An Engaged Buddhist History of Japan:

Historical Perspectives & Contemporary Exemplars

In Two Volumes

Jonathan S. Watts

International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC)

Published by Sumeru Books (Canada) in Fall 2023

Summary: These volumes offer a unique perspective outside of the normal scholarly or sectarian historical presentations of Japanese Buddhism. Volume I uses a socially engaged Buddhist lens to examine keys themes in the development of Buddhism in Japan, particularly in their socio-political context. The latter half of this volume then charts the struggles of modern Japanese Buddhists to develop a socially engaged perspective and practice amidst the trials and tribulations of modernity, imperialism, war, and postwar economic boom. In this way, Volume I offers the critical historical perspectives for understanding contemporary Japanese Buddhism, which so many in Asia and elsewhere find incomprehensible with “monks” who marry, drink, and live largely secular lives. Out of the distortions of modernity, Volume II offers a series of contemporary case studies of socially engaged Buddhist priests (both male and female) who are redefining Japanese Buddhism, and perhaps even Japanese society in the 21st century. Since the Japanese economy began to falter in the 1990s, Buddhist priests have begun to come out of their temples and their once lucrative Funeral Buddhism activities to engage directly in the suffering of the common people. Volume II offers an intimate look into this work in the areas of end-of-life care, suicide prevention, disaster trauma and chaplaincy, poverty and homelessness, anti-nuclear activism and Buddhist development, and peace and social justice. This second volume is the culmination of over fifteen years of participatory research by the International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC) of the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship in Yokohama.

Table of Contents

VOLUME I: An Engaged Buddhist History of Japan from Its Origins to the Dawn of the 21st Century

Introduction: Tilting the Axis: The Potential of Socially Engaged Buddhism to Bring Japan into the “Civilizational” Process

Chapter I: The Historical Struggle of Buddhism to Axialize Japan in the Pre-Modern Era

  • Purity, Ritualism, Clan Society, and Lay Buddhism: Buddhism’s Entry into Japan and the Nara Period (646-794)
  • Innate Enlightenment, Esoteric Buddhism’s Fusion with the State & the Spread of Itinerant Buddhism in the Heian Period (794-1185)
  • The Final Dharma, a New Way to Die, and Liberation Theology for the Masses in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333)
  • Samurai Zen, “Ideological” Conflict, and the Rise of Buddhist Based Peasant Rebellions in the Muromachi Period (1333-1558)
  • The “Closing” of Buddhist Power and Brahmanistic & Confucian Turns in Buddhism in the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868)

Chapter II: The Struggle of the “Archaic” and the Modern &the Foundations of Socially Engaged Buddhism in Pre-War Japan

  • “Archaic” Continuity Across the Tokugawa and Meiji Periods
  • The Meiji Buddhist Enlightenment
  • Axial Challengers: Socialism & the Lotus Sutra in the Taisho & Early Showa Periods
  • Descent into Holy War

Chapter III: The Struggle for Peace and Internationalism in the Liberal Utilitarian State: Socially Engaged Buddhism in Post-War Japan

  • The Sudden Turn Towards Peace & the Question of Principled Social Change
  • “Confrontational Buddhism” & the Use of the Lotus Sutra to Secure Peace through Social Activism and Protest in the Immediate Post-War Era
  • Japanese Social Ethics in the Post-War Era (1950-60s)
  • Advances and Limitations of Socially Engaged Buddhism in the Post-War Era
  • The Promise of Principled Protest & the Buddhist Resolution to Modernity

Afterword: A Dharmic Civil Society for Japan & a Roadmap for Japanese Socially Engaged Buddhism in the 21st Century

VOLUME II: A New Socially Engaged Buddhism in 21st Century Japan: Sharing Karmic Bonds from Intimate Care to Social Ethics

Introduction: The Rise of the Karmically Disconnected Society (Mu-en Shakai) in the 21st Century Japan

Chapter I: Reforming Funeral Buddhism through Compassionate End-of-Life Care in Contemporary Japan

Chapter II: Rewriting Culture: The Suicide Prevention Priests of Japan

Chapter III: Entering the Zone of Suffering: Disaster Relief, Grief Care, and Buddhist Chaplaincy

Chapter IV: Rebuilding Karmic Bonds amidst Japan’s Disconnected Society: A Buddhist Path through Rural Decline, Migrant Laborers, Poverty & Homelessness

Chapter V: Aspiring for Enlightened Development: The Disaster of Nuclear Energy & The Potential for Buddhist Development (kai-hotsu) Using the Four Noble Truths

Afterword: Where Are the Women? Gender Justice as the Next Wave in Japanese Socially Engaged Buddhism?

About the Author: Jonathan S. Watts began working at the main office of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in Bangkok in 1990 shortly after graduating Princeton University in the United States where he was born and raised. Under the tutelage of renowned Thai engaged Buddhist Sulak Sivaraksa and the teachings of one of the earliest articulators of a progressive modern Buddhism, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, he has spent the last thirty years immersed in the international engaged Buddhist movement. Moving to Japan in 1993, he has worked in a variety of Buddhist settings including nineteen years at the research institute of the Jodo denomination, whose teacher Honen was the first of the great Kamakura Buddhist revolutionaries; the last sixteen years at the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship, a modern lay denomination emerging from the ancient Tendai denomination from which the Kamakura masters all sprang; and the last fourteen years the Zenseikyo Foundation and Rinbutsuken Institute for Engaged Buddhism, a non-sectarian foundation formed in the post-war area that is training Buddhist chaplains. He has also taught contemporary Buddhism in Japan and Asia at Keio University since 2008. This volume documents his own work during this time to support Japanese Buddhists to develop their own Socially Engaged Buddhist movement in connection with similar movements in Asia and the West through the Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB).

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