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


(From a seminar, “Buddhism and Christianity:  American and Japanese Moralities” – presented with three other Asian specialists with Christian backgrounds at Bukkyo University Los Angeles, March 14, 2009.)

- by Glenn T. Webb

General Comments About Morality East and West.

Let me begin by confessing to you that in my remarks about morality I will be dividing the world up into East and West.  I do that partly for convenience, but mostly because I believe the division is useful, even though what constitutes East and West today is a topic of hot debate. 

For my purposes here, religion is the deciding factor for me that distinguishes East and West:  Jews, Christians and Muslims make up the West, whereas Hindus and Buddhists constitute the East.  Their respective views of reality (and morality) are fascinating to me, the one coming out of the ancient Near East, and the other out of South Asia.

Monotheism – a religious view based on the concept of a world created by an almighty God, who will reward or punish His creatures justly – is the religion of the West; in contrast, the religion of the East is by Western standards a form of atheism, based on the concept of a world enslaved by individual selfhood, but capable of transforming itself into a consciousness without the division into self and other.

Over the half-century that I have been involved in studying and teaching about Asia, and particularly Japan, I have come to realize that Western and Eastern ideas on morality are quite different, both in theory and in practice. 

There are similarities, of course, but in general, the struggle between good and evil, which consumes Western cultures seems not to be the focus of morality as defined in Eastern cultures.  Or maybe it would be better to say that the definitions of good and evil are not the same for the people on both sides.  The struggle may be the same.

In the West good is aligned with God, the creator of the universe.  Evil is tied to the source of evil, the Devil or mankind itself (depending on which Western religion we investigate.)  God is in charge of His creatures, and they can rely on Him and His Word. 

To the extent that Jews, Christians and Muslims behave the way the Creator instructs them to behave, they are good.  To the extent that they do not, they are bad. God and man can never be one.  They remain separate forever.  God is the subject, the creator, and mankind is the object, the created.

But for Hindus and Buddhists, subject and object can be one. To put the matter crudely, there is no God in charge of them.  Instead, they understand that their own actions have created the reality they find themselves in.  They are obliged to cope, as best they can, with whatever karmic consequences they have created.  They themselves are their own creators.  (More about this later, and my apologies to you specialists out there who would rather not hear my explanations!)

Salvation for Westerners is not really comparable to the Enlightenment sought by Easterners.  For Jews, Christians and Muslims, perfection is following God through the teachings of the Hebrew prophets, or of God’s son Jesus, or God’s final prophet Mohammed, and being united with God after death in Heaven for eternity.  That is their reward.  Their punishment, for not following God’s law, is eternal life in a Hell of fire.

Life’s goal for Hindus and Buddhists is a return to an ideal state of compassion and wisdom, in which individual consciousness is overcome and a non-differentiated state of selfless union with all being is achieved.  For Hindus that perfection will come, eventually, after all of us return to our inter-connected Self.  For Buddhists, such perfection can be attained individually as enlightened beings (Buddhas). 

In both cases, the underlying assumption is that we will have to struggle with ourselves in many, many lifetimes – reincarnations as animals and spirits as well as humans – before any perfection, collective or individual, is reached.  

Carter Ratcliff, a contemporary poet and art critic, has written something I like very much.  He says, “We create our world as we make sense of it.”   This is a lovely notion that comes pretty close to Hindu and Buddhist teachings. 

His statement sets up the puzzle created by our perception of something and the source of that perception (i.e., us.) Modern physics plays with that puzzle all the time in various ways. Basically, it says that we are not separate from other things.

For Buddhists the statement resonates in the sense that everything we see, hear, taste, feel and know or imagine is linked to our individual self-concerns, preventing us from seeing things as they truly are.  Our sense of what is real is linked to who we are.  We give shape and meaning to a world, investing it with our incomplete understanding of it.

And yet that incomplete or illusory world that we perceive contains the potential reality of the way things truly are, according to Buddhism.  Indeed, our reflection, in terms of our thoughts and actions, is our only means of reaching the Buddha-self or self-as-other, in which the oneness of all being is realized. 

Ratcliff’s statement would be interpreted quite differently, I am sure, by Jews, Christians and Muslims, whose definition of truth is based on our relationship to the God of Creation, and how closely we follow His instructions. 

Far from viewing the world as illusory or reflective of perfection, the major Western religions claim that the world is real, but that it is intrinsically evil, and in need of moral correction.  Then it is up to us as individuals to make the correction, which will be judged successful or not, according to God’s grace on the Day of Judgment. 

Christian Morality in the United States and Buddhist Morality in Japan.

In this seminar paper I will give a brief account of some
of the moral teachings I learned growing up in a Christian household.  Then I will contrast those with what I have learned about Buddhist morality during my years of studying, training, and teaching in Japan.

Christian moral values were featured recently in an issue of The Desert Christian News, published in Palm Desert, CA where my wife and I live.  According to that issue, the main challenges are abortion, sex, money and drugs.

The modern Christian attitude towards money is that it is good. It is no longer necessary for Christians to be poor to go to heaven.  Drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crystal-meth are to be avoided.  Drinking alcohol in moderation is OK.  Prescription drugs are quite alright.  On those points Japanese Buddhists today would agree.

The Japanese attitude toward money has always been positive.  Buddhist scriptures recommend living simply and being generous. Everyone was poor after the war, but today every Japanese person I know works hard and maintains a high standard of living.  The government favors a high-tax social welfare policy that protects people from falling through the cracks. 

As for drugs, Buddhism says addictions of any kind are out of bounds, and Japanese law offers a bold assist:  you can be arrested and imprisoned for life if the slightest amount of recreational drugs are in your possession.  Alcohol is part of everyday life, and alcoholism is a problem in Japan. 

Killing and sexual immorality are the hot topics that offer the most surprising insights into the different ways that Americans and Japanese view the world.  So my principal focus in this paper will be on abortion and sex in Buddhist Japan and Protestant Christian America.


The act of taking the life of another human being is certainly a sin for Christians of all denominations.  But the Desert Christian newspaper article examines only one kind of murder:  abortion.  It is not to be undertaken, period.  We should not even approve of stem-cell research because it may require the use of aborted fetuses.

On the other hand, for all Christians, murder  in war, because we  must defend our people and loved ones.  Even a pre-emptive strike against an enemy is OK to prevent future possible attacks against us. 

I grew up near a U. S. military base, Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.  And my father was a chaplain during World War II.  I learned to pray for our soldiers, that they would be victorious against our enemies, and come home safe to the loving arms of their families.  I prayed in the name of Christ.  I cheered during newsreels showing Japanese ships and airplanes being destroyed by Americans.

These acts of murder are OK because Christians can ask God’s forgiveness for the sin.  We are pretty sure of forgiveness.  So we can go into a crusade against our enemies, using weapons of mass destruction against them before they use them on us, for example, with a clear conscience.  We are protecting everyone by destroying the evil people in the world, and that is a good thing, as long as we do it in God’s name.

Whether this view of morality as it applies to murder is attractive or not, it is the good-versus-evil and forgiveness-versus-punishment approach that Christian theology champions.  It is clear enough.  We’ve perceived its truth in at least 1300 years of Western culture.

In Christianity one can pray to God for forgiveness for murder, and Jews and Muslims can pray that God will be on their side in a conflict.  But in Buddhism there is no Creator of the Universe to pray to for forgiveness or justification.  To put it simply, there is no forgiveness to be had.  Even killing in self-defense is no excuse.  The teaching truly is, “what goes around comes around.”

Buddhism warns that we have countless lives to live before we truly wake up to the oneness of all being (Buddhahood).  Only if we somehow manage to stop making all the karmic mistakes that cause us to be reborn in different forms, will the wheel of rebirth stop turning, spitting us out in the Buddha-realm of true, non-differentiated selfhood.  Murder is a serious mistake, leading away from the Buddha-self not towards it. 

A Buddhist killer’s next life will be incomparably harder than the one he killed in.  Indeed, any action we take in this life that is selfish and unkind will shape a future life for us that is harder to bear than the present one.  Like other Buddhists, all Japanese understand that to be a law every bit as true as the law of gravity.

Killing someone on the battlefield or in a civilian context is characteristically a cardinal sin in Christianity, but is sanctioned in Judaism and Islam.  If anything, murder qualifies as a more serious crime in Buddhism than it does in Christianity.  There is simply no excuse for it.  Killing others brings karmic results that cannot be avoided, even if it is done defensively (as it is in all Asian martial arts.)

Much has been written about the collaboration of Buddhist priests in the Pacific War, most of it critical.  And justly so, for Buddhism does not sanction the brutality of the Japanese military in places such as Nanking and Manila during WWII.  Buddhism has no doctrine that would excuse the ruthlessness of Japan’s military during the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Perhaps the war was simply a nationalistic crusade, waged in the name of the emperor and the nation.  The Japanese people at the time were taught to regard the war as an effort to “help” people in the occupied areas do things in the Japanese way, either for the good of the areas or of Japan itself.  But clearly, the effort failed. 

The official prayers offered by Japanese government officials for the spirits of the “war criminals” at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo are seen by outsiders as some sort of sick homage or worship of evil men.  But in terms of Japan’s unique Buddhist heritage, these offerings may represent nothing more than a national hope for the safe passage of the dead through their difficult karmic destinies.

Now, I was not even aware, growing up, what abortion was, much less that it was murder.  I’m sure Catholic children were aware, but in the 1930’s young Protestants of all stripes heard very little about abortion at all. 

In my teens I learned that Catholic Christians regarded abortion as murder.  Once I learned what abortion was I, too, was appalled by the bloody mess I imagined it to be, but it was not something my church talked about.  It seems a bit strange to me that in recent years the Protestant Evangelical Christian community has become united with Catholic Christians in a war against abortion clinics and doctors.  

One would expect that abortion would be as heinous to a Japanese Buddhist as any other form of killing.  But it is not.  Abortion is socially accepted in Japan.  It could even be called the fail-safe method of birth control if condoms don’t work.  Artificial means such as the pill are avoided as too damaging to the chemical balance of human physiology. 

But why in the first place do Japanese feel they should limit the number of children that are born?   I see two reasons:  (1) because educating children is a parent’s duty and (2) because doing that is expensive. 

Japanese society says you should not bring a child into the world unless you have enough money to pay its way from kindergarten through college.  The prevailing Japanese attitude seems to be that overpopulation is a “foreign” problem, because Japanese would never bring unplanned children into the world.

My Japanese female students point to one more very important reason for aborting a fetus:  they want careers rather than the onerous job of being a Japanese mother, who from marriage to grave must pay all bills and fix all meals for her family.  Few young women today are willing to take on the role that tradition makes wives and mothers play.

The loss of a career, as well as a lack of money, can thus be reasons for Japanese couples not having children.  Not surprisingly, Japan has the lowest birthrate in the world.

Buddhism, Japan’s state religion, recognizes that abortion is murder.  And it appears that parents who abort their children understand they will pay a price in their next lives for their actions.  Nevertheless, the Japanese state has created high tech methods for doing abortions quickly and efficiently in every Japanese hospital.

So a Japanese woman facing an unwanted pregnancy finds support from her society.  Surprisingly, she will find it from her religion, as well.  Even though she faces karmic consequences in her next life, Buddhism offers her some consolation.  There are Buddhist rituals to help parents “keep in touch” with the children whom they aborted or witnessed die before their time. 

Buddhist temples in any Japanese neighborhood enshrines images of the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha (J. Jizo), a kind of patron saint for aborted children.  At those temples (and in Shinto shrines as well), parents can write notes to their lost babies on wooden tablets called ema, reminiscing on how old they would be had they lived and how much they are missed.  The ema are collected and displayed for a while, later they are put in a storehouse, and finally they are burned in a ritual with appropriate Buddhist services.

For a student of Buddhism the Japanese practice of abortion seems puzzling on many levels.  Reincarnation is based on the notion that rebirth is likely for everyone, and that after death there are 49 days for the karmic entity we call ourselves to find its next form.  Even an aborted child is said to have a karmic past that resulted in the abortion, as well as the form it takes after the 49-day period.

But the way all Japanese “keep in touch” with their dead, including aborted children, flies in the face of that teaching. Every Japanese person I know assumes that dead relatives are still watching what goes on in life.  Memorial services for the deceased go on for fifty years, but long beyond that people continue to “talk” to their dead.  This seems to be the part of Shintoism that all Japanese take for granted.
Because of Japan’s unique brand of Buddhism, mixed as it is with pre-Buddhist social custom, I don’t think many Japanese worry about the karmic consequences of abortion. Even if they know abortion is murder and creates karmic consequences, it’s as though that knowledge itself is somehow inconsequential.

One final note on murder in Japan, before I leave the subject:  suicide is surely a form of murder, but it, like abortion, has a place of honor in Japanese history.  Families of samurai rank, who constitute the military class in Japan, have always been allowed to commit suicide for a noble cause. 

In Japanese history, entire families have taken their lives after losing a battle.  For them to live and go into hiding would be selfish.  If they continued to fight that could also be seen as selfish.  Their resistance in the face of a stronger or more popular foe might be a futile show of self-righteous obstructionism and as dishonorable as losing a fight.  But they could ritually disembowel themselves (commit seppuku) and thus remove themselves from a position of stubborn resistance.  Indeed, they were expected to do so gladly. The samurai legacy of honor is protected in Buddhist memorial services similar to those for aborted children. 

Some Japanese suicides are not honorable, however. Any suicide committed out of personal pain or despair is dishonorable. “Love suicides” are the themes of popular stories and stage-plays about young people (usually from two different classes) who kill themselves rather than go by society’s rules.  While society officially frowns on such displays of selfishness, audiences have enjoyed shedding tears over the power of love (much as Western audiences have wept over the deaths of young Romeo and Juliet.)

It must be said that Buddhists outside Japan are dismayed by the acceptance of abortion and suicide in Japanese culture.  There are Buddhist scriptures that condone such acts of protest as those of Vietnamese priests and nuns who burned themselves to death during the 1970’s.  But as a general rule, any taking of life is almost unthinkable to most Buddhists, who remain pacifists to the end.


The Western view of sex makes three important claims:  (1) the naked body is an object of sexual desire, (2) that desire is good only when it is satisfied with a naked person of a sex not your own, and (3) sexual desire is actually bad unless it is satisfied with a spouse for the express purpose of creating a baby.  To one degree or another -- from conservative to liberal -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have embraced that view of sex, and still do.

In short, as the Desert Christian News makes abundantly clear, the traditional family is to be preserved, sexual abstinence is to be practiced until marriage, adultery is to be condemned (but can be overlooked if confessed and forgiven by God), and homosexuality is a choice that must be declined because it is among the greatest sins ever.

I can remember as a child a woman in my church who was divorced by her husband.  State law granted divorce only in cases of adultery.  My church elders said she was to be forgiven but that she should not remarry.  No man asked her.  And so she did not. 

She was shunned, a marked woman for life.  We might as well have put a red “A” on her forehead.  Another woman in the same church divorced her husband (presumably on the grounds of his adultery), but she was encouraged to remarry and did.  Her ex-husband remarried as well.  
All of this was very confusing to me.  It gave me insight into a world I could only imagine at the time, in somewhat the same way that diagrams in my textbooks on human sexuality did.  But none of it seemed real to me.  All I saw was the emotional pain and suffering sex caused some people, but not others.  It seemed unfair somehow, in as much as it came from my religion, and from people (the elders and church members) who were not even the main people involved. 

Furthermore, this emotional pain associated with sex was in addition to its physical pain.  I had heard my mother say often enough that giving birth to a child was very painful business, so it seemed clear to me that sex was the cause of every sort of pain possible. 

Later I also saw the hypocrisy that seemed to go with sex, when church kids would make out under bleachers after basketball games or in the bus on band trips and then turn up at church on Sunday as though nothing had happened.  The straw that broke everything for me was when the minister himself was dismissed for sexual misconduct. 

No wonder human sexuality is such a problem!  No wonder we had to have rules to bring a moral dimension to the question of sex.  In terms of my own life, it was enough to make me want to have nothing to do with sex.  But that was not possible.  I got married at 20.  It may be more than luck (the fear of God?) that we are still married after 52 years, and that neither of us has had sex with anyone else. 

Just as the widespread Japanese practice of abortion may be shocking to pro-life Christians in America, who attach the “immoral” label to that particular form of murder, there are practical things in the Japanese view of sex that will turn the stomachs of conservative Christians.  Those things challenge attitudes that Westerners may consider universal.

Buddhism is clear in condemning sexual immorality.  But sex becomes immoral only when it is an addiction that robs us of our ability to practice loving kindness and see life as it truly is.  Sexual satisfaction that is selfish, demeaning, or manipulative is immoral.  Sex, and any behavior that brings emotional or physical harm to others is immoral. 

Celibacy is required of Buddhist priests (in all countries except Japan) to help them focus on their duties without family pressures.  As a matter of fact, a celibate Buddhist priesthood probably did not develop in India and the rest of Asia until the time of Kanishka, some 800 years after the historical Buddha’s death. 

While celibate priests have been the norm in Buddhist countries in Asia since the 2nd century, priestly celibacy never really was popular in Japan because of the prevailing view that a married priesthood was necessary:  Buddhist (and Shinto) priests were to marry women from other priest families so that the priest class could perpetuate itself.

Out of the hundreds of Japanese Buddhist priests I’ve known personally, of every denomination, only two were unmarried.  Since all Protestant Christian priests and ministers also are allowed to marry (and only Catholic priests are to be celibate) this may not seem remarkable. 

But the Buddhist and Japanese view of adultery turns things upside down for Christians.  Sex is not seen by Buddhists as intrinsically sinful or immoral.  Nor is it deemed so by Christians (as long as emphasis is placed on producing children rather than having fun.) 

However, Buddhism does not condemn sex outside marriage.  Adultery is not by definition immoral by Buddhist standards.  Even though I have known only two unmarried Buddhist priests in Japan, I have every reason to assume they were not celibate. 

In Japan, adultery is not only not immoral, it is tolerated, sometimes even in a formal way.  Marriage in Japan is a coming together of two families more than it is something two people in love feel they must do. The Japanese divorce rate is the lowest in the world precisely because marriage involves so much more than the two people directly involved:  their families, with centuries of documentation behind them, were brought together in a Shinto ceremony, turning two lineages into one.  The last thing thinkable is that the marriage (and family merger) be dissolved. 

If one or the other of a married couple wishes to go outside of the marriage for sex, or any other kind of companionship, that is acceptable.  But divorce is not.  There often is a social stigma attached to sex outside of marriage, but it is slight, and much easier tolerated than adultery in the West. 

In this regard, it is important to note that homosexuality, too, is not viewed as intrinsically sinful or immoral in Buddhism, but is merely condemned when it, like any other sexual behavior becomes obsessive.   It is recognized and tolerated in Japan, and has always been.  Documented cases in Japan involving marriages between one heterosexual partner and one homosexual partner are well known.  In those cases, sex outside marriage is taken for granted by all parties concerned. 

Another astounding development regarding marriage practices in Japan has developed rather recently.  Young couples are not bothering to register their marriages even after going through an elaborate ceremony.  This relieves them of the traditional responsibilities involving their two families, and gives them the freedom to separate any time either of them wishes. 

Almost every “real” Japanese marriage today consists of the formal registration at a city office, a formal Shinto ceremony uniting the two families (ancestors as well as living relatives) in a single lineage, followed by a “Christian” ceremony with the bride dressed in a white-gown and groom in white-tie-and-tails. 

The wedding ends in a reception (with the couple in another change of clothes) for hundreds of wedding guests.  Each guest brings crisp new bills from the bank (going rate in 2008 at least $300 per person) in a silk envelope.  In return, each guest receives a bag filled with gifts from the two families.  The value of those gifts may equal or even surpass the amount of money-gifts received.

The unregistered marriages so popular of late require only the last two parts.  Hotels and “marriage palaces” now have real or fake priests and ministers on payroll to take the wedding couple through their paces.  Many of the “clergy” are actually students who came to Japan to teach English and ended up staying to learn Japanese.  Some of them can actually conduct the ceremony in Japanese, using the standard Christian routine – from the marriage at Cana to “Let no man put asunder…” 

Almost never are the bride and groom practicing Christians. 
Christians have a right to be shocked at this widespread practice in Japan, but they might take comfort in the dreamy romanticism of the occasion, the “walking down the virgin road,” which in most cases will never again be repeated in any Japanese couple’s life.  There are also prayers asking for God’s blessing, and in some cases a time of “partaking of Christ’s body and blood” in a faux Eucharist.

Many Japanese couples, regardless of whether they actually register the marriage or not, find it much simpler (and cheaper) to have the Christian wedding ceremony in the United States (Anaheim Disneyland is a favorite venue) than to go through the ordeal in Japan.

My last remarks on sex have to do with nudity.  I know nobody in Japan who equates nudity with sex.  After all, people there have been going to public baths (sento) and hot springs (onsen) for 2000 years or more.  Adults and children of both sexes bathed together in the time honored way:  scrubbing down with soap, rinsing off, and then stepping into a scaldingly hot pool of waist-deep water where they chatted with relatives and neighbors about the latest news around town.  Most Japanese consider this pure bliss.

In short, taking off your clothes was what you did before you got clean in Japan.  If anything, having some of your clothes on during sex was one of the things that made sex interesting.  Until MacArthur insisted on a separation of sexes in the pool there was none.  And even then the demarcation line was just that:  a rope strung across the pool, which divided families in a very unnatural way.

I suppose this, more than anything else having to do with sexual morality, was difficult for my wife and me to adjust to when we went to live in Japan for the first time in 1964. Even though we had a traditional furo bath in our house (provided by the Fulbright Commission), the process of lighting the fire from outside our house to heat the water, and the time it took to finish the job, made going to the public bath easier.  Besides, our sons enjoyed going there more than anything in the world. 

At the very least, the Japanese custom of nude bathing made us question the notion that the very sight of a woman’s face, much less her bare breasts, might cause a man to be aroused. My Islamic students at Pepperdine were even more puzzled when they heard about this in my classes.  (Especially when I assured them I had never seen an aroused Japanese male in places where males and females were bathing together.) 


All of this bewildering shuffling of moral teachings, centered as they are on some basic views about life that don’t seem so different regardless of where they came from originally, has left me hopeful rather than pessimistic. 

If one looks at some of the recent studies pointing out the historical and existential dangers hidden in our religions, we have every right to feel frightened.  Sam Harris, for example, in his The End of Faith (Norton, 2004), makes a convincing case when he writes, “A glance at history … reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion.”

Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well was all about sharing religious views in love.  Perhaps the real purpose of this seminar may be to learn how to do that without fighting over matters of right and wrong.   In his gospel the Apostle John (in John 4:9) remarks that Jesus’ kind words to the Samaritan woman was unusual because “Jews do not share things with Samaritans.”  

In that case I can say that my experience in Japan, living there, learning from ordinary Japanese, and training with Buddhist priests, has forced me to “share things with others” rather than argue with them over things I once considered obviously wrong.  A great weight has been lifted off my shoulders.  Maybe we don’t need to prove who is right. 

In 1965 the abbot of the first Zen temple I trained in asked me to teach the Bible to him and his disciples.  He explained his request to me at the time by saying, “Of course we know something about Christianity.  But your presence here is a chance for my disciples to learn about themselves through you.” 

His quickness to see himself in others impresses me now even as it did then.  How many Christian priests or pastors would think of asking a Japanese priest to teach Buddhism in their Sunday school? 

For that matter, how many Christian churches have held a seminar like this one in Los Angeles?

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