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Dividing Bones for the Common Dead: The Role of Buddhism in the Formation of Japan's Civil Society

by Mark Blum, State University of New York

This paper will explore the role that Buddhism has played in creating the basis for and impacting the evolution of a "civil society" in Japan. Transition from involuntary to voluntary support of social norms is the basis for a corresponding "civil" discourse to emerge among the general population rather than merely the elites, and signals a new sense of empowerment and identity in the democratic, post-Enlightenment nations of Europe wherein the people came to represent the nation rather than its king.

The argument for the development of a civil society in Japan will be based not so much on Buddhist themes of universal salvation or idealistic myths of bodhisattvic compassion, but on specific ritual practices and belief systems that were indicative of this trend in their emergence and contributed to its deepening through their historical continuity. These religious expressions contributed to the formation of a civil society in two basic ways: the creation of generalized notions of trust and the development of a common dead. Prof. Blum will look at how Buddhist transformations of Japanese funerary culture, particularly the impact of Pure Land Buddhism as a universal postmortem goal, together with the embrace of moving or portable notions of sanctity in the medieval period contributed directly to a collective yet personal identification with a supernormal, unseen yet beneficent reality that was similarly collective and yet personal. And that this common, transgenerational identity is the very basis of the Japanese notion of "public."

Conference paper presented at Buddhism In (and Out of) Place Conference held 17-18 October 2004

Center for Buddhist Studies