as well, and the Mahāyāna Sūtras are the many new Sūtras that were produced by later followers of the Buddha in order to adapt to the age [they lived in]; therefore, because the Mahāyāna Sūtras are no direct recordings of the sermons of the Buddha, I say that “Mahāyāna is not the view/doctrine of the Buddha”.120

Consequently, Seno’o’s “transcendence” of the Lotus Sūtra is not just accident of the line of reasoning he radicalized, but also a necessity. The Lotus Sūtra did not represent the words of the Buddha but was a later production that was appropriate to that later time. It was still appropriate to Nichiren’s time according to Seno’o,121 but has mostly lost its relevance since. Hence, the need for a “New Buddhism”, a Buddhism based equally on modern science, on the conditions of this world, and on an interpretation of the teachings of the Buddha.

One of the most common definitions of what it means to be a Buddhist is “one who has taken refuge in the three jewels of Buddha, dharma, and saṃgha”. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Seno’o reinterprets the three jewels as well, thereby giving us an account of what it means to be a “New Buddhist” 新興仏教徒. The term “saṃgha” usually refers to the Buddhist (monastic) community (i.e. monks and nuns primarily, but sometimes also including lay followers), and “dharma” refers to the Buddha’s teachings (or to Buddhist teachings more broadly). Seno’o reinterprets both terms in a way consistent with his philosophy, but also changes the order of the three jewels, albeit mostly for an expository purpose.

The third jewel, the vow to take refuge in the saṃgha, “is the creed/principle of the realization of a cooperative society without exploitation”.122 Seno’o defends his interpretation of “saṃgha” by arguing that the original community of the Buddha’s followers was – more or less – this kind of society. Hence, he interpreted the term not so much as referring to the religious or monastic aspect of the original saṃgha, but as referring to its social aspect.

The second, the refuge in the dharma, “is the fundamental philosophy of the realization of a cooperative society”. Seno’o adds that “‘Dharma’ does not so much refer to contemplations on emptiness or [the doctrine of] dependent origination as to the denial of private property and the practical “muga-ism” (selflessness) of mutual dependence”. 123 This reinterpretation of dharma as incorporating all relevant knowledge or doctrine is in line with the rejection of a dualism of worlds and epistemologies already explained above: the secular dharma is part of the Buddhist dharma (and the other way around). A new term here is “muga-ism” (although this is by no means the first occurrence of the term or variant terms in Seno’o’s writings). “Muga” means something like “selflessness”, but is also the Japanese translation of the Buddhist term “anātman” or “no-self”, referring to the key Buddhist teaching that the self is an illusion or that there is no (essential, stable, unchanging) self. Seno’o used the term “muga-ism” mainly as an apparent antonym to selfishness or egoism.

The first jewel, the refuge in the Buddha, “is the reverence of Śākyamuni Buddha as the ideal experiencer and guide of the second and third [refuges]”, recognizing that “there is no need for abstract, ideal Buddhas like Amida Buddha, Dainichi Buddha, or the eternal Buddha as idealizations of Śākyamuni Buddha”.124 While the other two refuges as well as the first five of the six “demands of modern/contemporary society” may suggest that Seno’o had transcended (or left behind) Buddhism altogether, his interpretation of the refuge in the Buddha shows that this is not the case. Seno’o’s “New Buddhism” may have been unconventional in several ways – it was atheist, humanist, socialist, ethical, and perhaps even secular or naturalist – but he was still very much a Buddhist. The Buddha remained his first refuge.

Furthermore, while it can be argued that Seno’o attempted to secularize Buddhism, he simultaneously “Buddhified” secularity. The term “muga-ism” is a good example hereof. Superficially, it may seem to be just a secular term denoting an antonym to selfishness or egoism, but it is very unlikely that it is a mere coincidence that muga 無我 also means no-self (anātman).125 According to Mahāyāna texts about bodhicitta (becoming a Bodhisattva) such as Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, the selfless compassion (or muga-ism?) that more or less defines Bodhisattvas is inseparable from a deep understanding of no-self (muga, anātman) – that is, one cannot have one without the other: the wisdom of no-self requires genuine compassion and loving-kindness and the other way around. And this strongly suggest that Seno’o’s normative ideal (on the individual rather than the social level126) of muga-ism is a variant of the Bodhisattva ideal – a genuine muga-ist is a Bodhisattva.

concluding remarks

One may wonder whether Seno’o’s transcendence of Nichiren and the Lotus Sūtra, taken to its logical conclusion, doesn’t lead to a transcendence of Buddhism as well – that is, to some kind of post-Buddhist socialism that has sprouted from the Buddhist tree, but is no longer a part of it. As mentioned, Seno’o remained committed to Buddhism – he believed that socialism by itself is too cold and materialistic and that Buddhism is needed to add what socialism is missing. However, the secularized “New Buddhism” he advocated is subject to the very same friction between secularity and Buddhism mentioned above in the context of Batchelor’s “secular Buddhism” and related secularized Western Buddhisms. A consistent secularity trumps Buddhism, meaning that if secular science proves (some aspect of) Buddhism wrong, it is (that aspect of) Buddhism that has to go. Perhaps, this is less of a problem for Seno’o than for Batchelor and fellow travelers, however. Seno’o was quite explicit that Buddhism needs to change with the time, that it needs to adapt and evolve into whatever is appropriate for the age. And if one doesn’t cling to some kind of fixed core or essence of Buddhism (which would be very un-Buddhist anyway), then Buddhism may be almost infinitely adaptable. A secular challenge to Buddhism, then, wouldn’t necessary result in a rejection of Buddhism (if one would be consistently secular), but would merely force a rethinking and adaptation.

A much more fundamental difference between Batchelor’s and other Western Buddhists’ secular Buddhism(s) and Seno’o’s “New Buddhism” concerns aims and purpose. To some extent, both confront the distress and suffering caused by modern capitalist society, but while Batchelor’s secular Buddhism (even though he explicitly denies it) merely aims at helping people to cope with that distress, Seno’o’s goal is too abolish the underlying cause of all that misery – that is, capitalism – and establish a “Buddha Land” (i.e. a more or less ideal society with significantly less suffering) in this world.

In the end, all that that “secular Buddhism” (and other Western Buddhisms127) has to offer is peace of mind. But what good is (my) peace of mind while billions suffer? While millions of children die of hunger, thirst, and preventable diseases? While climate change slowly makes ever larger swaths of our planet uninhabitable for humans and other animals? While even in rich countries a very large proportion of the population suffers from insecurity, stress, and/or depression?

The proclamation read in the first meeting (1931) of Seno’o’s New Buddhist Youth League starts with the following rather pertinent observations:

This is an era of suffering. Fellow men desire love and trust, but are forced to engage in conflict, while the general public wishes for bread, but is only fed oppression. Either if one [tries to] escape or [engages in] conflict, the present world is fluctuating between chaos and distress.
In such an age, what are Buddhists aware of, and what are they contributing to society? Intoxicated by [their own] cheap peace of mind, most Buddhists do not see a problem.128

The term “intoxication” 陶酔 is appropriate here. Peace of mind is like a drug suppressing pain, stress, and/or anxiety. But while, on the one hand, it is understandable that many people desire such a “drug”, on the other hand, there is something rather disturbing about the pursuit of a “drug” that ultimately aims at closing one’s eyes for the suffering of the world. I can understand why people would desire peace of mind, but if you’re able to actually achieve peace of mind in this world – and thus, in a sense, to make peace with this world – then there is something seriously wrong with you, even if what is wrong with you has gradually come to be seen as normal. This is an age of narcissism or cultural psychopathy – being self-centered and callous has become the norm.129 While this makes the selfish pursuit of peace of mind very fashionable (and thus, in some sense “secular”), I also find it more than a little repulsive. Furthermore, it conflicts with my – admittedly somewhat idiosyncratic – views of what Buddhism is about.

Perhaps, like all other religions, lay Buddhism has rarely been much more than a tool to repress fear and anxiety (the fear of death, particularly130), but this doesn’t mean that this use and role of a religion determines its nature. One could use a book to balance a wobbly table, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer a book. To understand the book as book, one has to look beyond its role and use as table-stabilizer, and open it and look inside. Similarly, to understand any body of thought, one has to look beyond its practical roles and uses and look “inside”. And when one looks “inside”, then the idea of Buddhism as a tool to provide peace of mind quickly becomes ludicrous.131

Take Buddhaghosa as an example. In his extremely influential Visuddhimagga he argues (among others) that everyone should meditate on death and loving-kindness (or compassion132). The purpose of the meditation of death is to experience a state of shock helping one to understand the real nature of suffering.133 (Śāntideva makes a closely related point in Bodhicaryāvatāra 6:21.) The purpose of the meditation on loving-kindness or compassion is to (come to) care about others’ suffering and well-being like it is one’s own. This is not some fringe idea of a single, isolated Buddhist monk – rather, this is part of the shared core of almost all schools and currents of Buddhism. The point of Buddhism is not to make peace with the suffering in this world, but to dissolve the selfish focus on one’s own suffering and happiness and to make all suffering one’s own. (Or that’s part of the point, at least.)

There is an important distinction with regards to human responses to the suffering of others between empathic distress and empathic concern.134 The former is characterized by a sense of distress when witnessing the suffering others and leads to a desire to no longer witness that suffering – that is, to closing one’s eyes (and heart), to escape (or escapism), and so forth. The second is also associated with a kind of distress but leads to genuine (altruistic) concern for the other and a desire for the other’s suffering to end or be alleviated instead – “empathic concern” is a synonym of “compassion”. Buddhism aims at strengthening and promoting empathic concern, not at escaping empathic distress. Aiming for one’s own peace of mind in this world does the exact opposite. Consequently, I cannot see so-called “Buddhisms” that are little more than tools to achieve peace of mind as anything but perversions or corruptions. (And one of the reasons why it is unlikely that I’d ever call myself a Buddhist is – paradoxically, perhaps – that I don’t want to be associated with such fashionable perversions.135)

All that secular Buddhism has to offer is peace of mind,136 but I don’t want peace of mind – I want a revolution.

If you found this article and/or other articles in this blog useful or valuable, please consider making a small financial contribution to support this blog 𝐹=𝑚𝑎 and its author. You can find 𝐹=𝑚𝑎’s Patreon page here.


  1. Books: Stephen Batchelor (1997), Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (Riverhead); (2011), Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (Spiegel & Grau); and especially (2015), After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (Yale University Press). Relevant papers are collected in (2018), Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World (Yale University Press).
  2. In the first half of the 20th century there were movements to modernize Buddhism in almost all Asian countries in which Buddhism is an important religion.
  3. Donald Lopez jr. (2012). The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life (Yale University Press).
  4. Stephen Batchelor (2012). “A Secular Buddhism”, Journal of Global Buddhism 13: 87-107. This paper is reprinted in the aforementioned collection (2018).
  5. Idem, p. 90.
  6. For an excellent critique of this notion of authenticity and an explanation of why one should not (usually) strive to be authentic in this sense, see: Simon Feldman (2015), Against Authenticity: Why You Shouldn’t Be Yourself (London: Lexington).
  7. For an useful review of the sociology of such authentic consumption, see: Amanda Koontz (2009), “Constructing Authenticity: A Review of Trends and Influences in the Process of Authentication in Consumption”, Sociology Compass 4.11: 977-988.
  8. Batchelor (2012). “A Secular Buddhism”, p. 90.
  9. Or in his own words, he seeks “to return to the roots of the tradition and rethink and rearticulate the dharma anew”. (2015, After Buddhism, p. 19).
  10. Scattered throughout his (2011) and (2015) books is a biography of the Buddha that is considerably more plausible and better researched than anything else I’ve read about the topic, for example, and I’d love to see a book that integrates those parts into an annotated, critical biography of the Buddha.
  11. See: Jan Westerhoff (2018), The Golden Age of Buddhist Philosophy (Oxford University Press): pp. 24-34.
  12. See also the section titled “reality and compassion” below.
  13. To me personally, the historical Buddha indeed is not much more than that: like Thales, he founded a tradition, but he is mainly of historical interest and not much more essential or important to the tradition he founded than Thales is to modern science and philosophy. (It is also partially for this reason that I’m not quoting any of the alleged sayings of the “historical” Buddha.).
  14. Destroying the last bit of authority the Buddha has after humanizing him, Stephen Batchelor remarks that the Buddha “did not stand out among his peers because his knowledge of reality was somehow more accurate or superior to theirs” (2015, After Buddhism, p. 129). Oddly, Batchelor doesn’t seem to realize how devastating this remark is, but if there was nothing special about the Buddha, then there is no reason whatsoever to accept his teachings, unless they would satisfy scientific standards. But they cannot possibly satisfy criteria for good scientific theory, as they aren’t rooted in (and possibly are not even coherent with) a scientific world view.
  15. Batchelor (2011), Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, p. 199.
  16. I wonder whether the cult of the authentic is reinforced by the fact that Western, secular Buddhists come from the outside. Perhaps, the fanatical search for authenticity or purity is compensation for the outsider status (which appears to be a rather common phenomena – outsiders are often the fiercest purists). Perhaps, it is an elaborate attempt to suppress some kind of inferiority complex by reinventing and elevating one’s own “Buddhist” credentials and simultaneously undermining the credentials of two and half millennia of Buddhists and Buddhism in Asia.
  17. Batchelor (2015), After Buddhism, p. 26.
  18. Mark Siderits (2007). Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction (Ashgate).
  19. Lopez (2012). The Scientific Buddha.
  20. They may not even have been part of the pre-Brahmanic (and pre-Buddhist) worldview of the historical Buddha’s people.
  21. Batchelor (2012), “A Secular Buddhism”, p. 87. (2015), After Buddhism, p. 16.
  22. Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Atria).
  23. Batchelor (2015), After Buddhism, p. 17.
  24. Idem, p. 321.
  25. Idem, pp. 201-3.
  26. E.g. idem, p. 275.
  27. E.g. idem, p. 305.
  28. Idem, p. 16.
  29. The failure of secular Buddhism to be (much) more than self-help is also illustrated by its most common defense by adherents when facing criticism: “it works for me”. That’s apparently all that matters: that it “works” for “me” in better coping with the stresses caused by this world.
  30. Idem, p. 321.
  31. I’ll return to this issue in the “concluding remarks” at the end of this article.
  32. Batchelor (2015), After Buddhism, p. 17.
  33. Batchelor (2015), After Buddhism, p. 258.
  34. Metaphysics and other branches of theoretical philosophy particularly.
  35. Ethics and other branches of practical philosophy particularly.
  36. See any good introduction to the philosophy of mind for further details on the problems of substance dualism (or Cartesian dualism), and why it is rejected by virtually every philosopher nowadays.
  37. Furthermore, the theory of karma also depends on a notion of free will similar (or identical) to metaphysical libertarianism, and that notion can be made sense of only by means of supernatural explanations as well.
  38. As mentioned above, Donald Lopez, for example, argues that it wouldn’t. (Lopez (2012). The Scientific Buddha.) And Jan Westerhoff made a similar point. (Westerhoff (2018), The Golden Age of Buddhist Philosophy.).
  39. Ernest Becker (1973). The Denial of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster).
  40. But see the “concluding remarks” at the end of this article.
  41. Lajos Brons (2017). The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm).
  42. Batchelor (2015), After Buddhism, p. 17.
  43. Lopez (2012). The Scientific Buddha.
  44. Buddhaghosa. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Translated by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli (Onalaska: bps Pariyatti, 1999).
  45. Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga, VIII.1–41.
  46. See also: Lajos Brons (2016). “Facing Death from a Safe Distance: Saṃvega and Moral Psychology”, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 23: 83–128.
  47. See: Brons (2016), “Facing Death from a Safe Distance”, for an explanation of how and why this could work.
  48. Śāntideva. Bodhicaryāvatāra. Translated by Kate Crosby & Andrew Skilton (Oxford University Press, 1995). 8:120.
  49. Idem, 8:95.
  50. Or at least, it misses what I consider to be a central point (if not the central point) of Buddhism.
  51. Don Pittman (2001). Toward a Modern Chinese Buddhism: Taixu’s Reforms (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press). Justin Ritzinger (2914). “The Awakening of Faith in Anarchism: A Forgotten Chapter in the Chinese Buddhist Encounter with Modernity”, Politics, Religion & Ideology 15.2: 224-243.
  52. Donald Lopez (2005). The Madman’s Middle Way: Reflections on Reality of the Tibetan Monk Gendun Chopel (University of Chicago Press).
  53. Han Yongun (2008). Selected Writings of Han Yongun: From Social Darwinism to ‘Socialism with a Buddhist Face’ (Global Oriental).
  54. Fabio Rambelli (2013). Zen Anarchism: The Egalitarian Dharma of Uchiyama Gudō (Institute of Buddhist Studies & BDK America). Whalen Lai (1984). “Seno’o Girō and the Dilemma of Modern Buddhism – Leftist Prophet of the Lotus Sūtra”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 11.1: 7-42. Stephen Large (1987). “Buddhism, Socialism, and Protest in Prewar Japan: The Career of Seno’o Girō”, Modern Asian Studies 21.1: 153-171. James Mark Shields (2012). “A Blueprint for Buddhist Revolution: The Radical Buddhism of Seno’o Girō (1889-1961) and the Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 39.2: 333-351. James Mark Shields (2014). “Seno’o Giro: The Life and Thought of a Radical Buddhist”, in: Todd Lewis (ed.), Buddhists: Understanding Buddhism through the Lives of Practicioners (Wiley), pp. 280-288.
  55. Patrice Ladwig & James Mark Shields (2014). “Introduction”, Politics, Religion & Ideology 15.2: 187-204. James Mark Shields (2017). Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan (Oxford University Press).
  56. Ladwig & Shields (2014), “Introduction”, p. 16.
  57. On this topic, see also: James Mark Shields (2016) “Opium Eaters: Buddhism as Revolutionary Politics”, in: Hiroko Kawanami (ed.), Buddhism and the Political Process (Springer), pp. 213-234.
  58. Under the influence of Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity a version of such essentialism remains the default in contemporary analytic philosophy.
  59. Lajos Brons (2013). “Meaning and Reality: A Cross-Traditional Encounter”, in: Bo Mou & R. Tieszen (eds.), Constructive Engagement of Analytic and Continental Approaches in Philosophy (Leiden: Brill), pp. 199-220. Lajos Brons (2012). “Dharmakīrti, Davidson, and Knowing Reality”, Comparative Philosophy 3.1: 30-57. Lajos Brons (2011). “Applied Relativism and Davidson’s Arguments against Conceptual Schemes”, The Science of Mind 49: 221-240.
  60. Jan Westerhoff makes a similar point in his (2018) The Golden Age of Buddhist Philosophy.
  61. See, for example: Brons (2013), “Meaning and Reality”; Fung Yu-Lan (1948), A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, translated and edited by Derk Bodde (New York: MacMillan); Robert Sharf (2002), Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism: a Reading of the Treasure Store Treatise (Honolulu: Kuroda Institute / University Of Hawai‘i Press). Robert Gimello (1976), “Apophatic and Kataphatic Discourse in Mahāyāna: A Chinese View”, Philosophy East and West 26.2: 117-136.
  62. The terminology comes from Western theology. In that context apophasis refers to the impossibility to use positive language in describing God.
  63. Gimello (1976), “Apophatic and Kataphatic Discourse in Mahāyāna”, p. 119.
  64. See: Brons (2013), “Meaning and Reality”.
  65. pp. 252-3.
  66. Donald Lopez (2016). The Lotus Sūtra: A Biography (Princeton University Press).
  67. Gene Reeves (2002). “The Lotus Sutra as Radically World-Affirming”, in: Gene Reeves (ed.), A Buddhist Kaleidoscope: Essays on the Lotus Sutra (Tokyo: Kosei), pp. 177-199.
  68. Paul Swanson (1989). Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy: The Flowering of the Two Truths Theory in Chinese Buddhism (Asian Humanities Press), p. 23.
  69. My translation. 「真即是俗;俗即是真。如如意珠,珠以譬真,用以譬俗。如如意珠,珠以譬真,用以譬俗。即珠是用,即用是珠,不二而二,分真俗耳。」 妙法蓮華經玄義, T33n1716, 703b21.
  70. Translated by Robert Sharf. See: Sharf (2002), Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism, p. 159.
  71. My translation. 「しかあれば、開花葉落、これ如是性なり。しかあるに、愚人おもはくは、法性界には開花葉落あるべからず。」 正法眼藏, 法性.
  72. My translation. 「いま人間には、海のこころ、江のこころを、ふかく水と知見せりといへども、龍魚等、いかなるものをもて水と知見し、水と使用すといまだしらず。おろかにわが水と知見するを、いづれのたぐひも水にもちゐるらんと認ずることなかれ。」 正法眼藏, 山水經.
  73. For more about Dōgen’s perspectivism, see: Hee-Jin Kim (2007), Dōgen on Meditation and Thinking: a Reflection on His View of Zen (Albany: SUNY Press); Bret Davis (2011), “The Philosophy of Zen Master Dōgen: Egoless Perspectivism”, in: Garfield & Edelglass (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy Oxford University Press), pp. 348–360; and Brons (2013), “Meaning and Reality”.
  74. Lucia Dolce (2002). “Between Duration and Eternity: Hermeneutics of the ‘Ancient Buddha’ of the Lotus Sutra in Chih-i and Nichiren”, in: Gene Reeves (ed.), A Buddhist Kaleidoscope: Essays on the Lotus Sutra (Tokyo: Kosei), pp. 223-239.
  75. See also: James Mark Shields (2013). “Political Interpretations of the Lotus Sūtra”, in: Steven Emmanuel (ed.), A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy (Wiley): 512-523.
  76. Especially in Japan where its main initial role was to carry out rituals that were supposed to protect the state.
  77. Ladwig & Shields (2014), “Introduction”, p. 4.
  78. Quoted in: Ladwig & Shields (2014), “Introduction”, p. 4.
  79. See also:Satō Hiroo (1999), “Nichiren’s View of Nation and Religion”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 26.3/4: 307-323.
  80. On Nichiren’s use of the word kuni 國 (and the lack on nationalistic or ethnic connotations in that use), see also: Jacqueline Stone (1999), “Placing Nichiren in the ‘Big Picture’: Some Ongoing Issues in Scholarship”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 26.3-4: 382-421, p. 412.
  81. My translation. 「夫國依法而昌。法因人而貴。國亡人滅。佛誰可崇。法難可信哉。先祈國家須立佛法。」 立正安國論, T84n2688.
  82. The Opening of the Eyes 開目抄. Translation in: Philip Yampolsky (ed.) (1990), Selected Writings of Nichiren (Columbia University Press), p. 79. Emphasis added.
  83. Nichiren observed that Buddhism has spread from India to China and from China to Japan, but had since disappeared in India and was on the decline in China. This geographical direction had to be turned around. Only Japan could bring Buddhism back to China, India, and then the rest of the world. For “Nichirenists” this was an attractive way to legitimize Japanese conquests and hegemony in East Asia in the early 20th century. See also: Stone (1999), “Placing Nichiren in the ‘Big Picture’”.
  84. Translation in: Yampolsky (1990), Selected Writings of Nichiren, p. 14.
  85. Buddhism is rather sexist, I’m afraid. Bodhisattvas are typically assumed to be male, and in many traditions women cannot possibly reach enlightenment at all. The best a woman can hope for is rebirth as a man. There are exceptions, of course. The aforementioned Nichiren, for example, had a considerably less sexist view – at least in this respect.
  86. Śāntideva. Bodhicaryāvatāra. Translated by Kate Crosby & Andrew Skilton. 8:107.
  87. Idem, 8:136.
  88. Idem, 8:129.
  89. Gene Reeves (2002). “Appropriate Means as the Ethics of the Lotus Sutra”, in: Gene Reeves (ed.), A Buddhist Kaleidoscope: Essays on the Lotus Sutra (Tokyo: Kosei): 379-392, p. 386.
  90. Kleśas are afflictions ore negative emotions such as ignorance, attachment (or craving), and aversion (or hatred).
  91. My translation. 「四弘誓願者。… 亦云眾生無邊誓願度。… 亦云煩惱無數誓願斷。… 亦云法門無盡誓願知。… 亦云無上佛道誓願成。」 釋禪波羅蜜次第法門, T46n1916, 476b.
  92. Śāntideva. Bodhicaryāvatāra. Translated by Kate Crosby & Andrew Skilton, 5:9-10.
  93. Ladwig & Shields (2014), p. 16.
  94. See above on the “Nichirenist” misinterpretation of Nichiren.
  95. The head of the Tendai sect is an adviser of the very powerful extreme-right-wing organization Nippon Kaigi, for example. On the other hand, by Japanese standards, Nippon Kaigi is only moderately right ring and the entire current government consists of members of the organization.
  96. Han Yongun (2008). Selected Writings of Han Yongun.
  97. See Rambelli (2013), Zen Anarchism, for translations of most of Uchiyama’s writings as well as a biography and introduction to his ideas.
  98. Ritzinger (2014), “The Awakening of Faith in Anarchism”, p. 230.
  99. Idem, p. 240.
  100. The term Shinkō Bukkyō 新興仏教 which is part of the name of the Youth League is also part of the title of Seno’o’s two most important writings. Shinkō 新興 means something like “emerging”, “developing”, or sometimes “new”. Although Seno’o certainly thought about Buddhism as a developing body of thought – more about this below – “New Buddhism” appears to be the most appropriate translation. Alternatively, one might want to split up the compound and translate shinkō 新興 as “newly flourishing”. Although this does seem to capture what Seno’o intended to express with the term, it sounds a bit contrived.
  101. Lai (1984). “Seno’o Girō and the Dilemma of Modern Buddhism”. Large (1987). “Buddhism, Socialism, and Protest in Prewar Japan”. Shields (2012). “A Blueprint for Buddhist Revolution. Shields (2014). “Seno’o Giro”. There are also several publications about Seno’o in Japanese. I won’t list those here, but will refer to some of them below.
  102. Jonathan Israel (2001). Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford University Press).
  103. Śākyamuni Buddha is the most common name for the historical Buddha within Mahāyāna Buddhism.
  104. My translation. 「結成式で可決された三綱領は、一、我等は人類の有する最高人格・釈迦牟尼仏を鑚仰し、同胞真愛の教綱に則って仏国土建設の実現を期す。二、我等は全既成宗団は仏教精神を冒瀆したら残骸的存在なりと認め、之を排撃して仏教の新時代的宣揚を期す。三、我等は現資本主義経済組織は仏教精神に背反して大衆生活の福利を阻害するものと認め、之を改革して当来社会の実現を期す。」 柏原祐泉 (1990), 『日本仏教史 現代』 (古川弘文館), p. 214.
  105. This was also an explicit goal of Taixu. See note 111 below.
  106. My translation. 「新興仏教は、現社会の苦悩は、主として資本主義経済組織に基因するを認めて、これが根本的革正に協力して大衆の福利を保障せんとする。」 新興仏教青年同盟 (New Buddhist Youth League) (1931), 『宣言』 (Proclamation), reprinted in: 稲垣真美 (1974), 『仏陀を背負いて街頭へ—妹尾義郎と新興仏教青年同盟』 (岩波新書): 3-6, p. 4.
  107. My translation. 「第一は堕落した既成教団を排撃して佛教の真価を現代に発揮したいのだ。第二は分裂した佛教を統一して醜い宗派争ひを絶ちたいのだ。第三は佛陀の精神に反すろ資本主義経済組織の改造運動に参加して、愛と平等の理想社会を実現したいのだ。」 妹尾義郎 (1931), 『新興佛教への転身』, reprinted in: 稲垣真美 (ed.) (1975), 『妹尾義郎宗教論集』 (大蔵出版): 260-301, p. 260.
  108. Seno’o coins a neologism here that mirrors the Japanese term for “atheism”, which occurs in the first “demand”. “Atheism” is mu-shin-ron 無神論, “no-God-theory”. “Aspiritualism” (my translation of Seno’o’s neologism) is mu-reikon-ron 無霊魂論, “no -spirit/soul-theory”.
  109. ”Sublates” translates the Japanese term for Hegel’s notion of “Aufheben”, which shows a clear Marxist influence on Seno’o’s thought.
  110. My translation. 「一 現代科学は超人間的な神佛の実在を否定して無神論を説く。 二 現代科学は死後の生活を認める彼岸主義を否認して無霊魂論を説く。 三 現代人は幻想的幸福に満足しないで実際生活の中に全幸福の享受を欲する。 四 現代大衆は経済生活の安定を欲して資本主義の改造を要求する。 五 目覚めた人類は国家主義を止揚して国際主義を高調する。 六 進歩的佛教信者は宗派的佛教を清算してその統一を熱望する。」 妹尾義郎 (1933), 『社会変革途上の新興佛教』, reprinted in: 稲垣真美 (ed.) (1975), 『妹尾義郎宗教論集』 (大蔵出版): 325-388, p. 330.
  111. The Chinese Anarchist (and later reformist) Buddhist Taixu also proposed a this-worldly Buddhism, which he alternatively called “Buddhism for this world” (or “for the human world”) 人間佛教 or “Buddhism for human life”人生佛教. His aim – like Seno’o and the Youth League – was to establish a “pure land in this world” (or “in the human world”; note that “pure land” is effectively synonymous with “Buddha land” here) 人間凈土. Taixu’s “Buddhism for this world” was Utopian and reformist more than radical or revolutionary, however. And since the early 1980s the term has been used to refer to “Buddhism” in support of the state and party in China. See: Ji Zhe (2013), “Zhao Puchu and his Renjian Buddhism”, The Eastern Buddhist 44.2: 35-58.
  112. Nichiren, Establishing the Peace of the Country. Translation in: Yampolsky (1990), Selected Writings of Nichiren, p. 14.
  113. Nichiren, “Offerings in Principle and Actuality” (also known as “The Gift of Rice”). Translation: Jacqueline Stone (1990), Some Disputed Writings in the Nichiren Corpus: Textual, Hermeneutical and Historical Problems, PhD thesis (University of California), p. 485-486.
  114. To what extent he really means this can be doubted, however, as he doesn’t seem willing to give up on reincarnation, substance dualism, and other supernatural beliefs.
  115. Erik Reinert (2007). How Rich Countries Got Rich…and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor (London: Constable). Ha-Joon Chang (2002). Kicking away the Ladder (London: Anthem). Ha-Joon Chang (2007). Bad Samaritans: Rich Nations, Poor Policies, and the Threat to the Developing World (London: Random House). .
  116. Mike Davis (2000). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso). John Rapley (2017). Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as Religion and How it All Went Wrong (London: Simon & Schuster). Naomi Klein (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Holt).
  117. Naomi Klein (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Knopf). Bill McKibben (2019). Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (Wildfire).
  118. See also: Brons (2017), The Hegemony of Psychopathy.
  119. This Wittgensteinian metaphor (Tractatus 6.54) is rather popular in recent Buddhist writings (or writings about Buddhism), so it seemed especially appropriate to borrow it here.
  120. My translation. 「佛教も、時代が進移し世態文化が進歩するにつれて発展して、時代に適応すべく幾多の新しき経典が後来の佛弟子によって創作されたのが大乗経典で、従って、大乗経典は直接佛陀の説法記録でないから「大乗非佛説」といふのだ。」 妹尾義郎 (1931), 『新興佛教への転身』, p. 265-6.
  121. Idem, pp. 266-268.
  122. My translation. 「 第三の「自帰依僧」は搾取なき共同社会実現の信条である。」 妹尾義郎 (1933), 『社会変革途上の新興佛教』, p. 387.
  123. My translation. 「第二の「自帰依法」は、共同社会実現の基礎哲学である。法とはいうまでもなく空観・縁起のそれで、私有否定、相依相関の実践的無我イズムだ。」 Idem..
  124. My translation. 「第一の「自帰依佛」は第二第三の理想的体験者・唱導者としての佛陀釈尊への渇仰である。…、佛陀釈尊の理想内容としての阿弥陀佛や大日如来さては久遠本佛等々の抽象てき理想佛を必要としない。」 Idem..
  125. And the reference to mutual dependence, which is another important Buddhist notion (albeit mainly a metaphysical one), in the same phrase is probably no coincidence either.
  126. On the social level, the ideal is a “Buddha Land” in this world.
  127. And probably also many other popular Buddhisms.
  128. My translation. 「現代は苦悩する。同胞は信愛を欲して闘争を余儀なくされ、大衆はパンを求めて弾圧を食べらわされる。逃避か闘争か、今や世はあげて混沌と窮迫とに彷徨する。 かかる現代、仏教徒は何を認識し、何を社会に寄与しつつあるか。安価な安心に陶酔しておる多数仏教徒は問題とすまい。」 新興仏教青年同盟 (New Buddhist Youth League) (1931), 『宣言』 (Proclamation), p. 3.
  129. See: Twenge & Campbell (2009), The Narcissism Epidemic, and: Brons (2017), The Hegemony of Psychopathy.
  130. See: Becker (1973). The Denial of Death.
  131. Nevertheless, peace of mind and other advantages have always been part of the sales pitch of Buddhism, but it is never a good idea to confuse a sales pitch with the real thing.
  132. The term mettā is usually translated as “loving-kindess”, but is very close to the modern understanding of “compassion”.
  133. See: Brons (2016). “Facing Death from a Safe Distance”.
  134. C. Daniel Batson (2009). “The Things Called Empathy: Eight Related but Distinct Phenomena”, in: Jean Decety & William John Ickes (eds.), The Social Neuroscience of Empathy (Cambridge MA: MIT Press): 3–15.
  135. This in addition to the fact that I only provisionally accept some aspects of Buddhist thought, which conflicts with the common essentialist understanding of religious identification. See the section titled “the secular and the religious”.
  136. Probably the same is true for most other Western Buddhisms and even for most non-Western (lay) Buddhisms. However, by emptying out Buddhism of almost all other “content”, secular Buddhism has made peace of mind the prime (or even sole) purpose of “Buddhism”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *