There’s Religion and Then There’s Religion

While reading Professor Yao’s book which provides an overview of Confucianism, I was struck by one section with grappled with the question: is Confucianism a religion or a code of ethics? What struck me with this section, is how Professor Yao’s research shows that even the trying to define what “religion” is differs widely in the Asian context than it does in the Western one. As he writes on page 40:

One of the many difficulties in defining Confucianism as a religion is that the term ‘religion (zōng jiào 宗教)’ has quite a different resonance in Chinese than in a western language. If in English, the term ‘religion’ often carries, along with its descriptive meanings, a commendatory implication of ‘devotion, fidelity or faithfulness, conscientiousness, pious, affection or attachment’ (The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, vol. 13: 569), in Chinese, the word that refers to religion is primarily suggestive of superstitions. A religion is regarded as a superstructure which consists of superstitions, dogmas, rituals and institutions (Fung, 1961:3)

Already you can see a notable difference. In my conversations with my wife, whose Japanese, I get the same sense from her as well with regard to religion. To her, when she thinks of the world ‘religion’, the first things that come to mind are often cult groups like the Aum Shinrikyo and certain pseudo-Buddhist cult groups in Japan I don’t want to mention by name. Superstitions come to mind to her as well. But this is not limited to her either, based on other conversations in the past with Japanese, Chinese and other friends. Religion carries a less “pious” tone and a more dogmatic or ritualistic one, in other words. Normally, a decline in traditional religion in Japan and other places gets blamed on post-WWII culture and modernization, but it may also be that some Western researchers have been asking the wrong questions and may well be misinterpreting trends there. Or maybe it’s just that the situation is more complex than people appreciate. But then again, this is just speculation.

So where does that leave such great traditions as Confucianism, Buddhism and such, who do not fit the Western model very well, but are still an important part of Asian culture (and increasingly the West)? Professor Yao elaborates further:

The modern Chinese use a term [for religion] coined by combining two characters, zōng and jiào, which originally meant ‘ancestral’ and ‘teaching/doctrine’. In the mind of the ancient Confucians, there were two kinds of teaching. Those transmitted from ancient times by sages are considered to be noble and orthodox, encouraging people to be good and sincere, to be filial to their ancestors and parents. When these teachings are corrupted or misused, they become associated with superstitions, involving belief in miracles, strange powers, reincarnation and so forth. They believe that noble doctrines are those by great sages like Confucius, Lao Zi and Shakyamuni the Buddha, while the depraved teachings were evident in popular Daoism, popular Buddhism and folk cults. When ‘religion’ is identified with the theories and practices of the latter, it enjoys the respect of few [Asian] scholars. (pg. 41)

To some degree though I think this is true in the West as well especially in the modern age. Things like faith healings, money miracles, and such may make other Christians somewhat uneasy in the same way.

After I wrote the first draft of this post though, it took extra meaning for me while attending a certain Buddhist temple I know well here. We brought our little one to register at the Buddhist Sunday school for another year, and then had coffee with friends and fellow temple members at a parental round-table. The discussion at one point diverged into a subject about Buddhism in Japan (not too surprising really), but somehow devolved into a discussion about how superstitious Japanese culture is, and further how Shinto has somehow corrupted this. I was fuming because I know both of those people, fellow converts like me and respected in the temple, and I assumed they would know better than to make such misguided statements, or badmouth other people’s religious traditions. My wife, who is Japanese heard all this and was floored, but in typical Japanese stoicism, said nothing. The problem, for me, was that neither one of them knew what they were talking about with regard to Japanese religion, because they were defining so obviously in Western terms of what religion is, just like something Professor Yao would have described above.

Worse, to me, badmouthing anything in a Buddhist temple like that seemed in especially poor taste too. That was the final straw in a way, so we’ll see if I go back ever again,1 or at least come back armed with some textual sources and a good tirade next time. Maybe I’ll bring along Professor Yao’s book.

1 As mentioned previously, I am feeling less than invested in the Buddhist community around here for reasons like this, and among many others. I doubt it’s a fight I really want to fight anymore, assuming I even had the time. Buddhism in Asia may have its issues, but Buddhism in the West just seems like a shoddy, half-baked version of it, and I don’t know think I want to fight that tide any longer. There are some wonderful and brave people in the Western community who stick with it, but for me, I’ve just given up.

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5 Comments on “There’s Religion and Then There’s Religion”

  1. NellaLou says:

    I wrote a big long comment but it really boils down to this.
    Maybe the solution is to keep the Buddhism but keep a distance from the “Buddhists”.

  2. johnl says:

    It’s easy to feel contempt for such people, but it is difficult to feel compassion.

  3. ElD says:

    There has been a ton of scholarly research on this in both English and Japanese in the last couple of years. As the dissertation I am currently writing tangentially focuses on some of these topics, I hope you will excuse my hubris in suggesting some readings on exactly these topics and pardon the long post.

    One of the best articles is in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, by Jason Ananda Josephson, “When Buddhism Became a Religion.” it is available online at Josephson cites much of the relevant Japanese language scholarship in this debate as well, which I won’t bother to list here.

    Interestingly, I believe there has also been some new scholarship regarding the combining of zong and jiao as well. This translation of religion was introduced by Japanese scholars (probably Shin Buddhists) working as part of the Japanese imperial campaign. Although not the most interesting read on this topic (but the most readily available) is Xue Yu “Buddhism, War and Nationalism,” published by Routledge.

    Finally, the classic study of all of this is James Ketelaar “Heretics and Martyrs in Meiji Japan” which was published by Princeton. Of all of these studies, it is the one that I make sure to at least once a year as I always get something new out of it.

    On the second part of your post, I understand completely. And this is exactly why when I go to temples I tend to attend the service and then leave. In that regard I guess I think NellaLou has it right.

  4. @ElD: Thanks for that informative response to this (already very insightful) posting.
    @NellaLou: I agree with your assessment as well.

  5. Doug says:

    Hi Everyone:

    Nellalou: Sorry the big comment didn’t make it through, but thanks for advice. You may well be right. On the other hand, I fear that without a community (one of the three treasures), there’s not much support either.

    Johnl: I certainly have been more terse and less compassionate lately, and indeed it’s easier to criticize others than to reflect on oneself. I am not happy with my own sense of hypocrisy, but also feeling at the end of my rope too. :-/ I forgot to mention in this post that I’ve seen Japanese priests do the same bashing of other sects, so I guess the behavior isn’t limited to Westerners.

    EID: Thanks very much and welcome. The “Martyrs” book is familiar to me through the recommendations of another online friend, so I really should take a look. :D I see you’re in much the same boat though as far as communities go.

    LiT: Always good to hear from you> :D

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