Critical Buddhism (Hihan Bukkyo)

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The term critical Buddhism (hihan Bukkyō) refers to Hakamaya Noriaki (1943–) and Matsumoto Shirō's (1950–) critique of Buddha-nature (tathĀgatagarbha) and original enlightenment (hongaku) as not Buddhist. Theological and apologetic in nature, yet using the traditional textual and philological methods of academic scholarship (both scholars are specialists in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist studies), critical Buddhism asserts that Buddha-nature and similar doctrines are examples of Hindu-like thinking of a substantial self (ātman), which Buddhism opposes with the doctrines of no-self and causality (pratītyasamutpāda). Critical Buddhism further asserts that these monistic doctrines deny language and thinking in favor of an ineffable and nonconceptual mysticism contrary to the discriminating awareness (prajñā) and selfless compassion that constitutes Buddhist awakening.

Critical Buddhism is therefore critical in at least two senses: It is critical of certain widely held Buddhist doctrines, and it asserts that the critical discrimination of reality and the judicious use of reason and language to teach that reality are the hallmarks of buddhahood.

A third aspect of critical Buddhism is a fierce critique of Buddhist schools, thinkers, and social programs that, based on the triumphalism inherent in a doctrine of ineffable truth, support the status quo and perpetuate social injustice. Hakamaya and Matsumoto are especially concerned with the role of Buddhist doctrine in various forms of Japanese nationalism and, as ordained Zen monks teaching at Zen universities, single out their own Sōtō Zen teachings for particular criticism, raising questions about how the founder DŌgen (1200–1253) has been interpreted within the Sōtō school and about the proper role of theology within academic as well as sectarian practice. They have also written about Honen (1133–1212), Shinran (1173–1263), Myōe (1173–1232), the Kyoto School, and others, as well as critiquing the ideal of objective academic scholarship in the study of Buddhism.

See also:Chan School; Hinduism and Buddhism; Modernity and Buddhism


Bodiford, William. "Zen and the Art of Religious Prejudice: Efforts to Reform a Tradition of Social Discrimination." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 23 (1996): 1–28.

Heine, Steven. "After the Storm: Matsumoto Shirō's Transition from 'Critical Buddhism' to 'Critical Theology.' " Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 28 (2001): 133–146.

Hubbard, Jamie, and Swanson, Paul, eds. Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The Storm over Critical Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Jamie Hubbard