New Mahayana: Buddhism for a Post-Modern World
By Akizuki Ryomin.
Translated by James W. Heisig and Paul L. Swanson.
Asian Humanities Press: Berkeley, 1990.
193 pp. $12.00.
Akizuki Ryomin’s reputation as a radical reformer of Buddhism in Japan first reached American shores in a 1959 issue of Newsweek. “I want to help revive the real spirit of Zen,” he told a Tokyo-based journalist, vowing “to break the formalism that constricts Zen and expose the false masters.”
Akizuki, a Rinzai scholar-monk who has no temple of his own, no officially certified line of disciples, and until 1990, when he was offered a professorship at Hanazono University in Kyoto, no academic position, spent the next three decades as something of a loose cannon in the Zen establishment, writing some fifty books and editing the monthly journal Mahayana Zen. He speaks of himself as “walking a path with the religious sandal of the Zen Way on one foot and the scholarly sandal of Zen studies on the other.”
Now seventy years old, Akizuki has devoted the past five years to formulating his “movement for a New Mahayana.” Akizuki’s first work to appear in English, New Mahayana is likely to surprise Western readers accustomed to the measured tones and impeccable scholarship of D. T. Suzuki or to the nonpolemical expression of realization found in koan collections.
What exactly are the reforms Akizuki has been advocating? One is to answer “the call to the way of homelessness. As one who answers this call,” Akizuki writes, “the monk must remain outside society, and not be so swallowed up within society that he forfeits a position from which to criticize society and guide it.” He notes that the bureaucratic nature of temple Buddhism during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) provided the monk with the societal role of civil servant. Although this was largely taken away with the Meiji restoration, Buddhist clergy continued to hold a position within society, albeit “reduced to the pitiful stature of Akizuki Ryomin master of ceremonies for the dead.”
What Japanese clergy must do, he maintains, is to replace their “domesticated homelessness” with a “homelessness of the heart.” At the same time, he points out, “to commit oneself to live in the midst of the masses of the laity in order to bring them true salvation is to share in their sufferings, and that is surely part of the bodhisattva’s way of ‘identification.”’ This is an intriguing point for those American Buddhist monks, nuns, and priests whose dedication to “the way of homelessness” in a non-Buddhist culture automatically places them outside both laity and clergy, except within the small enclaves of their sanghas, and who frequently must walk a tightrope between their commitment to the unencumbered path and their prior and ongoing commitments to their families and jobs.
Akizuki, too, treads a tightrope, speaking from the position of the enlightened master yet insisting upon his credibility as a scholar. Taking up as his banner Zen master Dogen’s statement that communication can take place “only between a Buddha and a Buddha,” which in turn refers to the passage in the Lotus Sutra that proclaims, “Only a Buddha can transmit to a Buddha and only a Buddha understands the truth entirely,” he asserts. Scholars cannot understand Buddhism “through the rationalistic eyes of the modern European ego. Having been raised in environments where the Buddhist tradition is absent, they lack the ‘eye of enlightenment’—or what we call ‘the sutra-reading inner eye.”’
Akizuki’s reference to a “Buddhaless Mahayana” is based on the position taken by several Japanese scholars that only when Buddhism entered Japan by way of modern Europe during the Meiji restoration was it true to the teachings of Shakyamuni, since its earlier transmission through the Chinese canon was based on the Mahayana tradition formulated several centuries after the death of the historical Buddha. Akizuki minces no words in dismissing this position as one that proceeds “to swallow whole the modernist errors of European Buddhist studies.” He writes, “from the viewpoint of contemporary scholarship, the idea that in the Meiji period we Japanese were able for the first time to hear Shakyamuni speaking in his own words is so much hogwash. . . .
“Far from being ‘Buddhaless,’ Mahayana Buddhism transmits the true meaning of the satori of Shakyamuni in a much more impressive manner than so-called primitive Buddhism or the Hinayana brand of sectarian Buddhism.”
What is revolutionary about this book is Akizuki’s belief that there can, in fact, be no Buddhist scholarship without Buddhist practice. One cannot study Buddhism without, as Dogen put it, studying the self. In the chapter “Who is Shakyamuni?” Akizuki writes, “I wish to claim that to be a scholar of Buddhism one must become Shakyamuni, so that ‘the mind is directly Buddha’. . . . By the same token, those who happen to be scholars, no matter how much they have to say about Buddhism, are not necessarily engaged in true Buddhist studies.”
In his articulation of the basic tenets of Buddhism, Akizuki shows that he is indeed thus engaged. New Mahayana provides a lively and accessible interpretation of the Four Noble Truths, dependent co-arising, and the “threefold learning” of precepts, meditation, and wisdom, as well as the Buddha’s “insight into extinction as awakening.” Akizuki’s own formulation of that “awakening to true human existence” is “in a single breath, the trans-individual individual.” “The Precepts in the New Mahayana” is particularly insightful and typically provocative: “The Mahayana rule is not concerned with things like eating meat or sleeping together,” he writes. “Precepts that are kept because one is obliged to keep them are what Huineng called ‘precepts of form.’ In contrast, precepts that are carried out as the working of the Buddha (one’s original self, or Buddha-nature) are ‘formless precepts.'”
Less impressive are “Zen, Medical Science, and the Post-Modern World” and “A Buddhist Comment on the New Science.” The former is filled with generalities and simplistic reasoning; the latter, while it makes some excellent points about the non-duality of sentient and non-sentient beings, requires, as he himself admits, some “further thinking out.”
New Mahayana, like Akizuki himself, eludes classification. Sometimes opinionated, digressive, or lacking in intellectual rigor, at other times it provides an exhilarating new point of view. Of course, much of the reformation Akizuki outlines is relevant only to Japanese Buddhism. When he calls for a new Mahayana to meet the challenges of an interrelated global community, he seems to ignore the fact that just such a Mahayana has been developing in Western countries—a Mahayana that incorporates strands from Japan, Tibet, China, Korea, and Vietnam and that its diversity functions as the very corrective Akizuki seeks.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.