The Shōwa Dispute About True Faith

The Shōwa Dispute About True Faith August 18, 2021


In the photo, you see a 1200-page text that contains articles on “The Shōwa Dispute About True Faith” that began in 1928 between those who were trying to make Sōtō Zen more compatible with Western modernism, including Christianity, by reframing what Sōtō Zen was about. This was an effort to bow to Western colonialist pressures, especially from the US. Japan, you may recall, had been under enormous pressure since 1853 when Commodore Perry tiptoed into Edo Bay with a squadron of steamships, some of which were 25-times larger than anything that Japan had at the time.

Shortly after this event, the Meiji era leaders began a series of dramatic reforms, especially between 1868-1872. The Bukkokuji monk Kogen, my source for the article that follows on the Showa Era dispute itself, summarizes some of these events here:

“Together with separation of Buddhism and Shinto, the Meiji government requested that each school create a compiled version of their doctrine and present it to the authorities, which was a first impulse to clarify what the doctrine was. And in following years like the 1870s and 1880s there were efforts of Sōtō School to modernize, and to put emphasis on teaching lay parishioners a version of their teaching that would be understandable, accessible and comforting. All of that was happening in the context of scholars starting to study Christianity and duplicate what worked there – clear foundational text, and the cult of the founder.”

And what book did the Sōtō reformers come up with that could parallel the Bible? “Shushōgi,” “The Observance of Practice Verification,” of course, which was cut and pasted mostly from Dogen’s writings about this time and Shobogenzo, The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, for the more serious. And who might fill in for Jesus in the cult of the founder? Dogen, of course.

Kogen continues,

“So generally, the Sōtō School took a turn that at first was an effort to give some comforting teachings to the lay parishioners most of whom didn’t practice and therefore couldn’t count on liberation through awakening attained in the process of devoted training, and just needed some comfort through faith, which is analogical to Christianity, under slogan of  ‘Bringing peace of mind with doctrine’ (宗意安心), and using idea of ‘Original enlightenment, mysterious practice’ (本證妙修). But somewhere along the way it became an official doctrine of Sōtō School as such, for practicing monks and lay people alike. So it looks like those ideas were crystallizing somewhere around 1870-1890, and slowly snowballed from there taking stronger and stronger hold.”

The group of reformers, drawing from the work in this direction from the Meiji, but now moving toward establishing it as the standard for the whole school, lay and monastic, was led by Professor Nukariya who prioritized belief over practice-verification. The views he expressed evolved into what I’ve been calling the Post-Meiji Sōtō Orthodoxy (PMSO), although, this Christian-influenced form of Zen got going strongly during the Meiji. Still, PMSO has a nice ring to it.

On the other side of the dispute were those that emphasized actual practice-verification. This group was led by our ancestor, Harada Sogaku Rōshi. And clearly these views were gaining steam even as early as 1910. When Harada Rōshi gave his first lecture at Komazawa, his students started to yell “Sensei, thats wrong!” and he commented, “I saw that until now the students were told nothing but lies, and that hearing my lecture for the first time it was so different from what they were used to hearing from other lecturers that they were bewildered.”

Harada Roshi also said that his time at Komazawa was a constant “crushing delusion, clarifying truth” experience.

Finally, as you might expect, there were other scholars and priests in the middle.

Kogen comments, “The content of the debate itself is really large subject, and the publication that includes materials from it is so heavy that you could easily kill someone throwing it out of a window (ground floor would do).”

Just from the titles of the articles, I get the sense of just how heated it was. For example, Harada Rōshi’s first response was titled, “We Have to Get Rid of Worms [Living] Inside the Lion.” Wow. For me, though, it is good news that there was a heated dispute about true faith in the Sōtō School, because in our time, what Sōtō Zen is essentially about is not something that many students inquire into let alone debate, but instead accept it as a belief system based on original enlightenment and the fetishizing of the zazen pose. That speaks to the success of Professor Nukariya’s true-faith perspective. How ironic, as one student noted, that the PMSO is a result of the Japanese desperate efforts to modernize by imitating what they thought was Western, and then Western Buddhists copy that.

Knowledge of this dispute is important for our practice now in at least a couple ways. First, we learn from it that there was a change within the Sōtō School from the traditional view of practice-enlightenment, prompted by Western colonialist forces. And that it was a hot topic that not everyone, by any means, agreed to. In some ways, it pitted the teachers of monasteries against the academics. It can also be seen as a dispute between those who were interested in appeasing Western colonialism and those who resisted it. Ironically, now most Sōtō Zen in the West is aligned with Professor Nukariya’s true-faith position, but presents itself as the traditional teaching of Dōgen. After forty-four years of inquiring into this, I can report to you that this does not seem to be the case, but please don’t take my word for it. Dig into it yourself through devoted training.

Kogen concludes, “Sadly, it seems that in the modern Sōtō School, views somewhat similar to the perspective of Professor Kaiten Nukariya’s side prevailed, and teachers sharing Sogaku Harada Rōshi’s stance are gradually disappearing in Japan.”

Kogen and I worked together on this Introduction, and now it’s grown longer than the article itself! Strange. I hope you’ve got a bit of attention span left for the real thing. Here’s Kogen’s short article in full:

The Shōwa Dispute About True Faith

By the Bukkokuji monk Kogen

The event called “Shōwa dispute about true faith” (昭和の正信論争) was a major dispute within Sōtō School at the beginning of Shōwa era.[1] The context for the debate is that at the time, starting from the Meiji era,[2] there was a change in emphasis in the Sōtō School from practice and realization towards faith and intellectual studies, and the idea among Sōtō authorities and within the academic community of Komazawa University (belonging to the Sōtō School) that Zen doctrine, and teachings of Dōgen Zenji, which started to be studied around that time, should not be studied in monasteries, but in a modern way at universities.

The debate was sparked by an incident, when on the 1st August 1928 (Shōwa 3rd year) Professor Kaiten Nukariya (a President of Komazawa University at the time) published in the first issue of a new Sōtō School’s bulletin named “Seika” (星華) a front page article titled “True faith” (正信). Bulletin Seika was supposed to be the main outlet for a new missionary organization of the Sōtō School called Sōtō Church (曹洞教会), created on the occasion of the enthronement of the Shōwa emperor, in an attempt of the Sōtō School to become a new, modern organization entering the new era.

In response to that [article], Sogaku Harada Rōshi (at the time shike of Hosshin-ji, and previously a professor at Komazawa Univesity) published a strong rebuttal article in the September 1928 issue of magazine “Kōshō,” (公正) titled “We have to get rid of worms [living] inside the lion.”[3] After that the community within Sōtō School separated into a party supporting Professor Nukariya, including a lot of his Komazawa Univesity colleagues and students, a party supporting Sogaku Harada Rōshi consisting mostly of shike from training monasteries, some of whom were his students, and also there was a large group of people who called themselves “neutral” or “in the middle” in their stance and were taking part in the debate as well.

Most people would participate by publishing their views in various Buddhist magazines. The content of the dispute is a large body of work by many people, and the last published compilation of articles from the dispute, “The Soto School’s dispute about true faith (complete)[4]” by Shihaku Takebayashi has about 1200 pages [see photo]. But the general stance of the Nukariya camp was that by using scholarship, studying the doctrine, and having faith it is possible to clarify the principles of Zen. Harada camp on the other hand insisted that only through practice, and great enlightenment one is able to grasp the Zen doctrine, and that scholars without experience of actual practice and actual insight (実行実観) are simply followers of common sense and science and have no authority to speak about and define Zen doctrine.

According to Hōryū Sahashi[5], the following people were on the side of Professor Nukariya: Inoue Kōsei, Dōshū Ōkubo, Kasen Watanabe, Reihō Masunaga, Kenzui Yonemoto, Kōdō Kurebayashi, Gyokusen Hosoka, Enshū Iizaka, Nandō Shimodaira and Shōin Araki.

The following people were on the side of Sogaku Harada Rōshi: Kakuzen Imanari, Gikō Inoue, Rindō Fujimoto, Shinryū Kodō, Sozen Nagasawa, Baikei Suzuki, Gien Inoue, Dōin Seto, Chisen Matsumura, Goin Hosokawa and Shigetsu Sasaki. The following people took part in the debate taking a middle stance: Takudō Kuruma, Kandō Nakane, Taion Kuriyama, Settei Ashiba, Hōryō Tsuda, Mumon Araki, and Geppō Kakuhari.

There are different views among the scholars on how long the debate lasted. According to Hōryū Sahashi it lasted about six months, ending with publication of all gathered articles in a compilation by Daiki Mori[6] in March 1929. Others like Atsushi Izuki see the debate as continuing until Kaiten Nukariya’s death in 1934[7]. Shihaku Takebayashi divides the debate into three periods[8]: original debate lasting September 1928 – February 1929, then from March 1929 – July 1930 the debate was renewed by a published lecture by Professor Taiken Kimura criticizing Professor Kaiten Nukariya and Professor Daiei Kaneko, and the debate grew bigger than the original frame of two parties of supporters of Professor Nukariya and Sogaku Harada Rōshi, and then the third period of August 1930 – October 1935, where the main focus was on two articles, “Correct faith” (正しき信仰) by Kakuzen Imanari, and “Demon-spotting mirror. Questions and answers about true faith.” (照魔鏡正信問答) by Ryōkō (Hakuun) Yasutani until about 1932, and later several other articles related generally to the “Dispute about true faith” appeared, until the dispute mostly died out around 1935. The last major article referring directly to the debate was “Wrong understanding and wrong faith of people in our School” (宗門人の邪解と邪信) by Ryōkō Yasutani in 1971[9].

The dispute extinguished naturally, because the Sōtō School’s top authorities did not take any side or clearly present their point of view. The animosity between the academic community and Zen teachers from the training monasteries lingered for a long time after the debate. Sadly, it seems that in the modern Sōtō School, views somewhat similar to the perspective of Professor Kaiten Nukariya’s side prevailed, and teachers sharing Sogaku Harada Rōshi’s stance are gradually disappearing in Japan.

[1] Shōwa era, 1926-1989

[2] Meiji era, 1868-1912

[3] According to the Shinmeikai Japanese Language Dictionary, Sanseidō, the expression “worms inside the lion” means “While being a disciple of Buddha, harming the Buddhadharma. While being a part of an organization, causing harm to it.”

[4] 竹林史博, “曹洞宗正信論争” 青山社, 2004

[5] 佐橋法龍, ”曹洞宗学の研究的発展を妨げるもの” (「道元思想体系21」(思想篇 第15巻ー道元思想の現代的課題)同朋舎出版、1995年), p. 337

[6] 森大器編, “曹洞宗安心問題論纂,” 1929

[7] 伊吹敦, “禅の歴史,” 法蔵館, 2001

[8] 竹林史博, ”昭和正信論争の新資料”(宗学研究, 第39号, 曹洞宗宗学研究所, 1997年), p. 224

[9] 竹林史博, “曹洞宗正信論争” p. 1163-1164

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