Tuesday, May 16, 2017

James Mark Shields's "Against Harmony"

James Mark Shields is Associate Professor of Comparative Humanities and Asian Thought at Bucknell University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Against Harmony begins mid-quote, as follows: “[If] these things make up what is called ‘Buddhism’, then it is an ‘old Buddhism’ that is on the verge of death.” This, very succinctly, catches the critical and rhetorical spirit of the New Buddhist Fellowship, one of the early twentieth-century progressive Buddhist movements discussed in my book. However, it also points to the fact that the so-called New Buddhists were actually recapitulating a discourse about Buddhist “decadence” that had been around in Japan for several centuries, and was increasingly wielded against Buddhism by secular modernist and Shinto nationalist critics alike.

This line of argument, in turn, has clear roots in the Protestant Reformation: the New Buddhists self-consciously styled themselves after Luther and Calvin in their protest against the “abuses” and “mystifications” of the Buddhist clergy and still-powerful monastic institutions. And yet, while largely content with a moderate, liberal, even “bourgeois” reformism, New Buddhist rhetoric opened up more radical possibilities—some of which would come to fruition in later, revolutionary movements such as the Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism of the early 1930s. Here the language of “protest” bleeds into Marxist critiques of not only institutional religion, but of all forms of transcendental, otherworldly aspiration. This is where Buddhism becomes thoroughly secularized, and fixed onto what are clearly materialist premises.

What are the implications of this attempt to merge the Buddha and Marx (or Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy)? It certainly raises the value of poverty and injustice as key aspects of “suffering” (duhkha)—the liberation from which must always be the end game for Buddhism, in all its many forms. More particularly, I suggest it may help contemporary Buddhists (or contemporary Westerners interested in Buddhism) resist the creeping impact of neoliberalism, with its pernicious assumptions regarding the “self,” “rights” and “autonomy”—assumptions that may superficially resonate with Buddhist concerns. On the other hand, Buddhist insights into the danger of too-rigid adherence to “ideas,” coupled with a near-absolute commitment to compassionate action, may provide new ways of looking at Marxist and anarchist strategies for individual and social liberation. Perhaps we can find new resonance between Marx’s dictum about the necessity of philosophers “changing the world” and the reputed final words of the Buddha, to recognize change, while remaining “vigilant.”
Learn more about Against Harmony at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue