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Comparative Spirituality East and West

Panel Chair: Jørn Borup | Tuesday, August 25, 9-11 a.m.

“Spirituality” is often used among religious people or in “holistic milieus” and has become a concept increasingly discussed in academic research within the study of religion. The concept is being used in a very heterodox way, and its “fuzziness” and often implicitly religious agenda has led some scholars to reject the very notion. When the concept is investigated as an analytical concept it is often understood as non-institutionalized, individual search for inner experiences and personal transformation, and the “new spirituality” is often contextualized within a frame of post-modernity in which a subjective turn de-traditionalize religion in a neo-liberal market reality. Spirituality is thus often used (positively) within psychology and (more critically) within sociology, most often in a Western context based on Christian history and traditions. The aim of this panel is to explore “spirituality” comparatively across two cultural spheres, namely Japan and the West. The concept of spirituality (in Japanese supirichuaritei) will thus be investigated critically as both phenomenologically, in historically and sociologically particularized and yet parallel fields. The papers will address the relevance of the concept in concrete cases, and discuss global and transnational transformations and circulations of ideas, practices and traditions within spiritual fields.

Jørn Borup

Transnational Spiritualities: Post Modern Self Religiosity in a Global World or Cross-cultural Empty Signifiers?

“Spirituality” for users in both Japan and the West points to authentic experiences of self-transformation, but also to a diversity of ideas and practices with little semantic coherence. The history and significance of the concept differs accordingly, but yet seems to legitimize a common field of comparison, not least when seen in a contemporary perspective as an expression of individualization in a neo-liberal world. This paper will introduce characteristics of the concept “spirituality” in typical Western and Japanese contexts. It will ask theoretical questions of its legitimacy as an analytical concept, and discuss methodological challenges related to studying spirituality, not least in a comparative perspective.

Norichika Horie

Wicca Today in Japan: Aspects of Culture, Gender, and the Media

Recently, those who identify themselves as wiccas are increasing on the social media in Japan. This paper is based on an interview research on three wiccas. Their stories will enable us to search for the meaning of learning wicca originated in the West and practicing it in contemporary Japan. The findings are as follow: (1) adherents criticize the patriarchal elements in Japanese religious culture; (2) thus they are attracted to wicca as a foreign culture and are practicing it individualistically; (3) at the same time, they are trying to be rooted again to what they regard as “Japanese,” and that is easier in today’s new conditions of changing formations of gender and of emerging social networks on the internet. Those findings help us understand the globalization of spiritual resources, its relation to the local religious tradition, and the role of gender formations in both of them.

Inken Prohl

Asian Spiritualities: Optimizing or Transcending the “Self”?

Certain transformations of Asian religions are playing an increasingly important role in the health and wellness sectors of highly industrialized societies on a global scale. While yoga and mindfulness have been particularly successful, a number of other offerings are also en vogue, such as Zen-inspired ideologies and practices or Martial Arts. These practices are thought to be effective within a wide spectrum, from wellness to stress management and self-optimization to the use of these techniques in the treatment of medical and physical issues in psychotherapy and medicine. By drawing on examples from Germany and Japan I would like to advance two theses in my presentation: 1. In relation to the dominant roles that psychological paradigms have played during the course of the 20th century and up to the present, I want to show that the factors of transformation and selection that are used to shape these practices should be understood as a form of psychologization. 2. Many of these practices can be described as techniques of self-optimization. At the same time the practitioners express their goal to achieve experiences that precede the discursive into a non-discursive moment of “flow” that transcends the individual “self”. By discussing the tension between the optimizing and the transcending of the “self”, I want to elaborate on the ideological implication of the concepts of “spirituality” and “flow”.

Michiyaki Okuyama

Interpretations of Spirituality Comparing Cases of Shinnyo-en Followers in Japan and the West

The Japanese Buddhist community Shinnyo-en has about one million members, mainly in Japan but also in other countries. Shinnyo-en’s practices derive from the Shingon esoteric tradition and the Mahayana Nirvana Sutra. Shinnyo-en practices a form of meditation known as “sesshin,” a name that also describes a meditative practice in Zen traditions. During sesshin in Shinnyo-en, a practitioner meditates in front of a spiritual guide, who enters an altered state of consciousness and offers insightful guidance. Shinnyo-en has established branch temples in Asia, Oceania, Europe, and the Americas. This paper uses pilot interviews to learn how international practitioners have understood the Shinnyo-en worldview, and especially the spiritual insights, that originated in a Japanese context. The paper presents their interpretations of spiritual matters and compares the different approaches to Shinnyo-en taken in Japan and the West.

Erica Baffelli


Erica Baffelli will respond to the issues raised in this panel.


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