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.



I recently was one of four American scholars presenting papers in a seminar on East/West morality at the Los Angeles campus of a Japanese Buddhist University.  The president of the school chose us to present our views, first because we are fairly well-known specialists in Asian religion, and second because we are Caucasians who grew up in Christian households. 

Only about a third of the audience was Japanese or Japanese Americans, for whom Buddhism was the inherited faith.  The rest consisted of non-Japanese who had some interest in Buddhism.  A few had even taken priest vows in one denomination of Buddhism or another.  Some, like us, were from Christian families (I know of one Catholic priest in the audience), but the religion in the room was Buddhism.

Out of the four of us on the podium, three of us attended the University of Chicago in the early 1960’s, where we were influenced by the late Joseph Kitagawa.  Also, we were personally influenced by the Zen scholar Masao Abe and his famous teachers, Daisetsu Suzuki and Shinichi Hisamatsu.  On the Christian side, two of us came from the Church of Christ tradition, one from the Dutch Reform movement, and one (who is himself a Jesuit priest) from the Roman Catholic community.

We were asked to reflect in our papers on the moral lessons we brought from our Christian heritage while at the same time offering the audience insights into what we had learned of Buddhist (and Hindu) morality, with as many personal examples as possible. 

The focus of one paper was on the writer’s growing appreciation for Hinduism while he was in India doing research.  Another paper pointed out how the Christian parable of the “good Samaritan” is really directed at Jewish leaders who were missing the real point of Jewish law by being too bound by purification rituals that separated Jews from non-Jews.  One more paper praised the Japanese cultural trait of carefully considering the needs and feelings of others (omoi-yari) before saying or doing anything of a more selfish nature.  My own paper was a bit out of place and controversial, in that I brought up some topics that are condoned as practical legal matters in Japan but vilified as sinful and immoral by some Americans, such as abortion, adultery and homosexuality. 

The discussion of our papers at the time was lively and insightful.  For my part, I came away thinking that we all were talking about the moral compass that makes us declare some behaviors moral and other behaviors immoral.  My own moral compass comes from religion, mainly.  And that may be so for most people.  But for many the source may not be religion at all, especially if they grew up untutored in, opposed to, or just uninterested in the subject.

Alexander McCall Smith, a medical lawyer, has lived most of his life in Africa and is the author of some charming books about practical morality.  His multi-volume No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is a case in point (both in print and in a popular television series directed by Anthony Minghella.) 

McCall Smith has said our “search for a moral compass” is widespread today because we have seen that “just doing what we want doesn’t work very well…” The point he makes is that we need a moral compass to give  “moral structure” to our lives.  His implication seems to be that our religions, the sources of our moral compass, are outdated.

The author implies that women in South Africa’s Botswana have a keener sense of what is right and wrong, at least in practical terms, than men do.  And while the theological source for their moral compass is Abrahamic, the way they deal with everyday justice is not always in strict accordance with Christian or Islamic law.

In fundamentalist interpretations of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scripture, the punishments for immorality can be severe indeed – everything from ostracism, to cutting off arms and legs, to death by stoning, to everlasting hell are included in all these Abrahamic faiths.  Sexual sins receive the severest punishments.  The sense of living in accordance with God’s commandments or else… is very strong. 

This fundamentalist radicalism is what McCall Smith suggests the modern world has discarded, even among followers of Western religions.  The charm of his books, at least in part, is how his female characters get to the bottom of things, solving problems by dealing with practical matters first and fine points of the law second.  In the process we can see the absurdity of some of our religious teachings, and how the women manage to respect the core values of those teachings without actually inflicting harsh punishments.  In the end they retain the moral compass of the law and discard the rest as so much garbage. 

People who are familiar with McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series usually see and applaud the wisdom of the female characters’ solutions to moral and ethical problems.  They can see the practical logic that springs from the ladies’ religious faith.  The women sometimes bend or break rules that men might insist are part of the religion (in this case, the Christianity that Catholic and Protestant missionaries brought to the country), and their struggle to outwit the men can often be very funny. 

Some critics laugh at their antics only because the women try so hard to hang onto the religions that provide their moral compass.  But my sense of them is that they are not funny clowns but are closer to being saints or even angels.  I think of them as cousins to the characters in much of Mark Twain.  Just as Twain’s characters speak in a distinct and dying dialect, the Botswanans in McCall Smith’s stories speak an accented British English that is full of colonial-period cliches.

The religious sources for the moral compasses of the women in the Detective Agency stories are in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition.  Although that tradition was born in the deserts of the ancient Near East, history has flung it across the globe in such a way that it long ago became the religious tradition of the Western world.  The religions of the Eastern world, as we think of it today, are part of the distinctly different tradition of Hinduism and Buddhism.  This is important to keep in mind when watching the actions of McCall Smith’s women.

The same moral compass works equally well in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  All of the women in the stories used the same compass.  It’s only the doctrines behind the moral compass that are different.  The differences in the doctrines, of course, have been the problem, causing Christians, Jews and Muslims to disrespect, hate, and even kill each other for centuries.  If we had operated with the moral compass of the religions rather than their doctrines, maybe history would have been different. 

The question is, if the major South and East Asian religions are compared to the Abrahamic ones of the West, how does the picture change?  Is the moral compass totally different?  Similar?  The same?  Over the years I have taught many classes in comparative religion, focusing on Asian religions.  Some of those classes were for scholars who already were familiar with the doctrinal differences.  But most classes were for people who came from a Judeo/Christian/Muslim background and knew nothing about Eastern religions. 

The doctrinal difference between the Eastern religions and Western religions is simply put:  Hinduism and Buddhism are atheistic, whereas Judaism, Christianity and Islam are monotheistic.  (Early Christian missionaries in India labeled Hinduism a polytheistic religion.  But that is not accurate.  It is not theistic at all.) 

People in the Western world have a very hard time making sense of atheism.  They think it means that someone who is an atheist is against the God of the universe, as defined in Abrahamic religions.  Being anti-God, then, is being anti-Western culture, they think.  I think it is more reasonable to say that an atheist dismisses as inaccurate the definition of reality that the doctrines of Abrahamic religions teach.  A modern atheist is often a scientist, who holds science up as a method for defining the workings of life and death. 

But there is another definition of reality besides the one offered either by science or by Western religions.  When I say the Brahmanical religions of Hinduism/Buddhism are atheistic, I am simply suggesting that their definition of existence differs from the Western religious and scientific definitions.  The Eastern definition grew up in a different part of civilization.  Its assumptions about where we came from and why we are here are not the assumptions held by Jews, Christians and Muslims.  Nor is it remotely similar to the assumptions of the modern scientific community. 

One important characteristic of the Eastern definition of reality, historically speaking, is that it has not insisted on its definition being correct.  Its correctness has not been an issue for people who have grown up with it.  It has never been taught as the true definition, the “one true faith,” at war with the false definitions of others.  The way the Eastern religious tradition has defined itself is as a process, with all of its working parts as immutable as gravity is for scientists (and indeed for all educated people on earth today.)  For this reason the very concept of unbelievers and infidels is almost inconceivable for Hindus and Buddhists.  They merely want to be at peace within the process rather than at war with unbelievers.

In contrast, knowing the truth and being right is at the heart of Western religions.  The Abrahamic tribes are quick to call non-believers infidels, by which they mean they are lost and worthless.  Furthermore, the various versions of God offered by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures have led to fighting not only between these three Abrahamic faiths in general, but also internally, most notably between Catholics and Protestants, Shiites and Sunnis, and even between off-shoots of each of these.  Can there be any doubt that being right and defending the righteous (in God’s name) is the guiding principal of all forms of Western religion? 

The Hindus and Buddhists I have met have never tried to convert me.  Nor have they ever insinuated that the faith of my fathers is wrong, or that their understanding of life and death makes more sense than mine.  The philosophical among them have always enjoyed listening to me talk about the assumptions of Westerners, and have gently filled in the gaps I had about their understanding of how things work. 

We always got around to the question of “What happens after we die?” And I remember being incredulous at first when I realized they actually believed they were being born over and over again, making up for ignorant actions they made from one life to another.  They were less shocked than bemused, I think, by my explanation about how each of us has one shot at pleasing God, and expect to be praised or punished at death by a jealous but loving Father, who might forgive us our sins if we truly repent.

The purpose I have in mind for this paper is not to dwell on the doctrinal differences between Western and Eastern religious traditions, but rather to see if the moral compasses of the two traditions are compatible.  I think they are.  But first we have to be clear on some of the basic assumptions upon which the doctrines are based.  And they are clearly incompatible.       

Here I have decided to focus on Christianity for the Western religion and Buddhism for the Eastern religion.  The former is fundamentally monotheistic; the latter is fundamentally atheistic.  Knowing that fact is both important (otherwise we will misinterpret things coming and going) and, from a Western point of view, scary (because for all children of Abraham the denial of a creator God is the ultimate blasphemy.)

Christianity and Buddhism arose from preexisting faiths based on huge bodies of literary records.  The Bible in itself was formed by documents that fill libraries.  The Buddhist scriptures, too, including the Tripitaka, fill libraries.  They both can be traced back to antiquity, and ancient languages, which have been translated into every language on earth. 

Each of the two faiths has a hero, who is customarily referred to by the words that identify him as such:  Christ, meaning the “Anointed of God,” and Buddha, meaning “Awakened One”.  Their birth names, or names people called them if they did not acknowledge their religious character, were Jesus (or Yeshua) and Shakyamuni (which literally means “Sage of the Shakya Family.”)  Using the universal calendar that honors Jesus’ role in world history, we can say that Jesus lived in the 1st century A.D., and that Shakyamuni lived some 600 years earlier, in the 6th century B.C. 

Jesus and Shakyamuni

Anyone who speaks with any kind of authority about Jesus and Shakyamuni, these two selfless heroes of Christianity and Buddhism, the major religions of the Western and Eastern worlds, has to admit that what we know of those two men comes to us through scriptures that Jesus and Shakyamuni themselves did not write.  We also must admit that the difference between the two religions that bear their names could not be more pronounced.

Nevertheless, I have come to believe that Jesus and Shakyamuni were like twins in one important respect.  Reading the texts that purport to record their lives and teachings makes it clear that Jesus and Shakyamuni were rebels, even revolutionaries, who challenged the religions and societies that produced them, namely, Judaism and Hinduism.  This seems to be a good place to begin any comparison of them. 

Jesus and Shakyamuni apparently were happy with what their religions claimed to be real and true.  But they were clearly disturbed by the ways their religions were being practiced. The issue that seems to have concerned them most was not so much what happens to us after we die and why.  Rather, it was how we should live the lives we are living. 

 In other words, they seem not to have had a problem so much with the orthodoxy, or proper doctrines of their religions.  Indeed, they even defended on occasion what those doctrines teach about reality.  But they abhorred the negative effects their birth religions were having on the people of ancient Israel and India.

Jesus (who lived in the first century of “his” era) was critical of Judaism, and Shakyamuni (some 600 years before Jesus) was critical of Hinduism, for failing to practice proper action, or orthopraxy.  Simply put, each of them said that followers of his religion were talking the talk but not walking it. They both reminded their spiritual leaders that human beings should live with compassion towards one another first, and worry about doctrine later.

Although Jesus was a faithful Jew, and spoke primarily to Jews, he spoke more about the spirit of the law of Moses than the letter of that law.  His parables of the good Samaritan and prodigal son come to mind, but there are so many others.  Most of Jesus’ parables were addressed to “Priests and Levites” – the holy men of Israel – whose obsession with rules concerning purity and holiness often made them lose sight of the other side of the law:  love and compassion. 

The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, likewise, addressed himself to leaders in his religion of birth.  This “Sage of the Shakya Kingdom” (in what today is Nepal and north-central India) spoke primarily to the upper-caste Brahmins and Kshyatrias (Shakyamuni’s own caste) when making them aware of the horrible discrimination that the Hindu caste system taught in the name of purity.

Hinduism teaches that all beings are in possession of a spark of perfection (Atman), which at one very ancient time was complete in itself (as Brahman), a state of perfection allowing no distinction whatsoever between self and other.  It further teaches that all living beings are on a return journey leading to that perfect state (known as enlightenment or Nirvana.) 

However, the operational aspect of the Hindu idea is that we are reborn over and over again, in different levels (castes) of spiritual attainment, based on our actions in each life, until all of our karmic ignorance of the true self is erased, thereby allowing us to collectively return to that perfect state of selfhood that we came from.   

Both Jesus and Shakyamuni stood on the edge of heresy, as far as the practice of their religions was concerned.  Jesus suggested that Jews could remain Jews, but that they also could associate with all sorts of people without polluting themselves.  A rabbi could do the same thing a half-breed (a Samaritan) did when he went to the aid of another pollution-carrying person.  In fact he should do that, as a good Jew, despite laws to the contrary.

While Jesus seemed to imply that it was no longer necessary to keep all the dietary restrictions, make the animal sacrifices, and follow the circumcision practice of ancient Jews, Jesus did not attack the basic Law of Moses, regarding God the Creator, Adam and Eve, Abraham, and most especially, the Heaven that awaits good people after they die and the Hell that bad people (who do not keep the commandments) will have to suffer forever after they die.

In somewhat the same way, the Buddha Shakyamuni did not dismiss the Hindu notion of being born over and over again (reincarnation), in the process of moving closer towards the spiritual perfection of Enlightenment or Nirvana with each lifetime.  He did imply, however, that we don’t all have to get there together, but that individuals can realize that sense of togetherness in one lifetime, as awakened beings, or Buddhas. 

That is the one teaching that makes Shakyamuni a Hindu heretic, because such teaching implies that the most important aspect of Brahmanical Hinduism was wrong:  we do not have to wait for all of our various self-delusions to disappear, through reincarnation, before we as individuals can attain a full state of non-differentiated selfhood. 

To say that one person can reach enlightenment in one lifetime (which by implication means she has reached oneness with all other beings) renders the Brahmanic definition of Enlightenment (collective spiritual perfection) quite meaningless.

In Zen Buddhist teachings, in the seemingly nonsensical puzzles known as “Superior Teachings” (J. koan), used in teacher-to-disciple training in two branches of the Zen Buddhist denominations in East Asia, the practical and compassionate side of Buddhist teachings is always championed over any that get bogged down in doctrinal and philosophical musings about how Enlightenment happens. 

At heart, therefore, both Christianity and Buddhism can be seen as branches of Judaism and Hinduism.  The view of reality held in Christianity (and Islam, for that matter) remains that of Judaism.  And Buddhism’s take on what is real is the same as Hinduism’s.  Perhaps this is why we find fundamentalist Christians rushing to the aid of modern Israel, and why Hindus merely accept Shakyamuni Buddha as a Hindu god.

So what’s to be done?  I admit that I have tried to fit my life into the orthodoxies of these great religions all my life.  Now at 74 it is clear I have failed.  I did not find a fit.  Worse, the religions seem irrelevant to me now, and to have caused (and continue to cause) more suffering than benefit to the world.  That really is a shame, because the stories of Jesus and Shakyamuni will forever be an inspiration to me. 

Looking back at my life (and imagining the future), I can say that I have spent (and plan to continue to spend) my life in three principal places:  university classrooms, Christian churches, and Buddhist temples (not counting the hours I spend watching TV and dancing with my wife.) 

When I am with students my spirit is lifted by their enthusiasm and curiosity.  I do not need to change their minds or convert them to any system of belief.  At church (Episcopal, for the last twenty years) I most enjoy Holy Communion.  The sacraments bring me into the mystery (and personal challenge) of Christian love and service.  I do not wear Christianity as a doctrinal suit of armor.   The best part of Zen temples is my pillow in the meditation hall; all of the sutra parsing and lineage posing seems almost silly to me now. 

If you, like me, have a problem with any orthodoxies that claim to solve the mystery of life and death, I would suggest that we join Jesus and Shakyamuni in paying attention to the orthopraxic side of their religions.  The orthodoxies that informed the Judaic and Brahmanic sources of Christianity and Buddhism also infiltrated the religions that later came into being in the names of their founders.  The irony in that is painful to admit.  Surely Jesus and Shakyamuni, wherever they are, must be saddened by that twist of fate. 

Since none of us can offer any proof as to what happens after we die – either to be judged by God and end up in heaven or hell, or to be reborn over and over until we finally get it right and wake up as Buddhas – we might as well do what we can do very well if we try, namely, treat everyone with respect and kindness, with no preference and absolutely no thought of personal reward.  Maybe it is by our actions that the world can really know Jesus and Shakyamuni after all. 

Karen Armstrong, one of the most thoughtful minds among us when it comes to looking at the world’s religions with a sympathetic heart, has it just right, I think, when she says that all of our religions require a leap of faith where doctrine is concerned, but that no leap is worth taking unless it leads to what she calls “practical compassion.”

The female characters in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency clearly are not using a moral compass that they fashioned from Christian doctrine with the aim of declaring their faith to be true or even obeying each of its commandments.  But their moral compass is clear to see in the kindness and goodness in their words and actions.  I think they teach us how we can emerge from our various belief systems – whether Western or Eastern – with a moral compass that benefits everyone.

- Glenn Webb, at home in Palm Desert, CA, April 16, 2009


(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?