When Buddhism Became a “Religion”

This article examines the process by which Buddhism became a “religion” in Meiji Japan (1868–1912). As part of the climate of modernization, foreigners, government officials, and the press increasingly identified Buddhism as superstitious and backward. In response, Buddhist leaders divided traditional Buddhist cosmology and practices into the newly constructed categories “superstition” and “religion.” Superstition was deemed “not really Buddhism” and purged, while the remainder of Buddhism was made to accord with Westernized ideas of religion. Buddhist philosopher Inoue Enryō was crucial to this process. This paper explores “superstition” and “religion” in his writings, and it discusses the aspects of Buddhism that were invented and sublimated under the influence of this distinction. This paper argues that not only did Buddhism became a religion in Meiji Japan but also that in order to do so it had to eliminate superstitions, which included numerous practices and beliefs that had previously been central.

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