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  • Critical Buddhism: Engaging with Modern Japanese Buddhist Thought by James Mark Shields
  • Steven Heine (bio)
Critical Buddhism: Engaging with Modern Japanese Buddhist Thought. By James Mark Shields. Farnham, Surrey; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. Pp. 206. Hardcover $89.95, isbn 978-1-40-941798-9.

Critical Buddhism (hihan bukkyō) is an innovative methodological movement that was formed by a couple of Buddhist scholars at Komazawa University in Tokyo, which houses the largest Buddhist Studies department in Japan and is affiliated with the Sōtō Zen sect. The approach initially developed in the mid-1980s in response to a nexus of sociopolitical issues that were at the time plaguing Sōtō and other Japanese Buddhist schools. James Mark Shields explains in the “Introduction” to his new book, Critical Buddhism: Engaging with Modern Japanese Buddhist Thought, how at a major conference on world religions held back in 1979 a representative of the Sōtō sect declared that there was no discrimination against the outcast community of Burakumin by Buddhism in Japan. Because egregious examples of such bias were well documented over many decades, the expression of denial triggered a round of protests. This, in turn, caused Sōtō leaders to respond by commissioning a group of professors to investigate the history of Buddhist teachings and attitudes that may have led to ethical lapses and an uncritical acceptance of societal problems. A related issue examined was the pre–World War II Buddhist backing, or at least a lack of denouncing, of Japanese supernationalism and imperialism. Why, it was asked, was Buddhism in Japan operating for the most part as a force for supporting and reinforcing the status quo rather than for disputing and attempting to reform social deficiencies?

By 1985, the Critical Buddhist movement had emerged with the writings of Hakamaya Noriaki and Matsumoto Shirō, and gained a high degree of sympathy but also some disapproval from colleagues. Hakamaya and Matsumoto were particularly noted for their rather harsh manner of condemning Zen and other forms of Japanese Buddhism for failing to adhere to basic ethical principles. By allowing its moral philosophy to be corrupted over the centuries because of a variety of cultural and historical factors, authentic Buddhist behavior was subverted and lost, the Critical Buddhists claimed. For example, a genuine understanding of the notion of karmic rewards and punishments was turned into an insidious justification for discrimination and nationalism through an outlook that can be characterized as “you get what you deserve.” Shields describes how Critical Buddhism was small in numbers, constituting only a handful of scholars, but with great aspirations in attacking the sanctity of the Japanese Buddhist institution and its multifarious spokespersons. This confrontation was carried out through a critical analysis of the discrepancy between fundamental Buddhist doctrines and current practices in light of modern examples [End Page 979] of critical Western philosophy, especially that of René Descartes and his detractor Giambattista Vico, among others.

Although there is no division mentioned in the table of contents, the structure of Critical Buddhism seems to fall naturally into two parts. The first part, consisting of the introduction and the initial three main chapters, which constitutes about 70 percent of the volume, provides a historical overview of the origins and implications of the methodological movement in relation to the diverse social and intellectual developments in Japan. This major section of the book is highly successful in illuminating the central features of Critical Buddhist philosophy and its connections with as well as disconnections from the works of related schools of thought. These range from the writings of the Kyoto School, which Hakamaya and Matsumoto criticize for supporting imperialism, to Rinzai Zen priest Ichikawa Hakugen, known for his condemnation of prewar Buddhist trends. Ichikawa has a great affinity for, as well as differences with, Critical Buddhism, and these are analyzed appropriately here.

Shields’ introductory essay explains that Critical Buddhism sets up a contrast between its approach to criticism (or “criticalism”), inspired in large part by the Cartesian tradition in the West, and topicalism, or a substantive (Skt. dhātu-vāda) philosophical outlook that undermines the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence and emptiness and detracts from a reliance on the ethical principles of causality and...


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