Miki Kiyoshi’s Marxist Buddhism: The Impact of Imagination on the Past, Present, and Future

But the fact that we see the imagination as a faculty peculiar to artists is probably related to the fact that we view artistic activities in particular as original creations. Our job is to elucidate the logic of imagination as a logic of historical creation, while liberating it from its restriction to the realm of beauty and broadly introducing it into the world of action.” – Miki Kiyoshi, The Logic of Imagination

Miki Kiyoshi, a 20th century utopian thinker who combined Marxism and Pure Land Buddhist philosophy, used the relationship between imagination and history to clarify his vision for the future of society.  Miki’s work is influenced by the Kyoto School — an intellectual movement led by thinkers who interpreted Western philosophy in the context of East Asian intellectual traditions — which lays the foundation for his conception of ideas like logos, pathos, and imagination.1  His novel ideas about the historical applications of imagination not only created new ways of interpreting history, but also unprecedented ways of imagining the future.

In his published collection of essays, The Logic of Imagination, Miki argues that imagination is not a purely fictional realm belonging only to artists, but a process which directly impacts the real world.2  This is also true of myth, which he sees as the product of imagination, and whose impact on historical reality can be traced throughout history.3  If imagination influences action, and action shapes history, then imagination must directly influence reality.  This supports Miki’s claim that, “being human also means to exist in a particular historical context — as Miki puts it in ‘History’s Reason,’ ‘human beings do not exist outside of history; they stand within history’.”4  He defines human reality as grounded in historical reality, and historical reality as directly influenced by imagination.  In her study of Pure Land Buddhism and 20th century utopian thinkers, Melissa Anne-Marie Curley argues that Miki used the imaginary utopia of the “Pure Land” as a historical myth to help shape his Marxist vision for the future.5

According to Miki, the myth of the Pure Land belongs to the realm of imagination, but this does not negate its importance — if anything, imagination provides a conceptualisation of the future which cannot be found in reality.  The ability to imagine a better future or a “Pure Land” allows humans to act on this myth.  Here, he applies Marxist theory to imagine such a future: a unified human community supported by the principles of mutual aid.6   Religion, which exists primarily in the human of imagination, is an internal realm, but “Miki maintains that this internal experience inevitably and directly manifests socially, generating new religious phenomena or new forms of social life that are founded upon a demand for happiness and thus arc always toward utopia.”7  Imagination, by Miki’s definition, is both a historical actor as well as a force which influences our future.

  1. Masakatsu Fujita, The Philosophy of the Kyoto School, trans. Robert Chapeskie (Singapore: Springer, 2018), vi, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-8983-1_5. []
  2. John W.M. Krummel, “Introduction to Miki Kiyoshi and his Logic of the Imagination,” Social Imaginaries 2, no.1 (2016): 17. []
  3. Ibid., 19 []
  4. Melissa Anne-Marie Curley, Pure Land, Real World: Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists, and the Utopian Imagination (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2017), 141, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvvmxmx. []
  5. Ibid., 148 []
  6. Ibid., 151 []
  7. Ibid., 143 []

The Capitalism of Christianity

The opening of Japan in the mid 1800s resulted in an intellectual exchange between Japan and the “Western” world as Western countries vied to establish ties with Japan and to exert their own cultural influence on the country.  While the general model for imposing cultural conventions is through capitalist systems, Christian influences took a different approach.  The prevalence of capitalism in the nineteenth century permeated all aspects of life in the United States and many European countries, including missionary work.  H. B. Cavalcanti uses the case of American missionaries in Latin America to demonstrate that even religion could be commodified and used as a means of exerting capitalist influences on other countries.  He describes the competition between American Christian denominations which “competed openly in the American religious market, vying for ‘shares’ of the country’s faithful (Finke and Stark 2000). Once those churches established foreign-mission programs, it was only natural that they tried to reproduce in host countries similar market conditions to the ones enjoyed at home.”[1]  While the spread of capitalism in the nineteenth century seemed to be an unstoppable force which, among its other political, economic, and social consequences, effectively exported Christianity globally, this was not the case in Japan.

Instead, the diplomatic relations between Japan and Russia led to a transnational exchange of ideas which led to the emergence of a form of religious anarchy.  Sho Konishi argues that this cultural exchange was highly influenced by the popularity of Russian literature translated into Japanese.[2]  Populist Russian literature introduced new, and complemented existing solutions to “social problems” which both countries were facing in the aftermath of their revolutions.  A running theme in translations of Russian literature was that “‘society’ began to be defined in this context as a problem of unfettered capitalism.”[3]  The socialist and anarchist themes in Russian literature built off pre-existing anarchist traditions in Japan, creating an anti-capitalist base among Japanese intellectuals.

This Russian translation culture was not only anarchist in nature, but Christian as well.  Konishi uses the popularity of Leo Tolstoy in particular to illustrate this fact.  Just as “Tolstoy became a dangerous apostate of the Russian Orthodox Church, he was gaining a widespread religious following in Japan, where many regarded him as a prophetic religious thinker and a saint.”[4]  But, the Christian ethic which was popularised by Tolstoy does not conform to either the typical Western Christian theology or the methods of its dissemination.  Instead, “The resulting conversions to what was called ‘Tolstoyan religion’ (Torusutoi no shūkyō) or ‘religious anarchism’ (shūkyōteki anākizumu) in Japan occurred in the total absence of the converter, that is, without a missionary or church institution.”[5]  Unlike the missionary organisations which operated in other countries, Christianity in Japan was not the result of capitalist systems imposing religious doctrines, but a unique religious theory which rejected the very idea of capitalism.  This “religious anarchism” was both a political stance and a utopian dream for a future universal human religion.


[1] H. B. Cavalcanti, “The Right Faith at the Right Time? Determinants of Protestant Mission Success in the 19th-Century Brazilian Religious Market,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41, no. 3 (2002): 423–38, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1387454, 423.

[2] Sho Konishi, Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan, 1st ed. Vol. 356 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2013), https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1x07vz6, 95.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 93.

[5] Ibid., 95.

Christian Confucianism

“China also walked in the great Way, but within the most recent one or two thousand years, China has erroneously followed the devil’s path, thus being captured by the demon of hell.”[1] – The Book of Heavenly Commandments

According to many 19th century Christian missionaries and supporters of Confucianism, the teachings of Christianity and Confucianism are based on opposing philosophies which cannot coexist.  Christians of the Taiping Rebellion even went as far as to describe Confucianism as “the devil’s path.”  However, there are many ways in which their ideas overlap and events such as the Taiping Rebellion demonstrate that Confucian ideals can be adapted through a Christian framework.  While most scholars view the Taiping Rebellion through the lens of class or nationalism, Carl Kilcourse argues in his book Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China 1843-1864, that the most important aspects of the rebellion are grounded in religion.  He describes the ways in which rebels adapted Christian theology and successfully integrated it with their own traditions, including Confucianism.  He argues that it was the ability to merge Christianity and Confucianism which made the movement initially successful.

Even though the rebellion’s leader Hong Xiuquan denounced Confucius, many aspects of the Taiping discipline reflect Confucian thought.[2]  Hong’s understanding of human nature shows that he was greatly influenced by classical education, especially the philosophy of Mencius, because Hong held an optimistic view of human nature.  Contrary to the Christian belief that original sin marks all of humanity as inherently evil, Hong’s belief that humans are naturally good reflects Neo-Confucian thought.  Additionally, the Taiping commitment to the Ten Commandments is reminiscent of the Confucian commitment to self-cultivation.  The idea that one can unlock one’s inner good nature by following the Ten Commandments seems to be based on the classic Confucian idea that one should commit oneself to learning and self-perfection.  The fifth of the “Ten Heavenly Commandments” is also connected to Confucianism.  The fifth commandment of filial piety is described in “The Book of Heavenly Commandments,” where it claims that, “the Lord God is the universal Father of all in the mortal world.”[3]  It adapts the Confucian principle that sons should be loyal to their fathers to portray the relationship between humanity and god as one of filial obedience.  Kilcourse uses the Taiping understanding of human nature, the Ten Commandments, and filial piety to show how much their Christian theology overlaps with Confucian tradition, demonstrating that despite Hong’s anti-Confucian rhetoric, he was greatly influenced by Confucianism.[4]

To explain the success of the Taiping ideology, Kilcourse uses the term “glocalization,” or the process of “localization [which] occurs when a foreign object, idea, or institution is taken to a new cultural environment, exposed to local influences, and thereby transformed into an original expression of the indigenous culture.”[5]  While Christians and Confucians alike declared the mutual exclusivity of the two ideologies, their principles and values were often adapted to compliment each other.  The ideas on which the Taiping Rebellion was founded draw from both Christianity and Confucianism, merging the two to create a foundation for the theology of the uprising.


[1] Theodore de Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century, (Columbia University Press, 2001), ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/st-andrews/detail.action?docID=908711, 219.

[2] Carl S. Kilcourse, Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China 1843-1864, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 110.

[3] Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition, 219.

[4] Kilcourse, Taiping Theology, 109-133.

[5] Ibid, 17.

Human Nature: How Perception of Human Tendencies Alters the Definition of Confucianism

The influence of Confucianism in Chinese culture and throughout the world is undeniable, but Confucianism itself is difficult to define, both because it is rooted in deeply philosophical, existential questions, but also because it has been interpreted and redefined by so many generations of thinkers.  One critical aspect which differentiates different schools of Confucianism is how one answers the question of whether human nature is inherently good or inherently evil.  Even just a hundred years after the death of Confucius, his disciple Mencius redefined his teachings by basing Confucian philosophy on the principle that human nature is inherently good.  This so changed the foundation of Confucian belief that the new school came to be known as Neo-Confucianism.  On the opposite side of the spectrum are thinkers like Xunzi and Ogyu Sorai, who base their philosophical interpretations on the idea that humans are naturally inclined towards evil.  Although they all claim to be following and expanding on the teachings of Confucius, their approaches to Confucian teachings lead them in entirely different directions.

Daniel Gardner in his book, Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, argues that the Neo-Confucian views of Mencius had a greater impact on Chinese education from 1300 to 1900 than almost any other figure, apart from Confucius himself.[1]  Mencius famously argues that “all men have a mind-and-heart that cannot bear to see the suffering of others: Today, no matter the person, if he suddenly comes upon a young child about to fall into a well, his mind-and-heart fills with alarm and is moved to compassion.”[2]  This belief in an innate sense of compassion influences his entire philosophy and it is the foundation of his belief that it is our duty to cultivate this compassion through self-reflection.  Gardner argues that it was required of anyone wishing to enter government service to internalise this philosophy of self-cultivation.  As a result, Confucianism, and its practice by those in official government positions, was a highly individualistic philosophy which recommended that the best way to serve others was by turning inward and through the perfection of oneself one could become an example for others.

Ogyu Sorai argued for the opposite approach.  He agrees with Xunzi that  humans are predisposed towards evil, claiming that “men are not sages, and that evil inevitably abounds while good is scarcely to be seen.”[3]  This pessimistic view of human nature leads him to the conclusion that humans cannot attain moral perfection on their own.  Arthur Tiedemann’s analysis of Sorai’s writings in Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600-2000 argues that Sorai was convinced that traditional schools of Confucianism like Zhu Xi and Ito Jinsai, “had failed to fufill the basic aim of scholarship: to provide for the needs of the people and the general social welfare. The NeoConfucians were too preoccupied with metaphysics, philosophical idealism, and personal cultivation.”[4]  Other schools relied on the inner good nature of the individual to eventually lead them towards goodness and virtue, but Sorai thought this perspective was unrealistic because it placed too much pressure on the individual.  He argues that without established social and political structures to guide and support people, their material welfare would be neglected and as a result, the evil tendencies of human nature would be manifested.

The real opposition in these views lies in the contrasting ideas the true nature of human beings.  If, as Mencius claims, humans must look within themselves to find good, then Confucianism is a philosophy which focuses predominantly on the individual and encourages an almost religious approach to personal perfection through self-reflection and self-cultivation.  In this form of Confucianism, laws and government authority have little effect because one is expected to govern oneself and set an example for others.  But, if one takes Sorai’s view that humans possess a natural evil which they must overcome, it is necessary to look outside oneself, to social and political institutions to correct this inherent flaw.  In this sense, Confucianism is a philosophy which stresses the importance of community and advocates for the structure and support which rituals and laws provide to keep individuals in check.  These contradictory views both claim to be “fulfilling the Confucian teaching, not breaking with it,” but their social and political implications are vastly different.[5]  The way in which Confucianism is interpreted in this case determines whether it is defined as a religion or as a political ideology.

[1] Gardner, Daniel K., Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, (Hackett Publishing Company, 2007), ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/st-andrews/detail.action?docID=1118881, p. xv.

[2] Ibid., p. 65.

[3] Tiedemann, Arthur, Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600 to 2000, edited by Wm. Theodore De Bary, et al., (Columbia University Press, 2005), ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/st-andrews/detail.action?docID=908716, p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 218.

[5] Ibid., p. 219.