Beyond Satori: New Studies of Japanese Religious Experience

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The Western fascination with Asian religiosity over the past century has certainly inspired a high level of scholarship in our attempts to understand and absorb the religious possibilities of the East. Yet this effort has generally been rather narrow in focus, even in the work of our best, most adventurous scholars. The amount of material produced on Advaita Vedānta and Zen Buddhism, for example, has been oceanic in comparison to the trickle of works devoted to other religious schools in South and East Asia. One could speculate why this has been the case—perhaps the self-power systems of the East appealed to Western individualism and offered a welcome alternative just as the conflicts between our own inherited religious traditions and the failed promises of modernity were reaching an impasse. Here were new systems of thought and practice that claimed to rely neither on faith nor on rationalism, providing a promise of transcendence of both biblical dependency and techno-scientific fetishism. In the field of Japanese religions, D. T. Suzuki’s early Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927), filled with seductive tales of self-discipline and awakening, held us entranced for decades as we offered up more and more evidence of the freedom made possible in the non-metaphysical disciplines of Zen practice and the attainment of satori. Only in the past fifteen years of scholarship have there been significant attempts to contextualize the practices of Zen both in China and Japan, and to recognize the metaphysical dimensions of the East Asian traditions. In the works, for example, of Bodiford (Sōtō Zen in Medieval Japan [1993]), Faure (The Rhetoric of Immediacy [1994] and Ch’an Insights and Oversights [1996]), Wright (Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism [2000]), and Heine (Opening a Mountain: Kōans of the Zen Masters [2002]), the effort to present the promises of Zen within the sociohistorical worlds from which its traditions arose opened the way for a more critical evaluation of the possible meanings we could derive from East Asian religiosity. We could not understand Zen apart from the religious sensibilities of the cultures that gave birth to its practices and found refuge in its promise, allowing Zen traditions to continue and thrive. Yet our fascination with Japanese religious life remains primarily focused on Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular. There are huge disparities in the amount of Western buddhology offered on Zen as compared to all the work contributed to the study of Tendai, Shingon, Shinshū, and Nichiren Buddhism combined. The disparities are quite evident in the study of Shintō as well, with few Western scholars choosing to specialize in its study. The number of English texts available on Japanese traditions other than Zen remains underrepresented for scholars, and even more so for the general reader. It is encouraging, however, to see indications in a number of recent publications that these dimensions of Japanese religiosity are being given greater consideration. Three important examples are Thomas Kasulis’ Shinto: The Way Home, Satsuki Kawano’s Ritual Practice in Modern Japan: Ordering Place, People and Action, and Kenneth Doo Young Lee’s The Prince and the Monk: Shōtoku Worship in Shinran’s Buddhism. Kasulis’ work is part of the Dimensions of Asian Spirituality series offered by University of Hawai‘i Press. Shinto: The Way Home was the inaugural work in the series, intended to be so by the general editor Henry Rosemont, Jr., due to his recognition that Shintō is “arguably the least known of the Asian religious traditions” (Kasulis, p. xii). The main purpose of the series, according to Rosemont, is not simply to promote religious tolerance, but rather to foster an appreciation and celebration of difference (p. x). The texts are all structured to be brief introductions that will serve as useful resources of Asian traditions for both scholars and the general public. Although Kasulis does not specialize in Shintō, and is mainly known in the field of Asian religion for his classic text on Zen Buddhism, Zen Action / Zen Person (1989), his ability to convey Shintō religiosity in clear and inviting language made him a good choice for the series, providing a much needed introductory text for the study of this tradition. It is...

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