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  • Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan by James Mark Shields
  • Melissa Anne-Marie Curley (bio)
Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan. By James Mark Shields. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017, x, 404 pages. $105.00.

In Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan, James Mark Shields offers a genealogy of progressive Buddhism from the 1880s through the 1930s. He emphasizes figures who qualify, in his terms, as radical: those Buddhists who took up political and social activism while positioning themselves, in one way or another, as opposed to the existing political regime (p. 22). As a catalogue of 50 years of Buddhist experiments with progressivism, Against Harmony vividly depicts the tumult and intellectual excitement of this period in history.

Against Harmony is one of a number of recent books to interrogate East Asian Buddhist encounters with socialism, communism, and anarchism; we might mention here, for example, Fabio Rambelli's Zen Anarchism: The Egalitarian Dharma of Uchiyama Gudō (Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2014); Justin Ritzinger's Anarchy in the Pure Land: Reinventing the Cult of Maitreya in Modern Chinese Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2017); and the first section of the edited volume Buddhist Modernities: Re-Inventing Tradition in the Globalizing Modern World (Routledge, 2017), which includes a chapter from Shields on the New Buddhist movement. It is also in conversation with Shields's own Critical Buddhism: Engaging with Modern Japanese Buddhist Thought (Ashgate, 2011), in which he examines the work of Sōtō Zen intellectuals Hakayama Noriaki and Matsumoto Shirō. Hakayama and Matsumoto assert that critique—both social and sectarian—should be understood as the very heart of Buddhist practice; the Critical Buddhists are invoked more than once in Against Harmony as the natural inheritors of critiques that first circulated among radical Buddhists a century ago, inviting readers to imagine a thread of radicalism, however faint, that runs persistently throughout the history of modern Japanese Buddhism.

The most productive interlocutor for Against Harmony, however, might be Brian Victoria. Victoria's work has focused on the capture of Japanese Buddhism by imperialist ideology; he is forthright about understanding his scholarship as having a normative dimension, seeking to identify those thinkers guilty of corrupting an authentic Buddhist dharma.1 Against [End Page 399] Harmony might be taken, at first glance, as a recovery project, focusing on Buddhists who stood in opposition to imperialism. In fact, Shields is interested in developing a different approach to the material. He argues that an impulse to narrate the history of modern Japan in terms of heroes and villains, or resisters and collaborators, has "inhibited a fuller discussion and analysis of variations of Buddhist nationalism (and anti-nationalism)" (p. 4). The word "radical" is useful, he proposes, precisely because it is empty or "context-dependent," freeing us "from having to make normative claims about the legitimacy or authenticity of these theories and practices" (p. 22). Indeed, Against Harmony covers a dizzyingly wide range of thinkers and movements, attempting to treat each one as generously as possible. The effect is a book that illuminates the messiness and contingency of Buddhist modernism as a whole.

Against Harmony is framed in terms of postwar conversations around whether Buddhism might be brought into productive dialogue with Marxism; the Japanese thinkers on whom the book is focused are positioned as sources of inspiration and instruction in this endeavor—"worthy of notice" for both their successes and their failures (p. 3). A prelude giving us the history of three generations of the Akamatsu family serves as the key for the periodization of a larger national history that gives the book its starting and ending points: from the progressive conservatism of the Meiji enlightenment, to the social reforms of the Taisho period, and finally a shift toward totalitarianism in the early Showa years that ultimately, Shields writes, brought "the era of experimentation in progressive and radical Buddhism" to an end (p. 12).

The bulk of the book is devoted to thinkers most active during the Meiji period. Chapter 1 explores two dimensions of the Meiji "Buddhist revival" (p. 60): a movement initiated by Inoue Enryō and taken up by cosmopolitan scholar-priests like Shaku S...


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