I spoke recently with Kiwa Fukushima, Chief Priest, Genshoin, at Zenkoji, in Nagano, Japan. Fukushima-sensei is a priest of the Tendai sect of Mahayana Buddhism. He is also a scientist by trade, having received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Later, he worked as a researcher in chemical engineering at Yokohama National University until his father, a Buddhist priest, retired and he was entrusted with serving in his father’s position. I studied Buddhism with Fukushima-sensei many years ago in Japan when living there, and have met with him on several occasions at his residence since then. This time, our conversation centered on science, ethics, and Buddhism.
One of the items we discussed was technology. From his particular Buddhist vantage point, technology is not truly technology if it takes resources from the earth that cannot be replenished, and if it creates waste. Fukushima-sensei specified that the problem of waste is most pronounced in the case of nuclear power and radiation. We spoke of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, noting the awkward coincidence that he bears the same name as the place of the infamous nuclear tragedy.
This scientist turned Buddhist priest pondered: perhaps the reason uranium was buried deep in the earth is because Buddha or God hid it there. Eventually, we unearthed uranium; did we bury religion and ethics in its place? I wondered.
Why did I ask this question in response to his statement about Buddha or God hiding uranium? It is because Fukushima-sensei claimed that it is very hard for Buddhism to challenge such waste in that politics in Japan is wed to economics. Such political-economic aims related to nuclear technology stand opposed to religious and ethical concerns pertaining to the sacredness of life. How different are such aims from those in the States? Economics often drive politics in our society as well, overshadowing ethical considerations.
Here I call to mind the concern of Michael J. Sandel, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. Sandel argues that a free market economy has significant merits; a free market society in which only the economically profitable has value is quite another thing. Sandel is quite critical of the free market society and argues that there are moral limits to markets: everything is not for sale; there are some things money can never buy. His claim resonates with Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity: life is sacred. But so often the sacredness of life—like religion today—is buried by society’s fixation with the Nikkei 225 Stock Average and the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index.
How often are religious people even aware of the problem of the market-driven society, and its effects on us all? All too often, we reduce religion to a private domain of personal benefit and prosperity, and unwittingly perhaps give free reign to the market. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses this matter in his reflection on Judaism and the free market society:
The concept of the holy is precisely the domain in which the worth of things is not judged by their market price or economic value. And this fundamental insight of Judaism is all the more striking given its respect for the market within the marketplace. The fatal conceit for Judaism is to believe that the market governs the totality of our lives, when it in fact governs only a limited part of it, that which concerns the goods we think of as being subject to production and exchange. There are things fundamental to being human that we do not produce; instead we receive from those who came before us and from God Himself. And there are things that we may not exchange, however high the price.
Judaism is not alone in facing the struggle to safeguard against ascribing omnipresence to the market. Christianity faces the same struggle, as does Buddhism in Japan, according to Fukushima-sensei.
After visiting with Fukushima-sensei, I walked up the path from his residence to the well-known Buddhist temple Zenkoji. I was mindful of Fukushima-sensei telling me during our visit that many Japanese are looking for Paradise. The people streaming to the temple go to get something (such as good fortune) since they paid money (even if a small amount) to worship there. Does this sound familiar to those of us immersed in Christendom in the West? Back to Japan, while allowance is made for the spiritual pilgrims to bring deities such as Amida Buddha (the Buddha of infinite compassion worshipped at the famous temple in whose name the devotee chants ten times to attain Paradise) and Paradise into the conversation since life is hard, and Buddhism is complex, the historical Buddha (Gautama) did not affirm belief in deities and Paradise. The historical Buddha focused his energies on combatting suffering and our grasping state of being, which would include in our own day our passionate slavery to market ideology.
The mechanistic age, which…does not hail from Christianity [or from Buddhism or Judaism, for that matter], but in the modernist rejection of it, replaces the notion of the sanctity of all life and emphasis on wholeness with efficiency. This is the new orthodoxy, though it is only now really coming into its own, as the good life is seemingly omnipresently defined as the most efficient. In his work, The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul writes of the mechanization of all of life in which value is framed by efficiency in the guise of technique. Only “the consoling hum of a unified society” seemingly relieves human anxiety as the age of machine extends its reach.
Neither Ellul nor Fukushima are Luddites—they have nothing against machines and technology. Rather, they are concerned for how utilitarian aims of technological efficiency and—more specifically in the case of Fukushima-sensei, as noted above—market value overshadow concerns over sustainability and waste. The Fukushima nuclear disaster is one such example of where efficiency and market value washed over long-term effectiveness and human and cosmic value. We can only account well for such key ethical questions as framed by H. Richard Niebuhr as What is the situation? and What is the fitting response? if we also answer well an intermediate question What should we care about? In our Donald Trump-ian world dominated by efficiency and market value, all too often we focus “care” on short-term gains.
As noted earlier, Fukushima-sensei was a chemical engineer at Yokohama National University. He finds such scientific work significant because it is patterned after human biology rather than extracted from nature and objectified, as with nuclear power. In the latter instance, uranium was abstracted and objectified for utilitarian use in the short term. Such utilitarian aims failed to account for waste and sustainability. We must ever remain diligent in asking and answering not simply “Can we create a certain technology?”, but also “Should we?” and as much as we are able, “What are the long-term uses and effects?” In addition to hopes and triumphs, modern history has its fair share of scientific regrets. Apart from the ethical considerations that systems of thought like Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity provide, we may end up burying humanity and the world in the waste of our efficiency and economic gains. If this scientist turned Buddhist priest has something to offer—and I believe he does—we must learn to pattern our technological pursuits after our biological and spiritual ecosystems, not make them subservient to the market and machine.
See Michael J. Sandel’s sustained engagement of the need to safeguard against market ideology in What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012).
I discuss this phenomenon in Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
Refer to my blog post, “Are You Raging Against the Machine Age? Take a Forest Bath or Plant a Tree”. See also Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, with an introduction by Robert K. Merton (Toronto: Vintage Books, 1964), pages 6, 12, 21.
I wish to express my appreciation to Robert M. Potter, M.D., Ph.D., whose work in medical ethics has shaped my thinking on this point. Refer here to H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic study, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Morality, with an introduction by James M. Gustafson and a foreword by William Schweiker, Library of Theological Ethics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999).
See for example the following articles: Rebecca J. Rosen, “‘I’ve Created a Monster!’ On the Regrets of Inventors,” in The Atlantic, November 23, 2011; Alok Jha, “E=mc2: Einstein’s Equation That Gave Birth to the Atom Bomb,” in The Guardian, April 5, 2014.