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  • Fujiwara Seika and the Great Learning
  • Richard Bowring (bio)

The traditional view of Tokugawa Buddhism-that it degenerated into little more than an arm of government and lost most of its intellectual vigor and appeal-is now in the process of being overturned in favor of a much more nuanced approach. There can be no doubt, nevertheless, that thinkers in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Japan began to question their Buddhist heritage as they had never done before and in so doing sought inspiration in the Chinese classics. It was a shift that had far-reaching consequences. This article investigates the case of Fujiwara Seika (1561-1619), who is commonly thought of as the father of Neo-Confucian studies in Japan, although, as W. J. Boot has shown, our understanding of Seika's contribution has been unduly affected by the fact that most of our information comes filtered through the writings of Hayashi Razan (1583-1657).1 The discussion here concentrates in particular on Seika's interpretation of the Great Learning (Daxue), one of the most important books in the Neo-Confucian canon. It shows that Seika adopted a quite unconventional approach to this work, making choices that may well have been influenced by his own Buddhist upbringing. This finding in turn offers suggestions for thinking about why and how Neo-Confucianism took root at this particular juncture in Japan's history.

Neo-Confucianism in Japan before the Tokugawa Period

Ever since the Heian period, there had been a venerable tradition of studying the basic texts of Chinese culture, the Analects (Lunyu), Mencius (Mengzi), and histories such as the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), although it was of necessity the preserve of a small number of specialist scholars and bureaucrats. The gradual erosion of centralized power constantly threatened the institutions that supported such work, but it was kept alive and the practice of reading and commenting on these texts as a source of wisdom maintained [End Page 437] throughout the Kamakura period, largely thanks to the activities of Zen monks on the one hand and the Kiyowara family on the other.2 Among such monks and men of learning, it was hardly a secret that twelfth-century China had seen the emergence of a new kind of commentary known as daoxue(often referred to as Neo-Confucianism), initiated by the brothers Cheng Mingdao (1032-1085) and Cheng Yichuan (1033-1107), and given its fullest expression by Zhu Xi (1130-1200). The canonical texts of this new form of Confucianism were known as the Four Books: the Analects, Mencius, Great Learning, and Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong).

Monks who went to study in China made it a practice to bring back as many texts as they could, and their choices were often eclectic, so it is quite possible that even during Zhu Xi's lifetime the odd copy of his commentaries to the Four Books had already found its way to Japan. Enni Ben'en (1202-1280), a generation later, for example, certainly had the new commentaries in his possession, although it is not known what use he made of them.3 Mere possession of the commentaries did not mean, of course, that the underlying significance of Neo-Confucianism was necessarily absorbed or even recognized at this stage. Yes, the centrality of the Four Books was accepted, and yes, the new commentaries were recognized as being of considerable importance. The philosophy that had been created on the foundation of such reinterpretations was still, however, largely a closed book, and it remained so for a considerable time. Not surprisingly, the way Zen monks and scholars interpreted what they read tended to reflect their own concerns. They preferred to treat Neo-Confucianism as representing a rather belated acknowledgment by Song scholars that Confucianism and Buddhism were at root the same thing. Given their own agenda and their interest in the concept of the "Unity of the Three Creeds," such a misreading was entirely understandable, and since there was no particular incentive to delve further, they failed to see that, far from being Buddhism in another guise, Neo Confucianism offered Buddhism a radical, challenging alternative.

The Kiyowara family, too, were well aware...


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