Dr. Monster and making Buddhism a Religion

NetsukeAfter a number of posts covering skeptical issues I thought it’s about time to examine another study on the topic of religion.

This time the study title is “When Buddhism Became a ‘Religion’: Religion and Superstition in the Writings of Inoue Enryo” published in 2006 in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies by Jason Ananda Josephson.

If the title sounds confusing don’t worry, the basic premise of Josephson’s article is that it was not until the Meiji period and the arrival of foreign influences that the concept of ‘a religion’ developed in Japan and as such prior to this period Buddhism was not ‘a religion’. Josephson argues that in seeking to make Buddhism fit with the ‘Western’ category of religion a number of practices and beliefs particularly those relating to demons and magic which had previously been central to Japanese Buddhism were eliminated.

This is an interesting article with a lot of good research and I think the basic premise that Japanese Buddhism changed significantly in the Meiji period is beyond question. However, I have issues with some of Josephson’s basic premises that I want to address before turning to the main topic of the article- ‘Dr. Monster’ and his attempts at reform.

First, I have some reservations that the concept of ‘religion’ did not exist in Japan prior to the Meiji period. Obviously the English word ‘religion’ and the association of Christian features with what defines ‘a religion’ did not exist however I would argue that there were concepts that had similar implications and a number of experts on Japanese religion and history would agree (see for instance this detailed discussion by Ian Reader).

Josephson argues, for instance, that there were initial difficulties for Japanese translators in finding a suitable equivalent to ‘religion’ when making international trade treatises in the 1850’s and that a number of different terms were used. This is undoubtedly true but that does not necessarily reflect some inherent philosophical incompatibility in the concept. Instead, it is much more likely to simply reflect the difficulties inherent in early translation work before agreed upon substitutes are established.

He also contends that religion as a category distinct from spheres such as government, society and economics is the product of a “very specific Christian-inspired academic discourse” and as such lead to “systematic distortions” when imposed on Japan during the Meiji. His basis for making this argument is heavily influenced by the theories of (in)famous postmodern scholars such as Derrida and as such rather predictably relies on employing concepts from cognitive linguistics to analyze social history.

To be fair to Josephson the two concepts he employs ‘the prototype effect’ (where things are categorised not by sharing characteristics but through comparison to a central prototype- i.e. Christianity in the concept of religion) and ‘the conceptual web’ (where concepts are understood as existing in a system of relations with neighbouring concepts- i.e. Religion and superstition) are actually employed in a fairly sensible way and explained quite clearly. However, he is still borrowing concepts that have only been experimentally demonstrated in studies of linguistics and as such how far they translate into central concepts governing social behaviour is a legitimate concern. From my perspective, they are really only valuable when considered as useful analogies or as interesting concepts to bear in mind when examining the evidence but to suggest anything further would seem to be taking things a bit too far.

Anyhow, theoretical issues aside the real ‘meat’ of this article is in it’s research into Inoue Enryo, the Buddhist reformer who came to be known as ‘Dr. Monster’. Inoue was born in 1858 and  spent the early part of his life studying philosophy at various universities and Buddhism under his father’s Buddhist sect, called Otani. He pursued his studies until the mid 1880’s, contributing to many journals and co-founding an influential ‘Philosophical society’ which attracted many well known intellectuals, Buddhist leaders and government officials of the time. After his graduation in 1885 however he entered a difficult period of depression that lasted for 2 years, during which he renounced his ordination, rejected a position in the Ministry of Education and lost his job as a researcher. His ‘psychological sickness’ reportedly also left him bedridden for over a year.

It wasn’t all bad news however, as it was also during this period that he came to dedicate himself to what would become his lifelong passion- reforming and reinvigorating Japanese Buddhism and it seems to be his passion for this which enabled him to overcome his depression, begin writing a book declaring his reforming mission and re-enter public life in 1887.

Over the next 30 odd years until his death in 1919 Inoue Enryo “engaged in a tireless schedule of lectures, teaching, and writing” earning a doctorate in 1896 and becoming a prominent educator and popular author with many famous students. Although he wrote about a diverse range of topics the central theme uniting them all was a desire to reform Buddhism and for it be recognised as a legitimate ‘religion’ that was of benefit to the state.

There are many Buddhist reformers and they all tend to have been rather interesting characters, typically with a good dose of charisma and revolutionary zeal, but what makes Inoue a particularly interesting character to a skeptic is that aside from reforming Buddhism he was also heavily involved in investigating superstitions and the paranormal. In fact, he founded the ‘ Paranormal Research Society’ (Fushigi Kenkyukai) and the ‘Monster Investigation Society’ (Yokai Kenkyukai), and published several books specifically dedicated to the topics of superstitions and monsters. Inoue, like many academics in the Meiji, was heavily influenced by rationalist philosophy and scientific thinking however he also saw the debunking of superstition to be fully compatible with, and indeed, necessary for, his goal of reforming Buddhism.

Josephson’s contention is that for Inoue his ‘monster studies’ were an integral part of his reformation of Buddhism and it’s hard to find fault with his reasoning as Inoue clearly states this in his work. Inoue seems to have used his debunking of monsters to help establish his distinction between what he regarded as the ‘false superstitions’ attached to Buddhism and the ‘true (scientific) religion’ that lay underneath.

This may sound like a rather straightforward position when we consider modern Western portrayals of Buddhism as atheistic and non-ritualistic but Buddhism in Asia tends to have a very different character from such portrayals and as Josephson describes:

The day-to-day life of Buddhist priests of all sects was filled with the performance of exorcisms, funerals, distributing healling charms, and spells for rain. Many of these rituals were for intended for apotropiac purposes, banishing monsters, limiting their negative effects, or transforming the curses of ancestors and kami into blessings.

(What might surprise people is that with the removal of certain rituals like ‘spells for rain’ this description still largely applies to the day-to-day life of Buddhist priests and monks in most Buddhist countries, including Japan.)

This means that Inoue’s crusade to eliminate ‘superstitions’ had serious implications for the character of Japanese Buddhism in which “both demons and this worldly magic were fundamental… in canonical texts and in daily practices” . However, it is important to note that, while Inoue was promoting a program of purging superstition which would be immediately familiar to a skeptic today, he was not doing so indiscriminately. Instead he focused his ire on evil and demonic beings and the rituals directed towards them, more positive supernatural beings such as the kami, gods, buddhas, bodhisattvas, angels and ancestral spirits and their associated rituals were all accepted as being part of ‘authentic Buddhism’.

This is not to say he accepted that such figures had the power to grant wishes or answer prayers or that performing rituals to them would lead to this-worldly benefits, in fact, he clearly stated that they did not. However, he did believe that rituals and ceremonies directed at such beings could serve a positive purpose in that they could lead individuals to develop a deeper relationship with true Buddhist practice.

Kappa NetsukeThe demonic elements did not fare so well… as can be seen clearly in one of his last and most influential works ‘Superstition and Religion’ (Meishin to Shukyo), published three years before he died. In this work, Inoue recapitulates a lifetime of writings and lectures into an introductory text, outlining his overall perspective on Buddhism and religion in general and discussing what parts of it are authentic and which need to be abandoned.

At the heart of this endeavour, is the distinction he makes between what constitutes ‘supersititon’ and what constitutes ‘true religion’. And although he does not provide a precise definition of ‘superstition’ in this work, he does reproduce a list of prohibitions derived from the national ethics textbooks of the time which provides a good sense of what his targets were:

  1. Do not say that foxes or badgers deceive or possess people.
  2. There is no such thing as winged goblins (tengu).
  3. There is no such thing as curses.
  4. Do not believe in dubious ritual prayers (kaji kito).
  5. Do not trust in the efficacy of magic or holy water.
  6. Do not put your trust in divination, whether written by oracles, physiognomy, geomancy, astrology, or ink stamp.
  7. It is wrong to be concerned with omens and auspicious or inauspicious days.
  8. Do not otherwise believe in anything that is generally similar to these things (above).

After ‘defining’ superstition as above, Inoue went on for the first half of the book to provide a bestiary of the supernatural creatures widely believed in throughout Japan that fall into the category of superstition and are thus not real. To Inoue these superstitions were later accretions to Japanese Buddhism that were obscuring it’s true nature as a universal scientific religion and needed to be purged if Buddhism was to be recognised as a true ‘religion’.

There is something extremely appealing to me about the image of a late 19th Century Buddhist reformer compiling a detailed bestiary of imaginary monsters however this is not all that this work was about. Inoue also provided a detailed discussion on the nature of true religion and it’s relationship with science and here he championed a position that would come to dominate the Buddhism/Science discourse up to the present day. In essence, he argued that the domain of religion is the spiritual world and the spiritual world has no direct power over material existence, and as such, true religion does not contradict science, nor does it contain miracles or prayers for this worldly benefits. This is a position very similar to the Non-Overlapping Magisteria position that the scientist Stephen Jay Gould would promote almost a century later which defined religion as personal spiritual beliefs and science as a system for understanding the external world.

However, Josephson rightly points out that to justify Inoue’s interpretation requires a very creative reading of Buddhist scriptures and also involves the ‘trimming’ of “Buddhist geography, miracles, prayers, and… every description in a Buddhist sutra that makes a concrete claim about the material world.” Gone too are “much of Buddhism’s cosmological structure… the various realms of existence and their arrendant hungry ghosts and hell beings… [and] all the darker creatures in the Buddhist pantheon”. With the “remaining entities… buddhas and the gods… transformed into merely temporary names for an abstract truth… no longer capable of interaction. Existing as metaphors, they… have no purpose or autonomy”. These are no small alterations and form the underlying evidence presented by Josephson that Buddhism was being radically transformed as it was being moulded into ‘a religion’ in the Meiji period.

There is also no doubt that this new form of Buddhism as a ‘true religion’ purged of ‘superstition’ gained supporters and became influential and indeed it can be seen quite clearly that Buddhism in the West (at least before the rise in popularity of  Tibetan Buddhism) almost entirely inherited this trimmed image of Buddhism. With the ironic twist being that after being promoted as a ‘true religion’ in Japan it was packaged to the West as a ‘true philosophy’ and so it remains in most Western perceptions today as a tradition regarded as being more akin to a philosophical tradition than a religion.

Inoue is a fascinating character and his desired reforms to Buddhism would find many more champions during the early twentieth century that would leave a lasting impression on the image of Japanese Buddhism. He also provides an early illustration of the universalising tendencies of Japanese Buddhist promoters as he was noted for his belief that all true religions and all true philosophies share a common essence; a desire to experience and make contact with the ‘absolute’. This universal perspective as well as the importance Inoue placed on philosophy can be seen by the fact that he never took over his father’s temple and instead presided over a ‘Philosophy Hall’ where he enshrined four sages: Socrates, Kant, Confucius and Shakyamuni and promoted both intellectual endeavours and spiritual practices.

And yet the concluding thought I’ll offer on this topic and Josephson’s article is that it would be wrong to place too much emphasis on the transformation of Buddhism during the Meiji. For one, Inoue was a public intellectual who was highly educated in Western philosophical traditions and as such his perspective, while appealing to the government due to it’s focus on advocating a ‘scientific religion’, probably had little influence over most everyday Buddhists in Japan. This is most strongly evidenced by the fact that most of the practices that Inoue derided are still widespread in Japanese Buddhism today and, more generally, Japanese religion as a whole is still dominated by the pursuit of worldly benefits (see this excellent book for further details).

The ‘transformation’ of Buddhism in the Meiji that Dr. Monster represents actually seems to have had a much larger influence on the Buddhism that was exported to the West than on the character of Buddhism in Japan. The fact that the ‘trimmed’ form of Buddhism when it travelled to the West was recognised as being more philosophical than religious in nature also makes me wonder if Josephson’s contention that the idea that Buddhism was trimmed to adhere to a Western concept of religion really holds up. Personally, I’m not convinced.

Still a very intriguing article though and I can only hope that one day I end up with a nickname half as good as Dr. Monster!

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  1. Greetings. I’m the author of the article you discuss here.

    I was googling myself, looking for responses to my newly released book, and I stumbled on this blog post from a few years ago.

    Thanks for the attention and interest! I think many of the points you raise above are good.

    However, I’d hope that my book would clear up any reservations you might still have about a Pre-Meiji concept of ‘religion’ in Japan. In the book, I begin with 16th century Japanese materials and describe the Pre-Modern Japanese concepts that were ultimately occluded by formation of the modern concept of religion. I also trace out the transformation of Japanese culture in the face of Euro-American concepts of religion, science/secularism, and superstition in greater detail. Perhaps you might find it of interest.




  2. Hi Jason,

    Always nice when someone stumbles across an old post that is relevant to them. I’m bogged down with my studies at the minute and every attempt to get back to blogging have failed miserably. I’ll check out your book and maybe write a review when I get some time!

    Thanks for the comments.


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