Pure Land, Real World

Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists, and the Utopian Imagination

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Melissa Anne-Marie Curley
Pure Land Buddhist Studies
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , February
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Pure Land, Real World, Melissa Anne-Marie Curley sets out to answer how the notion of the Pure Land fares among left-leaning philosophers in modern Japan. She chooses to focus on three individual thinkers: the influential Marxist economist Kawakami Hajime, the Kyoto-school philosopher Miki Kiyoshi, and the historian Ienaga Saburō, best known for his long postwar struggle with the state over the depiction of the Asia-Pacific War in history textbooks. All three are well-known names in Japanese intellectual history, but their engagement with Pure Land Buddhist thought has not received substantial and systematic attention in English-language scholarship. Curley chooses these three thinkers for their commonalities: they are lay secular intellectuals, share a Marxist orientation, and posit the notion of Pure Land “in opposition to the nation-state” (12). 

Pure Land, Real World consists of two parts. Two chapters comprise part 1, sketching the historical trajectory of the idea of the Pure Land, and three chapters (one devoted to each of the three thinkers) comprise part 2. Curley argues that the Meiji period was a pivotal moment for the history of the imagination of the Pure Land: the emergence of the modern nation-state relegated religion to the private sphere (secularism) and made the Pure Land difficult to think of as a real, existing physical place. While some denied its existence altogether, the Pure Land was also being refigured as “transcendental” or, philosophically, as the absolute. Key figures here are the Abbot Kōnyō and the Buddhist philosopher Kiyozawa Manshi. This pivotal moment, Curley argues, was also the condition that made it possible for secular intellectuals—lay individuals, not beholden to the Pure Land institutions—to freely engage and re-imagine the Pure Land for their own purposes. In other words, the Pure Land became part of the repository of ideas that could now freely be appropriated by philosophers. Despite this change, Curley argues, the Pure Land in premodern history also had a subversive and utopian dimension, so the modern leftist uses of the Pure Land allow for a continuity between the pre-modern and modern periods.

Kawakami Hajime, Miki Kiyoshi, and Ienaga Saburō each engaged with the Pure Land in their own way. Curley describes Kawakami’s intellectual path and his eventual discovery of “a kind of solitary Pure Land,” an inner “consciousness of consciousness” that is simultaneously the realization of the Buddhist no-self (muga). Curley understands this in the context of Kawakami’s “resistance” in prison against attempts to force dissidents to confess their wrongdoings, give up their Marxism, and declare their allegiance to emperor and nation (tenkō). Into Kawakami’s “private utopia of interiority,” the state cannot reach. In an in-depth analysis of Miki’s “Shinran Essay,”  Curley describes how Miki interprets Amida Buddha as symbolizing the absolute, and arrives at a very different understanding of Pure Land than that of Kawakami: a utopian community that is inherently social and communal, yet breaks with existing institutions and thus also the state. Curley shows how the image of the Pure Land played a key role in Ienaga Saburō’s battle over textbooks. In an epilogue, Curley proposes that the image of the Pure Land retains a critical capacity (a “principle of criticism”) for the world of thought today for its “orientation toward the future, its attitude of other-dependence, its intentional emotional character, and its emphasis on associative life” (196).

Pure Land, Real World makes several important contributions. In the field of Japanese philosophy, the Kyoto School philosophers inspired by Zen Buddhism (Nishida Kitarō, Nishitani Keiji, etc.,) and Suzuki Daisetsu have received the bulk of scholarly attention(12), while this book brings welcome attention to the rich philosophical tradition of Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land, Real World is also important for its attempt to combine two fields that have unfortunately developed in relative isolation: the study of modern Japanese philosophy, and the study of Buddhism in modern Japan. Curley also brings to light the complex engagement of Japanese Marxists with religion. The chapters on Kawakami, Miki, and Ienaga provide in-depth analysis of their thinking.

While Curley rightly keeps a sharp focus on her subject—the trajectory of the Pure Land—I think the book could have benefited from a richer context. While the late 19th century transition to modernity is contextualized, the personality-focused chapters draw the reader almost completely inside the minds of the three main thinkers. Also, recent research such as by Nakajima Takeshi has drawn out the uses of Shinran and Pure Land by right-wing political figures in the same period. These were also secular intellectuals who drew on Pure Land Buddhism, wished for a better society, and were at odds with the state. Curley positions utopia in a binary opposition to the “nation-state” of Japan, which throughout the book appears as a single seamless entity—“the regime”—with totalitarian tendencies, rather than the complex and changing constellation of forces and individuals riddled with conflicts that it really was. 

Despite these shortcomings, Pure Land, Real World is an important contribution to the fields of modern Japanese religion, history, and philosophy, and deserves to be widely read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

G. Clinton Godart is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Melissa Anne-Marie Curley is Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University.



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