Buddhist philosophy, Japanese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G101-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 07, 2021, from

6. Theodicy and ethics

Japanese Buddhist treatments of theodicy and ethics also reveal ways in which Buddhism was transformed in Japan. Theodicy is meant here in Max Weber’s general sense of an explanation that make the injustices of life intelligible and accounts for evil in the world (see Weber, M.). In classical Indian thought, the notion of karma answers the problem of both moral and natural evil. Karmic retribution means that every deed or action has consequences and evil deeds bring about suffering. Suffering is not punishment by a God who is free to punish or not, but rather is an inevitable consequence of evil actions. There are accordingly practical reasons to avoid evil and do good. In early Indian thought the notion of karma entailed that of transmigration. Karma is, as it were, the momentum of our actions that propels us through saṃsāra, the continuous cycles of birth and death. This transmigration occurs through various lifetimes and life forms, mythologized as the six realms of hell, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humans and gods. The Buddha taught a way of liberation that is a release from transmigration and its cause, karma, whether good or evil (see Karma and rebirth, Indian conceptions of). In later Japanese Buddhist philosophy, attachment to self and the concomitant ignorance of the reality of no-self were stressed as the root cause of saṃsāra.

After Buddhism was introduced to Japan, people easily accepted the notion of karmic retribution but not the literal belief of rebirth as animals or lower life forms. Transmigration through the six realms of saṃsāra played a larger role in Japanese literature and theatre than in philosophical discussions, which focused more on the practical path to liberation. Good deeds were not the means to liberation; they did not, for example, ensure rebirth in the Pure Land, whether taken as the physical abode or spiritual state wherein final liberation is possible. Hōnen, and later Shinran in his Tannishō (Lamenting the Deviations) went so far as to state that: ‘If a good person attains birth in the Pure Land, how much more so the evil person’.

The apparent incompatibility between any notion of rebirth and the Indian Buddhist doctrine of no-self or no-soul was not an issue in traditional Japanese Buddhist thought. Moreover, even after the Japanese understood this doctrine they, like the Chinese, continued to believe in the spirits of ancestors who remain somehow present among the living. That folk belief has played a stronger role in everyday life and religious practices than has Buddhist doctrine. Logically, the disassociation of good deeds and liberation would seem to compromise the theodicy offered by the notion of karmic retribution, and ancestor veneration to compromise the doctrine of no substantial self which is the basis of compassion with all living beings. In effect, however, the compromises have meant little more than finding a middle course, or superimposing the two metaphysically incompatible beliefs. Belief in karmic retribution has encouraged the avoidance of deeds conventionally deemed evil, and thus supported conventional ethics; but karmic retribution does not entail any final resolution to misery. Only religious practice, whether conceived as self-power or other-power, holds out the prospect of final liberation, or at least the actualization of one’s inherent enlightenment. In the meantime, one is to do good and avoid evil; more specifically, one is to adhere to conventional Buddhist precepts such as not killing, stealing, lying and so on. Similarly, veneration of ancestral spirits, including Buddhist patriarchs, has encouraged a respect for tradition and social order, while non-ego has been extolled as the basis of right action in both Japanese Buddhism and Confucianism. If we seek in Japanese Buddhist philosophy a coherent theory of ethics as a separate branch of philosophy, we find instead a variety of practical reasons; for a moral theory, we would have to refer to Confucianism (see Confucian philosophy, Japanese).

This general description receives closer definition in the views of Shinran and Dōgen. Dōgen’s ethical views reflect both the penchant to practical reasoning and the transcendence of ethics in the realization of enlightenment. Dōgen’s sermons to monks training under him admonish them to keep the precepts while recognizing that their content is relative to the situation. Ultimately, the practice of keeping precepts is subsumed into zazen or the practice of realization. Dōgen’s more philosophical writings transform practical admonitions such as ‘do good’ and ‘do no evil’ into proclamations of the realized state: ‘the non-production of evil, the performance of good’. Ultimately, both Dōgen and Shinran would have us transcend the duality of good and evil to manifest, through uncontrived actions, absolute non-dual reality or ‘suchness’, which is perfect as it is. There is no cause–effect relation between morality and enlightenment, and so the issue is not the situational relativity of morality but, once again, the problem that the absolute is not complete without its manifestation in the phenomenal. Here ethical issues would give way to the problem of inherent enlightenment. The contemporary interpreter D.T. Suzuki advocated Zen enlightenment as the solution and simply proclaimed it to be ‘beyond good and evil’ (Suzuki 1964). On the other hand, the idea of inherent enlightenment has come under attack in the 1990s as perpetuating the status quo of society and blinding Japanese Buddhism to the need for reform guided by a social ethics.

Citing this article:
Maraldo, John C.. Theodicy and ethics. Buddhist philosophy, Japanese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G101-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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