Japanese Buddhism and the American Renaissance

By the late Dr. David L. Norton
Professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware in Newark, USA

My purpose in this paper is to examine the deep correlations between the philosophy of the American Renaissance, as represented by the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, and the doctrines of Japanese Buddhism. These are much closer than is the case with Indian, Chinese or Tibetan forms of Buddhism, because Japanese Buddhism is unequivocally life-affirming, and its humanistic concern for the quality of life goes furthest in attributing agency for betterment to individual human beings. In Japan, it is the Nichiren school that has done the most to democratize the idea of Buddha nature by affirming the possibility of achieving Buddhahood within every human being.

David Norton

The central claim of Emerson's philosophical anthropology is that to be a human being is to be a bearer of "genius," by which he meant "that divine idea which each of us represents," rather than some exceptional quality held by just a few. In thus democratizing genius, he eliminated the gulf between "haves" and "have nots," to be replaced by a bridgeable gulf between those who are keenly interested in locating their own genius and those who are not. He therefore visualizes "happiness" as the committed pursuit of self-fulfilling work, rather than the hedonist balance of pleasure over pain.

In thus speaking of "genius" as a matter of vocation or calling, Emerson is introducing a concept of "personal truths" which are made up of our answers to choices in life and thus contain a sense of direction. Philosophies that give priority to this kind of personal truth I will term "philosophies of life." Instead of asking "What is true?" they substitute the question "What truths shall I be responsible for?" which is based on the question "What values shall I be responsible for?"

The answer offered alike from their very different cultural settings by Japanese Buddhism and Emerson as spokesman for the American Renaissance is: those values that represent the fulfillment of your innate potentialities, termed respectively your Buddha nature or your genius. According to Emerson, a life that fulfills its genius realizes a two-fold satisfaction: it experiences the inner satisfaction or happiness that attends self-fulfilling living, and it realizes objective worth in the world. This same idea is expressed by Daisaku Ikeda: "...the Soka Gakkai finds the noblest religious thought and philosophy in the individual life, the aggregate of which becomes the basis for a new and better society."

The Soka Gakkai calls for a "human revolution" that is at bottom the transformation in persons from externally directed living to inner-directed living. The premise of this call is the innate presence within all persons of potentialities for value which require to be actualized. Emerson's admonition to "Trust thyself" is a call to this same revolution. The revolutions called for by Emerson and the Soka Gakkai are in the self-conceptions of individual persons, toward inner motivation and self-direction. Both Buddhism and Emerson and Thoreau furnish to the exploratory urge the assurance that there is something crucial to be discovered, namely one's true self, in the form of innate potentialities that have until now remained dormant beneath layers of one's socially-conferred identity.

Emerson uses the term Over-Soul to refer to the ultimate reality of which the particularized genius of each person is an aspect. He is a pantheist, holding that divinity is both wholly within all existing things, and can only be realized there. Similarly, in Mahayana Buddhism, the attainment of enlightenment is not a release from the existing world, but rather the obligation to assist others toward their own enlightenment. According to Nichiren, ultimate reality is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. As is the case for Emerson's Over-Soul, it is not confined to humanity or to the organic world, but pervades all existence. In sum, both Mahayana Buddhism and the thought of Emerson avoid the dualism of conceiving of the salvation of human life in terms that are antithetical to it and call for the renunciation of it. They are true philosophies of life.

Emerson recognizes that life is inherently creative (and when it destroys it is preparing for new creation), where creation is understood to be the transformation of possibilities into actualities (not creation of something out of nothing). Similarly, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the universal law or principle of creative life, and all human beings are responsible for actualizing their potentialities as value-creators. These potentialities are Buddha nature, and their consummate actualization is the achievement of Buddhahood. The democratization of Buddha nature consisting in its attribution to all human beings is the teaching of the Lotus Sutra.

Both these philosophies are in other words teleological doctrines, which hold that the ultimate end or idea outcome of a developing entity is within it from the beginning, but implicitly. Persons who accept the opportunity to lead internally-motivated and self-directed lives become initiators, not mere responders. Because they are totally committed to the lives they lead, they produce more values for others' enrichment, experience more of the personal gratification of self-fulfillment, and grow in their appreciation of the valuable lives of others.

[This is an abridged version of his work, which originally appeared in the Soka Gakkai News--a monthly predecessor to the SGI Quarterly--over seven installments in 1993.]

our story

page top