Why Asia?

We are Glenn and Carol Webb. We are retired academics, now living in Palm Desert, CA, in the place shown just above our picture. We have spent most of our lives studying Asia, with Kyoto, Japan as our port of call. This blog consists primarily of essays, written by me, Glenn Taylor Webb, with the input of my wife, Carol St. John Webb. I began writing most of these essays just before we retired. Some have been published, some not. Most were first presented as lectures.

Our lives were changed by what what we experienced living in two cultures. The different ways of thinking about almost everything in Japan (and Asia in general) made us examine some of our fundamental views of life. As a history professor I had to keep a certain distance between historical events and their effects. But at this stage in my life (I'm 75) I feel like sharing with friends the impact that Japan today has had on my family as well as myself. I'm still writing things down. So take a look and let me know what you think.


Monday, March 1, 2010


Beyond a Moral Compass 

In my paper “A Moral Compass” I tried to differentiate in a very general way between Eastern and Western religions by pointing out their profoundly different doctrines.  I also editorialized a bit with the recommendation that we not take the doctrines so literally that we end up losing what Karen Armstrong calls “practical compassion” or missing what Alexander McCall Smith says is the “moral compass” in all religions.

In the wake of that paper, a number of questions surfaced about Eastern religion, a couple in particular:  one concerns the worship of Buddhist images, and the other concerns the ancient Chinese traditions of Confucianism and Daoism. 
In “A Moral Compass” I purposely did not bring those issues up, and people seem to want to know why.   What follows is my response, starting with the question about Buddhist image worship.

Many people, Asian and non-Asian, have been exposed to the sight of family members or friends “worshipping” the Buddha or Buddhist images of various kinds.  They have asked why I have not included that practice in what I wrote about Buddhism in general.  That question is especially appropriate, since I am regarded by my peers as something of an expert in Buddhist iconography, or the meanings behind the statues and paintings made by Buddhists for devotional purposes. 

After years of studying Buddhist doctrine, when I actually went to Japan, Korea, China, Tibet, and Thailand, to do graduate fieldwork, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of devotional images everywhere I looked.  I wanted to study them, to know what they represented and how they were used by believers.  The same impulse had driven me much earlier in my life regarding Christian images. 

As a child growing up in the Church of Christ, a Scottish brand of Protestantism (but not, I must add, the brand known as Presbyterianism), I was taught that making and using Christian images (such as Christ on the cross, and even a simple crucifix) was idolatry.  My teachers were especially dismissive of the Roman and Orthodox Catholic faiths for their widely-known use of images (and for all the other reasons that are buried in history but still throb with pain and resentment in the Catholic/Protestant struggle.) 

In the Churches of Christ in southwestern Oklahoma and Texas there were no Christian symbols for me to see.  A typical church building was a very plain structure with the barest of essentials.  The congregation faced a speaker’s platform behind which was a built-in tank of water for baptisms.  There was a lady, however, who came to my church (and to hundreds of other Churches of Christ, I later learned) to paint scenes of the River Jordan on the three background walls of our baptistery. 

I was entranced by the realistic scene she created of a woodland setting with a stream, drawn in perspective, and a white dove floating in the blue sky above.  The river seemed to flow into the very water where at age ten I was “buried with Christ” in full emersion, “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” For me, at the time at least, such magical set-designs made up for the lack of art in the Church of Christ circle.

At a fairly young age (perhaps in reaction to the iconoclasm of my faith) I became interested in art history, which is to say Christian art.  It was not until very recently that I had the opportunity to see for myself the great monuments of Christian art in European churches and museums, but even before entering college (in 1953) I knew hundreds of them from photographs in books. 

Maybe because of this personal experience, I was not surprised to learn, in my subsequent studies of Buddhism, that there were no images made of the historical Buddha for centuries after his death.  After all, I had grown up understanding that there were no images of Jesus in the early Christian community.  So it seemed logical that the first images of Shakyamuni were not made right away. 

In my mind I guess I concluded that these two men became objects of worship only after they were long dead, when their followers needed to see their heroes.  I think I also wondered if there was not some link between them, in as much as the images of Jesus and Shakyamuni began to appear historically at roughly the same time. 

Christian images first appeared in Rome under Contantine (d. 337), and Buddhist images appeared in Pakistan and India under the Kushan Kings at about the same time.  Not only that, but the images in both places had their heads backed by golden haloes of light, signifying the transcendent nature of themselves and their teachings. 

Since many of the first Buddhist images wore toga-like robes and were made by artists from Roman outposts (such as Gandhara in Pakistan), it is a good guess that the influence went from West to East, carried by Roman converts to Buddhism.  They may have felt it was about time their newly-adopted faith in Asia had images like those in Christian Rome. 

Whatever the case, for well over 2000 years, the making of devotional images of the founders and other subjects of Buddhist and Christian veneration has flourished.  Just as it is possible to distinguish image-rich Catholicism from generally iconoclastic Protestantism in the West, similar observations can be made about which forms of Buddhism make liturgical use of images and those that do not. 

Let me say unequivocally that there is no form of Buddhism in the world that regards religious images with the disdain that the Church of Christ does in the American south and southwest.  Not even Islam, which is quick to level the charge of idolatry on other religions for daring to depict God in human form, can compare.  At least Muslim children can take pride in the rich heritage of their faith’s architecture and decorative art.

When my Sunday school teachers wanted to show me what idolatry was they pointed to the poor misguided Latin American Catholics with their churches filled with statues they brought out on festival days. Above all, my teachers snarled at statues of the Virgin Mary, the very embodiment of the corruption of Roman Catholic history.  When I said I thought that our worship of money, or even our arrogant defense of our “true” religion could be idolatry, too, they dismissed me as the spoiled brat I was.

With that in mind, I left the “use of idols” in Buddhist Asia out of my “A Moral Compass” paper.  But it must be said that every Buddhist denomination in Asia reveres religious icons, and the ideas behind them.  Even Zen temples, the Buddhist denomination with the least number of Buddha statues and paintings (and few liturgical texts governing their use in practice), have images of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom Manjushri in their meditation halls.  This image is meant to help trainees remember that they must respect deep silence over their most learned rhetoric:  in his famous debate with the scientist Vimalakirti, Manjushri came to see that both science and religious imaginings were of limited value, and useless when it came to probing the mysteries of the truly wonderful.

If Zen is less guilty of idolatry in Buddhism, Tantric and Pure Land denominations practice exactly what my upbringing would describe as idolatry.  Tantric Buddhism, which is best seen in Tibetan Buddhism, exists as well in all parts of East Asia (e.g., Tendai and Shingon in Japan.)  Of all forms of Buddhism, this one seems at first glance to be close to Hinduism, simply because of the vast number of deities in its pantheon. 

But the aim of Enlightenment in Tantric sects of Buddhism is clearly Buddhist rather than Hindu:  each of us can aim for it without actually waiting for all parts of ourselves to wake up in what amounts to universal perfection.  Each Tantric Buddha (including all forms of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and guardians) has specific names, powers, and duties of his (or her) own.  Each can be summoned by Tantric priests, and can offer assistance of an appropriate kind to supplicants.

Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the Lord Who Sees the Cries of Suffering, and best known today by “her” Chinese name, Kuanyin, is a favorite subject for statues and paintings throughout the Buddhist world.  For Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama is believed to be the present incarnation of Avalokiteshvara.  This veneration of a living Buddha is unique to Tantric Buddhism in Tibet, but it is merely another way that supernatural help is offered to individual believers who cannot easily awaken on their own. Tibetan Buddhists clearly act towards His Holiness the Dalai Lama in ways that can only be called worshipful.

They also consider some statues and paintings of specific deities to be more powerful than others.  So it seems reasonable to say that Tantric Buddhists do indeed worship Buddhas of many forms, including the historical Buddha Shakyamuni.  But they certainly are not worshipping him or any Buddha as the creator of the universe.  They are just following a form of Buddhism that allows them to seek outside help in their quest for full self realization. 

Another form of Buddhism offering help outside oneself is Pure Land Buddhism, which is based primarily on the two Sukhavati-vuya Pure Land texts.  Pure Land Buddhism (which in Japan has two branches, the Jodo-shu and the Jodoshin-shu) reserves a special place of honor for the Buddha Amitabha in its practice.  He is described as an especially compassionate Awakened Being (his name means Buddha of Infinite Light and Love”) who made a holy vow to bring all forms of life in all castes or states of being, regardless of their karmic past, into a karma-free realm, or Pure Land, where they can escape the chain of rebirth long enough to purify themselves and return to the karmic level, finishing their lives as useful creatures fit for Buddhahood.

This version of Buddhist doctrine (which a Theravadin priest in Thailand once described to me, with a twinkle in his eye, as “the most creative form of Mahayana Buddhism”) was born in China to appeal especially to the laboring masses who had little opportunity to develop their minds and practice the meditation required to reach the higher spiritual levels that are the goals in most sects of Buddhism. 

At the same time, the founders of Pure Land Buddhism were suggesting that even the most spiritually mature person, on his own effort, was still incapable of living the sort of selfless life of wisdom and compassion that would lead to a breakthrough into Buddhahood. All of us, Pure Land Buddhists say, need help; and of all the help offered by Awakened Beings in Buddhist scripture, the holy vow made by the Buddha Amitabha is clearly the surest way for all sentient beings to follow.

The Chinese Communist Revolution altered Buddhism and all religions there forever by banning them for thirty years and then allowing them to open for business again under government control.  In China the Pure Land form of Buddhist practice is almost indistinguishable from other denominations; it is so mixed with others that “Buddhism” serves as the government’s general term to refer to all. 

As a result, Chinese Pure Land temples often includes Zen meditation as well as the
chanting of Amitabha’s name. The fat and dirty 8th-century Zen monk/hero, nicknamed “Cloth Bag” (Pu Tai, known as Hotei in Japan) frequently takes the place of the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya, on Chinese temple altars.  And I have seen quite a few images of Daoist deities in Chinese Buddhist temples, looking not the least bit out of place.

Buddhist denominational differences are preserved in Japan like countless other foreign things that were brought into the country hundreds and hundreds of years ago.  So I will use the Pure Land tradition there to make a general comment on what that denomination may have looked like anywhere in East Asia between the 12th and 19th centuries.

There are two forms of Pure Land doctrine in Japan, one following on the heels of the other, historically speaking.  Honen (1133-1212), established the faith in Japan, following Chinese teachers who emphasized the necessity of chanting the name of the Buddha Amitabha as a sign of devotion and faith in his holy vow to “save” the faithful in his Pure Land (J. Jodo).  But Honen’s disciple Shinran took the teaching to an even simpler level.  Faith alone, coming from a pure heart of dependence, was all that was necessary. 

Therefore, the underlying focus of Pure Land Buddhism is tenaciously on the Buddha of Infinite Light and Love.  But the means of focus is vocal in one branch of the faith (Jodo-shu) – with endless repetition of the name of Amitabha in prayer bringing the believer into a state of utter devotion, while the focus on the Holy Vow of Amitabha in the other branch (Jodo Shin-shu) is silent, buried deep in the believer’s heart, without any outward sign of self effort.

Pure Land temples in Japan are almost as austere as Zen temples, except for the focus on Amitabha.  A statue of him is always the main image on the altar, with the Chinese Pure Land patriarch Shantao on one side and Honen on the other.  In Jodo-shu temples another statue of Amitabha will be in a room where serious group chanting (nembutsu) can be done, with each person supplied with a copy of scripture and a small percussion block known as a “Wooden Fish” (mokugyo) to set the rhythmic beat.

All of this is not so far from Christian evangelical worship, with chanting taking the place of praise songs and Amitabha standing in for a personal Jesus.  Even though the Buddhist focus is not on a personal God in Heaven, it is just too close for me to feel comfortable, in either place.  At the risk of sounding foolish (but still wanting to explain why I left Tantric and Pure Land practices out of my previous attempt to put Eastern and Western religions in perspective), I would say that for me Tantric Buddhism is too Catholic and Pure Land Buddhism is too Protestant. 

Now, as to the question of Daoism and Confucianism, and why I chose not to mention them in my “Moral Compass” paper, the simple answer is I consider them to be stuck in a view of reality that inherently excludes half the world.  At first the Western religions were similarly stuck, appealing only to people in the ancient Near East, but gradually going international.  Anyone can convert to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.  The same is true of Buddhism, which had a huge boost from the person we speak of as the historical Buddha in India.  Just as Jesus (with Paul’s help) opened up Judaism by making his new form of Jewishness available to everyone, Shakyamuni likewise opened up the Brahmanic view to all humanity, by challenging the Hindu caste system of laws governing each caste in Indian society, and giving everyone the same law (Dharma) to live by.  From that time onward, anyone has been free to convert to Buddhism.

But the ancient Chinese view of the way the world works has ancestral trappings that prevent the conversion-friendly nature of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism from ever developing.  For this reason, Westerners attracted to Daoism, for example, study it as a philosophy rather than adopt it as a religion. Confucianism is a bit friendlier, at least to East Asians, because it provides practical solutions to everyday problems.  But it, too, when fully carried out to the letter, requires practitioners to honor (and yes, worship) their ancestors above all else.  The major East West religions, on the other hand, are transcendental rather than ancestral. 

Every civilization on earth began its journey towards religion with ancestor worship, which we normally speak of as folk religion.  Such “religions” predate the transcendental religions we’ve been looking at.  Daoism and Confucianism, despite developing philosophical traditions of great beauty, are tied to the oldest ancestor worship systems in North, East, and Southeast Asia.  Some are still alive today (none more plainly so than Japanese Shinto.) Ancestor worship in India before Hinduism is not alive today as a separate entity, but the hints of it we have seen are un-Chinese.

Relics found in ancient Chinese tombs, as well as in modern ones, show the clearest evidence of the ancestor worship that drove Daoism and Confucianism from the outset.  Oracle-bone geomancy going back some 2000 years before the Christian era reveals that maintaining a harmonious relationship between heaven and earth was always the goal of the Chinese people. That goal was given the name Dao (Tao) or Way, and was thought to be made up of two opposing elements:  the earthly-dark-wet-female Yin and heavenly-light-dry-male Yang. 

The ancient Chinese assumed that before being born we were in a state of perfect harmony in the Dao.  But once we enter this world we face a life-long struggle to achieve a balance between Yin and Yang.  Such harmony in life, filled with the spirit-breath of life-and-death known as Chi, was believed to be almost impossible to achieve.  So when a person died it was left to his living relatives to assist him achieve a harmonious spirit.

Through ritual burial offerings of food, bronze vessels, money, paintings and statues, the Yin-inspired part of the dead would be persuaded not to stay unhappy and incomplete in the dark earth but to reunite with its Yang-inspired part in the life-giving heat of the sun.  These offerings also added to the inadequate supply of spirit-breath that the dead may have achieved in life.

The ancient Confucian classics– especially the Book of Changes (I-Zhing) and the Book of Ritual (Li-Zhing) – offer precise instructions as to how the living should maintain harmony in the family through ancestor worship.  In its bare outlines, fathers are in charge of families, regional rulers are over families, the emperor is head of the entire nation, and heaven is over the emperor. 

Such division into high and low is the foundation of Confucian morality.  It was also incorporated in folk religions in much of Asia.  Male-dominant societies are nothing new (in fact, they are still with us), but the Confucian sense of high/low is not only sexist, it also contains a certain elitist element that says the brightest people are obviously superior to the not-so-bright, and the wealthy people are educated, thus probably superior, etc.  In short, the high are superior and the low are inferior. 

Because of the Daoist/Confucian answer to what happens after we die, there is an implied responsibility on the high to take care of the low and a deeply felt duty on the part of the “inferior” to obey the commandments of the “superior”.  The relationship is that of parent to child and child to parent. Bottom line:  children will feel obliged to defend and correct the faults of dead parents without fail, and expect their children to do the same for them.

I hear Westerners say all the time that so-and-so is looking down on them from heaven.  And Jewish, Christian and Islamic doctrines do not suffer very much as a result.  But ask almost anyone in Buddhist Asia if they believe their ancestral spirits are alive and must be honored by daily rituals; they will say yes, which puts them in open conflict with basic Buddhist doctrine, which teaches that within forty-nine days after we die we are reborn in a form of our own karmic creation (unless, of course, we have attained full awakening as a Buddha.) Old beliefs die hard, and are often retained, sometimes in formal ways.  

Japan is a case in point:  when Buddhism was established in the 6th century as the state religion, about half the nation’s Shinto priest families, who had been in the business of keeping family records straight for centuries, were asked by the new Buddhist government to allow their sons to become Buddhist priests, who then became heads of families responsible for educating children and preparing bodies for Buddhist cremations.  Shinto priest families merely continued attending to newborns and overseeing their stages of growth, including the arranged marriages that keep things in the family. 

Buddhism thus had a steady supply of priests in the eldest sons of many Shinto priest families whose class identity before the 6th century had been as priests in “the Way of the Gods”. Buddhism was formally acknowledged in Shinto as “Both Aspect” (Ryobu)  Shinto, in which every ancestral spirit was also identified as a specific Buddhist deity.  Carried into ordinary Japanese life, most families have both Shinto and Buddhist altars in their homes to honor the dead in both aspects.  

My students are used to hearing me say that Shinto is not a religion, but a national ancestral organization.  It has played a vital role in Japanese history, longer than Buddhism.  But it is not a religion that people outside of Japan can convert to.  To put it another way, when a Japanese person goes to a Shinto shrine on some important occasion, such as when an infant child is brought to be formally introduced to the ancestral gods enshrined there and receive their blessing, the person and the child must be Japanese.  The idea that a non-Japanese person (even one of mixed race) would participate in such a ritual is unthinkable.

On the other hand, my wife and I have lived in Japan long enough, and have so many dear Japanese friends, that we have been asked to participate in Shinto birth ceremonies and weddings.  On one occasion we acted as the official go-betweens (nakodo) in a wedding, for which we had to have the approval of the Shinto national registry, but only after we ourselves were registered as members of a Japanese family rather than the foreigners we are.

This is a very long answer to the questions about idolatry and ancestor worship in Buddhism, which I now must admit exist in Eastern cultures in the ways I have described.  But I would offer the plea to realize that these elements are not at the core of the Eastern religious mainstream, e.g., Hinduism and Buddhism. 

They do not altar in any way the vast difference between the theistic world of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and the atheistic world of Hinduism and Buddhism.  I would say the worship of transcendental images in Asia is probably a relic of a premature religious consciousness, in which ancestor worship played a vital part, and which has indeed had an effect on how people in the Eastern cultures of our world live their lives, now as in the past.

- Glenn T. Webb, in Palm Desert, May 19, 2009.

No comments:

Post a Comment