Problems of Religious Method

Hisamatsu Shin'ichi

Translated by Jeff Shore, FAS Society Journal Autumn 1987, pp. 12-15, from the Japanese transcript as found in Hisamatsu Shin'ichi Chosakushu, Vol. III, pp. 547-553. First published in Zengaku Kenkyu 42, March 1951.
Religious method is not the scientific-academic method of religious studies. These two kinds of method must be clearly distinguished. The latter method is the so-called scientific-academic (and philosophical) study of religion, including the history of religion, psychology of religion, sociology of religion, philosophy of religion, study of folk religions, and so on. The former method, however, is the practice of religion, as in prayer, worship, meditation, "nenbutsu" recitation, zazen, etc. A person who does scientific-academic study uses a scientific-academic method as a scholar of religious studies, and his aim is to obtain scientific-academic knowledge about religion. But a religious person pursues religion through religious practice, and his aim is to undergo religious experience.

Confusing these two kinds of method can lead to the mistaken notion that by achieving something with one method the other is also achieved, or even that neither of them can achieved?. The failure to clearly distinguish between these tow kinds of method is a source of great confusion in Buddhist organizations where Buddhist scholars who possess only scientific-academic knowledge concerning their field are mistakenly considered "Buddhists," and also in Buddhist educational organizations where training is mistaken for mere scientific-academic study of Buddhism.

The stagnation of present-day Buddhism is due to various factors, but the role this kind of ignorance plays is by no means small. since the Meiji Era (1868 - 1912) serious consideration has been given to scientific-academic method in Buddhist studies, while religious methods for Buddhist experience -- the most important things in Buddhist education -- have been made light of or even ignored. Taking the nonessentials for the essentials like this is certainly one major cause of the present decline of Buddhism.

I do not mean to decry Buddhist studies nor to say they are useless. Buddhist studies are an important field of scientific-academic study, especially of religious studies, and not only must hold their own as an academic field but, concerning Buddhist experience as well are capable of having an indirect effect. It is my sincere hope that such scientific-academic study of Buddhism expands and deepens; and yet its importance for Buddhism as a religion remains secondary. In the well-known words of Rennyo (1415-1499; priest of the Japanese True Pure Land sect):

Knowing the entire dharma of eighty-thousand teachings while ignorant of one's own transmigration is to remain a fool. Entering the Way, even an illiterate nun is a person of Wisdom who knows her own coming-and-going.
And Huang-po (T'ang Dynasty Zen master), in his Essentials of Mind-to-Mind Transmission states:
People nowadays desire only to acquire much knowledge and intellectual understanding by seeking out the meaning of various phrases and passages. As for practice, they know of no such thing, but merely turn their minds back to acquiring knowledge and intellectual understanding, thus obstructing their own awakening.
We must verify the truth of these two statements. No matter how thoroughly we come to know in a scientific-academic manner the great dharma treasury written in Sanskrit and Chinese -- even gaining a comprehensive knowledge of it -- as far as Buddhism is concerned we have merely chased after the leaves and branches. Not only Buddhism but the raison d'etre of all religion can never be grasped in a scientific-academic manner; the self-evident reason for religion lies in practicing it. We must re-emphasize and accomplish this fundamental task. To do this it is only natural that we give serious consideration to religious method, emphasize it, and actually put it into practice.

This kind of discussion might lead Christians to advocate making prayers and having faith in God, and Buddhists to advocate meditation or nenbutsu as religious practice. This way of thinking is only natural since such religious practices have a tradition dating back hundreds, even thousands of years. But nowadays these religious practices have decayed into unused ancient relics, or have been taken so lightly that they are not put into practice. This also may be one reason for the present stagnation of religion. People attempt, therefore, to make religion prosper by reviving and emphasizing these practices. They lament the decline of religion and emphasize monastic education and the like.

Among the various Buddhist sects, at present there probably is not only equal in religious activity to the Rinzai Zen sect because education in the other sects concentrates on ordinary academic learning and Buddhist studies, ignoring monastic education; the Rinzai Zen sect alone maintains over twenty [thirty-nine at present] training monasteries and uses its religious method in Buddhist religious training. Actually practicing religion is indeed necessary for the prosperity of religion, but whether it is best to simply and precisely follow the practices of old is the question.

I have said above that one of the major causes for the decline of religion is ignoring religious practice. But we must not forget that, on the contrary, because religious practice itself has become completely formalized or no longer appropriate to the times, it has already ceases serving its function. The revival of religious practice is without doubt a vital necessity, even if it has gone out of use merely due to ignorant laziness and not through any fault in the method itself. However, if such practice has already lost its usefulness and, failing to discern this we adhere to it from mere force of habit or blind devotion to tradition, we may bring forth the opposite of what we intend. Because of this, while we should reflect on the ignorance and laziness that has led to such neglect of religious practice, at the same time we should critically examine whether such religious practice is itself suitable or not. Blindly following tradition is embracing faith but lacking critical spirit; chasing after something new is having a critical spirit but lacking faith. And faith without critical spirit is blind, critical spirit without faith is not sincere. Sticking to tradition -- whatever it is -- tends to mean having no critical spirit. Even people of religion are no exception to this. They tend to think that faith is not doubting or criticizing. They view doubting and criticizing as dangerous, but they don't realize how much more dangerous it is not to do so.

It is total doubt and exhaustive criticism that must serve as a prerequisite for true faith. As it is said, under great doubt lies great awakening; and yet we fail to doubt that which lies right under our feet, and become lost in lazy, careless dreaming. There is no growth or adjustment if we abandon doubt and criticism, if we forget it, become frightened by it or forbid it. How much has human progress been thwarted and the development even of religion itself hindered by the religious misconception that faith requires not having doubt? Faith is not simply a matter of obediently swallowing dogma. Faith must be active, constructive, totally self-critical, and also a fundamental criticism of all things whatsoever. But faith nowadays finds itself passively suffering criticism from the outside. The present age has already advanced beyond criticism of religion and reached the point of denying it altogether. How then can religious people merely adhere strictly to tradition without a critical spirit? Religion is being forced to be critical of its way of being in every aspect. Each religious sect should now thoroughly criticize and test its own way of being. This is the way to revive and secure religion.

From what standpoint, however, should we criticize and test it? Since the concern is with religious method, a superficial criticism will not do. And since religious method is a matter of actually practicing religion, there must be some criterion to judge whether or not a certain method allows people to genuinely practice religion. In other words, it is not merely a question of whether people do the established, specific practices such as nenbutsu recitation in the Pure Land tradition or zazen in the Zen tradition, nor is it a matter of whether or not people do general Buddhist practices. The standard for criticism must be whether or not the practice makes people genuinely religious -- regardless of such sectarian differences as zazen, nenbutsu, etc. Nenbutsu, zazen and the like are, first and foremost, things which should be truly capable of criticism both from within and without their respective traditions. However, one practice, say nenbutsu or zazen, cannot be judged to be a better Buddhist practice. Since both practices are Buddhist one can only choose the practice that truly makes that person a Buddhist. And if these established practices are no longer appropriate, then new ones must be developed.

Such a situation can already be found in Buddhist history in the so-called "clarification of the authentic teaching through critical evaluation of scriptural teachings (kyoso-hanjaku) and "founding a new sect on a selected scriptural treating (rikkyo-kaishu)." "Clarification of the authentic teaching through critical evaluation of all scriptural teachings" was a fundamental, overall criticism concerning established Buddhism and its activities at the time. Such a judgment must be based on knowledge of all the scriptural teachings on which the various sects establish themselves a critical spirit toward them, and a creative spirit to establish a new teaching. Further, since the aim of Buddhism is the salvation of all living beings, it is important to have broad and deep insight concerning living beings in order to criticize what is old and establish something truly new. Self-criticism in Buddhism must now include this kind of "clarification of the authentic teaching through critical evaluation of all scriptural teachings." Then the scientific-academic study of Buddhism as well as other fields of research will come to play an important role here.

I have spoken about a way of critically evaluating to what extent a practice is truly Buddhist. Even if a certain practice proves to be genuinely Buddhist, however, that alone does not determine whether it is a genuinely religious practice. On this point Buddhist practice itself must be criticized anew as to whether it can serve as a true religion for man. This will not be a "clarification" or judgment as mentioned above of one particular Buddhist sect; it must rather go on to be a "judgment" or "critique" encompassing the various religions, such as Buddhism and Christianity and their many traditions. Not a religious reformation within a particular religion but a reform of religion itself. Then true religious practice can be established.

The universal appropriateness of true religious practice can no longer be decided within the confines of Buddhism or of Christianity alone. The urgent vow of religious people right now must be to find out what practice enables a person to be truly religious. Unfortunately, people of religion today have not yet realized this urgent problem. In order to revive and restore religion, however, we must raise this problem and with a resounding voice urge people of religion to wake up to it.

Further, we must question why religion is universally necessary for man, whether all established religions have such a necessity, and if not, which -- if any -- do. We must also ask whether new religions are necessary while some established ones are not, and if new ones are, what shape should they take? And if religion itself, whether old or new, is said to be unnecessary, why is this so?

Such questions do not just concern established religions, but put into equation the very raison d'etre of religion itself. Thus, without a clear and definite answer to these questions the problems of religious method cannot be sufficiently solved.

November 2, 1998