Hanatsumi Nikki — The Flowers of Italy: Review

Masaharu Anesaki’s Hanatsumi Nikki — The Flowers of Italy
by Robert M. Price

This fascinating and beautiful book from a century ago conveys to us a new world viewed through the eager eyes of a pilgrim to the West. Like star-gazers who know the light we see has taken centuries or millennia to reach our eyes, we wonder, as we read, how much of this world should still be available to our own senses should we embark on the journey taken by diarist/essayist Masaharu Anesaki so “long” ago. His metaphorical descriptions of the landscapes and snowy peaks through which he journeys are scarcely more poetic than his straight, literal descriptions of the same; just so, his prose gives way imperceptibly to poetic flights, distinguishable, more than anything else, by the simple fact of indentation on the page. Anesaki seems to draw no real distinction between the marvels of nature and those of artistic creativity wherever he finds them. The unspoken truth seems to be that certain cultures grow up naturally from certain geographies, and that the artistic and archaeological achievements of those cultures will quite naturally manifest the “DNA” of the nature which spawned them.

We are much like the pilgrim, for we, too, most of us, will see what he sees with alien eyes of our own. We are alien both in temporal and in spatial distance. And yet we may find ourselves doubting if Masaharu Anesaki was actually encountering the Other in these travels Westward, of a Marco Polo in reverse. Surely he has already become one of Nietzsche’s “good Europeans” through his schooling before ever he departed Japan’s shores. He sees the marvels of the West at least partly through the eyes of the notable Western authors he has read. Having undertaken his travels under the sponsorship of a Western philanthropist who sought to promote world peace by making it possible for scholars to travel and to learn of one another’s worlds, Masaharu Anesaki has identified himself with this agenda and this posture. In the end one wonders if he and his fellow pilgrims were only circulating among identical nests, among birds of a feather: intellectuals whose enlightened views seldom filter down to the level of boorish decision makes and war-mongers. One thinks of international science research teams who get along fine in their common endeavors, oblivious of what missiles, diplomatic or ballistic, their sponsoring countries are hurling down below. The intellectuals, breathing the same rare atmosphere atop their ivory tower, already understand one another, though no one below understands them.

One feels, however, that for any modern secular American to visit the places our friend Anesaki chronicled would find them even more of a revelation than they were to him. He had already assimilated what we, by and large, still lack: a true spiritual sensitivity. He knew, both in theory and in specifics, the truth summed up so well by Paul Tillich in his book The Theology of Culture: “Religion is the substance of culture; culture is the form of religion.” And this is one major reason for the seeming ease with which he could navigate the West: the substance was not so different from what he knew so well in Buddhist Japan. But neither does Anesaki lump everything together and split the difference. One of the most striking reflections comes in the entry for April 17 when our traveler sets his priorities, deciding that he must approach this particular leg of the trip as a pilgrim, meditating on the otherworldly works of Fra Angelico and Giotto rather than the worldly feasts of the great Renaissance painters, and this because of his Buddhist instincts of asceticism in order to attain spiritual blessings. This shows an enviable spiritual palate, if we dare call it that.

The entry for April 18 finds Anesaki confessing his utter incomprehension of a depiction of Jesus emerging from his tomb. The notion of heavenly ascensions was by no means unfamiliar to this Buddhist, but the notion of physical resurrection was altogether alien. It is worth noting this blank spot in Anesaki’s appreciation, rooted as it was in the religious assumptions of his own culture, because it shows he was not automatically translating everything into the categories of his own sensibilities. On the other hand, his interpretations of these religious canvasses is so penetrating, with a sure grasp of each as the expression of the artist’s (and his church’s) piety, that one has to stop and remind oneself that our narrator is no Italian Catholic but rather a Japanese Buddhist. In what might be deemed mere aestheticism, however refined, we discover a welcome precursor of the postmodern stance toward religion and its products, for Anesaki demonstrates, without even trying, that one need not confess the dogmas of a faith to receive its blessings or to glory in its spiritual radiance: “One should look at the message of these paintings without trying to apply an argument or agenda.” If we keep this insight in mind, we shall have fewer secularist philistines.

In an appended essay, commissioned by the editors of The Hibbert Journal, “The Appeal of Christianity to a Japanese Buddhist,” Anesaki reflects on the piety he had conveyed and displayed so beautifully in the original travel diary. He admits that the question of two ostensibly absolute religions is a serious one, though up to this point we should not have detected much of a dilemma in his own mind. Through his travels he has seemed to breathe a rarified, sweet, and bracing atmosphere of European Christianity whenever he encountered it, and to find no incompatibility with his Buddhist loyalties. Thus his attempt to solve the problem may be considered more of an explication of his own instinctive position than an exercise in wrestling with a new challenge. Anesaki is not satisfied to indicate that Christianity and Buddhism alike cherish belief in a personal manifestation and embodiment of the religion’s life-principle, the Logos on the one hand and the Dharma on the other. He knows of zealots who see the parallel all too well but would prefer to discount the Buddhist version as a diabolical counterfeit. But Anesaki’s rejoinder is quite good: Is not “counterfeit” perhaps merely a pejorative way of speaking of a distinct iteration of the same impulse? Different manifestations of the same, or at least of the compatible. If “only God is good,” that hardly need mean that everything else is bad. Rather it might as well imply that all good, observed everywhere, is another face of the same God and the same Good.

Just at this point Anesaki invokes the doctrine of the Trinity. That, too, is a case of distinct instances of something ostensibly singular and uniquely holy: the One God, but it exists in three persons. Any Christian willing to accept this mystery of faith ought not to have a problem seeing other religions as instantiations of the One Truth. True faiths bear the same relation to one another as do the Persons of the Christian Trinity, no matter what headaches either may create for the impatient theologian who wants the unseen world to operate as neatly as the visible one.

One could wish that such a mind as this had gone on a few steps further to deal with another thorny problem of ecumenical theology, and this because he does come to the verge of doing so once or twice. I am thinking of the question of how a religion based on a historical “once-for-all” redeemer can admit of reiterations of that redeemer without vitiating his uniqueness and with it his efficaciousness. If Christians were to admit the validity of Mahayana Buddhism with its atoning saviors (paramountly Amida and Avalokitesvara), what would happen to the unique atonement of Christ, supposedly efficacious because unique? It is Jacques Derrida’s “iteration paradox” whereby a thing becomes understandable only once more iterations of it occur, allowing it to be placed into a general category, but in the same moment forfeiting its cherished uniqueness. Well, Anesaki implicitly raises this vital issue when he notes how some Pure Land Buddhists scorned the Patriarch Hōnen’s saintly austerities as inconsistent with a reliance upon Other Power rather than Self-Power. Anesaki appears to understand Hōnen as something of a bodhisattva in his own right, helping others attain the shore of Nirvana, though of course, as a Pure Land Buddhist he must have placed his trust altogether in Amida. And, on the Christian side, it is plain enough to Anesaki that Saint Francis and other saints were something like new Christs—which is of course why Protestants rejected the lot of them, zealous as they were for the unique mediatorial role of Jesus Christ. My point is that Anesaki was aware that both religions already have the same dilemma interior to themselves and have even faced it , albeit negatively. Some positive way of understanding reiterations of a unique savior must be found if Buddhism and Christianity are to be reconciled.

Anesaki has moderately interesting things to say about Christian and Buddhist ethical approaches, but it is his concentration upon the aesthetic that strikes me as the most significant. Throughout the book the narrator has made it clear that a direct exposure to the art of a religion is the surest path to a true grasp of its faith experience. To this, dogma takes a back seat. Indeed, how could it not, since dogma reflects upon spiritual revelation already perceived directly by the opened-eyed and eared spirit? This is a path we would still do well to follow on the way to realize that we are not so much working toward the same goal but already even on the same path together. Masaharu Anesaki was not just ahead of his own time: he remains just ahead of us, leading us on to a greater summit of interfaith wisdom which he already had attained.

About the reviewer:

Robert M. Price

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, Price moved to New Jersey with his family in 1965. Shortly afterward, he became involved in a fundamentalist Baptist church and youth ministry, then went on to major in Religion and in American History at Montclair State College (BA, 1976), where he became president of the campus chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary he took an MTS degree in New Testament (1978), then a PhD in Systematic Theology at Drew University (1981). The same year he met his wife-to-be Carol Selby and joined a liberal Baptist congregation where Harry Emerson Fosdick had once been pastor. Bob and Carol married in 1984 on the eve of their move to North Carolina. There he became Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College. Five years and one baby later, they returned to New Jersey to pastor their old church. A church split came five years after that, once Bob had earned a second PhD, this time in New Testament, at Drew (1993), and announced himself a religious humanist.

In the meantime he had founded (and continues to edit) The Journal of Higher Criticism. He taught Philosophy and Religion for a few years at Bergen Community College, then New Testament Interpretation at Drew for a couple more. In 1999 he came on board with the Council for Secular Humanism and founded the North Jersey Center for Inquiry. He and his family, now including two daughters, Victoria and Veronica, returned to North Carolina in 2001, where he continues to teach, write, and edit. His books include Beyond Born Again, The Widow Traditions in Luke-Acts, Deconstructing Jesus, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, The Da Vinci Fraud, The Reason-Driven Life, and The Pre-Nicene New Testament. He is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar and of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. He attends St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Goldsboro, NC.


Kurodahan Press

Kurodahan Press
2305-9 Yunomae Machi
Kuma-gun, Kumamoto
868-0600 JAPAN