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Working Paper Series

2018-07-10

#5: The Secular Ground Bass of Pre-modern Japan Reconsidered. Reflections upon the Buddhist Trajectories towards Secularity

Christoph Kleine

As can be easily recognised, the title of this paper alludes to a famous statement by Robert N. Bellah. In his article “Values and Social Change in Modern Japan,” originally published in 1970, Bellah identified “worldly affirmativeness, the opposite of denial” as “the ground bass […] of the Japanese tradition.” His argument runs as follows: "So we have this great outpouring of the recognition of transcendence in Kamakura times together with new forms of society and new cultural forms that in many ways laid down the lines of Japanese development through the Tokugawa period. However the note of transcendence was soon lost. It was drowned out by the ground bass, so to speak, of the Japanese tradition of this-worldly affirmativeness, the opposite of denial." This may, at first sight, seem to be consistent with my rather provocative notion of the ‘secular ground bass of pre-modern Japan.’ Is “worldly affirmativeness” not actually a key feature of ‘secularity,’ and of ‘modernity’ for that matter? However, Bellah’s argument runs in the very opposite direction. Contrary to what one might expect, worldly affirmativeness, in Bellah’s view, did not pave the way for secularity but, rather, prevented it. The reason is, says Bellah, that the alleged ground bass of worldly affirmativeness was responsible for the ‘failure’ of the early modern Japanese to actualise the moment of transcendence that had been recognised and strongly emphasised by medieval Buddhist thinkers already – most prominently by Shinran 親鸞 (1173–1263) in the 13th century. And this failure, in Bellah’s view, accounts for the inability of the Japanese to establish a truly “axial civilization,” become modern and thus secular. They had missed, so to speak, the chance to develop a Protestant ethic and a spirit of capitalism out of their own cultural resources. I do not comment upon Bellah’s ideas here, which are somewhat tainted by classical evolutionist and teleological theories of modernisation and secularisation popular at that time. I adopt a completely different approach instead. I aim to demonstrate that the medieval Japanese had already developed a set of epistemes with a longue durée, which turned out to be favourable for appropriating modern Western concepts of secularity in the 19th century, because they clearly distinguished between two social domains, which we – from a modern perspective – would label roughly as ‘religion’ on the one hand and ‘politics’ on the other. In other words, we find social structures and related systems of classification that come quite close to the ideal type of secularity as originally defined by Monika Wohlrab-Sahr and Marian Burchardt, namely: “institutionally as well as symbolically embedded forms and arrangements for distinguishing between religion and other societal areas, practices and interpretations.”

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2018-04-03

#4: Healing and/or Salvation? The Relationship Between Religion and Medicine in Medieval Chinese Buddhism

C. Pierce Salguero

A wide variety of Buddhist writings originating on the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia were translated into Chinese between the mid-second and the early eleventh centuries C.E. As this material was read, digested, commented upon, and integrated into daily life, Chinese audiences came to be familiar with Buddhism’s basic teaching that overcoming all forms of suffering (Ch. ku 苦; Skt. duḥkha) is its core function. As one of the most obvious forms of suffering encountered in everyday human life, illness was a frequent topic of concern in these discourses. Of particular concern was the question of the relationship between the alleviation of the suffering of illness and the total, final salvation from suffering of all kinds (commonly referred to as Ch. niepan 涅槃; Skt. nirvāṇa; among other terms). This question appears and reappears across the genres of the Buddhist canon. From sūtras (loosely meaning “scriptures”), to disciplinary texts, ritual manuals, narratives, parables, philosophical treatises, and poetry, illness and healing are everywhere in Buddhist literature.

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2018-03-22

#3: The Islamicate Adab Tradition vs. the Islamic Shari‘a, from Pre-Colonial to Colonial

Armando Salvatore

The goal of this paper is to provide a bird’s eye view on what might qualify as ‘the mother of all distinctions’ within Islamicate history affecting the regulation of human conduct. It is a rather ‘soft’ distinction, whereby the ethical and literary tradition of adab works as an harmonious counterpoint, more than as a sheer alternative, to the normative discourse subsumed under the notion of shari‘a, the law originating from Divine will (shar‘). Adab does so, however, while clearly affirming a distinctive, non-divine (and in this sense ‘secular’) source of norms of human interaction. The paper is divided into two parts: the first delineates the traits of adab in pre-colonial times, while the second focuses on key transformations it underwent during the colonial era.

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2017-09-19

#2: Revisiting the Secular. Multiple Secularities and Pathways to Modernity

Monika Wohlrab Sahr; Marian Burchardt

For the last few decades, sociological debates about religion and secularisation have been characterised by confrontation between (often American) critics and (mostly European) defenders of secularisation theories. There has also been a remarkable rise in academic and public debates about the role of secularism in political regimes and in national as well as civilisational frameworks. These debates are shaped by the context of the changing position of the West in world politics, Islamist terror and the war on terror, struggles of religious minorities for recognition and influence, and the concomitant negotiations over the place of religion in the public sphere, as well as the emergence of post-national citizenship. Contributions from political theory, social anthropology and religious studies that emerged from this context have enriched the debate, but also contributed to fragmenting existing theories on the relationship between religion and modernity. Whereas scholars previously aimed to develop ‘general theories’ of secularisation that included deviations from the general model, newer approaches tend to highlight the specificity of Western European developments as opposed to those in the rest of the world, and sometimes even highlight their incomparability.

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2016-04-01

#1: Research Programme of the HCAS "Multiple Secularities - Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities"

Christoph Kleine; Monika Wohlrab-Sahr

The project seeks to explore the boundaries that distinguish between the religious and non-religious, in modern as well as pre-modern societies. In doing so, we are aligning ourselves with current debates but we are approaching the debated issues from a basic theoretical perspective. At present, a general distinction can be drawn between three narratives: The first claims the dwindling presence and relevance of religion (“secularisation”); the second regards religion to be returning globally, consequently irritating the self-perception of modern societies (“return of religions”, “post-secular society”). According to the third, religion has always been present and has simply changed shape, meaning secularisation assumptions are misleading (“invisible religion”). There is also a theoretical-methodological conflict to be taken into consideration. Where the secularisation hypothesis considers its theories and methods to be universally applicable, the critics of this theory not only increasingly challenge the transferability of Western development paths, but also the transferability of the concepts used. This applies right down to the challenge of the religious/secular dual, which is understood to be an expression of Western experience and power of interpretation that forces other cultures into Western schematisations. In contrast, we are formulating an alternative position, in which we are trying to explore the boundaries between the religious and non-religious beyond normative concepts. We are particularly seeking such boundaries in regions that differ greatly from the so-called “West” in the “Modern World” in terms of culture and history: In various Asian regions and – partly overlapping with these – in the so-called “Islamic World”, but also in different epochs. This is linked to a plea for comparability across multifaceted regions and cultural contexts, and for investigating their entangled history.

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