As a militant Irish progressive, I suppose I should be making snark over the today’s royal wedding. Even though I recognize the ideological function of the pageant, I just can’t get worked up enough to try to deny people the pleasure they get out of watching and talking about Harry and Meghan, the celebrity guests, the fancy hats and dresses. It’s not that I think that I’m some high-minded sage who can look down on the guilty pleasures of the hot polloi. Just look at my Netflix watchlist.
No. If ex-IRA chief Martin McGuinness can shake hands with the Queen, I can wish Harry and Meghan and all their admirers all the best. Along with all those excited that Justify won the Preakness today.
On the darker side, I do get upset about the perils facing the Rohingya refugees as the monsoon season in Bangladesh gets into full swing. Donating to Doctors without Borders gives some sense of doing something. But it does not stop my constant, nagging remorse that it has been Buddhists who have committed genocide against the Rohingya in the name of Buddhism.
Veteran readers of this blog know that I have been advocating for the Rohingya repeatedly, long before the disaster of 2017. I’ve had arguments on Buddhist chat groups with friends who deplore the persecution of Muslims in Burma, but who try to deny our shame by saying that the persecutors can’t be real Buddhists. In one post here in 2014, I listed all their excuses and my counters.
I’ve been reading lately about another group of Buddhists who were complicit in a terrible war and horrific war crimes, Japanese Buddhists. Recently I mentioned that I had come across the writings of the exponents of Critical Buddhism. The main figures in this movement are or were Soto Zen scholars and priests who began exploring the philosophical and doctrinal history that, in their view, led to support and participation in social discrimination, totalitarian politics, and outright war. Most of their writings date back to the 1990s.
This past week I’ve been reading the 2011 book by James Mark Shields Critical Buddhism: Engaging with Modern Japanese Buddhist Thought. His first chapter explores the history of “Buddhist involvement—collaboration, to use a more loaded term—in twentieth century Japanese nationalism, militarism, and Imperial Way ‘fascism’.” And the emergence of Buddhist writers and teachers who called out “Japanese Buddhist leaders and thinkers before, during, and after the Asian Pacific War,” ultimately leading to the Critical Buddhists of the 1990s. “Their objective is not simply to expose the particular problems of the past, but to pave the way for a better future for Buddhism on the world stage.”
Aside from deepening my appreciation of the complexities of the philosophical issues I’m working on for my book, reading about Critical Buddhism has had an impact akin to Martin McGuinness’s handshake. I’ve described before my mixed, but largely negative, feelings about Japan and the Japanese people. When my friend Gale went to Japan a few years ago, I did not want to go. These feelings congealed around the time of Anne Mei’s adoption in 1997. In getting ready to go to China we read a number of books on its history and culture, with many concerning the Japanese invasion that morphed into World War II. Shortly after Anne Mei’s arrival in the United States the 60th anniversary of the Rape of Nanjing occurred. I attended a conference to mark this anniversary organized by Chinese students at Princeton (which I described in the above linked post).
In this process I became more Chinese than the Chinese when it came to resentment over their treatment by the Japanese. (The title of this post is a saying my father used to use (in Latin, of course) when talking about the history of the Norman invasion of Ireland. The Normans, or the Geraldines as they were also called, became “more Irish than the Irish themselves.”)
My readings in and about Critical Buddhism over the last few weeks have helped free me from this resentment. I have learned that the Japanese are not a monolithic, mono-minded people. Many are open to examining how the country needs to change. One might add “including and especially its Buddhists,” but Shields reminds us:
Anthropologist Marvin Harris has noted the strange irony of the emergence of “religions of love and mercy”: none of these so-called “nonkilling religions”—by which he means Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism—”has had any influence on the incidence or ferocity of war and each is implicated in devastating inversions of the principle of nonviolence and reverence for life.”
A few years ago, I might have agreed with people like Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett that the problem is inherent in religion. One of the original attractions of Buddhism was that it has no supreme being. Having been helped through the last ten years by Buddhist religious practices, I’m not so sure about that any more. However much religious groups may fall short in practice, we form them and join them seeking to cure or at least cope with the very failures and frailties of the human heart that cause them to disappoint. As long as we check and criticize, as long as our religious communities remain open to criticism and change, we shouldn’t expect more than to keep working at it. None of the above excuses those who turn religions into businesses and instruments of power and oppression.