it is a shame

Something arunlikhati wrote the other day on the Dharma Folk blog got me thinking. Commenting on this article that’s been circulating around the buddhoblogosphere on the decline of Buddhism in Japan, she notes that a lot of American people say, “It’s a shame that Japanese can’t see the true beauty in their Buddhist heritage.”

I find this attitude pretty condescending and arrogant. Here’s why.

First and foremost, it assumes that the Westerner recognizes some obvious virtue or value in some other culture that is totally lost on the people who live and breath that culture every day. It assumes that “those people” just don’t know what’s right in front of them, that they’re totally missing this really amazing and wonderful thing. It fails to ask the obvious question: why? Why have people in Japan lost interest in one of their dominate religious traditions? This is a question we ask of Western industrialized nations all the time. We look at France and Germany and the U.K. and note that Christianity’s been in decline there for decades in the face of rising secularism. But we don’t look down our noses and say, “Oh, it’s a shame no one recognizes the beauty of their religious tradition.”

So I think that this attitude points to our deeply embedded Orientalist attitudes toward “the Other,” in this case, the Other who happens to be Japanese. Orientalists see the Asian Other as inherently passive, in need of Western salvation. We look at their declining interest in religion and say, “We’ll help you! We’ll make sure you see the beauty inherent in your culture!” Bah.

As for the arrogance, this attitude assumes that the Westerner knows something about the real Buddhist situation in Japan. I think it’s a safe assumption to say that when someone says “the true beauty in their Buddhist tradition” they’re not thinking about what has come to be known as “funeral Buddhism.” They’re thinking of some idealized fantasy of Buddhism, some pop-cultural amalgamation of David Carradine/Yoda-wisdom, serene Buddhist statues, and Zen rock gardens. It’s not that Buddha statues and rock gardens aren’t a part of Buddhism; it’s that they’re just that — a part. Buddhism in Japan is a complex diversity of traditions and practices and, in the modern era, has become increasingly aligned with funeral and memorial services, services that are either being replaced by secular industries or are simply not as important as they once were to a rising secular society.

How arrogant of us in the West to assume that we understand what Buddhism is really like in some other country. Is there some inherent beauty within Japanese Buddhism that ought to be fought for? Sure. Absolutely. Is it sad that it’s in decline? Hell yes. But to assume that we, here in the West, know how to fix it is what I mean by arrogance.

Like I mentioned above, the first and most obvious question we on this side of the Pacific should ask is, “Why? Why is religion of decreasing importance to the Japanese?” The second question: “Do the Japanese themselves seem to care?” In other words, what business is it of ours to assume that some other people in some other place should be practicing any religion? That’s a choice for the Japanese, not us. It might be sad, but as they said over on the Dharm Folk blog, Buddhism will eventually die out everywhere. Nothing lasts forever, remember?

The third question? Well that’s easy. Should we worry about the Buddhism in our own communities, in our own backyards? How’s that Buddhism doing?

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5 thoughts on “it is a shame

  1. I agree with you completely. I also see a double standard here. Many people would say that religion and sprituality have declined in Western nations as well. I feel that many American’s only become spritual during a funeral as well.

    Many people just don’t understand enough about Japan. I feel Japanese people are spiritual. If they want to feel that spirit during a funeral, more power to them.

  2. I don’t think I really want to get into the “religion” v. “spirituality” debate with you here, but I will say that making claims like “Japanese people are spiritual” assumes that we have some knowledge of other people’s subjectivity or interiority. I have no idea if “Japanese people” are spiritual or not just like I have no idea if “Japanese people” are happy or not. These are subjective, interior, emotional states of mind which, generally, are very hard measure. And when we make claims about them and apply them to an entire class of people, we’re on extremely shaky ground.

    Religion, on the other hand, is extremely measurable because it’s a socially constructed entity like “the government” or “the university system” or “prison.” As a system, it has institutions, practices, and members which can all be counted.

    From that point of view, I can say that the evidence is pretty strong that religion is declining in Western Europe and Japan.

    Spirituality is a completely different question.

  3. Pingback: The Death of Japanese Buddhism « Dharma Folk

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