India, China, Tibet, Japan

Hajime Nakamura

Kegan Paul, London, 1964, 1997.

This monumental study will be of great interest to anyone curious about the social and historical background to Eastern beliefs, or about the origins of Buddhism.

The second part of the book is about China, and the chapter on Formal Conformity mentions the "five elements":

"When the Chinese Buddhist scholars organized their classifications and systematizations, they did not deeply consider the logical connections of various doctrines, and only tried to retain an external and formal conformity. They were oblivious of the fact that there were many logical faults in the explanations of their commentaries. They liked to arrange all things in one diagram. A typical example of it can be seen in the theory of five natural elements. They did not investigate the essential character of each thing, but combined all things together by looking for similarities in their external appearances; namely, each one of the five directions, five sounds, five forms, five tastes, five internal organs, and many other things divisible into five classes, was assigned to one of the five natural elements, each thing deriving its nature from its respective natural elements." (p.230)

In the part on Tibet, Nakamura has many interesting things to report about local variations on Buddhist themes:

"A unique and important characteristic of Lamaism, which distinguishes it from other schools of Buddhism, is that the living lama is more highly revered than the Buddha or the Dharma." (p.317)

The relentlessly hagiographical writing about the current Lama from his admirers seems to bear this out. His ecumenism is apparently not customary:

"When one sticks to the standpoint of esteeming the theological sytem of Lamaism as the absolute one, one comes to hate those who are opposed to it and to regard them as enemies. Hgos-khri-bzan, being a Buddhist, buried his opponents alive. Even in recent times there were terrible jails attached to monasteries, and there tortures were inflicted." (p.326)

The fourth part of the book, on Japan, takes up half of the volume. Here are many fascinating insights into the social context of doctrines and beliefs:

"Though Confucian scholars and Buddhist monks in Japan had a considerable reading knowledge of Chinese, their interpretations were often distortions of the original texts. Such distortions were the result either of ignorance of the Chinese language or of deliberate misrepresentation for the sake of making the texts conform to Japanese ways of thinking and living." (p.347)

Another example of the sheer arbitrariness of doctrinal changes comes at the end of the book:

"On the continent, from the beginning, the Zen sect did not approve of prayers. In Japan, also, for some time after the introductions of Zen there was no praying, except in special cases. [...] This tradition, however, was broken down by the Japanese who were in the habit of seeking help through prayers." (p.583)

With Buddhism being so fashionable in the West, this book may help those who would like to bring things back down to earth, and provides a useful counterweight to Billington, for instance.



Paul Taylor 2001