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.

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