religion and politics

Heading out now to Liz's birthday lunch in Kyoto...lovely day for it. Tonight I play a few songs at The Cellar in the Folk Jamboree thing.

Tuesday I went down to the Osaka Peace Center in Osakajo-koen. Very sobering exhibits about the air raids on Osaka in WWII and about the Japanese invasions and atrocities in Manchuria, Korea, and elsewhere in Asia. Also small exhibits on the atomic bombings and on the Auschwitz camp. They also have more exhibits on nuclear disarmament, the ecological crisis, and the work of Unicef (though this was one was all in Nihongo so I didn't really get it).

Kaz talked a little bit about how Shinto was misused leading up to the war. The whole "Emperor as a living kami who must be obeyed" thing was a creation of the Meiji restoration (which, ironically, pretty much occurred at the demand of the United States), later used in the early 20th century to ramp up nationalist fervor. Shinto shrines were built in occupied territories in Asia and the conquered people made to pay homage at them.

Zen, too, was abused, the bushido ideal twisted to the point of Zen priests cheering on kamikaze attacks.

The dangers of mixing religion and politics. There's a bumper sticker slogan, "The last time we mixed religion and politics people got burned at the stake", but it's much worse than that. Despite legends of "The Burning Times", not all that many people were murdered in witch-hunts, while mixing religion with politics in Japan gave us millions dead in the Pacific theater of Word War II.

And yet...as ethical teachers, religious leaders have always had to become involved in the politics of the day. Buddha tried to get local kings to be nicer (and was almost assassinated for his trouble). Jesus might have talked about rendering on to Caesar, but once he became a threat to the power structure, bam!, crucify him. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were great spiritual leaders who led political movements - using a tactic of civil disobedience put forth by that Transcendentalist proto-pagan Thoreau.

Maybe the best that can be hoped for is what happened in Bodhidharma's encounter with the Emperor of China: to end the encounter with one's head still attached and return to one's meditations.

But how was it possible for Shinto and even Zen to be corrupted as they were?

Institutionalization.

The kami in a tree cannot be corrupted. The pranja sword of Zen cannot be turned to murder. But as soon as institutions, organizations, hierarchies, are constructed - even with the noble intent to protect and promote good practices - some SOB will try to find a way to turn that structure to his own ends.

We must therefore be wary of any organized approach to spirituality. Small autonomous groups - like the cells of an underground resistance, though larger and less secretive - are perhaps best.


Down at the Cellar now. I'm going to close out the "Folk Jamboree" thing tonight, so I get to hear a whole night of Nihongo folk music. Should be interesting. Unfortunately my allergies have been kicking me, so we'll see how the voice is after three or four hours in a smoky bar.

(And the bars here can be pretty damn smoky, my friends.)

One thing about Japanese music, songs don't rhyme. I guess it makes translating songs into Nihongo from English or other Western languages (I don't know what the conventions are in Chinese or Indian or African music) a fair bit easier - especially since they seem feel free to borrow words from English, "katakana-ize" them a bit, and bam! Kono tango wa Nihongo no tango desu.

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