Buddhism religion premise

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.

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