Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

A Blueprint for Buddhist Revolution: The Radical Buddhism of Seno'o Giro (1889-1961) and the Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

A Blueprint for Buddhist Revolution: The Radical Buddhism of Seno'o Giro (1889-1961) and the Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism

Article excerpt

In the early decades of the twentieth century, as Japanese society became engulfed in war and increasing nationalism, the majority of Buddhist leaders and institutions capitulated to the status quo. One notable exception to this trend, however, was the Shinko Bukkyo Seinen Domei (Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism), founded on 5 April 1931. Led by Nichiren Buddhist layman Seno'o Giro and made up of young social activists who were critical of capitalism, internationalist in outlook, and committed to a pan-sectarian and humanist form of Buddhism that would work for social justice and world peace, the league's motto was "carry the Buddha on your backs and go out into the streets and villages." This article analyzes the views of the Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism as found in the religious writings of Seno'o Giro to situate the movement in its social and philosophical context, and to raise the question of the prospects of "radical Buddhism" in twenty-first century Japan and elsewhere.

KEYWORDS: Seno'o Giro-Japan-radical Buddhism-Marxism-socialism- Nichiren-Buddhist reform

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For us, religion is life itself. Society is our concern. That is to say, society is what we are made of. Politics, economics, education, the military as well as the arts and so on, are all subsumed under religion. All aspects of social life must be subject to critique and reform in light of the spirit of the Buddha. Thus aspiring to change society, to know ourselves, to sincerely repent and to simultaneously repay with gratitude the grace [on ...] we have received-all these are part of the life of faith. At that level, there is no difference between the movement to better society conducted in faith and the same call to action from those believers in historical materialism, whether socialist or communist.

-Seno'o Giro 1975, 253

Every so often over the past century Buddhist activists in Asia and the West have attempted to draw a bridge across the seemingly vast gap between Buddhism and radical politics based on the provocative premise that Buddhism can add to radical political praxis, and vice versa. While such attempts at Buddhist progressive politics have usually been under-theorized, we can trace a genealogy of references to the supposed accommodation between Marx and the Buddha in the work of at least two prominent Western thinkers: Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004).

Lévi-Strauss argues that both Buddhism and Marxism aim for "liberation," and as a result, have no obvious conflict. Far from being a teaching of resignation, he insists:

This great religion of not-knowingness... bears witness, rather, to our natural gifts, raising us to the point at which we discover truth in the guise of the mutual exclusiveness of being and knowing. And, by a further audacity, it has achieved something that, elsewhere, only Marxism has brought off: it has reconciled the problem of metaphysics with the problem of human behavior.

(Levi-Strauss 1961, 396)

Furthermore, Lévi-Strauss sees within Buddhism a potential "missing link" in the chain between the quest for individual contentment and the drive for social justice. This resides in the fact that Buddhist liberation is a dialectical process that sublates and thus contains and "validates" its many stages-stages that incorporate an ethic of compassion and altruism. Summing this up, he concludes:

Between Marxist criticism which sets Man free from his first chains, and Buddhist criticism, which completes that liberation, there is neither opposition nor contradiction. Marxism and Buddhism are doing the same thing, but at different levels. (Lévi-Strauss 1961, 395-96)

Though Lévi-Strauss's remarks might be dismissed as offhand comments within the swelling conclusion to a work that is famously anecdotal, they struck a chord with his student Jacques Derrida, who comments on them in his own magnum opus (1967). …

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