August 21, 2010



I believe that there are, at least, three elements which characterize Japanese religiosity philosophically distinct from Christianity.

The three key words are “self”, ”Nature” and ”absolutization”.

First, in terms of the notion of “self”, there is a clear-cut distinction between Buddhistic-Shintoistic notion and western monotheistic notion.

Second, in terms of view of Nature, the east and the west are also substantially different. While Japanese deem Nature as divine, Christians do not share the same reverence.

Third, in terms of value, because of their religious mentality, Japanese by and large have much less “propensity” towards its absolutization than Westerners.


Now the first element: “self”. How is Japanese traditional religious notion on “self” different from westerners’ view ? To put it in a simplistic way, Buddhistic-Shintoists believe that, in order to attain the Real Spiritual Freedom, they should “throw away” all the “karma (desire)”, “ego”, “interests”, “hope” and even “self”. Here, the words “throwing away” are synonymous with such words as “discarding”, ”renouncing”, ”melting down”, ”emptying”, “zeroizing “ or “reducing to nothing”. To paraphrase, the ultimate state of mind, the genuine freedom of mind, or the Highest Reality can be gained only after throwing away their own self or melting down their identity. Their self or identity should be absorbed into Mother Nature or Universe.

In contrast, monotheistic religions seem to be based on the assumption that humans are “miniatures” of the deity. They (humans) are defined to reflect the image of deity. They are, therefore, by definition, expected to be “divine”, or at least “mini-divine”. However, in order to get closer to the deity, they are destined to polish, consolidate, elevate or perfect their self. It never occurs to them, hence, to throw away their self. Perhaps throwing away one’s self is deemed immoral or sinful.

In short, monotheists are supposed to maximize, perfect their self. Hence, they are “maximalist”. Bearing this view in mind, it does not need special imagination to understand that the maximized or perfected “self as mini-deity” is inviolable or sacred.

In contrast, Buddistic-Shintoists are, in order to reach the Highest Reality, supposed to minimize, throw away their self. Hence, they are “minimalist”. Even one’s dignity or honour is something they should never cling to. They never regard themselves as “mini-deity”. It never occurs to them that they should perfect themselves to get closer to deity. Such a desire is a kind of “karma”, which should be thrown away.

I repeat, Buddhist-Shintoists believe that, at an ultimate stage, one should not cling to any desires or obsession, including “dignification” of oneself. One should be completely detached from the desire to dignify oneself.

So far, I made a kind of intellectual exercise, with an assumption that different religiosities bear different concepts of “self”. By the way, in terms of image I have, westerner’s “self” is something like a big, solid, shiny golden metal ball which should be constantly shined, polished and solidified, whereas Buddhist’s self is something like air or gas: shapeless, elastic, and difficult or impossible to “shine” or “polish”.

According to Japanese religiosity, what they should renounce are not limited to “karma ”, desires and “self”. They should be detached from logical thinking. After all, for Japanese, religiosity is a realm where “logos” such as “reason”, logical thinking and “deductive approach” should be done away with, too.

In particular, for traditional Zen Buddhists, even opposing values such as good vs. evil are something to be transcended. In the deepest sense of Buddhist religiosity, at the ultimate stage of spirit, there are no holiness, no truth, no justice, no evil, or no beauty. Even hope is something not to be clung to, but to be discarded. The Ultimate Freedom is given through absolute passiveness.

They also believe that they should be detached from desire to look for eternity. In the Universe, there is nothing eternal or absolute. Every being remains “ephemeral”, “nothing”, or every being remains “relative”. The Ultimate Reality lies in “emptiness”,” nothing-ness” or “ambiguity”. [...]


Then I move to the 2nd element: Nature. For westerners, divinity lies in the Creator rather than in Nature, a product of Him. On the other hand, for Buddhistic-Shintoists, divinity lies in Nature itself whereas there is no concept of the “Creator” who created Nature (Universe ) from without or from above. Nature was generated by itself, not by an extra-universal force, out of nothing. The divinity permeates through Nature. It does permeate even into humans.

The divinity in the Mother Nature envelops everything----humans, trees, plants, rocks, fountains and so forth. For Buddhistic-Shintoists the Highest Reality does not exist outside of Nature. In other words, the divinity is intrinsic to Nature. [...]

Now, the 3rd element: absolutization of values. Because of Buddhist-Shintoist religious mentality as I just briefed, Japanese by and large do not like to cling to any “absolutized values”. They don’t believe that there is absolute justice nor absolute evil. They would say that every being is, in substance, “relative”. For them, any values, I mean positive values, are permissible so long as they have no crash with other values. They believe, however, that when there is crash between values, no particular value should be absolutized at the expense of others. Simply because in the deepest sense of their religious philosophy, there be nothing absolute in the Universe. Only un-perpetual or ephemeral.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2010 10:49 AM
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