Intellectuals and Japanese Buddhism in Brazil

By de Albuquerque, Eduardo Basto | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Intellectuals and Japanese Buddhism in Brazil


de Albuquerque, Eduardo Basto, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


This study concentrates on the discovery of Japanese Buddhism by Brazilian intellectuals as a group of spiritual practices and as a body of spiritual wisdom. The study has been realized through readings and meetings with Japanese Buddhist monks and/or Japanese immigrants. These intellectuals defend a religious experience based on a universal notion of representations of Japanese Buddhism, which provides them with a non-dualistic philosophical perspective and a unique psychological experience. Through innovative spiritual experiences these intellectuals have broken the tension created within the dispute between secularized science and the Catholic hegemony, both predominant in the intellectual panorama.

KEYWORDS: Japanese Buddhism - intellectuals - Zen in Brazil - Buddhism in Brazil

This study analyzes the discovery of Japanese Buddhism by Brazilian intellectuals. Writing to various groups, the intellectuals used poetry, history, tales of romance, philosophical-religious reflections, memories and confessions, as well as music and children's literature, to communicate their spiritual experiences. This history is marked by the conjugation of practices and textuality of intellectuals and parts of the middle-class, with various religious knowledge from Euro-Christian, African, and Native Indian cultural inheritances that have presided over Brazilian society for three centuries. Frank Usarski (2002), a Brazilian researcher of Buddhism, does not consider this to be a religious phenomenon of the masses. As a result, measuring the impact of Buddhism on Brazilian culture is difficult because such intellectuals have produced different discourses in their theoretical base and among their constituencies. In the following analysis, to realize the commonalities and differences in the game of connotations, we considered reading as a cultural practice which serves as a developer of senses and understanding (CHARTIER 1996).

There are two main lines that organize the historical understanding of Buddhism in Brazil. These lines sometimes intersect each other, and other times move in a parallel manner. In one line, there is Japanese immigrant Buddhism and in the other, the discovery of generic Buddhism by intellectuals as well as the meetings of many of these intellectuals with the immigrants and their teachings.

The relationship between Brazilian culture and Japan is very old and extensive, stretching far beyond the mass migration of Japanese immigrants to Brazil during the twentieth century. While the Portuguese Jesuits converted Brazilian Indians in the sixteenth century, companions of the same religious order were in Japan. These priests preached Christianity to the Japanese, studied, and wrote about Japanese culture, history, and Buddhism. It is not possible to establish tangible connections between the readings of Brazilians and these old Portuguese works, in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, we can infer that an influence was felt through the clearer and more audible teachings of the French, English, Germans, and Americans, who would renew references to Buddhism.

The Initial Discoveries

From the second half of the nineteenth century until the 1950s, Buddhism from India and from Japanese poetry was discovered through Europeans who studied the Orient. It is possible that some ideas from Brazilian writers, such as Fagundes Varela (1841-1875), Machado de Assis (1839-1908), and Raimundo Correia (1859-1911), were inspired, metaphorically, in the European fantasies of a fantastic Asia (COELHO et al, 1969). As a matter of fact, in 1912, Augusto dos Anjos used to express personal anguish poetically using Buddhist ideas (ANJOS 1976).

In addition, philosopher Farias Brito reflects on Buddhism in two of his texts. In a small history book in 1891, he states that India influenced the Western world and that the life of Christ has many aspects in common with Buddha's life - both being gods and human, and that there were communications between them through unknown passageways. …

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