A Christian and a Japanese-Buddhist work-ethic compared

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  • Religion (1981) 11,207-226


    Winston L.King

    Quite some years ago (in volume XXI I , 1-2 of Monumenta Nipponica) appeared an article by Nakamura Hajime entitled 'Susuki Shfsan, 1579-1655, and the Spirit of Capitalism in Japanese Buddhism.' In it occurs the following interesting passage:

    Now it could be argued that English Puritanism which derives from Calvinism manifests the most thorough basis for the modern West's attitude toward business. And according to Richard Baxter, who is one ofthe most representative figures of this faith, what is valuable for increasing the glory of God is not inaction or hedonism but rather action. Consequently, waste of time is, in principle, the greatest sin, and inactive meditation (at least when it is practised at the expense of business work) is valueless and, at times, to be completely rejected. In recent Japanese religion an exactly corresponding contention is made by Sh6san.

    A second on the same subject in another place runs,

    The most striking feature ofthe thought of Suzuki Shrsan is his contention that the way of Buddhahood consists simply in devoting oneself assiduously to the secular business ofone's life?

    To my knowledge this particular comparative valuation, though pregnant with possibilities for cross-cultural and religious analysis, has never been followed up by any writer in English, not even in Robert Bellah's Tokugawa Religion. Having myself recently become interested in Suzuki Shfsan, I wish here to undertake a further exploration of the implications of the above statements. I have changed Professor Nakamura's 'English Puritanism' to 'New England Puritanism' which may alter the basis of comparison in a few particulars; but in essentials it remains identical. And it has the added interest of being an actual experiment which was begun in America during the latter third of Suzuki Shrsan's own lifetlme---though in a context both geographically and culturally a world apart from his world.

    One further thing may be said by way ofintroduction. In one sense neither Tokugawa Era Japanese nor colonial New England Puritans needed any exhortation of a religious sort to make them work hard. In both cases there was

    0048-721X/81/030207 + 20501.00/0 (~ 1981 Academic Press Inc. (London) Ltd.

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    a near absolute physical-social necessity. In Japan of ShSsan's time it was a period of rebuilding Japan after some 300-500 years of intermittent civil and military strife. Given the limited physical resources of Japan, depleted by war, labour of the hardest sort was a stark necessity, particularly for the lower classes of farmer and artisan. And besides, the Tokugawa grand plan called for a self-sufficient, strictly ordered and closely regulated society, in which each person would be in his assigned place doing his assigned work. The work burden was especially heavy for the rice-producing peasant, whose efforts were the basis of the total structure. 2 In New England of this time everyone was, of necessity, a sort of'peasant', that is a materially productive labourer. The small colony of Puritans had come to a wilderness world of not too hospitable climate or inhabitants, and of unworked resources. Bare survival was possible only by the maximum and devoted effort ofevery individual.

    But there was in both cases a fundamentally important religious motivation, part and parcel of the respective social patterns envisaged, and our interest here is in the dynamics of that motivation. That one set of motivations (the Puritan) functioned for a time in an actual situation and the other (ShSsan's) remained largely an ideal, vitiates neither the interest nor cross-cultural relevance of the comparison.

    [. THE BASIC THEORETICAL RELIGIOUS MOTIVATIONS FOR WORK A. The New England Puritan Theology. I t should be observed at the outset that though there was indeed the survival-urgency for hard labour among the New England Puritans, this laborious manner of life had been deliberately chosen by the Puritans for religious reasons. They were in New England, as they saw it, not by any outward or social necessity, but by their own free and inflexible will to fulfil the Divine Purpose in the world, in so far as they were to be its instruments. Their beliefs about themselves and their divinely ordained mission in the New World may be formulated as follows:

    (1) Almighty God created the world and now sustains its every process; (2) though the original purity and inherent goodness ofthe world have been

    corrupted and defaced by the machinations of Satan and the sins ofman, God fully intends to redeem his world again to its primordial goodness;

    (3) in this redemptive work he calls upon men to be his instruments to foil Satan and at the same time to work out their own salvation--though as the free gift of God, salvation is not entirely within their control;

    (4) the Puritans have come to New England as God's front-line troops in this great warfare against evil; they are the spearhead of His age-long purpose for the world--to establish a New Order in a New World which will be a shining example and ground ofhope for the whole world;

    (5) God's special relation to the New England Puritans, his newly Chosen People, is contained in his covenant with them, a covenant fully agreed to by

  • Christian and Japanese-Buddhist Work-Ethic 209

    the communi ty 's founders (the Mayflower pact): that the community will faithfully fulfil its moral and religious obligations, and that God in turn, as promised in the scriptures and confirmed in history, will be their God and will be a protect ive 'wall off ire round about them. '3

    Before we analyse in more detai l the power and direction ofsuch a mandate as it affected the Puritan work-ethic, a few contemporary expressions of the above themes are in order. In Perry Mil ler 's summary of Thomas Hooker's last sermon in England before he left for the New World we read:

    At this very moment the hand of God was stretched forth and the choicest of his saints led out of the land of Egypt to the new land of Canaan, the one place indubitably provided in which the Reformation might not fall short, where the 'world might see a Spedmen ofwhat shall be over all the Earth in the Glorious Times which are Expected.' What was wanting in Europe should be supplied in America; God's servants having made clear the laws of the Covenant, and the pious care of the magistrates being enlisted for their enforcement, 'this wisdome will by the blessing of God be established; that that which other Nations have not attained to this day, may by the blessing of God be reached by us . . . . ' The Lord was granting them the greatest opportunity afforded to any people since the birth of Christ, the chance to 'enjoy Churches and Congregational Assemblies by his Covenant, to worship him in all his holy Ordinances,' such a privilege indeed as 'for 1260 years the Christian world knew not the meaning o f . . . but this the Lord vouchsafed to us this day.'


    'We, the people of New England,' wrote Peter Bulkeley, 'are as a City set upon a hill, in the open view ofall the earth, the eyes ofthe world are upon us, because we professe ourselves to be a people in Covenant with God. . . ' John Cotton called Davenport to New England (for) 'in order that the whole world might be instructed and a particular phase ofhlstory be accomplished, the towns of Massachusetts and Connecticut had to be settled'. 4

    In seventeenth-century New England, with such a belief in their high destiny, it goes almost without saying that ofcourse every able-bodied man would have an occupat ion, termed a 'warrantable call ing' by Puritan writers:

    Faith drawes the heart of the Christian to live in some warrantable calling and imployment; as soone as ever a man begins to looke toward God, and the wayes of his grace, he will not rest, till he find some warrantable Calling and imployment, s

    Thesame writer goes on to say that even though a man may be able to support his needs without ever work ing- -because ofsome other source of income--- ' i f thou hast no cal l ing tending to publ ique good, thou art an uncleane beast' i For 'God sent you not into the world as into a Playhouse, but a Work-house'. The use of the term 'cal l ing' for one's work was of course significant, as was the suggestion that work be for 'the publ ique good'. The latter term refers to

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    everyman's duty to maintain the Holy Commonwealth or 'Holy Experiment' as the Puritans called it; and the first term suggests that all work properly done is sacred work. This was indeed the explicit Puritan contention. John Cotton wrote:

    We live by faith in our vocations: in that faith, (that) in sen.ing God.one serves men, and in serving men one sexwes God.

    And with such a faith in the holiness of 'warrantable' work, it matters not what specific work it be:

    [That faith] encourageth a man in his calling to the homeliest, the difficuhest, and most dangerous things his calling can lead and expose himselfto; if faith apprehend this or that to be the way of my calling, it encourages me to it, though it be never so homely, and difficult, and dangerous. 6

    Nor indeed, as noted by Professor Nakamura, should religious practices or concerns interfere with that work while it is going on. Everything should be in its proper place and t ime--worship on the Sabbath, uninterrupted work on the week days. A man who reported that he was assailed by religious perplexi- ties while at work, resulting in a loss of efficiency, was thus counselled by Thomas Shepard:

    When there is a season of God's appointing for civil things or business, it is not the season now to be molested or perplexed in it, by the injection and evocation of those thoughts which we think to proceed from the Spirit of God . . . for as it is a sin to nourish worldly thoughts when God sets you a work of spiritual, heavenly employ- ments, so it is, in some respects, as great a sin to suffer yourselfto be distracted by spiritual thoughts, when God sets you on work in civil (yet lawful) employment. 7

    And what were the expectations of the Puritan as to the result of diligent labour? Considering themselves to be Covenant-people and therefore heirs of all the Old Testament promises to Israel, Puritan theologians could write:

    Marke the agreement between us and the Lord: he propounds the Law and saith, That ifwe will keep the Law, he will bless us abundantly in all things, house, and land. s

    Indeed God was almost as much bound by the Covenant as his people:

    The end of the Covenant of Grace is to give security to the transactions between God and man, for by binding God to the terms, it binds Him to save those who make good the terms. Were it not for the Covenant we could never have any certain hope. 9

    Now if there was anything, practically speaking, of which the seventeenth-

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    century Puritans were certain, it was that they had fulfilled their part of the Divine Covenant and that God in turn was doing his part. Writes Miller:

    Thus it was no accident [to the Puritans] that New England grew fat and comfortable, beyond even the most extravagant dreams of the founders . . . To English immigrants of the 1600s the land appeared rich and flowing, while the sacred cod soon proved an inexhaustible mine ofwealth.John Ball had written in England that through His covenant God promised not only to write His laws on our hearts, 'but also to conferre temporal blessings, as they shall be serviceable to vs in our Journey towards Heaven' and John Cotton preached in Boston, 'Christ having made a Covenant with us, he gives the Inheritance of the world to such as beleeve in him. '1~

    Indeed, not only was it quite permissible to prosper, but the Puritan could even properly pray for material blessing:

    [It was] lawful for the saints to endeavor 'prudently' to advance their estates, not because good husbandry would always get a larger return than bad management, but because 'this Prosperity is one of the promises ofthe Covenant and we may pray for it.' Riches being a reward of godliness, they 'are consistent with Godliness; and the more a Man Hath, the more Advantage he hath to do Good with it, if God give him an Heart to do it. 'ix

    Thus, proudly conscious of their faithfulness to the Covenant, the Puritans saw the logical and to-be-expected consequence of their strenuous godliness in their burgeoning wealth. Their Holy Experiment was proving itself right and good.

    Yet in the midst of this deserved and promised prosperity there lurked a profound and insidious danger- - that of loving God's gifts instead of God. Indeed John Winthrop at the very beginning ofthe Experimen t had warned of this:

    I f wee shall neglect the observation of these Articles (of Covenant) . . . and dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnall intencions, seekeing grcate thinges for our selues and our posterity, the Lord will surely breake out in wrath against us. 1"

    But the peril was more insidious even than mere carnal worldliness, which could be easily recognized. The problem at core was this: How can a man work diligently in the world with all his might and main, and yet keep pure from loving that for which he works so hard and which is his promised r ight?John Cotton recognized the danger and sought to deal with it:

    There is another combination of vertues strangely mixed in every lively holy Christian, And that is, Diligence in worldly business, and yet deadness to the world 9 For a man to [take]) all opportunities to be doing something, early and late, and loseth no opportunity, to go any way and bestir himselfe for profit, this will he

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    doe most diligently in his calling: And yet bee a man dead-hearted to the world... though hee labour most diligently in his calling, yet his heart is not set upon these things, he can tell what to doe with his estate when he hath got it. 13

    This then is the ideal Puritan: He is endlessly and tirelessly diligent in his secular work, making a profit whenever honestly possible. He is as earnest about this work as about his regular worship of God on the Sabbath. Indeed worship and work are not really separated, but mutually supplementary parts of one holy wholeness of life. The Puritan is p!eased but not proud when his efforts succeed; he provides adequately but not lavishly for himself and his dependents. And even while he strives with all his might for worldly success, he is aware that this world is not his true home, that his life in it may end at any moment, and that only in Heaven (or perhaps in Kingdom-come-on-earth) will he find his eternal rest. Perry Miller sums up the quality of Puritan life in these beautifully apt words:

    Puritanism sees illusion in the visible universe; it requires men as long as they are in the fle...