Buddhism does not recognize a concept of the existence of God (theos) such as found in Christianity, but here theos is not used to refer only to an absolute deity like the Christian god. By “theology,” the author means the systematic delineation of the confrontation with the condition of the times while carrying on the engagement between the divine and oneself.
Buddhism has spread widely do to the present and it manifests great diversity, in such forms as the neo-Buddhism of India, the Newar Buddhism of the Kathmandu basin, the Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia, Japanese Buddhism, and so on. But although Buddhism has taken various forms in different historical and cultural contexts, this does not necessarily mean that the construction of a “Buddhist theology” is insurmountably difficult. “Buddhist theological research” is a matter of researchers confronting contemporary conditions while based in Buddhist traditions belonging to diverse social and cultural conditions. In this way a theology addressing the historical and cultural context will be born.
Musaseu Tachikawa Professor Emeritus, (Ph.D., Harward University; D. Litt., Nagoya University), formally taught at Nagoya University (1 970—92), then worked as a Professor at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan (1992—2003) and now is a Professor in Aichi Gakuin University, Japan. His publications include The Structure of the World of Udayana’s R2alism (Reidel, 1980), A Hindu Worship Service in Sixteen Steps (Bulletin of the National Museum of Ethnology, 8:1 [19831), An Introduction to the Philosophy of Nagarjuna (tr. by R. Giedel, Motilal Banarsidass, 1997), Indian Fire Ritual (together with S. Bahulkar and M. Kolhatkar, Motilal Banarsidass, 2001) Five Hundred Buddhist Deities (together with M. Mon and S.’ Yamaguchi, Adroit, Delhi, 2000), and Angkor Mandal Collection (together with Lokesh Chandra and S. Watanabe, Vajra Publishers, Kathmandu, 2006).
‘Theological” research of Buddhist thought has been a dream of mine since my days as a student. Buddhism does not recognize a concept of the existence of God (theos) such as found in Christianity. and for this reason. I have been criticized on numerous occasions with the assertion that the notion of “Buddhist theology” is inherently self-contradictory. I have responded, however, that I wish to use the term “theology” with a broad meaning. Here, theos is not used to refer only to an absolute deity like the Christian God. “The sacred that accompanies the person” in the various religious traditions I call theos or the divine. By “theology,” therefore, I mean the systematic delineation of the confrontation with the conditions of the times while carrying on the engagement between the divine and oneself-the one who conducts theological research.
Buddhism has spread widely down to the present and it manifests great diversity, in such forms as the neo-Buddhisrn of India, tho Newar Buddhism of the Kathmandu basin, the Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia, Japanese Buddhism, and so on. But although Buddhism has taken various forms in different historical and cultural contexts, this does not necessarily mean that the construction of a “Buddhist theology” is insurmountably difficult. What I term “Buddhist theological research” is a matter of researchers confronting contemporary conditions while based in Buddhist traditions belonging to diverse social and cultural conditions. In this way a theology addressing the historical and cultural context will be born.
Hence, the “Buddhist theological research” I have undertaken is rooted in the Buddhist traditions that I have been involved with up to now. Since from my days as a student I have explored the teachings of Tibetan and Indian Buddhism, this background is reflected in my basic understanding of such concepts as emptiness and dependent origination in the present book.
At the same time, as a Japanese living through the latter part of the twentieth century, I have experienced the conditions of Japan during this period. It is impossible to avoid the involvements of family life, workplace relations, and local society. Hence, my ‘Buddhist theology”—this book might also be called a work in Buddhist doctrine could only have arisen within the culture and society in which I found myself.
For us as persons of the contemporary age, the important issue is the world and history. Human actions are carried out in the locus of the world, but how human beings receive the temporality of their collective actions as a whole is history. A weak point of Japanese Buddhism has been that consideration of the world and history has been slight. I wonder if in the history of Japanese thought in general, not only Japanese Buddhism, the structure of the world and the temporality of action have not been continuously neglected issues.
In Japanese Buddhism, although there is no assertion of the existence of an absolute God, there are traditions that assert the existence of the sacred as personal. This is an asset that Japanese religious tradition can communicate to the world. In order to utilize this resource effectively, it is necessary to reposition the sacred within the problems of world and history. When considered in this way, the greatest pointer for Buddhist doctrinal study is surely the fundamental Buddhist concept of dependent origination. Dependent origination signifies that which arises dependently, that is, the world, and further, the working that arises dependently, that is, temporality.
This book is an English translation of my work written in Japanese and published as Budda no Tetsugaku—Gendai Shiso to shire no Bukyo (Hozokan, 1998). I wish to express my deep appreciation to the translators, Mrs. Stirk Michiyo (Chapters 3—10) and Prof. Dennis Hirota (Ryukoku University, Kyoto: Chapters 1—2). Chapters I and 2 have also appeared in Dennis Hirota, ed., Toward a Contemporary Understanding of Pure Land Buddhism (State University of New York Press, 2000). I thank the State University of New York Press for permission to reproduce the material here. I also would like to thank my friend Mr. Ian Sinclair for giving me invaluable suggestions to this book.
The pre-modern and modern ages, which evolved, by and large, around western culture as their centre, placed significant trust in reason (logos). Of course, this does not mean the total absence of scepticism in people’s minds about reason. Even in the 19th century, which is often called the “century of reason,” there was a vehement rebellion against reason. Generally speaking, it is said that Descartes, the founder of modern rationalism, placed utter trust in the “human intellect, which empowers people to doubt.” He asserted that the existence of the human intellect is absolutely certain and beyond doubt. More recently, however, it has been revealed that even Descartes sometimes held serious doubts about reason, compromising his trust in it. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that, until the middle of the 20th century, namely, until the end of World War II, the trust of human beings in reason remained fairly unshaken. Until that time, Christians in western countries believed that human reason was a gift from God.
After World War II, however, a turning point emerged, at which people began to cast doubt on reason. They started to suspect that reason, long considered secure and firm, was not, after all, absolutely reliable. It turned out that even mathematics, which had been defined as one of the supreme forms of certainty, failed to prove its absolute assuredness. The problem is that people in modern times have been at a loss in relation to the profound question “what could be truly certain beyond doubt.”
Who could have predicted such remarkable progress in production engineering as we have witnessed during the past half century. There used to be a belief among people that if production technology is improved significantly, this planet will be capable of taking care of a global population even twice its current size. Given support by this belief, presumably, it has actually happened that the population of a particular country has increased by several hundred million during the last two decades. Now it is feared that the country in question is hardly capable of coping with the problems triggered by the population explosion, such as environmental problems, in a proper way. It is scary indeed to imagine that, in another 50 years or so. the global population will reach an extraordinary level. The frightening reality today is that human beings have even failed so far to control emissions from automobiles, much less population increase.
It seems that we believed for a long time that with positive technological advancement, the future would always be bright and rosy, bringing happiness to human beings. It seems that—at least among those who participated in technological development—this was a commonly shared vision: It was a generally accepted idea that the unhappiness of human beings could be alleviated indefinitely by means of developing sophisticated production technology, and that technology could be “transferred” across the world to benefit many peoples. We somehow assumed that the resources necessary for technological advancement existed infinitely on this planet.
Today’s circumstances, however, oblige us to make a serious and fundamental review of the way we lead our lives. Otherwise, the entire global population might be forced into collective suicide.
What is of utmost importance in the modern age is the effort “to control our desires.” No matter how we look at reality today, that is the truth. Human beings have to curb and contain their desires for the sake of survival in the future. The enormity of current problems such as the increase in global population and environmental degradation clearly shows that the issues we face are far more critical, and that they have already exceeded the level which can be coped with by technology alone.
This book focuses on Buddhist philosophy. Proposed in it is a question which has been explored for thousands of years of human history. That question is how human beings can control their desires while continuing their lives. Of course, when I use the phrase “curbing desires,” I do not advise everybody to abandon the secular world and become a monk. Nor do I say that some people will have to surrender the living conditions which they enjoy at the moment, and that this cannot be helped. Rather, I suggest that human beings will be required to depart from their current approach to life. For instance, people should change the methodology of the pursuit of wealth and profits. I am afraid that the current form of wealth formation, which is pervasive across the world, is insatiable. I do not imply, however, that, if people seek drastic change, the solution can be found in a certain form of economics. I do not believe that the problem can be resolved by choosing either a centrally planned economy with socialist attributes or capitalism. As to the latter, we know that market competition is fierce and when human beings upheld fundamental trust in reason, and pursued the reform of the world incessantly, there existed a “wicked anthropocentrism” in people’s mindset, which originated and was promoted in pre-modem Europe. At present, however, we are required to reflect on this “wicked anthropocentrism.” In sheer contrast to the tradition of pre-modem Europe, Buddhism has never underlined anthropocentrism in its agenda. Instead, in Buddhism, effort has always been directed towards the self-denial of human beings. In Buddhism, human actions were supposed to “be cleansed” by way of self-denial.
I believe that there are many things we can learn from the Buddhist tradition today. On the other hand, it seems that Buddhism has to undergo significant innovation in order to be reinstated as a modern philosophy in people’s minds.
In order for Buddhism to be rediscovered and redefined as a modem religion or philosophy, thus functioning to guide people through the convolutions of the modem world, it needs, first of all, to break out of its own shell. Buddhism should unleash itself from its old confines, which have kept it in the realm of conventionality. It should be reborn and redefined as the philosophy of the pre-modem age, and furthermore as that of today’s world, by committing itself to the addressing of the diversity of contemporary problems. Buddhism has to go through two steps of “transformation” within a short period of time: one, to become pre-modern, and the second, to become modem. In doing so, Buddhism will probably have to distance itself from what have been the core values of the faith for centuries. Perhaps Buddhism may be required to incorporate something new into its agenda, something not included in tradition. Whenever necessary, we should venture to embark on innovation.
For example, almost 2000 years have passed since Nagarjuna wrote the Middle Stanzas (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Although the issues which Nagaijuna pursued in his works are still sufficiently meaningful for modem people, some of his discussions could sound rather impertinent or unacceptable from the modern perspective. Therefore, when we try to learn something from Nagarjuna, we need to draw a distinction between what we can assimilate into the contemporary context and what should rather be excluded.
Nowadays it is vital for Buddhists to shed light on contemporary issues which can be analysed from the point of view of traditional Buddhist values, and vice versa. Buddhists should contemplate their tradition in the light of contemporary issues which we face today, Of course I do not suggest that all the current problems that we arc experiencing are dealt with in Buddhist canons. Neither nuclear weapons nor bioengineering existed in ancient times. It is simply out of the question, therefore, for us to expect any answer regarding these matters to be found in the old literature.
Many people might say, “There has been no change in the fundamental stance of Buddhism since its inception. Furthermore, the way in which human beings survive as biological living organisms on this planet has remained fundamentally the same. Therefore, Buddhist philosophy, which was relevant to the ancient world, should still he pertinent to contemporary issues in the modem world.” What they maintain is right to some extent, Otherwise, there would be no meaning at all in trying to study Buddhism.
Buddhists have been challenged by various issues at each phase of its historical development. They were exposed to profound questions as the times evolved. For instance, Vasubandhu inherited and made great progress in the dogma of Vijnapti-mätrata (Consciousness-Only) in India around the 5th century. For him, the challenge was to have two streams of ideas merge together. One was the Buddhist view of the world or the cosmos, which was emerging as an innovative thought in those days. The other was Yoga discipline, which had been in place for many years as a traditional religious practice. Candrakirti, who contributed greatly to the development of Nagarjuna’s philosophy during the 7th century, aspired to unify the view of the universe of his days and the theory of emptiness (Skt. sunyata). Tantrists in later centuries were concerned with the conflict between different values. On the one hand, they emphasised the importance of sexual activities as unique attributes in human life. On the other, according to conventional religious values, sexual activities were to he suppressed and renounced as “unholy.” The point is that those founders and pioneers of Buddhist orders were challenged by unique problems which arose in particular contexts at each phase of history. We can find such religious innovators of Buddhism in India, China, Japan and many other places. They were brave, venturing to explore new meanings of sakyamuni’s teaching.
In fact, those who follow the Buddhist faith have been allowed the liberty of tackling a wide scope of issues, thereby responding to the challenges imposed on them by the age in which they live. To the modem eye, Buddhist history looks hugely complicated. This has perhaps resulted from the enterprising spirit in Buddhism, which has nurtured people who “dare to challenge” conventionality. Buddhism was initiated by säkyamuni, whose teaching has formed its core values and has been enlightening people over thousands of years. At the same time. Buddhism encompasses many sects including the Orders of Tantrism. One of the major Tantric deities is called Cakrasamvara, a wrathful deity of great power and ferocity. Depicted in a Tibetan mandate we find this deity with three faces, six arms and four legs. One of his hands holds up a skull as a drinking cup. which is filled with blood, He stands on four legs. while embracing his consort in sexual union. To be honest, it is quite hard to find a cogent reason why Sakyamuni’s teaching and Tantric doctrine should both be called ‘Buddhism.” By the same token, it is also extremely difficult to find a reasonable explanation why Southern Buddhism. which flourishes in Thailand today, and the worshipping of Amitayus or Amitabha, which is prominent in Japan, can both fall under the same category of “Buddhism.”
I believe, however, that this very complication itself is the beauty of Buddhism. A variety of forms of “Buddhism” have evolved in various places, circumstances and times, reflecting the variation among different contexts. This is how Buddhism has been fostered until now, and it should he the case in the future as well. Given such a perspective, Japanese people would be provided with much more freedom and flexibility in their engagement with Buddhism. I am sure that such an approach to Buddhism is definitely needed for those who observe the Buddhist faith today.,
Japan produced several superb Buddhist philosophers and priests, who launched new Buddhist congregations about a thousand years ago. They were great pioneers and originators, who brought about a revolutionary progress in Japanese Buddhism. It would be barely meaningful, however, to hope that Japan could produce some more great religious innovators, whose quality could even “surpass” that of the forerunners in olden times. Those pioneers of Buddhist evolution in ancient Japan were so extraordinarily outstanding that we could not possibly hope for the emergence of successors in modern Japan. Having said that, however, we all understand well that the times and the environment in which they lived were different from what we know in present Japan. Whether we like it or not, we live in out current circumstances, which would be foreign to our ancestors.
As long as human beings are biological living organisms, they are bound to “be born, grow and die in the end.” The truth remains unchanged. It was the truth of the human condition even before Sãkyamuni was born. On the other hand, Buddhism, in common with all the other religions of the world, does not regard human beings merely as biological living organisms. In religion, human beings are entities who bear a meaning only when they are placed in a social context. The social context brings certain norms and framework to people, thus defining them. For this reason it is essential for us to learn more form the mentors pioneers and originators who directed the progress of Buddhism in the ancient world. By doing so we will be able to elucidate the present situation in which we live. I believe that this should be the way in which we can involve with Buddhism in the modern world.
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