Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Introduction to Japanese Philosophy, Part 2: People and Concepts

In the last post, I outlined the historical and cultural/religious factors that influence the Japanese understanding of Philosophy. And it took way longer than I thought it would, so I ended up having to break it up into another post. Which is fine. Thinking up stuff to write about is hard sometimes. Messes up my posting schedule.

As I noted before, most of the big names in Japanese philosophy are Buddhist thinkers. Here's a few of them and a couple of abiding concepts.

The 17-Article Constitution

Shoutoku Daishi
Way, way back in the day, Japan was ruled by the young 聖徳大師 Shoutoku Daishi or, as he is called in English, Prince Shotoku. He was responsible for the drafting and promulgation of Japan's first constitution, except the thing is, it is entirely unlike what you or I would envision. Rather than a system of rights and regulations, Shoutoku Daishi's constitution had more to do with what was considered acceptable and virtuous behaviour. To some extent it was a little biased towards court officials, who were expected to lead by example; this kind of follows the ancient Chinese thinking that if the Emperor is good, his underlings will emulate him and be good, and so on, so that ultimately all of society is good. Trickle-down morality, basically.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Harmony is to be valued
  • Sincerely revere the Buddha, his teaching, and the ordained community
  • Turn away from that which is private, and turn toward that which is public
  • Important decisions should not be made by one person alone.

So there's Buddhism, right there, written into the ancient Japanese constitution. You are literally required by law to be a good Buddhist. The first and third, meanwhile, would not seem out of place in modern Japan! Let's not exaggerate, but it's not unfair to say that Japanese people strive for harmony and facilitation in their everyday lives. And finally, that last one – one person should not have absolute power? That's an interesting thing for an autocratic dictator to write into official policy.

Interestingly, since it was never actually struck down by any act of parliament, some Japanese legal scholars theorize that the 17-Article Constitution is technically still part of Japanese law.


Also known posthumously as 弘法大師 Koubou-daishi, 空海 Kuukai was an explorer of tantric Buddhism and of the most prominent religious figures in Japan. A poet of some note, he is credited, perhaps apocryphally, with writing the いろは歌 Irohauta, which uses every character of the ancient Japanese syllabary exactly once. It's one of the most famous works in all of Japanese literature and is sometimes thought to embody the very spirit of Japan itself (that's “spirit” as in a shared sense of values, purpose, and culture, not like a religious spirit). Also, if I recall correctly (and I may not), Kuukai was the first Buddhist of influence to assert that women could reach Heaven without needing to first be reborn as men and then taking another crack at it. Also, his name is a combination of the character for “air” and the one for “sea,” so that's pretty cool.


Yoshimitsu from Soul Calibre
In brief, 念仏 nenbutsu is the Japanese word for invoking the name of Buddha. If you have a passing familiarity with Japanese popular culture, you'll have heard the most basic version before – namu amida butsu. For example, Yoshimitsu from Soul Calibre sometimes recites it after battle. The idea is that invoking Buddha himself brings you closer to the enlightenment he was able to achieve. The nenbutsu is often done in repetitions of 108, which is the number of worldly temptations that humans must attempt to avoid (or seek out, depending on your point of view). To help with counting, Buddhists will sometimes use a string of prayer beads, which, again, you've no doubt seen people holding – hell, some of the pictures on this very page have them plainly visible. But while the basics of nenbutsu are more or less agreed upon, there is still some contention, such as that between...

Hounen and Shinran

放念 Hounen and 親鸞 Shinrann are kind of the Obi-Wan and Anakin of Japanese philosophy. The latter studied dutifully under the tutelage of the former, soaked up every bit of knowledge he could, and then said “thanks for that, Imma go do the exact opposite nao,” and then founded an evil empire. Or in the case of Shinran, a competing sect of Buddhism, which I guess isn't quite as bad.

The two had many minor points of contention, but one of the most important was their differing beliefs regarding salvation. Hounen thought that through dutiful nenbutsu recitation, you could effectively reach out to Buddha and rise up to Heaven of your own accord when you died. Shinran was a little less optimistic. He thought that since humans are so utterly mired in sin and confusion, there was no way they were getting anywhere without Buddha's direct intervention. Concordantly, where Hounen advocated busting out the nenbutsu at the slightest provocation, the better to achieve a more thorough enlightenment, Shinran held that it was more for giving thanks to Buddha rather than asking him for more stuff, sort of like saying grace in Christianity, I suppose.

On the whole, I've always felt that Hounen doesn't get nearly the respect he deserves. Shinran is by far the more famous, but Hounen is pretty interesting too, and his temple is pretty rad. Plus, compared to his pupil, he was a rugged individualist who believed in relying on your own power, so where are your stereotypes now, hypothetical Japan-hater who I invented just now?


I haven't studied 道元 Dougen as much, so I'm less familiar with him (because that's how studying works). Mainly I'm aware that he was pretty up on 座禅 zazen, which is – know what, just go ahead and imagine a Buddhist deep in prayer. There, you almost certainly envisioned him doing zazen, the sitting meditation with legs crossed. For extra potency, you can have his thumbs and forefingers around his abdominal chakra. My History of Japanese Thought teacher demonstrated on himself. “I know it feels stupid,” he said, “but don't be embarrassed, and give it a try.” No one did.

Kyouto School

Full disclosure: I did not talk about the Kyouto School in my original presentation and took most of the information in this next section from Wikipedia, although I had heard of it before, it just completely slipped my mind until I rediscovered it recently while researching something unrelated to this project.

I thought it was interesting for a couple of reasons, one of which is that it originated in the 20th Century, balancing out the ancient slant present in the rest of the post. I'm not a huge fan of 20th Century philosophy – it has, what? John Rawls? Ayn Rand? Vandanna Shiva, if you can call that philosophy? A couple of French guys, Camus I guess, and (that guy Bruce translated). And a handful of Germans, of course, but Germans are just extremely dominant in philosophy in general, owing, perhaps, to their having the best educational system in the world in the 19th Century.

Fittingly, the Kyouto School is heavily influenced by the German tradition, particularly their own German contemporaries. This is pretty natural, though – once you hit the 19th Century or so, the Germans become pretty heavy hitters in philosophy. In fact, my teacher actually went to Germany to study philosophy – in German. (And some of my friends told me not to worry because I could speak German if I wanted to, even though I don't speak German, but do speak Japanese, and they all should have known that, particularly as they were explaining all of this in Japanese and we'd never spoken anything else to each other before then either, but that's another story.)

The other reason I thought them particularly relevant is that the Wikipedia article contained a couple of quotations specifically on the relationship between Japanese philosophy and religion, which, as I've intimated elsewhere, is something I've grappled with myself in trying to understand the topic. I'd feel a little chintzy directly quoting something I'd heard about before but never properly researched, so I'll just recommend you follow the link if you're interested, which, if you've read this far, you probably are. Pay special attention to Nishida, who founded the tradition, and explored the concepts of mu, “nothingness,” and 場所論 bashoronn, “the logic of place.”

The Ten Bulls

Finally, we've come to the main thing I wanted to talk about, and the focus of my presentation at the conference: The Ten Bulls! I'm actually not sure I like the translation, because there's ten images, but only one bull, and he doesn't even appear in all ten panels. The Japanese is 十牛図 juugyuuzu, more like “ten bull pictures,” but anyway, it's an allegory of the search for knowledge, the truth, inner peace and understanding, something along those lines. It actually originates from the Chinese equivalent of Zen Buddhism, but is studied enough in Japan that I'm willing to consider it Japanese philosophy as well. So we're going to go through, step by step, and see what we can figure out.

#1, the boy – or man or whatever he is – is alone in the forest, searching. But he has no idea where to go, or what to do, so he wanders aimlessly, lost.

#2, he comes upon some footprints – a path to follow. He hasn't found what he's looking for just yet, but now he's moving in the right direction. This could be in the influence of Buddha, or a Bodhisattva, trying to help us out. It actually reminds me of that little place near the front of Kiyomizudera, where you descend into a pitch-black basement, and have to follow a railing so you don't crash into anything, and the railing is supposed to represent Buddha's guidance.

#3, he spies the bull's back legs and hindquarters. The bull seems to represent “wisdom,” or whatever you want to call it. But he hasn't caught sight of the important part of it yet – just the tip of it, the ancillary, irrelevant parts.

#4, he manages to actually catch the bull. But it doesn't immediately relax under his grip, it struggles for control. This is significant – at times, the things we most want seem to actively reject us.

#5, the boy has gotten to a point where he can take the bull around on a lead. He no longer needs to exert quite so much discipline to get it to do what he wants.

#6, now he's attained REAL mastery! He's riding on the bull's back, he's playing the flute while he does it, he barely even needs to pay attention to what he's doing. He rides it all the way home.

#7, sitting at home now, alone. The boy seems to have aged, matured. More importantly, the bull is gone – the target was an illusion. He doesn't need it anymore.

#8, this one sometimes moves around, but I'm going by the most common order. My philosophy teacher, in Kyouto, said that this was the most most important image of all. When he explained it to the class he said, “As you can see, this one is blank. Why do you suppose that is? There must be some meaning hidden in that. …Think about it, it's going to be on the final exam,” and then he moved on, without any further explanation whatsoever.

As far as I can tell – through reading various secondary sources – this panel is meant to imply a sort of transcendence. The boy has moved beyond the trivialities with which he was so concerned until now. Another interpretation is peace and tranquility, as the mind has been allowed to fade to white. Personally, I am reminded of Wittgenstein (fucking Wittgenstein), who believed that words, by themselves, were insufficient for understanding ideas. They could cajole you into understanding, drive you down the right avenues of thought, but they could not, by themselves, transmit knowledge. So you could use them as a sort of crutch, a ladder, but one which, as he said, you would then have to “throw away after you have climbed up,” because they're just tools, not the object of the exercise themselves.

#9, both boy and bull are still gone, nothing but the sound of cicadas chirping. Again, tranquility perhaps? Or signaling that he is now attending to more important matters?

#10, the boy has become a sage or Bodhisattva, and is now using what he has learned in his experiences to educate others.

Obviously, the intent behind this series is very Buddhist. That would make it of very limited interest, but it doesn't have to be that way – actually, you can take this and apply it to almost anything you want to learn! Hell, I could use my own experience learning Japanese as an example.

  1. I knew that I wanted to “learn Japanese,” but I certainly had no idea where to start, or how to go about it.
  2. Fortunately, I had many excellent teachers to show me the way. They provided learning outcomes as well as relevant materials, helped me with difficult concepts, etc.
  3. Naturally, I started simple. Everything written out in roumaji and exceedingly simple. I was not, at this point, actually communicating in Japanese in any meaningful way, but it was a start.
  4. Try as I might, I couldn't actually get to a point where I could use Japanese fluidly or for any length of time. Frustrated, I actually considered giving up a couple of times.
  5. Once I'd mastered the basics, I started to show measurable improvement. Further progress became a little easier. Eventually, I even started having bursts where I could use Japanese without first translating in my head (without even noticing when it happened until later).
  6. Finally I actually came to be able to use it with some degree of fluency, to make it do the tricks I demanded of it. (In the analogy I would now be “done learning,” though in reality of course you are never done learning a language.)
  7. The goal was never to make it all the way through the textbook, or to get a certain score on a test; the goal was to learn Japanese. I don't need those things so much anymore, so I abandon them. (Though if I ever find another textbook that works for my current level, I'm obviously not going to pass it up.)
  8. While I still actively strive to improve my Japanese, I've gotten to the point now where I can just use it.
  9. Cicadas. I admit I don't really get how this one works.
  10. Nowadays, I am capable not only of teaching Japanese to others if I wanted to, but of helping them through the same steps and struggles that I have already overcome.

See that? Ok, it's certainly not perfect, but for the most part it works. Philosophy isn't just this academic, impractical discipline; if it were I'd never have become wrapped up in it. It honestly doesn't provide any answers, either, because for every assertion there's a million objections, and nine different philosophers will give you nine contradictory proposals. But the fun parts of philosophy are finding applications for it in your everyday life. Apply the categorical imperative to your coworker's bad behaviour. Do a Marxist analysis of the other tabs you have open right now. See if you can prove your own existence. That sort of stuff.

As long as Japanese philosophy gives me things to think about, I'll keep it in my mental notebook.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Introduction to Japanese Philosophy, Part 1: Background

In my last post, I shared my experiences of presenting at my first-ever academic conference, where I spoke about Japanese philosophy. This time, I'm going to try to recreate my presentation. In fact, since I don't have the same time constraints here, I'm actually going to expand a bit. But I'll still be mainly drawing on the handful of philosophy courses I took as an international student in Kyouto, one of which dealt specifically with Japanese philosophy. Oddly, though, it wasn't called “Japanese Philosophy.” Instead, it was called “History of Japanese Thought.” I think I have an idea why now, but to get it, you need to understand the Japanese conception of philosophy, and in order to understand that, you need to know a little bit about Japanese history.

Historical Background

Made by myself in MS Paint, hence why it looks so shitty
I've put up all these dates for those of you are interested in that sort of thing, but the main one to pay attention to is the 1603 one. If you study Japanese history in its entirety, I think you'll start to notice two main trends that tend to dominate it. One is “War and Peace;” the other is “Generals and Emperors.”

The first is exactly what it sounds like: Very long periods of bloodshed and carnage broken up by very long periods of relative peace. I do say “relative peace” because it's measured by the standards of the time. Heike Monogatari, a semi-historical period piece that takes place during the Heian Jidai (平安時代、the “Era of Peace and Safety,” 794-1185), at one point notes that its main character is a very strong leader because he's subjected his constituents to only two major wars over a period of ten years. The Heian Jidai was preceded by widespread civil war, and it dissolved into one as well.

The other factor concerns the intermittent struggles of the Emperor and the Shougun. When all is functioning as intended, the Emperor is the unquestionable autocrat, the Son of Heaven and lord of all he surveys, and the Shougun is his top general guy. But every once in a while, the military loses confidence in the Emperor for one reason or another, and stages a coup. When this happens they can't very well up and murder the Emperor, who is a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and still an embodiment of holiness even when deposed. So he goes into semi-exile and becomes kind of a figurehead, and the Shougun rules for a while as head of a kratocracy or military junta type deal. But the Imperial bloodline is still around, and eventually somebody decides it needs to be reintroduced to power.

This exchange happened a few times, notably in the aftermath of the Heian Jidai, which led into the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai or Warring States Period. Basically, the Fujiwara ended up acquiring so much power in the Imperial Court that they became bloated and fat, until finally the provincial warlords they were supposed to control got so pissed off that Japan just went and completely balkanized itself. So we ended up with several centuries of really gritty, State of Nature-type stuff, with constant rolling, local conflicts. It would be like if Manhattan went to war with the Bronx but then got sneak-attacked by Queens and was forced to forge a tenuous alliance with Brooklyn to overcome its enemies.

Oda Nobunaga
After a couple centuries of this, Oda Nobunaga finally came into the picture, and decided he'd had enough of this bullshit and was going to unify the country. And he came damn close, until he was betrayed by one of his lieutenants and overrun. So his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, finished the job, and then promptly died, so his successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, stood up and said “Hey guys! Check it out! I totally just unified Japan!” So in 1603, he opened the Edo Jidai (Edo 江戸 being the old name for Toukyou, and which became the national seat of power and culture), which for the length of its run was ruled entirely under the aegis of the Tokugawa Bakufu (or “Shogunate,” if you're a fan of dumb, made-up words.) I'm hard on Tokugawa Ieyasu because he did a lot of idiotic things, like trying to conquer Korea, just for the hell of it, despite all of his best advisors explaining that he wouldn't be able to. But even I have to admit that he did, at least, bring a good three hundred years of relative peace to Japan, which was particularly valuable after what had come directly before.

Tokugawa Ieyasu
Unfortunately for his legacy, there were two serious problems with the regime he put in place. The first was that it used a system of patrilineal succession, so, simply put, the reigning Shougun wasn't always the best man for the job. And without any serious pressures on them for much of the Edo Jidai, the Shougun and their Bakufu became increasingly complacent and ineffective, quite understandably arousing popular ire. The other big problem was that Japan then decided to totally close off the country and thereby preserve its pure, unique Japaneseness. This really came back to bite everybody in the ass when Admiral Perry rolled in with his Black Ships in 1858. He was all, “Hey, Japan! Open up or we rip you open!” And Japan was all, “Oh, yeah? You and whose army?” So Perry said, “Not so much an army as these ships and their shiny new cannon, which are capable of drowning your entire country in a sea of fire.” Then he fired a warning volley into the harbour to prove his point and Japan said “oh ok then.” And the Japanese never did anything xenophobic ever again.

So Japan opened up for trade, which, actually, was good for them, because they were at this point years and years and years behind the times. But it also demonstrated to the Japanese people that the Bakufu really was not doing its job anymore, if it couldn't even protect them from the foreign dogs, so there was a surprisingly brief civil war, which ended in 15-year-old Emperor Meiji (明治) being installed as formal ruler. It was a fascinating little spell that included the Shinsengumi, and one day I swear I'm doing a whole post on them, but not today. The main point is that in 1868, the Meiji Jidai began.

Meiji Jidai

Emperor Meiji. Man had concubines
Emperor Meiji is one of my favourite Japanese Emperors, not for his warmongering, but definitely for a lot of the other stuff he did for Japan (certainly more than Emperor Shouwa, who was basically a puppet of Shougun Toujo, but anyway). The Meiji government recognized that Japan had been left behind and immediately set about trying to rectify their predecessors' lack of foresight and worldliness, so scholars began to voraciously consume every foreign book, scroll, and handwritten note they could get their hands on. If it was from abroad, they wanted it, especially if it was from the West, which had so decisively demonstrated its technological superiority just recently.

So they started to bring in new ideas on all manner of topics. New ideas about, say, architecture, which is why so many Japanese buildings from this period look like they've been plucked directly out of Victorian England. Some Japanese began regularly wearing Western clothing – still mostly limited to the political and business elite, but it was starting. They began to implement new ideas about governance, and economic policy. Modern medicine was a huge revelation. And they also stated importing more academic, intellectual topics as well, including Western philosophy.

The Japanese word for philosophy is 哲学 tetsugaku. The gaku means “studying,” and is similar to the -logy in biology or psychology. The tetsu means “clarity” (or nowadays can just mean “philosophy” by itself), so if you want to think of “tetsugaku” as meaning “the study of clarity,” you can see how this tracks with our Western understanding of philosophy or the “love of wisdom” as being a search for truth. This word tetsugaku didn't exist until the Meiji Jidai, when a guy came up with it to describe this new Western idea. In fact, he wasn't sure there was even such a thing as “Japanese philosophy,” because anything that resembles it falls more under the category of religion. Personally, I think this misses the point. Not only do plenty of Western philosophers come from a heavily religious perspective (Descartes, Locke) or deal with religious topics (Pascal, Aquinas), but there's a lot of overlap between the two; metaphysics and morality, for example. He's right about at least one thing, though: Most of Japanese philosophy is based in religion.

Shintou and Buddhism

Japan, I'm assuming most of you know, has two main religions. The cool part, to me, is how they interact; that is, they are completely compatible. The majority of Japanese are utter atheists, but they nominally participate in both Shintou and Buddhist activities as the mood strikes them. Most festivals are in honour of the local deity, for instance (and are also awesome). The saying in Japan is that your birth rites are performed at a Shintou shrine, your marriage rites are performed at a Christian church, and your funeral rites are performed at a Buddhist temple. And all the while, most don't actually believe in any of it, so that should tell you something about the unusual relationship the Japanese have with religion.

Shintou 神道 or the Way of the Gods is Japan's native religion, and, like testugaku, didn't even have a name until a foreign influence necessitated one. The core of Shintou is that the world is inhabited by many many many many many many many many gods, called kami. Here's a picture of the pantheon of the most powerful, all gazing upon Amaterasu, who was the greatest of all and maybe a lesbian. Also, she may have been based on Queen Himiko and had the legend distorted over the millennia. Underneath the big dogs we have somewhat lesser gods, like the ones who govern the cosmos and natural forces, many of whom have been mixed up with what were originally Buddhist figures because of that continual cross-pollination. And then there are gods who live in immense ancient trees, or in rivers, or are enshrined. Particularly great human beings can even become gods; the Emperor does upon his death. And inanimate objects can eventually take on gods over time, gaining character and personality. So if you've ever had like a really old, shitty car, and it refuses to start when you're late for work, and you say, “Gah, my car hates me!” - well, yeah! Maybe! Or if you, you know, like to hurl verbal abuse at your computer? Like, “Come oooon! Work, you piece of junk!” You know, like it could work anytime it wanted to, it's just a little lacking in motivation? Then you might make a good Shintou.

Buddhism (仏教 bukkyou), like so many things, arrived in Japan from elsewhere and was repurposed for Japanese palates. This is just my own observation, but as far as I can tell, the Japanese understanding is that Buddhism was born in India; developed in China; and then finally perfected in Japan. So only once we're in Japan are we getting the real, true and best incarnation of Buddhism. In fact there's a particular sect that basically says, “We are the truest and most pure form of Buddhism because we are the only sect that uses the wisdom of this particular scroll, which was written by this one Buddhist master. All those other versions of Buddhism are ok, they're not wrong, but they're not quite as good as ours, because we have harvested and implemented this important knowledge.” And that always kind of makes me laugh when I think about it, because it's not like Buddha himself came down from on high and personally imparted all this shit he'd forgotten to mention earlier! Buddha had already been dead for thousands of years by the time your guy even put pen to paper! But those are their beliefs, and I have to say that it's kind of very Japanese.

To me, Shintou is the much more fun of the two religions. Its places of worship are colourful rather than austere; it's all about living, partying, fucking. Buddhism is about tragedy and asceticism. But for some reason, Shintou philosophy just hasn't gotten the traction that Buddhism has. There are Shintou philosophers, their works are extant, and they've written on topics both secular and specifically relating to Shintou issues, but they're just not anywhere near as read as their Buddhist counterparts. If I were to hazard a guess as to why, I would say it might have to do with the nature of their thought. Buddhism encourages interpretation and consideration, while Shintou is more doctrinaire and dictatorial. Shintou, after all, is the Way of the Gods; you don't question that shit. But much of Buddhism requires you to look inward and find answers for yourself. That's much more conducive to the study of philosophy. Either way, most of the stuff I'm going to talk about in the next post is going to be dealing with Buddhist philosophy in particular. Please look forward to it.