Engaged Buddhism in Japan, volume 1
Engaged Buddhism in Japan, volume 1

Engaged Buddhism in Japan, volume 1

Regular price $39.95


Volume 1 An Engaged Buddhist History of Japan from the Ancient to the Modern

Jonathan S. Watts

ISBN 978-1-896559-91-9 / 336 pages / 6.14" x 9.21" / includes index + bibliography / Publication April 2023

This volume is the culmination of sixteen years of research and engagement in the growing Socially Engaged Buddhist movement of Japan.

Volume I provides an essential presentation of historical themes that make Japanese Buddhism so unique and hard to understand for even other Buddhists in Asia. Volume I also provides a critical and comprehensive survey of Socially Engaged Buddhism in the modern era, which for the postwar period has never been fully documented.

Volume II (to be published September 2023) presents the new Socially Engaged Buddhist activities of 21st century Japan, a dynamic movement arising out of the social crisis of Japan’s “disconnected society” (mu-en shakai).

These volumes are the third major publication of the Engaged Buddhism Project of the International Buddhist Exchange Center @ Kodosan in Yokohama, Japan. They follow its two volumes dedicated to the Northeast Japan tsunami and nuclear disaster in This Precious Life: Buddhist Tsunami Relief and Anti-Nuclear Activism in Post 3/11 Japan (2012) and Lotus in the Nuclear Sea: Fukushima and the Promise of Buddhism in the Nuclear Age (2013).


Jonathan S. Watts has been developing the Engaged Buddhist project at IBEC as well as the Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB) since 2006. He began working with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in 1990 after graduating from Princeton University in 1989 with a B.A. in comparative religions and political science. In 1996, he helped form the INEB Think Sangha, an activist-oriented engaged Buddhist think tank, to develop Buddhist perspectives on contemporary social issues, and joined the INEB Executive Board in 1999. From 1999 to 2018, he served as a research fellow at the Jodo Shu Research Institute in Tokyo, editing the volume Buddhist Care for the Dying and Bereaved (Wisdom Publications, 2012). He presently teaches contemporary Japanese Buddhism at Keio University and supports the Rinbutsuken Institute’s Buddhist Chaplaincy training program.


An Engaged Buddhist History of Japan from the Ancient to the Modern

Introduction: Axialization and the Potential of Socially Engaged Buddhism

Part I The Historical Struggle of Buddhism to Axialize Japan in the Pre-Modern Era

1 Buddhism’s Entry into Japan and the Nara Period (646–794)

2 Esoteric Buddhism as Socio-Political Ideology in the Heian Period (794–1185)

3 Buddhist Axialization in the Kamakura Period (1185–1333)

4 Religio-Ideological Conflict and the Rising of the Masses in the Muromachi Period (1333–1558)

5 The Brahmanistic and Confucian Turns of Buddhism in the Tokugawa Era (1603–1868)

Part II Archaic Modernity and the Foundations of Socially Engaged Buddhism in Prewar Japan

6 Archaic Continuity across the Tokugawa and Meiji Periods

7 The Meiji Buddhist Enlightenment

8 Axial Challengers: Buddhist Socialism and the Lotus Sutra in the Taisho and Early Showa Periods

9 Descent into Holy War and the Conversion (tenko) to Imperial Way Buddhism

Part III Defining Peace and Internationalism in the Liberal Utilitarian State: Socially Engaged Buddhism in Postwar Japan

10 The Sudden Turn Towards Peace in the 1940s and the Question of Principled Social Change

11 The Lotus Sutra, Confrontational Buddhism, and Social Protest in the 1950s

12 Responsibility and Autonomy in Japanese Social Ethics in the 1950-60s

13 Confronting the Past and Defining a New Buddhist Internationalism in the 1970s-80s

14 Towards a Global Buddhist Civil Society in the 1980s-90s

Conclusion: The Promise of Principled Protest and the Buddhist Resolution to Modernity

Afterword: Towards an Autonomous Buddhist Social Ethics and a Dharmic Civil Society




"I have spent my life interacting with many of the Japanese progressives and Socially Engaged Buddhists written about in this volume. Watts has a deep appreciation and understanding of their important role in Japanese society, and so this volume is an important contribution. It also helps many of us outside of Japan to come to terms with and appreciate Japan's unique style of laicized Buddhism."  Sulak Sivaraksa, leading founder, International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)

"This ambitious book is an attempt to look through the history of Socially Engaged Buddhism in Japan and to identify and clarify various contemporary social issues connected to it. Watts’ review the history of Buddhism since ancient times in light of trends in Socially Engaged Buddhism in the modern world is deeply significant. Although Socially Engaged Buddhism in modern Japan appears to be less prominent, a review of the history of Japanese Buddhism as a whole, and especially the history of modern Japanese Buddhism, will make current issues more understandable. I hope that this book will stimulate discussion about Buddhist social ethics and particularly the social ethics of Japanese Buddhism." Susumu Shimazono, professor emeritus of Tokyo University and leading scholar on Japanese religion in the modern era.

"Socially Engaged Buddhism has had a higher profile in South and Southeast Asia, but it is becoming increasingly important in Japan. Having spent over twenty years in Japan experiencing the shift from high economic growth to its present social disconnection, I highly recommend this definitive history."  David R. Loy

"Jonathan Watts' deep dive into Japanese Buddhist history shows that Buddhism has always been engaged with the social structures and systems in which people live. This look into Japanese Buddhist social history gives us much to ponder concerning the ethical and spiritual choices challenging all thoughtful, compassionate followers of the Buddha. Watts focuses on Japan, filling a lacuna compared with better known movements elsewhere. Given Japan’s influence on Western Buddhism, this study enriches our understanding of Buddhism’s place in the world. Readers in the West should appreciate a healthy dialogue with spiritually oriented thinkers and activists from another 'advanced economy' suffering from increasing mental illness, addictions, and meaninglessness amidst the global threat of climate destruction." Santikaro, translator and disciple of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

"An impressive, ground-breaking overview of Buddhist engagement with Japanese society from the 6th to the dawn of the 21st century. Authored by an American with a time-tested dedication to engaged Buddhism in Japan and beyond, this book will be certain to inspire many who are concerned with the state of Buddhism in Japan to reassess its priorities toward a renewed vision for the future."  Rev. Kenneth Kenshin Tanaka Prof. Emeritus, Musashino University, Tokyo;  Chair, Editorial Board of the BDK English Tripiṭaka Translation Project

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