Introduction: A Buddhist Roadmap to Engaging with Nuclear Energy

The following gives an overview of how Japanese Buddhists have been engaging with the nuclear issue and considers how Buddhists in general can best confront this multi-faceted problem (updated November 2013)

A Buddhist Approach to Social Justice

With the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima #1 Nuclear Complex, we here in Japan have had to confront the karmic results (vipaka) of a half a century of nuclear energy proliferation. With Japan’s history as the only nation to be victimized by nuclear bombs, this confrontation has been a very complex and painful one striking at the fundamental question, “Why would a nation with such a traumatic experience with nuclear warfare seek to rebuild their country on the basis of such technology?” In this volume, these and many other challenging questions have been taken on by the people of Fukushima and Buddhists from Japan and around the world. In this essay, I would like to offer a Buddhist approach to engaging with the nuclear issue from the fundamental Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths, which will in turn serve as a platform for introducing the ideas and activities of many of the Buddhists found in this volume.

Since the late 1990s, a group that I helped found called Think Sangha, part of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), has been examining the question of social justice within the Buddhist tradition.[1] One of our core members, David Loy, has written most extensively on this issue, pondering Buddhism’s emphasis on dukkha (suffering and existential dis-ease) as a possible key resource in developing a Buddhist conception of social justice. Social justice is a concept that we find more emphasized throughout Western history and appears to have developed from the Abrahamic religious traditions of the Middle East, “particularly the Hebrew prophets, who fulminated against oppressive rulers for afflicting the poor and powerless.”[2]

The strength of the Abrahamic approach, which underlies modern Western society’s culture of democracy and human rights, is the injunction to restructure society on the basis of moral and ethical values. While Asian and Buddhist societies have equally strong foundations in morals and ethics, the focus has been more on the organic development of a good society through the practice of virtue by individuals and their communities. In the particular case of Buddhism, the moral law of cause and effect, known as karma, acts as an invisible force guaranteeing that eventually righteousness, or justice, will prevail. This comparatively passive stance towards the way society and its institutions are constructed has left Buddhism open to criticism for being overly focused on individual salvation and lacking concern for collective liberation in the present world of the living.

Loy and others in Think Sangha and INEB have over the years developed a way of understanding dukkha and the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths on the arising and cessation of dukkha as a particularly Buddhist approach to the problem of social justice. This approach seeks to extend the liberative practices of Buddhism, which appear to center on the individual, to the collective level. In our exploration, we have noticed that one of the pitfalls of the Abrahamic approach to social justice is the tendency to locate the source of injustice in an “evil other”, which usually must be eliminated by any means necessary.[3] This is the shadow of tyranny that often leads to the corruption of social revolutionaries as they come to power and has haunted the American experiment with social justice around the world.

A Buddhist approach based in the Four Noble Truths can balance and compliment the Abrahamic tradition with its de-emphasis on an “evil other”, which from a Buddhist standpoint is ultimately insubstantial based on the concepts of not-self (anatta) and emptiness (sunyata). In Buddhism, the focus is not on evil but rather ignorance, especially of the interdependent chain of causes and conditions (idappaccayata) that lead to violence and other forms of socially constructed dukkha. In today’s highly complex world of global economic institutions, this focus on causality and on structures and cultures that bring harm to others yet seem to be driven or controlled by no single entity could provide us with an effective tool for meeting these forces. As Loy has argued, the Buddhist focus on individual virtue as well as personal transformation through meditation and other contemplative practices can then extend to a conscious restructuring of society, as in the Abrahamic model. Yet this process would not seek to punish any “other” but transform the very fabric of society.

The Four Noble Truths of Nuclear Energy

1) The Dukkha of Nuclear Energy

Outside of a few visionary thinkers, like Joanna Macy in her Nuclear Guardianship Ethic (featured at the end of this volume), Buddhists for the most part have not confronted the problem of nuclear energy. This is in part due to the fact that most Buddhist countries in Asia until very recently have not developed nuclear energy programs that have made it an important issue to confront. In Japan, quite a number of Japanese Buddhist denominations have spent the past half-decade and more since the end of the Pacific War campaigning against the nuclear arms race of the Cold War that threatened the entire planet for decades. Despite the tremendous, sincere energy these groups have put into this work, until Fukushima they turned a blind eye to the exploitative system of nuclear energy development that the Japanese government has been pursuing since the 1960s.

Rev. Nakajima speaks to representatives of the Japanese Diet with the Interfaith Forum on January 9, 2015
Rev. Nakajima speaks to representatives of the Japanese Diet with the Interfaith Forum on January 9, 2015

Here again, Buddhism can be duly criticized for its inability or rather reticence to look at the deeper social systems of injustice. However, one particular Japanese Buddhist, who for decades toiled in obscurity, did confront these deeper issues. Rev. Tetsuen Nakajima is a Japanese Shingon priest living in the area of Wakasa in Fukui Prefecture, north of Kyoto, where the largest constellation of nuclear reactors, fifteen in all, has been built over the last forty years. In his contribution to this volume, we learn of his initial encounter with survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the late 1960s and the building of reactors in his region in the 1970s that made him an outspoken activist against nuclear energy.

In 1993, he helped found along with other priests in regions affected by the building of nuclear power plants the Interfaith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy. This forum was the sole voice of religious conscience against nuclear energy until the Fukushima incident. As we will see in the following section, the Forum has continued to be a leader in the Buddhist and religious worlds on this issue.

2) The Origin of Nuclear Dukkha

While being largely ignored by mainstream Japanese society and the mainstream Buddhist world before Fukushima, Rev. Nakajima and the Interfaith Forum developed substantive analyses of the structural and cultural violence that has been taking place behind Japan’s nuclear energy policy. From his campaigning for medical aid for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Rev. Nakajima came to learn of the same exact illnesses befalling those underclass, non-unionized, temporary workers who were being brought in to do maintenance and clean up work in the nuclear reactors in his region—the number of contaminated workers is now estimated at 500,000 nationwide. This discovery brought to fore the basic human rights issue of the need for the exploitation of underclass laborers who would not only be complaint and desperate enough to do this work but also not have the means to expose the issue to the larger public.

Rev. Nakajima and others priests living in rural areas all over the nation also came to experience first hand the decimation of their local economies. They were able to understand the structural violence of the modern, industrial growth paradigm: the systematic destruction of local self sufficient economies with subsidies for hosting these reactors; the forcing of their populations to migrate to urban areas for work in the industrial sector; and the replacement with local economies addicted to subsidies that eventually run out and necessitate the further building of new plants. The creation of an economic system based on the business of energy, rather than satisfying real energy needs, has become an embodiment of the Buddhist lower realm of hungry ghosts (Jp. gaki, Skt. preta)—an endless and insatiable cycle of greed.

The Interfaith Forum’s examination of this cycle led them to also see the cultural values that were inimical to Buddhism. Rev. Nakajima has written on how Japan’s nuclear energy policy has been part of a continual system of competitive and violent nationalist development since the opening up of the country to modernity in the mid 1860s and the build up into the Pacific War.[4] In this way, he and the Forum have exposed the Buddhist roots of greed in exploitative economic development, anger in militarism and the potential of nuclear armament by Japan, and delusion in the continual exploitation of the Japanese public by this system.

Rev. Taitsu Kono (courtesy The Bukkyo Times)
Rev. Taitsu Kono (courtesy The Bukkyo Times)

Since 3/11, one major significant mainstream Buddhist voice has joined this criticism. Rev. Taitsu Kono, the head priest of the Rinzai Zen Myoshin-ji Buddhist denomination and the President of the Japan Buddhist Federation (JBF) during 3/11, has continually come out in public on the problem of contemporary culture and the parallels between Japanese Buddhist complicity with the government’s policy around World War II and with current nuclear energy and economic development. These insights are offered in detail in the last section of this volume.

3) Nirvana: Buddhist Social Values & The “Blowing Out” of the Nuclear Fire

It was through the courage and leadership of Rev. Kono that the mainstream Japanese Buddhist world was finally able to make a substantive statement on the nuclear energy issue on December 1, 2011 through its representative body, the JBF, calling for a “lifestyle without dependence on nuclear power.”[5] In this and numerous other statements that came forth from individual denominations, the Buddhist concept of “sufficiency” (Jp. shoyoku chisoku, Skt. samtusti) has been hailed as a new cultural value for Japanese to embrace as a way to reduce extravagant consumption and build ecological lifestyles that do not endanger “life”. This concept of “life” (Jp. inochi) has been another point of emphasis, especially in protecting the lives of the younger and future generations, that Buddhists have been rallying around as a basis for criticizing nuclear energy. These declarations have been significant in that they have directly confronted the values of modern economic development that have been a source of Japanese national pride for well over a century. The shift to a new set of post-industrial values based in pre-industrial Buddhist ones could offer an opportunity for Japanese Buddhism to re-enter mainstream Japanese society in a substantive way for the first time since its marginalization began in the mid 1860s.

These declarations and the holding of numerous public forums on Fukushima and the nuclear issue, as profiled in the following pages, have been a welcome step forward into public discourse by Buddhists. However, the curious lack of participation by Buddhists to participate in popular protest again brings up the critique against Buddhism’s lack of engagement in action for social justice. At the end of this section of the volume, we will look more in depth at this issue and the small Nipponzan Myohoji denomination who remain singularly devoted to public protest as a way to express Buddhist ideals against nuclear energy proliferation.

4) The Way to a “Life of Sufficiency”

We are now past the second anniversary of the tsunami and the beginning of the Fukushima incident, and more than a year since most Japanese Buddhist denominations made declarations against nuclear energy. Since making these declarations, however, we have seen very slow and measured action taken by the denominations to fulfill this new vision of sufficiency lifestyles. Rev. Kono has been leading his denomination in installing solar panels and cutting down on electrical consumption at their headquarters. In January 2013, Ryukoku University, which is run by the Jodo Shin Honganji Pure Land denomination, announced its collaboration with corporate interests and local government to build a mega solar power station outside of Kyoto.

Mutsuji Yamaoka (right) with RSE Representative Dr. Makio Takemura, President of Toyo University
Mutsuji Yamaoka (right) with RSE Representative Dr. Makio Takemura, President of Toyo University

Yet the most substantive and proactive response has been the Religious and Scholarly Eco Initiative (RSE) created in May 2011 by a collaboration of religious professionals and scholars to confront the environmental crisis. It has as its stated goal “the harmonization of humans and nature and the construction of a new principle of civilization.” In November 2012, RSE launched the Religious Based Solar Power Generators website showing in real time the cumulative generating power of the facilities belonging to its five member association of the Konko-kyo Shinto denomination, the Seicho-no-Ie denomination, the Rissho Koseikai Buddhist denomination, the Chozen-ji temple of the Nichiren Buddhist denomination, and the Juko-in temple of the Jodo Pure Land Buddhist denomination under the abbotship of Rev. Hidehito Okochi, a leading member of the Interfaith Forum. A data bar can be found at the top of the site showing “present total generating power” (2,443.30 kW in August 2013), “annual generating power” (2.44 million kW/h) and “annual reduction of carbon dioxide emissions” (1,366 tons).

Mutsuji Yamaoka, the group’s coordinator and the head of public relations and publishing at Seicho-no-Ie, has commented that, “While it is quite difficult to mobilize the religious world for concrete collective action, the Religious Based Solar Power Generators Association can right now assemble individual denominations already involved in this work.”[6] Indeed, the major Japanese Buddhist and religious federations have not yet endorsed the initiative nor promoted it within their own denominations. This overall lack of follow through and the continuing lack of Buddhist participation in anti-nuclear demonstrations once again exposes Buddhism to the critique of a reticence to engage in action for social justice. The aforementioned Rev. Hidehito Okochi is an outstanding exception for his wide-ranging activism. In the last section of the volume, we will read about his structural critiques of Japanese economic and political structures as well as his pro-active environmental projects based on a Buddhist vision of “building a Pure Land without a nuclear or military presence”.


So what does environmental justice, especially in Japan, look like? Should it start, as it did in Germany, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets and calling for an end to nuclear energy? Seeing the Japanese distaste for political protest in its tepid anti-nuclear movement—despite polls that shows a majority of Japanese are against nuclear energy—this possibility seems highly unlikely. This may also may further indicate the Asian and Buddhist reticence towards achieving justice through the active reconstruction of society.

At the same time, the nuclear energy issue has not disappeared from public view in over two and a half years since the Fukushima incident began. Ongoing incidents at the Fukushima reactors and other reactors around the country; concerns for the health of children in wide areas in Northern Japan; and media coverage of the corruption and cronyism between the government and the nuclear energy companies have continued to remind the general public of the dangers of nuclear energy and its deployment. Meanwhile, increased installation of solar panels in private homes and corporate built housing developments, and the incremental growth of a generation of dropouts from mainstream society embracing alternative ecological lifestyles show signs that a shift may be occurring towards a post-industrial, ecologically just Japan.

There is, of course, the tendency to want it all to move faster and concerns that real change is not actually happening. This is indeed the tension between an Abrahamic and a Buddhist thrust towards social change. While the Japanese Buddhist world has been slow—as always—to move proactively on this matter, there has been significant change over the last two years in awareness and attitudes on nuclear energy. With the continuing establishment of a platform of Buddhist values on economic and environmental justice, I look forward to more engagement by Buddhists in the 4th Noble Truth of building a “Life of Sufficiency” in Japan.

author: Jonathan S. Watts

[1] Watts, Jonathan S. (Ed.) Rethinking Karma: The Dharma of Social Justice (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2009).

[2] Loy, David R. “Why Buddhism and the West Need Each Other: On the Interdependence of Personal and Social Transformation”, forthcoming in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2013.

[3] Loy, David R. “Why Buddhism and the West Need Each Other”.

[4] Watts, Jonathan S. (Ed.) This Precious Life: Buddhist Tsunami Relief and Anti-Nuclear Activism in Post 3/11 Japan (Yokohama: International Buddhist Exchange Center, 2012).

[5] Watts, Jonathan S. (Ed.) This Precious Life.

[6] Chugai Nippo newspaper. December 1, 2012