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Two worlds compare the meanings of ‘self’

· Nature and identity mark difference between East and West ·

The following is a summary of the lecture given to the Circolo di Roma by the Ambassador of Japan to the Holy See, at the meeting on the theme: “Culture and Religiosity in Modern Japan”.

First, I will sketch Japanese religiosity from a philosophical angle. Then, I will move to a more practical dimension.

I believe that there are, at least, three elements which characterize Japanese religiosity that is 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 the Buddhistic-Shintoistic notion and the Western monotheistic notion. Second, the East and the West also have substantially different views of “Nature”. While Japanese deem nature divine, Westerners do not share the same reverence. Third, in terms of value, because of their religious mentality, Japanese by and large have much less of a propensity for its “absolutization” than Westerners.

Let me begin with the “self”. How is the Japanese traditional religious notion of “self” different from the Westerners' view? To put it simply, Buddhistic-Shintoists believe that in order to attain the Real Spiritual Freedom, they should “throw away” all the karma or desires of the ego with its 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, genuine freedom of mind or the Highest Reality can be gained only after throwing away their own “self” or melting down the identity, their “self” or identity being absorbed by Mother Nature or the universe.

By contrast, the monotheistic religions seem to be based on the assumption that humans are deities in “miniature”, created in God's image. They are therefore expected to be “divine”, or at least “mini-divine”. However, to get closer to God they must polish, consolidate, elevate or perfect their “self”. Hence it never occurs to them to throw away the “self” since this may be considered immoral or sinful.

In short, monotheists are supposed to maximize, to perfect their “self”. Hence, it is easy to understand that they are “maximalist”; the maximized or perfected “self” (as a mini-deity) is inviolable or sacred.

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

My own image of the Westerner's “self” is something like a big, solid, shiny golden metal ball that should be constantly shined, polished and solidified, whereas the Buddhist's self is something like air or gas, formless, elastic and difficult or impossible to polish.

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

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

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

By way of introduction to this Eastern philosophy that tells us that one should be detached from logos, I shall quote some sayings of Zen Buddhists:

“Many is one. One is many”; “To be is not to be”; “Being is ‘Mu’” (nothing). “‘Mu’ (nothing) is being”; “Reality is ‘Mu’”. “‘Mu’ is reality”; “Everything lies in ‘Mu’, arising out of ‘Mu’, and absorbed into ‘Mu’”. Once detached from “vision of reason”, one will transcend opposing values such as good versus evil. Ultimate freedom will be given through absolute passiveness. Ultimately, the spirit will be like tree or stone.

I now move on to the second element, “Nature”. For Westerners, divinity lies in the Creator rather than in Nature, a product of his. On the other hand, for Buddhistic-Shintoists, divinity lies in Nature itself since there is no concept of the “Creator” who created Nature from without or from above. Nature was generated by itself, not by an extra-universal force, out of nothing. The divinity permeates Nature. It permeates even humans.

The divinity in 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.

For the Japanese, humans and Nature are “one thing” (oneness), hence inseparable and not independent. Humans are a part of Nature. There is no notional distinction or barrier between humans and Nature. A sense of distance between the two is deemed to be minimal or nil.

In this respect, I would like to make a comment on a fashionable word, “symbiosis” or “convivenza” with Nature, which is often referred to as an eco-friendly term. However, it seems to me that this concept retains a nuance of “arrogance”, a nuance of anthropocentrism, because humans are put on an equal footing with Nature. According to Japanese traditional religiosity, humans should be subjugated to Nature. It is Nature, not humans that should be the protagonist. Humans should be humble players who cannot claim an equal status with Nature. They should scrupulously listen to the voices of Nature and humbly accept what Nature commands. That is why the term “convivenza” with Nature sounds too anthropocentric for Japanese traditional thinkers.

Against this backdrop, in terms of love of or respect for Nature or animals, Japanese culture is profound and rich. Traditionally, as well as today, Japanese people treat Nature or animals in a respectful manner, as religious spirits. For instance, a number of police authorities all over the country officiate at a ceremony to render grateful homage to the spirit of deceased police dogs or to soothe their souls, once or twice every year at the monument (shrine) dedicated to them.

Likewise, some associations of hospitals have Shintoist priests perform a rite to soothe the souls of “needles” (in particular, injection needles) every year (“hari-kuyoo”).

In the countryside, people revere majestic trees, big rocks, water-falls, or fountains, which are remodeled as Shintoist shrines with a white festoon (“shimenawa”). Furthermore, many mountains, notably Mount Fuji, and many lakes are deemed holy in Japan.

Higashiyama Kaii, a prominent nature painter, once said at a TV interview that as he became more mature, he became aware that Nature sometimes spoke to him. He perceived its voice and felt its sentiment. Thereafter, he added, that the actual job of Nature painting was done, not by him, but by Nature itself.

Likewise, Munakata Shiko, a famous wood engraver, said on television that as his soul became serene he did the task of engraving inspired by the spirit of the wood he was handling. Thus, he added, it was not himself but the spirit of the wood that did the real job.

I would also like to introduce an observation made on Japanese religiosity by Enrique Gómez Carrillo, a journalist from Central America. Immediately after Japan's 1905 victory over Czarist Russia, which came as an immense surprise and shocked international society, Carrillo, a Guatemalan-born columnist travelled a long way to post-war Japan.

In 1912, he wrote a book entitled El Japón heroico y galante [Heroic and Elegant Japan], which became one of the most popular Spanish-written guide books on Japan for Latin Americans for the next 50 years.

In his book, he observed: “Japanese love nature almost with a religious spirit. From a young age children are taught “to love” plants and insects. Their love is not just sympathy or affection. They perceive the melancholy heart of twigs, the agony of plants or the sorrowful tears shed by big trees. They, boys and girls, live closely with plants”. He continued: “the poetic themes favoured by the Japanese are: the ephemerality of being, the brevity of seasons, the whispering of brooks, flowers and trees, moss-covered rocks, and so forth, rather than the splendour of great human actions. His observation clearly and sharply pinpointed Japanese cosmovision.

Now for the third element, the “absolutization” of values. Because of the Buddhist-Shintoist religious mentality outlined above, Japanese by and large do not like to cling to any “absolutization” of values. They do not believe that there is absolute justice or absolute evil. They would say that every being is, in substance, “relative”. For them, any values, I mean positive values, are permissible as long as they do not clash with other values. They believe, however, that when there is a clash between values, no particular value should be absolutized at the expense of others.

Why? Simply because the deepest sense of their religious philosophy requires that nothing absolute exist in the Universe. Only what is impermanent.

I would now like to look at Japanese religiosity through the spectrum of pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity.

In the past, or until the end of the 19th century, it was widely believed in every corner of the world that the modernization of nations could only be achieved in monotheistic societies, notably Christian, or they believed that modernization and monotheism were directly or indirectly linked. It was thought that societies with a polytheistic, animistic or pantheistic religiosity, such as Buddhism or Shintoism, were not modernizable.

The remarkable modernization of Japan has refuted this belief. Nowadays, many non-Christian nations have achieved modernization, following Japan's example. Consequently, their emergence uncoupled the notional link between modernization and monotheism. It was also made clear that the polytheistic, animistic or pantheistic approach is neither behind the times nor backward in comparison with the monotheistic approach.

Particularly in Japan, modernity as regards the scientific, technological, and rational approaches does not just coexist with pantheistic, animistic mentality (i.e. pre-modernity) but is also invigorated or reinforced by the latter mentality. I repeat: many Japanese “high-tech” products are planned, designed, produced and marketed by Japanese who have by and large the mentality and religiosity sketched above. I like to stress that the level of technology or quality of design is enhanced by the combination of two distinct mentalities: the scientific mentality and the animistic mentality.

For instance, many Japanese corporations often invite Shintoist priests to officiate ritual ceremonies when they install new machines at their plants. Likewise, they also officiate rituals to soothe or thank the soul of machines before they scrap them. Constructors also have Shintoist rituals to pray for the safety of the future work at a special ceremony.

All in all, in Japan today the pantheistic, animistic mentality (pre-modernity) and high technology (modernity) are closely enmeshed. Thus, one could say that contemporary civilization in Japan is a hybrid of pre-modernity and modernity; hence quite post-modern!

So far I have focused on the philosophical dimension where the distinction between East and West is conspicuous. I believe, however, that at a practical level there is some common ground between the two religiosities.

Some 80 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi, a founding father of modern India, referred to “commerce without morality” as one of the “seven social sins”. By the way, six other sins he pointed out were “politics without principles”, “wealth without work”, “pleasure without conscience”, “knowledge without character”, “science without morality” and “worship without sacrifice”.

The Pope and the Holy See have also repeatedly issued a number of messages in which they criticized the lack of moralistic consideration on the part of many business leaders.

In Japan, similar voices were raised for decades, for example, by certain economists with a Buddhist orientation. In fact, in recent decades some economists have started to amalgamate Buddhist philosophy with economic analysis, thereby founding a new discipline named “Buddhist economics”.

I am pleased to introduce here the basic thoughts which shape Buddhist economics. Buddhist economists are by and large critical of the Neo-Liberalism which has dominated the economic policies of the major economies of the world in the last decades, thus bringing an aggravation of economic disparity, inequity, the absolutization of profit-making and deterioration of the global environment. Whereas there are divergent views among Buddhist economists, I understand that they share the basic eight key tenets as the least common denominators.

They are: respect for life, non-violence, chisoku (awareness of enough), kyousei (a sense of living together), simplicity, frugality, altruism, sustainability and diversity.

For instance, Ernest Friedrich Schumacher, a German economist and one of the founding fathers of Buddhist economics, author of the famous “Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered”, gave a specific focus to chisoku and simplicity.

Likewise, Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2004) believes in a philosophy similar to Buddhist economics. She is well known as an advocate of the “MottainaiCampaign”, i.e. the international campaign with the three Rs (Reuse, Reduce and Recycle).

Some years ago, while she was staying in Japan, she had the opportunity to learn a Japanese word “Mottainai” which essentially means “never discard even the petty things since even the smallest things have intrinsic value”. At that moment she received an inspiration for her new campaign: that the “Spirit of Mottainai”, which embodies the spirit of three Rs, should be diffused across the world. Wangari Maathai keeps saying that to assure the protection and preservation of the global environment, the “Spirit of Mottainai” is indispensable. This spirit which she advocates is obviously in accord with the basic thought of Buddhist economics.

Buddhist economists are advocating policies conducive to detachment from the growth-conscious approach; detachment from oil-driven production; the establishment of a new, international mechanism to do away with violence. Under the current instability and uncertainty of the world economy which intensified skepticism of the free market principles, Buddhist economics are attracting more attention. It may be an interesting idea to arrange a dialogue in this area between Buddhist and Catholic economists.

All in all, my message here is about spiritual food. Allow me to call Buddhist-Shintoism “Spiritualized Sushi” and Christianity as “Spiritualized Spaghetti”. All I have talked about here is that “Spiritualized Sushi” and “Spiritualized Spaghetti” have distinctive tastes. Nevertheless, I added that both are exquisite. They both profoundly enrich human lives. Without one of the two, human cultures would have been immensely boring and arid.




St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 18, 2019