Simplicity: The distinctive quality of Japanese spirituality

John Tivnan Brinkman, Fordham University


This study identifies simplicity as one of the distinguishing qualities of Japanese spirituality. This essay is not primarily a metaphysical analysis of the terms in which the Japanese present this quality but a descriptive presentation of the unfolding of this inner vision that guided the spiritual and cultural development of Japan throughout the centuries. We first present simplicity as expressed in the ancient period, then in its medieval Buddhist phase, then as reaffirmed in a more critical pre-Western modern period. We are particularly concerned with the continuity and discontinuity in this sequence of historical transformations that have taken place in Japanese culture.^ In the ancient period simplicity is defined by the direct experience of the divine. The history of sacred place, of native rite, and of divine presence, reveals that only in the barest sense did shrine need structure, celebration need ritual or kami need name. In this we note a more immediate mode of participation in the sacred before establishment of the more self-reflective traditions of Buddhist and Confucian thought.^ In the medieval phase, simplicity is seen as a special Japanese mode of expressing the teachings of Buddhism. It have to Japanese Buddhism its immediacy of salvific experience as this is noted in the Pure Land, Nichiren and Zen sects of the Kamakura period.^ Critical reflection by the Japanese themselves on this quality of their own culture and its spiritual development did not occur until the period of Motoori Norinaga in the eighteenth century. It is in the writings of Motoori Norinaga that the radical tendency of the Japanese toward immediacy of experience and simplicity of expression were identified in contrast to the extensive moral analysis of the Neo-confucian tradition.^ It is the conclusion of this thesis that simplicity in its sustained Japanese modality offers a special contribution to the larger complex of human spiritual traditions. ^

Subject Area

Religious history|Philosophy of Religion|Asian history

Recommended Citation

Brinkman, John Tivnan, "Simplicity: The distinctive quality of Japanese spirituality" (1988). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8818453.