Welcome back from Summer & A Short History of Japanese Philosophy

Well, it has been a beautifully long and busy summer, and in all of it I seem to have neglected posting my discussion notes. So, over the next few days you will get a few updates! This first post was not used for intro notes, but rather a guideline to some of the topics we’re discussing at the 5pmSLT Sunday meetings on Sengoku.


Japanese Philosophy

In the West we typically approach philosophy from finding the space between a set of opposites – for instance mind and matter, or self and other. In the Japanese traditions, rather, they try to find where these philosophies overlap, essentially negating that anything is separate from anything else, but rather everything is a process of apparent opposites.

Before 7th Century CE – Yamato Period
⁃ Shintoism, a native form of animism that addressed an essence within each of us and in every living thing known as “kami,” which governed the world.
⁃ respect for animals, weather, nature, and ancestors.

7th-9th Centuries CE – Asuka and Nara Periods
⁃ Confucianism and Buddhism imported from Korea and China.
⁃ “Confusianism addressed the “social self,” influencing government structure and patterns of formal behaviour.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ Buddhism focused on the workings of the inner self. The most common ideas in Buddhism are impermanence, emptiness, dependent co-origination, and the impermanence of the self.
⁃ Shotoku Taishi, the then crown prince, declared in the “Seventeen Article Constitution” (604 CE) that the goal of “philosophy as well as government was harmony, rather than competition or separation, between the traditions.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ Buddhism and Confusianism came together to allow the people to view the universe as a constantly fluctuating process, and acquire an understanding of the self as “interdependent with the social and natural worlds.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)

9th-12th Centuries CE – Heian Period
⁃ Kūkai (774-835) and Saichō (767-822) were two primary thinkers of this period. They influenced the Shingon and Tendai Buddhist schools. The main ideas they brought about were of every phenomenon as an expression of the cosmos (macro mirrored in micro) and that enlightenment, a goal of Buddhist practitioners, was not able to be attained as a concept but “was an act of the full complex of mind, body, and spirit as transformed through ritual practice.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ It was in this period that the miyabi (elegance) and (okashi) charming aesthetic themes emerged.
⁃ The philosophical ideas of impermanence (mujō) and deep ontological being or mystery (yōgen), poignancy (mono no aware) and sensitivity (ushin) were further developed.

12th-16th Centuries CE – Kamakura Period
⁃ Samurai class takes over the court life seen in the classical period, turning people to search for a religious philosophy which would lead to peaceful everyday life rather than big-picture answers. Buddhist schools such as Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren were established.
⁃ Thinkers of this time were Hōnen (1133-1212), Shinran (1173-1263), Dōgen (1200–53), and Nichiren (1222–82).
⁃ Hōnen and Shinran each founded a school of Pure Land Buddhism which focuses on faith in Amida Buddha, “the buddha of light who promises rebirth in the Pure Land to the faithful.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy) They critiqued the idea of self as an isolated ego.
⁃ Dōgen was a main figure in Zen Buddhism, known for his ideas of the self and consciousness, with a focus on zazen, a particular form of seated meditation. Zazen was developed not as a means to enlightenment but as a form of discipline as an end in itself.
⁃ Nichiren focused on the Lotus Sutra and its ideal of the bodhisattva.
⁃ The native Shintō ideas and practices were absorbed into the Buddhist traditions during this period.

17th-19th Centuries CE – Edo and Tokugawa Periods
⁃ Confucian ideas reemerged to encourage peace and stability, unifying the state to political centrality.
⁃ Bushidō, the Code of the Warrior, emerged. This code expressed ideals of loyalty, stoic self-control, and personal virtue. These are in line with, respectively, “Confucian propriety, Buddhist self-discipline, and Shintō purity of heart.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ There are two main groups of Confucian thinkers:
⁃ First are those who emerged from the neo-Confucian philosophies of Zhu Xi (Shushi; 1130-1200), Wang Yangming (Ōyōmei; 1472-1529), Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) and Nakae Tōju (1608-48). This group had some members who thought that the neo-Confucian philosophy was too abstract when detailing ri (metaphysical principle) was the structuring force of the universe – they emphasized that qi (vital force) was the main structuring force of the universe.
⁃ The next group was the school focused on the “traditional” ideas of Confucianism as presented by Confucius, which emphasized a less metaphysical view and was more concerned with the functioning of everyday lives than answering the greater picture. This school is known as the kogaku school.
⁃ During this period, a school of thought known as kokugaku emerged which held the idea of returning to the original “ancient ways” of Shintōism. They wanted to renew the ideas of mono no aware – a sensitivity to or sympathy for the things that constitute the world.

19th-Current Centuries CE – Taisho and Heisei Periods
⁃ A new word was coined during this period that was meant to be a direct translation of the English term “philosophy” – testugaku, comprised of wisdom (tetsu) and learning (gaku).
⁃ Here is when the Western constructs started to influence Japanese philosophers. The first major Japanese philosopher to use the Western style of philosophy was Nishida Kitarō (1870-1945) in his “An Inquiry into the Good” (1911). He introduced a philosophy he called “Nothingness” (mu), which fuzed the ideas of Zen and William James to come to an idea of “pure experience” based on experiential and logical experiences of judgement and action. His ideas inspired the Kyōto school of philosophy which explored the differences and similarities of Western and Eastern philosophical and religious traditions.
⁃ Nishitani Keiji (1900-1990) explored the idea of Nothingness and brought the ideas of Martin Heidegger (who he studied under), which was already arguably similar to Japanese ideas of being and existence.
⁃ Watsuji Tetsurō (1889-1960) disagreed with the ideas of Western individualism as well as Confucian collectivism, and instead posited an ethical idea of “betweenness,” as if each individual exists on a sliding scale of “individual freedom and socially imposed norms.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy).
⁃ Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962) also found a sliding scale between the universal and particular ideas, feeling that the schools of either ignore the fact of specific species. For instance, the respective schools would emphasize a person’s universal human nature or atomistic individuality. What Tanabe introduced was the idea of a person as an ethnic, national and cultural being, having an individual role as well as a universal role.
⁃ Some modern philosophers that have stuck to the traditional philosophies are Tamaki Kōshirō (1915-1999) and Nakamura Hajime (1911-1999) who follow a Buddhist tradition. Some others, such as Yuasa Yasuo (1925-2005) and Ueda Shizuteru (1926-current) focus on integrating ideas to establish a universal or global perspective rather than monocultural.


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