Japan: Strenuous economy


Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

Shosan Suzuki, author of anti-Christian attack pieces in the 17th century, is cited by economic historian Shichihei Yamamoto as "the founder of Japanese capitalism." That's more than coincidence: Shosan hated Christianity and knew that an increasingly corrupt Buddhist priesthood could not become the centerpiece of a Japanese culture able to turn back foreign ideas. Shosan proposed an alternative: "All occupations are Buddhist practice. Through work we are able to attain Buddhahood."

He gave spirited advice to merchants: "Throw yourself headlong into worldly activity.... Your activity is an ascetic exercise that will cleanse you of all impurities. Challenge your mind and body by crossing mountain ranges. Purify your heart by fording rivers.... If you understand that this life is but a trip through an evanescent world, and if you cast aside all attachments and desires and work hard, Heaven will protect you, the gods will bestow their favor, and your profits will be exceptional."

Jodo Shinshu especially grew through its development of a "nonmonastic priesthood." Jodo Shinshu priests did not shave their heads. They dressed in ordinary clothes most of the time, with religious robes reserved for services. Priests emphasized that they were part of a "community of fellow seekers" and were not gurus. They debunked "self-power" (jiriki), the attempt to move toward nirvana through meditation and immersion in freezing water or hours of mantra-chanting.

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Such time would better be used, they said, in "self-effort," doing works that aided in economic advancement for a family or a society. Jodo Shinshu believers were to help others out of a sense of gratitude to Amida Buddha. One Jodo Shinshu teacher praised the altruism of merchants: "They go out early in the morning and return late at night. They do not avoid the elements nor do they dislike hardship and misery. They cover their bodies with cotton clothing and fill their mouths with vegetable food. They do not dare to throw away a piece of thread or a scrap of paper."

Jodo Shinshu priests also taught that the kugyo (hard ascetic practice) of ordinary life is at least as important as anything that goes on at monasteries. To people who worried about going astray by not meditating and chanting mantras, they emphasized the beauty of everyday labor performed with right intentions. Bodhisattvas were said to be impressed by the diligence of one merchant, Takata Zenemon, because "carrying lampwicks and bamboo hats, he went out into the mountain districts.... He diligently for over 50 years exerted himself practicing strenuous economy. But with honesty as a basis, he worked without minding labor that was hard to endure, and was answered with heavenly considerations."

This thinking spread beyond Jodo Shinshu circles, but the crucial breakthrough was Shinran's insistence that the bodhisattvas did not care if their names were never mentioned. One 17th-century book, Shimin Nichiyo, answered questions such as this one from an artisan: "I am busy every minute of the day in an effort to earn my livelihood. How can I become a Buddha?" Jodo Shinshu tracts responded, Don't worry, stay busy: "Cheerfully do not neglect diligent activity morning and evening. Work hard at the family occupation. Do not gamble. Rather than take a lot, take a little."

At first such teaching was seen as useful for those without a priestly vocation, but as corruption within Buddhism increased, secular activities started to be seen as equally worthy to religious ones, and eventually as superior. Ishida Baigan in the early 18th century argued that merchants should not be low in social status but high, for they followed "the way of the townsman" that was more socially useful than the way of the priest or the samurai. Hosoi Heishu late in the 18th century lectured throughout Japan on the way that people in everyday tasks could display the good karma-creating virtues of modesty, diligence, and frugality.

Jodo Shinshu believers and others, in short, provided for Japan a Buddhist version of the "Protestant ethic." First, they said that tasks outside the religious sphere were worthwhile contributions to the creation of wa (harmony). Business was religion, a Jodo Shinshu tract proclaimed. "The business of merchants and of artisans is the profiting of others. By profiting others they receive the right to profit themselves.... The spirit of profiting others is the bodhisattva spirit. Having a bodhisattva spirit and saving all beings, this is called bodhisattva deeds.... The secret of merchants and artisans' business lies in obtaining confidence through bodhisattva deeds."

When the United States in 1853 forcibly opened Japan to Western commercial and cultural influences, Japan was ready to compete. Nakamura Masanao translated an ordinary English self-help book, packaged it as Tales of Men Who Achieved Their Aims in Western Countries, and had a perennial bestseller in Japan, where warnings about idleness and exhortations to constant effort fit well with the desire for kugyo.


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