Sri Lanka, Japan and American Buddhism
by Janaka Goonetilleke on 03 Aug 2014 24 Comments

“The coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century” - Arnold Toynbee 

During the Meiji period Japan had opened itself to the world and was in a dilemma as to whether to join the West or look towards the East. During this period many Japanese went to Europe to study oriental languages. After Kitabake’s visit to India in 1883, Japan felt she needed to know more about Buddhism, compelled by the Christian influence in Japan.


Coincidentally at this time a senior diplomat, T Hyash, secretary to the Imperial Prince Arisongara, whilst passing through Colombo met a senior government official and commented that Japan and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) were both Buddhist countries and expressed a desire to send Japanese priests to study Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The official, Maha Mudaliyar CP Bandaranayake, introduced him to his nephew ER Gooneratne. Hyash was told that the Japanese priests were very welcome to learn Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Banjuii Nangio, Prof. of Oriental Studies, Tokyo University, who had studied in Europe, coordinated the programme.


The first to arrive was Shaku Kozen (1887) who studied in Galle and then at Vidyodaya and became the first Japanese Theravada priest.  He was ordained in Malwatte in 1892 and took the name Kozen Gooneratne Thero, Gooneratne as a mark of respect to Mudaliyar Gooneratne. He was very much against the Christianisation of Buddhists during the colonial period; he accompanied Anagarika Dharmapala to Bodh Gaya. It is said that it was he who planted the Buddha Statue in the premises against the wishes of the caretaker Mahant. He took Theravada Buddhism to Japan and established the first Theravada Temple in Yokohama.


Shaku Soen 1859-1819


The second monk, Shaku Soen, arrived 10 months later. Shaku is an honorific designation originating from Sakya, the clan name of Sakyamuni. He was an erudite monk ordained at the age of 12 and trained in the traditional Rinzai style by one of the most important figures in the Meiji era, Imakita Kozen (1852-1892). He graduated from Keiyo University in English, Western Philosophy and Religion. Soen was the first Zen Master to arrive in America when he came to attend the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 with the likes of Anagarika Dharmapala and Swami Vivekananda. There he formed a close alliance with Paul Carus (1852-1919) who invited Shaku Soen to the United States. He and his protégé DT Susuki  (1870-1966) introduced the west to Zen Buddhism.


Shaku Soen was largely responsible for the perception of Buddhism in the west as a rational and scientific philosophy, in particular Zen as the ultimate in self development and experiencing reality directly, rejecting ritual and theistic superstition. He was able to address some of the misconceptions of Buddhism in the west addressed from an Abrahamic perspective in his lectures to American audiences 1906.


Soen in Sri Lanka (1887- 1889)


Soen’s yearning for knowledge took him to Sri Lanka in 1887, encouraged by his teacher Imikita Kosen to study oriental languages and to understand the state of Buddhism there. On arrival he was greeted and entertained at his home Atapattu Walawwa Galle by Mudaliyar Gooneratne, who became his friend and teacher; his diaries record in detail the help and close association he formed with his sponsor. He was introduced to the Priest Kottawe Pannagaseakera Thero under whom he studied at the Ranwella Temple in Kataluwa, Galle.  


His ordination as a samanera, as Bikhu Pannaketu, was celebrated by thousands of Sinhalese with fireworks and bakthi geetha (devotional songs) on May 6 1887. A Sinhalese laymen noted in his diaries that a celebration of this nature had never occurred since the British colonised the country, and expressed gratitude to Buddha, Japan-Sinhala Buddhist solidarity and finally congratulated Shaku Soen in being ordained as a samanera.


Thereafter, for the rest of his stay, he wore the attire of a Theravada priest as a mark of respect to the Buddhists of Sri Lanka. Thus, emotional Buddhists connections were established between the Japanese and Sri Lankan Buddhists. It was this emotional connection that made JR Jayewardene speak up for Japan at the Honolulu Peace Conference in 1945. Unfortunately politics and geopolitics have taken over from human relationships and to a degree both Sri Lankans and Japanese have been denied that history.


Soen in his diaries confirmed the difficulties he encountered such as language, eating with the fingers and ablution. He lamented the subjugation of the native Buddhists by British colonialism that even taxed each coconut tree. Coming from a very educated background, he found the Sinhala priests to be not that well-educated which allowed the more educated Christian priest to convert the Buddhists. He was critical of the local priests who were very concerned about the Vinaya / Rule of priesthood but did not endeavour self-development in the form of meditation, which the Zen Buddhists emphasize.


Probably he failed to realize that the colonial government took over all temple lands and pauperised the temples, that 70 years before that they destroyed the Buddhists’ libraries and temples and killed every boy over the age of 16 years who belonged to the aristocracy after the 1818 riots. Doubtless that at least partly contributed to this lack of intellectualism amongst the Buddhist priest hood at that time.


Whilst in Sri Lanka, he wrote one of the earliest books on South Asian Buddhism in Japanese (Sienan no Bukkyo, published 1889). He was weary of the status of Buddhists in Asia and felt they were very vulnerable to conversion to Christianity, but felt with the establishment of the Theosophical Society that there would be growth on the religion in the west. To nurture the spread of Buddhism he urged northern and southern clerics to actively propagate the religion in the west.


Spread of Buddhism


If religiosity was the mechanism of the spread of Buddhism in ancient times, Dharma dutha or Buddhist evangelism was the medium in the 20th century. Today, it is the Internet. Soen considered the Mahayana format in Japan as a step in the development of Buddhism from the Theravada Buddhism in South Asia as it spread around the globe. Western Buddhism in that sense is another step in the progress of Buddhism.


In 1906, he wrote the first book on Zen in English, Sermons Of A Buddhist Abbot (Carus Press Open Court). Two of the sermons were delivered in Washington in 1906. The first was - What is Buddhism. He used the occasion to refute some of the interpretations by Orientalists whom he considered prejudiced against the doctrine. He also refuted the divisions of Buddhism from Hinayana to Mahayana but considered them a stepping-stone in the progress of the philosophy. He refuted the theory that religious beliefs are fixed, but emphasised that the human mind kept unfolding and will continue to do so until a clearer consciousness develops as to its own nature, origin and destiny.


He considered Buddhism to be free of sentimentality in its yearning for truth. Buddhism thus was saved from the wantonness of imagination and irrationality of affection. He said love was not love unless it is purified in the mill of spiritual insight and intellectual discrimination. The lack of sentimentality and the seeking of truth in Buddhism would allow a rational assessment by both intellectuals and scientists.


Soen said Buddhism recognised the multitudinous and the reality phenomena. Thus, as we live it, he said, it was true and not a dream. He rejected the western interpretation of the emptiness of life and annihilation in Buddhism.


The recognition of oneness and that god according to Buddhism was within our self is the Buddha nature within all human beings. The aim of Buddhism is to dispel the clouds of ignorance and make the sun of enlightenment shine. Buddhist ethics are simple - stop doing anything wrong and promote goodness.


In his second lecture, he spoke about Buddhism and Oriental culture. What is interesting is his interpretation of Buddhists at war, which is best expressed in his response to Leo Tolstoy who advocated peace in the Japanese-Russian war. This again refutes the western theory that Buddhism is a passive religion. Tolstoy had written to Shaku Soen in 1904, asking him to join him (Tolstoy) in denouncing the war. Shaku refused, concluding, “...sometimes killing and war becomes necessary to defend the values and harmony of any innocent country, race or individual” (Quoted in Victoria, 1997). War, he said should never be an ego trip, but it was necessary in one’s endeavour to seek the truth.


Science and western Buddhism


In Soen’s view, western Buddhism is a step in the development of the philosophy. The greatest contribution of western Buddhism is that it has scientifically analyzed and researched the philosophy that has made it acceptable to intellectuals in the 21st century and has made inroads in its utilisation in Medicine, Education and Spiritual upliftment of humanity.


Despite doubts, neurology and neuroscience do not appear to profoundly contradict Buddhist thought. Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion, that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to “exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning.


Buddhists say pretty much the same thing. They believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, usually translated as ‘non self.’  One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing. In an impermanent changing world, there is no place for egoism as the future is only an illusion - a very basic belief in Buddhism.


There are many aspects of neuro science that can be used in the evaluation of Buddhism. Social, cultural, meditative, which give us an idea of the inherent nature of the brain, the ways of its development, which help us understand other races and cultures very closely connected to the philosophy.


Social Brain


The neo cerebrum or Big Brain has developed over millions of years because of social activity and its related phenomena; hence it is called the Social Brain. Any social activity related to the service of others is rewarded by a sense of elation and stimulation of the inferior parietal lobe. Human well-beings are closely connected to the animal kingdom and the environment; this is the oneness of Hinduism and the Buddha nature in Buddhism that encompasses the whole universe. This is expressed as a sutra, the Paticca samupadaya or sutra of Dependent Origination. (Scientifically it is the electromagnetic force that repels the electrons in adjacent atoms that connect all atoms of the universe). The cultural distinction is what creates the Asian Brain that Tensing Okkakura and Rabindranath Tagore spoke about as opposed to a European brain confirmed by the Michigan trial.


Opposed to the Social Brain is the Primitive brain, the center of flight and fright, that is stimulated by greed, hate and delusion. This is the source of stress so common in society. Nature punishes greed, but the greedy cannot perceive that as he is completely enamored by the never-ending want. This in Buddhism is due to ignorance.


Plastic Brain


Contrary to the western belief until recently, that the Brain does not grow, people in the East believed that mindfulness and concentration of meditation could develop one’s wisdom and brain centers. Today we believe in the Brain Mind cycle which can change the structure of the Brain. Buddhist practice and developing an integrative model of mental health is well documented in the Laboratory of Affective Neuro Science at the University of Wisconsin. In UCLA one talks about Mind Sight, a programme to re-sculptor the brain stimulating growth areas crucial for mental health.


How did the Buddha get it so right 2500 years ago? Most probably, Empiricism. The impermanent nature is so visible in the environment, be it wind, trees, etc. If one looks at nature, what Buddha said was always there around us. The more one looks at Buddhism, the more you think how its wisdom can guide one’s life.


Conclusion: What can Buddhism offer the west


There are distinct differences between the western mind and the eastern mind. Brought up in the Abrahamic faith, social needs are assessed, be it social justice or democracy, as outside the realm of the individual. If men with greed, hate and delusion control these institutions, the institutions will fail because self interests override the benefit for the many. This is the present predicament of the west, the repercussions of which range from violent societies, to wars, especially in the Gulf, unfair wealth distribution with 1 per cent owning 75 per cent of the wealth of the world, environmental degradation et al, which are a few of the many problems which are fast becoming sources of social destabilisation of the whole world and the end of civilization as we see it.


In Buddhism and most Asian philosophies, the truth is considered to be within one self. Self-realization and self-development are the mechanics of achievement of progress. Men of character, compassion, morality, are the aim of the philosophy. Such men could bring a sense of balance to the institutions of social justice and democracy.


The new information on the Mind Brain cycle in the wrong hands could be used to control humanity. Hence very one must be aware of that possibility. It probably is not untrue to say that already there is a mechanism in place in the present world order. According to Buddhism the answer is wisdom and avoidance of ignorance.


Kalama Sutra, the Sutra of Independent Thought


When Buddha visited village Kesaputra where the Kalama people lived, he was asked, “There are so many Samaneras who visit us and give us sermons; they all say that they speak the Truth. Sire, whom do we believe?” Buddha replied, “Believe no one, Kalamas, not tradition, not what I say. The truth is what you believe as long as it is compassionate, does not harm anybody and the intellectuals agree”.


That is the first time in the history of religions that individualism was given pride of place. It is thoughts that run this world and since individual thoughts differ, societies can only progress if their actions are for the benefit of the many and that can be achieved only if men with morality and compassion are at the helm of these institutions. To achieve that, self-development and self-realization of the individual is absolutely necessary.


It is said that Asia that produced such lofty philosophies is blindly following the west. It is time Asians look more to the east and take a leaf out of western analyses of our philosophies and renew their Asian-ness.    

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