Whither Japan - A Sri Lankan Buddhist connection
by Janaka Goonetilleke on 16 Jun 2009 1 Comment

When two Japanese Buddhist monks Shaku Soen and Shaku Kozen arrived in Galle, Sri Lanka in 1887, little did we realise that these two priests could represent the dilemma that Japan could face in a span of 125 years.

Following the collapse of the Tokugawa era and the start of the Meiji period in 1868-1911, Japan opened up to the rest of the world on a philosophy of strong economy and military.  This was a definitive period in Japanese history, when two major issues engaged the Japanese mind, each struggling to dominate Japanese society.

One was the Asiatic ideal which tried to unite with the waves of Indian and Chinese culture; the other the European ideal of science and industrialisation and military power, aided and abetted by the introduction of the study of science by westerners. This is better expressed as a fight between morality, spirituality, and the western philosophy of Might is Right.

The militarism of the warlords and the threat from the Europeans from their Asian fiefdoms favoured the latter. This was further helped by the influence of the westerners who were able to successfully change the mindset of the ruling class that development was westernisation, as they did in all other parts of Asia, including China and India. Buddhist philosophy of peace and morality was a hindrance to this policy.

Hence during this period the Buddhist way of life was threatened. Buddhist priests were demoted to the status of ordinary citizens, allowed to get married and forced to work for a living. The only way institutionalised religion could survive was to become part of the imperial system.

As a result, the Zen Buddhist sect joined with the militaristic attitude of the ruling classes and went to the extent of adapting Buddhist philosophy to the philosophy of the imperial government. Victoria in the book Zen Holy War says Buddha way to Zen became Imperial way to Zen. The Shinagon (True Word) sect advocated Morality and Patriotism and obedience to the Imperial Government, but looked towards Asia for guidance in its esoteric Buddhist practice. Shaku Soen was from the Zen Sect and Shaku Kozen was from the Shinagon sect.

Japanese monks who came to Sri Lanka
Shaku Soen 1859-1919

Shaku Soen was a highly motivated, intelligent and ambitious priest from the Tokeiji Temple in Kamakura, who was later able to break through the shackles of Japanese society to bring his message to the outside world and get the attention of Leo Tolstoy in his later life. 

Having had a degree in western philosophy and science from Keiyo University, and having been selected as successor to his master Kosen, he decided to come to Sri Lanka to study the language of the Buddhist script of Pali and Sanskrit, much against the wishes of Kosen.

During his trip to Sri Lanka in a German ship, he realised how lowly the Japanese were considered. His stay in Sri Lanka gave him the opportunity to reflect upon the practice of Buddhism under colonialism, and that of Japan. This consolidated his belief that Japan had to look to the West for its future. In his book Sienna No Bukkyo (Buddhism of the south west), he felt there was no hope for Buddhism in Asia with the expansion of colonialism, but there was hope in propagating it in the West.

On return to Japan, he was part of the Zen establishment which supported the Japanese war machine. Victoria pinpoints in her research that Shaku Soen was one of the Zen masters who embraced war as Zen Training. In the war against Russia, Soen served as chaplain in 1904.

During this time, Tolstoy wrote to him and requested cooperation in his appeal for peace. He rejected it by justifying war as glorification of Buddha in his fight against evil hostile to civilisation, peace and enlightenment. His views, although highly disregarded in Buddhist circles, expressed the opinion of the ruling classes. His later interaction was mainly with Europeans and Americans and was responsible in establishing Zen Buddhism in America.

Shaku Kozen (Kozen Gooneratne Thero)

Unlike Shaku Soen, Shaku Kozen looked towards Asia for his spiritual upliftment. He was from Yokohama and stayed in Sri Lanka till 1893. He was ordained as the first Japanese Theravada priest at Malwatta Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka on 6 1890.

During his stay, he was actively involved against Christian missionary activity. He was a great advocate of Theravada Buddhism and joined with Anagarika Dharmapala in the restoration of Buddha Gaya. Anagarika Dharmapala was a great anti-colonialist and an advocate of Pan-Asia. In the late 1890s, he left Sri Lanka and attempted to start a school of Theravada Buddhism in Yokohama, which was a failure; however, he continued to live the life of a Theravada priest until his death.

He never lost touch with Sri Lanka and sent four young priests from his temple to Gooneratne Mudalindaramaya in Walauwatte Galle to study Buddhism. Vesak celebration was started by Rev Kozen in 1940, and later conducted by Rev Thoyanindo, his student (another Japanese priest who studied at Gooneratne Mudalindaramaya) was explicit in the suggestion that the programme was in veneration of the Buddha with a view to uniting Asian Buddhists. He always maintained his relationship with Sri Lanka but was also in contact with priests in Thailand. He joined with others to produce a poly-lingual rendering in Japanese of the Shichibutsu Tsukaige (Verse of the Admonishment of the Seven Buddhas) an expression of Pan Asian Unity.

Shaku Kozen Gooneratne was not the only advocate of Pan Asian unity. Western imperialism, colonialism and Christianisation generated the concept in the Asian intellect at the time. Okakura, the famous Japanese artist and philosopher, in his book ‘The Ideals of the East,’ starts with an opening sentence ‘Asia is One.’ The concept of pan-Asia is further expressed in his first chapter which reads:
Himalayas divide only to accentuate two mighty civilisations, the Chinese with the communism of Confucius, and the Indian with the individualism of the Vedas, but not even the snowy barriers can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of the love for the ultimate and the universal which is the common thought–inheritance of every Asiatic race.’

He later expresses the view that it was the compassion of Buddhism that elevates a dumb beast to a human, and proclaiming equality and brotherhood to all that made Buddhism acceptable to Confucian China. He implies later in his book that this Buddhist Confucian Philosophy of Humanism and Moralism united the whole of a peaceful Asia in spite of the fact that there was no common language to help in its spread. On the contrary, he felt that Europeans were more interested in the means of life than the end (materialism).

Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian Nobel Laureate, friend of Okakura, was another great advocate of Pan Asia. In his Lecture ‘Message of India to Japan,’ he shared the admiration of Japan with other Asians, for demonstrating the ability of an Asian nation to rival the West in industrial development and economic progress, but rejected the nationalism and militarism he saw in Japan.

In a letter written later to Subhash Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist living in Japan, he said that he once fondly hoped that in Japan Asia had at last discovered its challenge to the West and that Japan’s new strengths would be consecrated in safeguarding the culture of the East against alien interests. But Japan had let Asia down and had become a worse menace.

Sun Yat Sen, the first president of China, also hoped Japan would join up with the rest of Asia in the rule of the right as against the European dictum of the rule by might.

Unfortunately, nationalism, militarism and materialism and the policy of might is right ended with the disastrous defeat in World War II and nuclear devastation. Ironically, at the San Francisco peace conference, the Sri Lankan delegate J R Jayewardene demanded freedom for Japan. Quoting Buddha he said: ‘Hatred ceases not by hatred but by love.’ The Asiatic Confucian- Buddhist connection still held true.

Following the Second World War, under the influence of the American dictated constitution and adaptation of the concept that westernisation was the ultimate in modernity, the Japanese have been further alienated from their own culture.

New Asian Hemisphere

In the 21st century, Asia is the fastest growing region in the world. China and India alone account for about 25% of the world GDP. Asia is fast regaining her position in the world economy. In 1820, China and India accounted for 50% of the world trade. Kishore Mahbubani, former Singapore diplomat, in a recent interview expressed the belief that the 200 years of western domination was an aberration of history. In this period, Japan is once again looking towards Asia. Her trade with the region is growing fast; she is the largest donor of aid confirming the acceptance by Japan of the new Asian era.

Two hundred years of western consumption economics with its philosophy of westernisation being the ultimate in civility and development has had dire consequences for the world. The gap between rich and poor has widened, poverty and malnutrition is rampant especially in Africa, the environment has been destroyed, global warming has had dire consequences for the weather, and the world’s natural resources are greatly depleted. The endeavour to impose westernisation and economic domination has created international terrorism, especially among Islamic communities. The sub-prime mortgages, toxic assets, collapse of pension funds and stock markets in the West show that the system lacks transparency and morality. Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been forced accept this.

Japan having pursued Soen’s philosophy of Might is Right and looking to the West for progress and development for 100–150 years, has now arrived at the Asiatic phase advocated by Kozen. The question however, is whether the relation ship would be based on money and a western model, or whether the new Asiatic phase will embody the Confucian-Buddhist philosophy of compassion, moralism and harmony with the environment.

China has established 1000 schools of Confucianism, indicating that Chinese society is trying to reinvigorate the philosophy. In a recent article in the Financial Times, ‘Japan Harks Backs to an Age of Innocence,’ David Pilling says the recent economic crisis has invited a re-evaluation of the post-Meiji Period and that Tokyo is laden with nostalgia for the pre-Meiji Period. A former vice Finance Minister, Eisuke Sakakibara, an advocate of the above shift, described the period as being peaceful, orderly, unspoilt and friendly. At the time Buddhism was the State Religion. How long can one hold a great civilization away from her roots?

The author is a consultant gynaecologist; he works in London

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