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Imperial-Way Zen: Ichikawa Hakugen’s Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 62, Number 1, January 2012
pp. 128-130 | 10.1353/pew.2012.0011

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Reviewed by
Imperial-Way Zen: Ichikawa Hakugen’s Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics. By Christopher Ives. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009. $52.00.

While there has been a surge in scholarship on Imperial Way Buddhism (kōdō Bukkyō) in the past several decades, little attention has been paid, particularly in Western scholarship, to the life and work of Ichikawa Hakugen (1902–1986), the most prominent and sophisticated postwar critic of the role of Buddhism, and particularly Zen, in modern Japanese militarism. By way of a thorough and critical investigation of Ichikawa’s critique, Imperial-Way Zen: Ichikawa Hakugen’s Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics by Christopher Ives seeks to provide answers to a number of important questions regarding Zen ethics in the context of modern Japan. Particularly fruitful is Ives’ discussion, in chapter 7, of the resources within Zen for a contemporary Zen ethic based in what he calls “prophetic critique.”

The first chapter, somewhat sardonically titled “Useful Buddhism,” provides the context in which Imperial Way Zen emerged in the decades following the Meiji Restoration. While it serves its purpose in this regard, my concern is that it paints a picture that is rather unidirectional. Although I do not think it was the author’s intent to collapse all forms of “modern” or “new” Buddhism of the late Meiji into the broader “Imperial Way” stream, this is how the rapid-fire narrative in the first half of the chapter sometimes reads. Part of the problem here is the application of broad terms like “nationalism,” “loyalty,” and “patriotism,” the precise meaning and implications of which are notoriously vague and, at any rate, had certainly changed between the Meiji and Shōwa periods. Even with this reservation, the chapter provides a useful capsule summary of the history of Japanese Buddhism from the early Meiji period through the early Shōwa.

Chapters 2 and 3 bring the reader to the heart of Ichikawa Hakugen’s analysis and critique of Imperial Way Zen. Here, Ives does the reader a favor by breaking down Ichikawa’s complex and many-sided argument into four foci: “the epistemological, metaphysical, sociological, and historical dimensions of Zen.” In sum, Ichikawa presents the origins and early development of Zen (Chan) in China in terms of a sort of “escape” from the tensions and fragilities of the chaos and uncertainty of the world. Over the centuries, via doctrines espousing “non-discrimination,” “nonduality,” “non-contention,” and “non-choosing,” Zen would become, for many Chinese (and later Japanese) “elites,” a way of finding “peace of mind” (Chin. anxin; Jpn. anshin) (p. 60). As such, Ichikawa argues, the Zen awakening or satori experience, inflected with Chinese Daoist principles of adaptability, emerges as a “peaceful” affirmation of the way things are, bereft of any need for change or criticism (p. 62). [End Page 128]

Moreover, as Ives comments, in the rhetoric of “becoming one” with things, the “epistemological distance” necessary for criticism is non-existent (p. 68). (The argument here is virtually identical to the Critical Buddhist discussion and critique of “topicalism” in the 1990s.) Ichikawa extends this critique from medieval China to modern Japan, where it lands squarely upon two of the biggest names in modern Japanese thought: D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) and Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945), both of whom shared an affinity for the so-called “logic of sokuhi,” which, Ichikawa argues, creates a “static, aesthetic perspective” that “weakens interest in political and social liberation of people” (p. 79). In terms of the Zen approach to society and ethics, Ichikawa argues that in spite of the great potential of certain Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrines, such as the assertion of a universal “buddha-nature” that transcends class, ethnicity, and gender, this potential has very rarely been actualized within Zen theory or practice (p. 83). Instead, as with virtually all Buddhist traditions in Asia, karma has been employed in Zen both to account for and to justify social and gender distinctions, along with the more particular Mahāyāna teaching that “differentiation is equality” (sabetsu-soku-byōdō) (pp. 84–86), and the Confucian-inspired valuation of “tolerance,” “harmony,” and the repayment of debts...