A Soga Ryōjin Reader

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Jan van Bragt
Studies in Japanese Philosophy, Volume 12
  • Brussels, Belgium: 
    Chisokudo Publications
    , August
     578 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book introduces for the first time a substantial portion of the voluminous works of Soga Ryōjin (1875–1971), a titan in Shin Buddhist Studies in modern Japan, selected and translated by Jan Van Bragt (1928–2007). As Western scholars’ interest in Shin Buddhist studies has increased recently, publication of this English translation of Soga’s work is timely and welcomed. The present volume includes Soga’s writings that Bragt translated between 1989 and 2003 and Muriuki’s Note, as well as a Foreword by James W. Heisig and Introduction by Michael Conway. Conway’s introduction to Soga’s life and works, his discussion of Soga’s doctrinal approach to Shin Buddhism, and his explanation of the problems and limitation of Bragt’s translation are helpful since Soga’s doctrinal discussion of Shin Buddhism is complex and Soga is “deeply steeped within the Shin exegetical tradition and expects his readers to be so, as well” (9). A Soga Ryōjin Reader is full of Shin Buddhist terminology and concepts; however, it is accessible to Buddhologists in general and will be of interest to those who wish to understand Shinran’s (1173–1262) doctrine on a deeper level. Shinran is a Buddhist priest of medieval Japan and known as the founder of Jōdo Shinshū, a form of Pure Land Buddhism, better known as Shin Buddhism in the West.

Bragt translated Soga’s work for his own learning, but he seems to have faced two challenges, which are interrelated. The first is how to translate words and notions specific to Shin Buddhism into English, and the second is how to convey Soga’s intricate discussion of Shin Buddhist doctrine to a Western audience. For Soga, discussion of Shin Buddhist doctrine is inseparable from defining Shin Buddhist faith in experiential terms. Soga says, “my views run counter to the common sense or accepted opinions of the academic world. True enough, but what counts as common sense in the academic world is far removed from the common sense of the people” (422). His work deconstructs the history of Buddhism in order to establish and deepen one’s faith in other power [tariki in Japanese] from an academic standpoint. Soga is always concerned about commoners who cannot give up ordinary lives and practice Buddhism in monasteries, but he maintains that they can take refuge in Amida Buddha’s original vow, the eighteenth vow. In the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, Shakyamuni Buddha states that demonstrating the importance of the eighteenth vow was the foremost mission of his life.Unlike in previous Shin Buddhist doctrinal studies, Soga situates Shin Buddhism in the heart of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and emphasizes the importance of the Bodhisattva Dharmākara’s vow mind as the causal stage of Amida Buddha

Translatiosn reprinted in the present volume, such as “Shinran’s View of Buddhist History” and “Lectures on the Tannishō,” are relatively easy to grasp, and Bragt’s choices of English words make Soga’s essays appear to be easy to understand. For instance, Bragt translates shukugō as “karma,” in which, according to Soga, the self is found in connection with Amida Buddha’s primal vow (437). While the word karma helps Soga’s essay read rather smoothly, it overlooks the alternative translation of shuku as “stored” (shukugō), which is relevant to the ālaya-vijñāna, one of the key concepts in Soga’s Shin Buddhist soteriology. 

For the most part,Bragt’s translation is fair and accurate, but some suggestions can be made. For instance, it would have been better to use “original vow” instead of “primal vow.” In the essay titled “On the Man Who Does Not Apologize,” it would have been better to render bengo sezaru hito in Soga’s description of Kiyozawa as a person who does not defend or does not justify himself, instead of one who does “not apologize” (153).

A Soga Ryōjin Reader opens up modern Shin Buddhist Studies to the Western world and serves as a new reference for Shin Buddhist studies and Christian theology. I believe it would have improved the book if Bragt’s biographical information and work had been included.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michihiro Ama is Karashima Tsukasa Associate Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at the University of Montana.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jan van Bragt (1928–2007) was a scholar of Japanese religion and philosophy at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya, Japan, where he served as its first acting director in 1976.


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