A Discussion with Gene Reeves, Consultant, Rissho Kosei-kai and the Niwano Peace Foundation

With: Gene Reeves

November 25, 2009

Background: This discussion between Dr. Gene Reeves and Katherine Marshall took place in Tokyo as part of preparatory work for a December 2009 conference organized by the Berkley Center and WFDD on "Global Development and Faith-Inspired Organizations in Southeast Asia." In the interview, Dr. Reeves explores the origins and contemporary face of socially engaged Buddhism in Japan and throughout Asia, highlighting the significance of the concept of harmony to the Buddhist approach to social action. He also discusses the development of lay Buddhist organizations in Japan, such as Soka Gakkai International, and their engagement with a wide range of social issues.

You recently (November, 2009) attended the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. What were the highlights of this meeting?

Let me start with the term itself: “Engaged Buddhism” originated with Thich Nhat Hanh 25 or so years ago. The organization itself (INEB) was established 20 years ago. It is, however, worth noting that the movement’s leaders would stress that there is no such thing as “disengaged Buddhism.” The INEB’s purpose was that Buddhism should not only be concerned about social issues but also with attending to social problems. That meant moving away from an emphasis on charity and applying band-aids to social ills, and more towards attention to the causes of the problems. The idea was picked up by Sulak Sivaraksa, and from about 25 years ago he has worked to develop a network of engaged Buddhists, that is, Buddhists who are actively engaged on social issues. It is not a large network, and its headquarters, though it does exist, is small. Its aim is to encourage Buddhists to take the social dimensions of life more seriously. It has developed especially in various places where Theravada Buddhism is dominant, notably Thailand, Burma, and somewhat less in Laos and Cambodia. There is also a link with the Dalai Lama and thus with issues around Tibet which have some prominence in the organization.

Sulak is based still in Bangkok and his own organization functions basically as a publisher. He puts out books and the periodical Seeds of Peace. These are widely distributed locally, less internationally. He has a small group of colleagues who work with him, who might be called disciples. Sulak is working to turn over leadership to his colleagues.

The INEB meets every two years, and the Chiang Mai meeting also marked the 20th anniversary of the network. There were several hundred people there, coming especially from the Theravada countries—I did not count how many, however. There were small delegations from Japan, and a couple from Taiwan, and groups from the U.S., somewhat fewer from Europe. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship was also involved. I was particularly impressed by the large numbers of young people who were there—both young monks and nuns and lay people. The meeting itself involved a variety of activities, including hundreds of speeches. It was quite long (nine days). A central theme was to look to the turning points in Buddhist identity.

What are other important transnational Buddhist organizations and gatherings?

One other is the World Buddhist Forum. It has a base in China, and has been organized twice now, by Chinese Buddhist associations. The Chinese Buddhist Association is present at national and local levels, sponsored both by Buddhist organizations and by the Chinese government. The 2006 forum was held in Hangzhou and on Putoushan in Zhejiang Province. A second forum in March/April 2009 took place in Wuxi, China, and concluded in Taipei. Over a thousand people participated. They have focused on preservation of Buddhist sites, and assembled a large assortment of people from all over the world. There, those who came from the U.S. and Europe were largely distinguished by Chinese-hypenated identities. The real work for these Forums has been done in Beijing, though there is an international planning committee. It does create some sense of community among Buddhists from all over the world.

Are Japanese organizations and Buddhists much involved in these activities?

Not really. Some do attend but the numbers are very small. In part this is a legacy of strong feelings from World War II and going back to the 1930s, and that is especially strong among Chinese people. There is also animosity towards the Chinese government. And there is the language issue, since most of these international gatherings are conducted in English, which is spoken by very few Japanese Buddhist leaders. It is hard to get Japanese participants for any events where spoken or especially written English is needed.

And is INEB present in Japan?

There are three INEB leaders in Japan. Jonathan Watts is an American who has lived and taught in Japan for many years and has strong ties to Thailand. The head of Kodo Kyodan is Masazumi Shojun Okano. His parents took him to California, he went to college in Japan, got a Ph.D. from Oxford, and taught at the University of Vermont and the University of Hong Kong. He inherited the presidency of a religious organization in Yokohama. A Jodo-shu priest, Yoshiharu Tomatsu studied at Harvard. He gave a presentation at a Niwano Peace Foundation symposium last year and is an example of a very educated, modern Japanese Buddhist, who is very involved with socially engaged Buddhism.

Rissho Kosei-kai as an organization is active in a number of international organizations, including the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) and Religions for Peace (WCRP). Rissho Kosei-kai hosted the IARF Congress in Tokyo in 1984 and participated actively in the IARF Congress in 1987 at Stanford University, with several hundred members from Japan coming to the conference.

More broadly, how would you describe Buddhist organizations in Japan today?

There are many layers. One of them goes far back, to the Nara period. There were eight schools, all from China. All of them are dead for all intents and purposes. There are temples, but they have only a few priests. The main traditional, or temple, Buddhist denominations—chiefly Tendai and Shingon, two kinds of Pure Land, two kinds of Zen and Nichiren—all have their roots in the Middle Ages or earlier. When people speak of “Japanese Buddhism,” this is almost always what they mean.

With the withdrawal of government support for Buddhism under the Meiji government (and its support for Shinto), the temple system evolved into what it is today, which is essentially a funeral and memorial service business. For most temples that is really their only activity.

An important feature of Japanese Buddhism is that monks are allowed to eat meat, drink alcohol, and to marry. Temples are often a nice home for the priest and his family. For many, the income from the temple is not enough for the family to live on so they will find another job. In sum, very few of these Buddhist priests are heavily involved in social action activities.

In response to these changes and to the events in Japan in the 1930s, lay Buddhist organizations grew up. Soka Gakkai is the largest, and there are several others. Almost all are in the Nichiren tradition. Rissho Kosei-kei is also in this tradition. Many have split off from Reiyukai.

Rissho Kosei-kai has a more holistic understanding of Buddhism. Japanese religion has, in general, been quite preoccupied with the care and feeding of ancestors, in ancestor veneration in various forms. When founder Niwano was asked about this, he replied that all Japanese religions are concerned about ancestors, and so are we. We have services in the morning and evening in which we pay respect to ancestors. It is part of who we are and where we come from, what we are given. However, we believe that equally important are our descendants, those who will come after us, and thus we work for world peace. Thus world peace is the Rissho Kosei-kai umbrella value. It is the rubric from which various charities and social action stems, for example sending blankets to people in Africa or demonstrating in front of the U.S. Embassy.

What is at issue here is a moral compass, wherein harmony is the highest value. The traditional name for Japan is Yamato, which can also be pronounced daiwa, meaning “great harmony.” This overarching value is prominent in all of East Asia, and reflects the influence of Chinese Buddhism. Justice, in contrast, is a value that comes from the West, a Jewish value in a sense. Most East Asian Buddhists will tend towards the value of harmony, even when they are engaged in social action activities. They do these activities in a non-confrontational way. We believe that harmony is not well promoted by confrontation. This affects the way of promoting social change. When Rissho Kosei-kai young people protested in front of the U.S. Embassy, there was no shouting. Those who protested prayed together.

Do you see common themes linking different Buddhist traditions in their approaches to charity and social action?

The East Asian countries have, where religion is concerned, been very much separated from one another. One example that is vivid for me is an event during the IARF Congress in Korea. The Japanese Shinto representatives there had carefully prepared a ceremony in which they sought to apologize to the Korean people. Zero Koreans came. It reflects how bad feelings continue to be.

What about social issues in contemporary Japan?

Looking at the traditional temples, there is not much social engagement. The picture for the lay Buddhist organizations is different. Soka Gakkai founded a political party, and is engaged in a wide variety of social issues. Rissho Kosei-kai tends to work much more behind the scenes. Members of Parliament are members of Rissho Kosei-kai. An example of an issue where Rissho Kosei-kai is active is in maintaining the spirit of Article 9 of the Constitution which prohibits an offensive military.

These organizations do engage on a range of social issues that are specific to Japanese society, like the remnants of caste and problems like suicide. Up to the end of World War II, Japan was very feudalistic. With Japan’s defeat, after World War II a whole cultural system was abolished essentially overnight. A vast array of titles were lost overnight. It was a huge social change. There are still vestiges. The burakumin, for example, was a group that was Japanese, not racially distinguished, but they are descendants of those who were butchers and handled corpses, hides, and skins. People still have to record their status in family registers. In many circumstances they could not get jobs. The task today is to overcome prejudices against such people.

Many people today are concerned about suicide, especially among young people. There are social problems where demonstrations do not help much. Take gay and lesbian issues for example. They are tolerated pretty well as long as it is not in your face, but there is not much of a movement for change.

The homeless?

Most homeless today are schizophrenics. Most in practice function pretty well, at least in Tokyo. Some Rissho Kosei-kai students once tried to help a homeless man. He asked them to come back later and they found him well dressed; he took them out for dinner.

The most effective charity work in Tokyo is done by Christians. They feed the hungry and run group homes and shelters. Most are ecumenical. There are groups that do counseling, including telephone counseling.

Rissho Kosei-kai is a member of several interfaith groups that work on social issues, including Second Harvest. It is a large organization, supported 99 percent by Christians.

What about international poverty?

That has not really gripped people, beyond sending blankets to people in emergencies.

The gap is still related to the 1930s and the legacy of the Second World War. There are also issues like the former North Koreans who live in Japan, who believe they are discriminated against because they cannot hold dual citizenship.

In Japan generally, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the government. That is part of the reason for the displacement of the LDP. It is not that people were enthusiastic about the Democratic Party of Japan but they were dissatisfied and frustrated with the government and felt helpless that the government was not as responsive as it should be. There is much questioning about what to do, and a big disparity in opinions. It is kind of scary. There is not really much in the way of emerging progressive leadership. It is, sadly, the kind of climate that is ripe for tyranny.

What about environment issues, which are becoming so prominent today?

Yes, indeed, these issues have been high on the agenda of Buddhist organizations generally and those in Japan, for at least 20 years. I am aware that many in other parts of the world do not see that the Japanese organizations are interested in these issues, but indeed they are. The issue is that they write and publish so little in English. Again, the language issue has a marked influence on the way Japan and Japanese organizations are perceived in the West.

And, echoing what we discussed earlier, the temple system overall is not deeply engaged in “greening” issues (are American undertakers strong environmentalists?) but the lay organizations very much are. Indeed, for them protection of the environment is one of the leading issues.

How do you see the evolution of the so-called “New Religions” in Japan?

First, there are almost no new religions in Japan. The term is applied sometimes to Rissho Kosei-kai, incorrectly. These organizations have grown from traditional Buddhist and Shinto roots. But they are not new religions, with a very few exceptions, for small sects. These include some of the extremist organizations, but the numbers involved are very small.

Part of the issue is the use of the term “religion” and its translation. The common Japanese term, shukyo, is used differently from the English “religion.” In Japanese, Methodism is a religion, and so on.

There is a Federation of New Religious Organizations. Its title reflects a better way to understand the phenomenon. There are indeed large organizations among the new religious organizations. Soka Gakkai, which is not a member of the Federation, is the largest, with 12 million, world wide. Rissho Kosei-kai has about six million members. Its numbers are increasing in some surprising places, including Mongolia and Bangladesh. There are about 60-70 organizations that are part of the Federation.

Some of these organizations are increasingly engaged in social issues, but generally on a fairly small scale. For example Myochikai works to help the blind and to bring eyeglasses to people in different parts of the world.

There are several hundred different religious organizations operating in Japan today. They are registered with the government, not for purposes of supervision but because they are tax exempt. There are about 180 organizations on the government list.

And Christians? Very few in Japan, in marked contrast to Korea. Christians represent about 2 percent of the Japanese population. Most Christian churches tend to be both theologically and socially conservative, though there are some that are in fact very progressive.

Can you say something about your own journey? How did you come to be here, at the Niwano Peace Foundation?

The story is a bit complicated! My background is as a Unitarian Universalist, born in New Hampshire, and educated at the University of New Hampshire, Boston University School of Theology, and Emory University. I was much influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., who was ahead of me at Boston, where much of my education was from classmates, many of whom were black. I found myself in the mid-60s teaching at Tufts, which was then virtually all white, and concluded that it was not the place I wanted to be, so I moved to Wilberforce University in Ohio, the oldest private black university in the country. Its social vocation had special importance for me. But my career took a bit of a detour. I found myself as vice president, in an odd sense a demotion from the academic track! I developed a bit of a reputation of being able to provide a financial rescue for colleges, to put them back on their feet. I moved to the Unitarian Universalist Theological School (Meadville Lombard) at the University of Chicago which was in bad financial straits. Happily, I was able to help in turning it around.

Meadville Lombard had a tradition that students came there from Rissho Kosei-kai. Not long after I arrived the founder of Rissho Kosei-kai came to visit. That started to stimulate my interest in the Lotus Sutra, the sutra upon which Rissho Kosei-kai is based. In 1983, he invited me to come to Japan for his seventy-seventh birthday celebration. It was quite a change from the traditions of the UU congregations, where a few hundred was a large gathering. In Japan, I spoke to more than 6,000 people with 6,000 more listening in a building across the street! Though Founder Niwano spoke no English, we were able to communicate and became good friends. The day following the ceremony, he introduced me to the University of Tokyo scholar Yoshiro Tamura, who was famous for his work on the Lotus Sutra and on Tendai Buddhism. He became a very important teacher for me and we became good friends.

So between Professor Tamura and Founder Niwano I became deeply interested in the Lotus Sutra. I had spent some 20 years in university administration and was ready for a change. I accepted Founder Niwano’s invitation to come to Japan and was able to teach at Tsukuba University. I studied Japanese and when I reached the mandatory retirement age (63) continued to teach in various places. I have published some books and am working on some others. I have spent 21 years now in Japan!

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.