The history of massive environmental abuse that has marked the West has also been that of Japan, at least since its opening to the West in 1868. Having imported indiscriminately most of the West’s industrial and economic practices, as well as quite a few “cultural” assumptions which accompany these practices, the Japanese have come to face very much the same problems the West is confronted with.
One of the positive results of the mindless destructions which we can see occur in our environment has been the appearance of systematic thinking on the relationships between nature and culture, as evidenced by the ecological movements in Europe and in the United States. It is interesting to note that the evolution of ecophilosophy in the West indebts itself consciously to Asian systems of thought and practice, perhaps because some Western scholars of Asian traditions want to see in these the philosophical possibility that anthropocentrism is a fallacy.
The deterioration of cities, the decrease in the quality of life, and the stunningly swift disappearance of wildlife and wilderness areas appear to be as many proofs of the idea that these developments may have resulted from particular culturally-grounded attitudes toward nature, or from particular socioeconomic processes against which only a marriage between philosophy and politics could fight successfully.
The following pages are an attempt to suggest that the Japanese cultural tradition hides in its deepest recesses a vast storehouse of notions and practices which may be helpful in establishing a culturally-grounded ecophilosophy. The method used in this short article is simple and could be developed in complexity if it is agreed that it is useful in evidencing the presence of environmental ethics in the tradition: having gone through a large number of texts belonging to the philosophico-religious traditions of Japan, and having witnessed a number of ritual practices which could be interpreted in the light of these documents and in the light of contemporary Western thinking on the topic of deep ecology, I propose a few reflections on what could be called “base-models” of environmental ethics.
Nature and Culture in Mythology
It is useful to investigate Japanese mythology in a search for base models not only because one finds there some of the earliest written statements about the environment, but also because this mythology is still alive in rituals performed in many Shinto Shrines and is, therefore, of some relevance. These rituals and their accompanying symbols are thus still close to the mind, though it may be said that their presence is partly hidden from consciousness and belongs to the world of the unconscious, of dreams, and of images.
According to the mythology found in the Kojiki (712 A.D.), the Nihongi (720 A.D.), and in many texts written throughout the mediaeval period (from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries) as well as during the premodern period, Japan proposes a particular vision of its land that deserves thorough analysis.
The mythology does not provide any insight into a cosmogony, except to say that a series of formless divinities manifested themselves spontaneously, and that the last couple of such divinities had a form, and were a male (Izanagi) and a female (Izanami). These stood on a Heavenly Bridge and, thrusting into the ocean below a jewel-headed spear, churned the water. As they withdrew the spear, some drops of brine fell onto the surface of the ocean, where they coagulated to become an island. Descending to that island, the divine couple then, upon invitation on the part of the female divinity, engaged in sexual union. The result of this first union was a leech, which the couple did not find aesthetically satisfying, and therefore threw down “the cosmic drain” in a float made of reeds. Returning to Heaven to enquire of the reason of this unaesthetic production, they were told that the female should not invite, but the male. They decided to descend again to the island and, after the male had invited, they resumed their interaction, out of which the “Eight Islands” (Japan) were born. Continuing, the female deity gave birth to natural elements, such as the seas, the rivers, the mountains and the trees, water, and fire. Upon giving birth to fire, the female was so burnt that she passed away, although, in the last thrusts of her energy, she gave birth in her urine, her faeces, and her vomit, to divinities representing agriculture and sericulture.
Then the male deity, angered at fire, “killed” it. The description of the ritual killing of fire by his father is in the form of the description of the process of swordmaking.
Having killed his son, the male then followed his spouse to a realm under the earth, and asked her to return in order to continue the process of creation they were engaged in. She agreed, under the condition that she not be seen by him. Curious, he made some light and saw his spouse in the process of decay; horrified, he escaped, followed closely by demons and by his angered spouse. At the entrance of the netherworld he placed a boulder, thus separating the realm of death and that of life. He then pronounced the words of repudiation from his spouse, who vowed to kill a number of his children every day, upon which he vowed to give birth to even more. Thereafter, having been in contact with decay, he decided to purify himself in water, at the mouth of a river. Purifying his left eye, he gave birth to the solar divinity, emblem of the imperial lineage of Japan. Purifying his right eye, he gave birth to the lunar divinity, emblem of agricultural production. Pufifying his nose, he gave birth to a violent divinity of which it could be said that it represents the industrial and military complex. Purifying the rest of his body, he gave birth to the divinities representing sea-faring.
The mythology then takes us into other realms leading to the smooth transition into history itself. One has therefore the impression that the world of myth and that of time-in-history are not separated by much.
What is interesting from the particular vantage point we have chosen for this article is to notice that fire holds a mediating position between the production of the natural world through sexual interaction and the production of emblems of socio-cosmic character through a process of purification. Therefore, the world of nature is seen by ancient Japanese as preceding the “birth-and-death” of fire, whereas it could be said that whatever happens after the “death” of fire represents the world of culture. In this case, the death of fire ought to be understood to mean its control, which marked the death of fire in the realm of nature and its entrance into the realm of culture. That is why its “killing” is ritual and is expressed in terms in which one recognizes the production of swords, which to the ancient Japanese were the emblem of power and pacification or control. A further remark which may be made in order to demonstrate that Japanese mythology is indeed composed in a structural manner is that all the divinities of nature are born from the lower orifices of the feminine deity, whereas culture all the divinities related to culture (social structure, control over the seas surrounding the islands, grounding of legitimacy) are born from the head of the male divinity. Sex stands on the side of nature, whereas culture is represented by the processes of purification which are by far the dominant characteristic of Japanese ritual behavior, and a characteristic of Japanese life in general.
I have now shown that Japanese mythology makes extremely clear distinctions between the world of nature and that of culture, and that this opposition is marked by the events surrounding the appearance and the controlling of fire. But it should also be pointed out that the processes of purification responsible for the appearance of culture are all taking place in natural surroundings, and it is there that one must look for the particularly Japanese dialectic between nature and culture. Let us notice at this point that fire holds a double characteristic, being violent on its nature-side (volcano) and potentially violent (sword) on its culture-side. The divinities representing the powers of fertility in agriculture are all born out of substances which are themselves lukewarm (appearing just after the birth of fire) and representative of processes of change and natural transformation: decay, digestion. Thus nature has, in Japanese mythology, an ambivalent character: though it looks beautiful, it is also the realm of change, decay, and putrefaction, to which is opposed the purification of culture. The feminine deity represents the rotten, whereas the male divinity represents the pure.
This “rotten” and repulsive characteristic of nature remained in the perceptions of the Japanese for centuries, but it was also forgotten sometimes in the favor of a view advocating the beauty and the purity of nature. This is especially the case after centuries of processes of purification of nature at the hands of the cultivated people who invented gardens and flower arrangement, and the other great arts by which Japan likes to identify itself on the international cultural scene. It might be said that what has been termed “the Japanese love of nature” is actually the “Japanese love of cultural transformations and purification of a world which, if left alone, simply decays.” So that the love of culture takes in Japan the form of a love of nature. It may be said that traditional interpreters of Japanese culture have failed to see this point, blinded as they were, perhaps, by a Western romanticism which is out of place.
Consequently, it is best, when attempting to investigate the position of nature and culture in the Japanese tradition, to attempt to shed our own cultural biases and tendencies.
In order to do this, perhaps a good method resides in systematically asking about the character of perception as it is proposed by the culture itself. But Japan, outside of the various Buddhist schools, does not offer philosophical treatises dealing with this issue in the way in which we are accustomed to. Instead, it offers a formidable wealth of materials from which we have to infer the particular phenomenology of perception which might be at work. In concrete terms: we can infer the Japanese philosophy of perception from poems, dramas, works of art and the like. And, it so happens that most of these seem to be representations of particular relationships to nature. Furthermore, one may, in order to investigate the relationship of the Japanese to nature, decide to research the various cults which are blatantly nature-related: mountain cults, waterfall cults, fire cults, sea cults, star cults, food cults, animal cults, and the like. This is a rather large order which cannot be realized in the scope of the present article, but I shall suggest from now on, the type of work which might be done in this direction in order to inform the expression of a particular ecophilosophy grounded in Japanese culture.
The Study of Japanese Mindscapes
I call mindscapes the various geographical areas chosen by the Japanese in the course of their history to either project onto them particular mental structures or representations of reality, or to infer from them particular representations helping them to establish meaning in experience. In either case we confront a dialectic between nature and culture, be it that nature is to be “decoded” in order to reveal its hidden meanings which are necessary in order to survive, or that culture is seen as the sum of actions which are informed by particular perceptions of the “being” of nature.
These mindscapes are generally located in landscapes of great natural beauty which have been protected over the centuries and many of which form today the National Parks of Japan. It seems that the origin of these mindscapes is in ritual, when sacred space was defined in order to perform the rites of purification necessary to come into contact with the divinities which should guide human action. Natural elements form the basis of sacred space: a stone or a pillar, or a tree. These were in principle situated near sources of water, at the foot of mountains or at their top. It is there that specialists of ritual would manipulate fire and water, and play musical instruments in order to be possessed by the divine. This possession led to the uttering of “meaningless” sounds, which then had to be decoded and interpreted by specialists. In other words, it was thought that nature spoke a language which needed to be decoded.
This aspect remained true for centuries in Japan, even in the texts proposing highest reflections on the philosophy of Buddhism. Some sacred spaces thus came to be seen as the natural abode of the divinities, and were not to be entered except at the time of ritual feasts; some of these, after the introduction of Buddhism, were forbidden to women, over whom the rotten characteristic of nature had been projected by mythology. Being the natural abode of the divinities, these areas became the focus of particular attention, and, as sedentary communities emerged, shrines were built for rituals. When Buddhism came in, temples were built next to the shrines, and associations between the Shinto divinities worshiped in the shrines and the Buddhist divinities worshiped in the temples were established, leading to complex combinatory systems of syncretism. The divinities worshiped in the shrines were often spirits of natural elements, or protectors of the community, or ancestral divinities; in most cases these merged to form a single complex deity. But the rituals show that we are always facing an attempt, on the part of the ritualists, to manipulate or influence nature with culture: food offerings are made, magical formulas which are believed to be the language of nature are expressed, thus making communication with nature possible.
In the case of mountains, the entire area was seen as sacred; sometimes, the mountain itself was considered to be the “body” of the deity itself. Most often Buddhist temples were built next to these shrines, but as time passed, they came to be erected on the mountain itself: the ultimate in terms of culture could be realized in the deepest, or highest, or most ethereal parts of nature. The temples were granted tax-free domains at the foot of the mountains, thus gradually creating a large geographical unit that was under their spiritual influence and protection, in conjunction with the shrines. The result of these developments was the establishment of what could be called a sphere of influence, a self-contained unit of ritual and practice overlooking human activities in the plains.
These cultic centers came to be the largest single land-owners of Japan during the mediaeval period. The sum of the symbols they expressed, of the rituals they performed, of the ideas they exuded or developed, forms the “mindscape.” And in this mindscape, the presence of nature is overwhelming both in its outward appearance and in the culture it created; this is why a systematic study of these centers of nature/culture dialectic is needed. Their role in Japanese history is immense, for they regulated patterns of land-ownership and use, and gained large economic and political power. It can be advanced that the official separation between Shinto and Buddhism which was ordered by the government in 1868 had as one of its goals the fundamental change of land-ownership systems in Japan; therefore, the relationship between the cultic centers and the people living on that land became ever more tenuous, to the point of disappearing in the time-period of only one century. As a consequence, the content of the relationship of people to nature changed drastically and followed other patterns of use that are not informed anymore by what goes on in the religious centers. This rearrangement of Japan may have cut the umbilical cord to ritual allowing people to deal with nature in a totally different way, which may have been what we call today “ecological”.
An Example of a Mindscape
Kunisaki is the name of a volcanic peninsula jutting out of the north-eastern corner of the Island of Kyushu. It is one of the most beautiful natural configurations of Japan, made up of a volcano which has a double peak and therefore receives the name of Futagoyama: “The Twin Mount.” Its gentle slopes are covered with extraordinary rock formations and a luxuriant vegetation changing with the four seasons in a well-patterned rhythem. But they are also covered with about fifty Buddhist temples and many more Shinto shrines, which have been erected during the classical period of Japanese history, from the ninth century on. The reason why this cultic center of vast proportions became so important is that it was located near a most important Shinto shrine dedicated to the deity Hachiman, but also for a reason which should be of direct interest to us. This mountain came to be seen as the “natural form” of the most important scripture of Buddhism: the Lotus Sutra.
Mountain practitioners of the classical period who specialized in this scripture noticed that there were as many natural valleys on the volcanic cone as there are chapters in the scripture: twenty-eight. They thus decided that each valley corresponded naturally to a chapter, or they came to the conclusion that each valley was the natural manifestation of a particular message. In order to realize this correspondence between “things” (nature) and “words” (culture), they then sculpted as many stones into the form of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as there are ideograms in the scripture in question: some sixty-thousand and several hundred statues. They placed these statues representing a word of the scripture on the paths they used in their ritual peregrinations while meditating on the meanings of the scriptures and on the meaning of their doing so while walking on the mountain. Very soon, it becomes difficult to make the following distinction: was it that nature spoke, or that culture was expressing the essence of nature?
One could propose that the text had been “en-mountained” and that the mountain had been “textualized,” and that nature thus spoke a most cultural discourse while culture expressed a basic harmony of meaning with that originally perceived to be in nature. This event in the evolution of religious practices in Japan could be seen as the manifestation of a philosophy of immanence, since that which had always been thought to be transcendent: the divine, was not to be “seen” in nature. Spinoza, the great Western philosopher of immanence, wrote that “a true idea must be in accordance with the object of which it is an idea” (Ethics, Vol. II, Axiom No.6, Prop. No.34 & 43). It could be said that the mindscape of Kunisaki expressed the same axiom in its own way.
After many vicissitudes of an economic and political nature, the Kunisaki Peninsula lost most of its economic basis allowing it to survive at this level, and gradually fell into disrepair. The separation of Buddhism and Shinto cooked up by the nineteenth century ideologues gave it a powerful blow. The postwar period finished it. It is now the least populated area of Japan, a Quasi-National park of extreme beauty and poverty. The only industry is oranges and mushrooms. That is why the Japanese government considered placing its latest nuclear energy installation there. In the meantime, many of the elegant statues representing the words of the Scripture of the Lotus have found their way into museums and “private collections.” Nature and culture have been estranged, and I would submit that we suffer of this estrangement in every aspect of our being.
A Zen Example
Zen has often been invoked in the West as the school of thought and practice which best represents the essence of Japanese culture, and it has been readily adopted by many Westerners as something akin to the ecological dream of contemporary marginals. While there is considerable ground to disagree with the statement that Zen is close to the “essence” of Japanese culture, or with the other statement which sees Zen as akin to some, we will not enter this discussion, and focus instead on the work of one of the greatest Zen masters of the mediaeval period: Dogen, for we believe that what he had to say about nature and culture in order to determine the ontological status of both is of direct relevance to our investigation.
In his main work, entitled Shobogenzo, Dogen presents several chapters dealing exclusively with these questions. Of these we will address two. The first one is entitled “Buddhist Scriptures,” and questions the definition which was generally accepted by his students at the time. For most, the term “Buddhist Scriptures” referred to the written documents purported to be the sermons of the Buddha and kept in the temple libraries: they had to be arduously studied if one wanted to progress on the path toward Awakening. Therefore, many doct students learned Chinese and read them with great care, and believed that the orthodoxy was to be found therein. But Dogen, keeping the spirit of the Zen tradition as he had come to know it in China, disagreed with this position and proposed the following:
“In the Buddhist Scriptures you will find the Law which was taught by the Bodhisattvas, the Law which has been expounded by the various Buddhas. These scriptures are the tool of the Great Way. [. .] A Master necessarily and always understands clearly the meaning of the scriptures. To understand these scriptures is to make of them one’s nation; it is to make of the scriptures one’s own body and mind; it is to use them for someone else; it is to make of them one’s own bed and walking. It is to make of them one’s own father and mother, one’s children and grandchildren. When I say that one should practice according to the scriptures, it means: according to a complete and clear understanding of what these scriptures are about. Thus, the behaviour of a master, like his washing his face or his drinking tea, is not different from the teachings to be found in scriptures; in fact, it is an old scripture itself. It happens that scriptures create masters: thus Obaku found his successor by beating Rinzai sixty times. A master was created when Reiun Shigon saw peach blossoms, or when Kyogen Shikan heard a stone hit a bamboo, or when Sakyamuni saw Venus in the sky. All these are cases in which ‘scriptures’ have created masters. But it also happens that someone understands the real meaning of a scripture by opening his heart-mind’s eye, and that he obtains that opening of the eye through the understanding of the real meaning of a scripture.
What I call scripture, in fact, is the whole Universe understood at once in all ten directions. There is simply no time nor space that is not a ‘scripture.’ There are all kinds of scriptures: some expound a sublime truth, others express a trivial reason. Some are written with the words of another world; others are written with the words of animals, or written with the words of the enemies of the Buddhist Law, or with the words of human beings. Some indeed are written with the words of blades of grass or written with all kinds of trees. Thus the large, the short, the square, the round, the green, the yellow, the red, the white, all mixed through the vast universe in all directions, are the words of the ‘scripture,’ they are the appearance of the text we should be dealing with. This is the Tool of the Great Way; this is what Buddhists should consider when they speak of’scriptures.'”
It could be said that Dogen proposed a certain type of phenomenology of existence according to which, people should study their mode of being and find out whether it was informed by an adequate perception of the being of nature. This master was not proposing that knowledge was to be found in texts, but rather in an understanding of modes of being which may be expressed in one way or another in some Buddhist scriptures.
However, sole reliance on these written words was unacceptable to him, as I suppose that sole reliance upon a direct or immediate perception of nature and experience in it would not have been acceptable either. What is acceptable is a systematic, perhaps continuous examination of nature from the point of view of culture and of culture from the point of view of nature, thus leading to the establishment of some “ethics” or philosophy of action which would lead to a proper mode of being in the world, or to what Buddhists call Awakening and traceless enlightenment. The notion that the natural world was the “Book of God” is not purely Japanese; one finds it in China and in mediaeval Europe as well (one may refer to A.M. Crutius’ work on mediaeval Europe), and in the United States, especially in the domain of painting and in the history of the establishment of the National Parks (a good work on painting from this perspective is Barbara Novak: Nature and Culture in American Landscape Painting). But the consciousness which is not regularly put in touch with that type of idea may not find the idea by itself, or even find it relevant. That is why Dogen insisted on training and not on total immersion in nature only.
The position espoused by Dogen seems to be more complicated than pantheism; for, according to him, nature does not present itself to our ordinary perception as the ultimate. Only a process of purification of the sense organs, accompanied by meditation, allows one to reach the vision of the “Universe at Once in the Ten Directions.” One recognizes here a fundamental aspect of Buddhist practice: rites of penitence are usually rites of purification of the sense organs which allow an adequate perception of the world. This perception, when achieved, is always qualified as “aesthetically pleasing.” But ordinary perception on the part of people who are not trained leads astray and gives birth to a mode of being characterized by suffering, desire, loss. There is then a basic opposition between ordinary, “illusory” perception, and the “pleasurable sight” proposed by rites of penitence and by Dogen; that is why he recommends that we should start by thinking that mountains flow and streams stay immobile. Pantheism would not advocate a systematic denial of ordinary perception.
Dogen was not the only thinker of classical Japan to speak in such terms; Kukai (773-835) before him, proposed an extremely close perspective on nature, and many a poet and thinker echoed these positions for centuries. Many No dramas represent these views as well. And in almost all cases, the relationship of nature to culture took the form of a “cosmic responsibility” on the part of man, who was seen as the agent of change in the natural realm.
The Kii Peninsula is a rather large body of land extending south in the middle part of the main Island of Japan. It is today the site of two National Parks (Ise and Kumano) and one Quasi-National Park (Koya-Ryujin). The reason why the Peninsula is protected like this is not surprising now: it is the site of many temples and shrines, of mountain paths which have been for centuries trekked by mountain ascetics (Yamabushi) in their quest for the vision of that land as a metaphysical realm, a “Pure Land” on earth. Having presented in some detail the evolution of this area as one of Japan’s foremost sacred spaces in another article (Grapard: “Flying Mountains and Walkers of Emptiness: toward a definition of sacred space in Japanese Religions.” History of Religions, Chicago, 1982; also KJ 25, Sacred Mountains of Asia), I will summarize this phenomenon in the following lines.
Esoteric Buddhism, the latest form of Buddhism developed in India, spread to Japan in the early ninth century, and had on Japanese culture a formidable impact. A highly ritual-oriented system of practices and a highly developed philosophical system, it is not easy to approach or to present globally. But let us propose here that it envisioned the universe from a double perspective which had to be unified through practice: the world of phenomenon and that of noumenon. These two worlds were symbolically represented in painting, as mandalas which had to be penetrated ritually. The content of the practice was to approach the Triple Mystery of Mind, Speech and Body (that of the Buddha) ritually, this approach leading to one’s fundamental capacities of the mind, of speech and of the physical body to be assimilated to those of the Buddha. In a word, it could be said that Esoteric Buddhism is a praxis of assimilation to higher levels of mode of being as defined by the tradition, or, perhaps better, an alchemic praxis purporting to transmute the mind of humans into that of the Buddha, during a single lifetime. From the point of view of Awakening, the world of the Buddha and that of humans is in a relationship of non-twoness. From the point of view of illusion, these worlds are set apart by incalculable realms. Therefore, a mandala is, from the point of view of Awakening, a pictographic representation of the world. It is, from the point of view of illusion, a representation of a transcendental realm. The goal of the praxis is to realize the view that both positions are neither true nor false, in virtue of the philosophical axiom that “illusion is awakening.”
We had mentioned earlier that ancient Japanese viewed mountains as residences for their divinities. What Esoteric Buddhism did in the Kii Peninsula was to imagine a huge mandala in the sky as if it were a diapositive, to use the sun as the projector, and to therefore have a projection of the mandala onto the mountainous area, in which each peak would be seen as the residence of a particular divinity of the mandala. As practitioners would, in a temple, sit in front of a painted mandala and enter it ritually, in this case of “natural mandala,” they would pass through a gate in a shrine at the foot of mountains, and enter the imagined mountain mandala, perform on each natural peak the rites they would perform for each divinity in the painted mandala, and realize awakening at the summit of a particular mount located between the two major mandalized areas. The whole peninsula had therefore become a symbol of the realm of the Buddha and was entirely sacralized by such practices. This is the deep reason why this area was protected by laws making it a National Park. But today the actual paths of the mountain ascetics are lost; no one knows the exact course, and the mountains are trekked by twentieth-century mountaineers escaping the noise of large cities. It is hard to know how much of the feelings responsible for the mandalization of such areas is re-created by these Sunday trekkers.
The Modern Crisis
In spite of houses made of natural elements and surrounded by gardens of great power to suggest the dialectic between nature and culture, in spite of a vast body of poetry and literature in which one can retrace the evolution of Japanese culture in its relationship to nature, and in spite of formidable religious systems which have addressed the question for a very long time, Japan turned the century and opened to the West in a catastrophic manner: rejecting much of its past, it emulated the power discourse of Europe and assimilated in no time the idea that nature is something to be controlled, rather than man’s activities in it. In the process of “modernization” characterized by some as a success, in the process of development framed by the subversive notion of relevance, and in the process of accumulating a wealth in total lack of balance with its natural boundaries, Japan has become a land destroyed and polluted. The only redeemable aspect of some of the policies taken by the government to curb pollution was the decision to translate the term “environmental pollution” by the term kogai, which means, literally, “public harm.” Japan has become well-known for its smog, for the Minamata disease, and for ailments caused by pollution.
Little is done in education to assist technological attempts at reducing pollution with a systematic appreciation of the past, in which the Japanese could rediscover some fundamental attitudes which could become the basis for developing an environmental ethic, grounded in philosophical systems which had guided Japan for centuries and were forgotten in the aftermath of the war. But is it arrogant to suggest, as an outsider, that Japan has in its own cultural heritage, everything it takes to develop a new ethic for the modern age? And to suggest that this new ethic is not purely Japanese in a narrow sense, but is universally debatable and applicable? That in this heritage one discovers a fundamental universality of modes of being which are still “relevant” to the contemporary situation, East and West? But would education have the courage to be subversive in the face of multinational corporations whose basic tenet is profit and whose cosmic responsibility in the face of “public harm” is the least of worries? It is, after all, a matter of ethics.
ALLAN G. GRAPARD, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Japanese Buddhism, is a former East-West Center Research Fellow, professor of Asian Religions at Cornell, and Social Science Research Council Fellow in Kyoto. He presently is Associate Professor of Religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This article first appeared in Deep Ecology, edited by Michael Tobias (Avant Books, 1985) and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.