Meeting the Dead: A Reading of Fumihiko Sueki’s Anti-Buddhology—Buddhism vs. Ethics 


by Jeremy Woolsey

Wanna see Nirvana but don’t wanna die yet— Frank Ocean


When my grandpa died, we took his ashes to an IN-N-Out in Southern California and scattered them at the base of a palm tree when no one seemed to be watching. The smell of grease, hot asphalt and lemon eucalyptus mingled in his absence. Afterwards, we ate burgers and fries smothered in cheese and caramelized onions with an appetite that only communion with the dead can activate.

We finished the meal. I got into the car and effectively forgot about him, about this impromptu service, as we drove off. He was gone. The sun was out.

I noticed this lapse in memory many years later when I started studying Buddhism in Japan, a particularly death-centric form of the religion. There wasn’t any dramatic epiphany; it simply became apparent that the dead had been absent from my life for a while— that I lacked a framework for thinking about them. Of course there were accounts of knife attacks, mass-murders, ski-lift accidents, etc. regularly appearing in my Facebook feed but these were abstract, desensitizing. What I am talking about are the intimate, recurring dead. They come in dreams, or moments of solitude, and push you towards or away from the future. It is easy to shirk these encounters, to shove them back into an utterly explainable compartment of experience, call it fantasy, unreality, or whatever you’d like. But they keep coming back, and then the issue at hand is how to relate, that is, what rituals you can use to honor, supplicate or dispel them. Put simply, the dead have agency in shaping the affairs of the living. The Buddhist scholar Fumihiko Sueki emphasizes their ongoing presence in his book Anti-Buddhology—Buddhism vs. Ethics 反・仏教学 —仏教VS.倫理: “The living cannot exist on their own— they require the power, the energy of the dead.”[1]

The living, however, try very hard to exist on their own. I certainly do inside a day-to-day existence largely spent pondering when, where, how and why I will die. I have always envied those whose worldview seems to spring from a sense of being forever on the winning side of fate. Enter the Japanese philosopher Gen Kida, whose deconstructionist approach influenced Sueki. While still a teen during WWII, he supported his family by working in the black market, before going on to study philosophy (a discipline he sardonically regarded as useless) and, eventually, translate the works of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, among others, into Japanese. A coworker lent me his work An Introduction to Anti-Philosophy 反哲学入門, and I quickly became enamored with how glibly he dealt with death.

Here is an account of a near-death experience he had while waiting for morphine at a hospital (suffering from a bout of acute pancreatitis):

Well, this is might be it, I thought. But, what was running through my head inside of the pain was this: Oh, that was such a great song, but, I can’t remember how it goes!

Looking back, I realized it was probably White Winter by the folk duo Fuki No Tou. I was surprised to find that on the verge of death you often think of something so stupid.[2]

And another quote, this one showing his freakish optimism:

I’m the kind of person who has this strange conviction that he will survive any disaster, no matter how catastrophic… I often see shots of hotel fires on TV, and people climbing down from their rooms on ropes of blankets and think to myself, well I’d be OK if I was on my own, but I don’t know if I were with my wife…[3]

These remarks frustrated my expectations for the philosopher to have something profound to say on the dire subject, but they were a breath of fresh air as I was, and continue to be incapable of humor in regard to my impending end. The problem is that this happy-go-lucky attitude can’t be learned; it is either present from birth, or absent. In Kida’s case, it shines forth. In my case it does not. I seem to have what William James called a “sick soul,” though I have no religious outlet to soothe it, having been raised apart from organized religion and taught to be (arrogantly) dismissive of new-age spirituality. For a while, Camus sufficed to fill the void: after reading The Myth of Sisyphus in college, I took refuge in the notion of the “absurd”. Believing in God, or an inherent meaning in death, was for the birds. I characterize this, looking back, as the macho-atheist view, and see it in much of my generation— an antipathy towards religion (especially Christianity), and a characterization of it as weakness (in Camus’ case, philosophical suicide). It deeply permeates and dictates the contours of my ability to interact with and experience faith even now.

Macho-atheism exhausted itself, and me in the process. I had no courage to resist meaninglessness or I wasn’t sufficiently foolish to do so. Then, about two years ago, a childhood friend choked to death. My OCD got much worse. I became obsessed with choking, with suffocation. I couldn’t remember his face as clearly as I would have liked— every memory of it was covered in an alien sheen. Wherever he was, he felt close, shaping my actions, my thoughts. Death seeped into the most intimate spaces inside— a void filled his form in each scene, each dream. Even so, I had no way to interact with him, encased in an atheism that dismissed any explanation of the sort as mere romanticism. The predicament was and is this: So much philosophy focuses on the agency of the living but gives little room for examining the agency of the dead. I can’t believe in God or salvation, but the dead seem to exist in a realm beyond belief. Regardless of whether I can believe in them, they believe in me, and perhaps my strength had to derive somehow from their fearsome belief. Reading Sueki’s Anti-Buddhology allowed me to pivot, though admittedly in a confused, incomplete way, from thinking about my relationship with dying to thinking about my relationship with the dead.

Anti-Buddhology explicitly borrows its name and guiding concept from Gen Kida. The book is an attempt to grapple with the problem of the Other 他者, as most aptly symbolized by the dead, through the lens of a deconstructed Buddhism. This is not the same approach as treating it as a religion, as Sueki is quick to point out: “There’s no need to get tripped up by the mention of Buddhism. It’s a clue, but not in itself the goal. I call this ‘Buddhism as a means.’[4] Historically, the tendency to treat Buddhism as a type of philosophy or science in Japan goes back to the Meiji Era (1868-1912) (Tanzan Hara 原たんざん taught the first class on Buddhism at Tokyo University, though it was conspicuously classified as Indian Philosophy to emphasize Buddhism’s “rational” aspects and contest the dominance of Western philosophy). In addition, David McMahan has documented the empirical (positivist), romantic, and enlightenment influences on the development of Western Buddhism in his book Buddhist Modernism. What distinguishes Sueki’s experiment to some extent, however, is his unique interpretation of death and dying at the center of Buddhist philosophy. This comes from his engagement with Japanese Buddhism and its emphasis on funerary rites. It is also rooted in his own struggle with religious identity: “It’s easier for me to approach [Buddhism] as a philosophy rooted in doubt than religious faith. For the faithful, this may seem impudent, even blasphemous, but there’s no way to force belief when it’s just not there.” [5]

Japanese Buddhism has primarily been focused on attending to the dead since the Edo period (1603-1868). The reasons for this are numerous, but have mostly to do with the Edo government implementing the Terauke System 寺請制度 to check the spread of Christianity as well as to create a census. This system required all citizens to receive identification papers from a temple, and in the process institutionalized Buddhist funerals. While temples indeed became agents of a police state, it’s important to recognize that many were already deeply rooted in their local communities before this system was established. On this point, the scholar Toshihiro Ohmi writes that “it was precisely because of the public’s strong faith in Buddhism as well as the existence of monks to attend to this faith that the Terauke System was possible in the first place… through having temples and monks conduct funerals and memorial services, people hoped and prayed that the dead would become Buddhas.”[6] Latent in this practice is the desire to prevent the dead from returning to do harm to the living— to pacify them. In Bonds of the Dead, Mark Rowe contrasts English and Japanese usage of the word “memorial”  慰霊 in the following way : while in English “its emphasis is on the living (memory), the Japanese term is attentive to the potential agency of spirits.” [7]  This view is reflected in contemporary Japanese with words such as Jyoubutsu 成仏(to become Buddha) and Daioujyou 大往生 (to be reborn in the Pureland), both of which are commonly used euphemisms for peaceful death, and reflect that the departed won’t return as malicious spirits.

Though Sueki is obviously influenced by this history, he doesn’t limit his argument for the inclusion of the dead in daily life to Japanese tradition alone. To start, he sees the dead as a point of rupture in conventional ethics: “Though it’s unavoidable that we meet the Other, this meeting is unpredictable and diverges from the realm of human relationships [read: the ethical frame]. We can think of the dead as an extreme form of this Other.” [8] In this way, death serves as the ultimate problem which presents the ultimate Other— we can’t interact with this Other as we do amongst ourselves.

Here, I want to give a short summary of the relationship between Buddhism, ethics and death in Anti-Buddhology.

Sueki begins his argument by emphasizing that while Theravada Buddhism is known for setting up communities focused on autonomous, individual practice and awakening in a very rational manner (similar to the civil contract of contemporary nation-states[9]), it is in Mahayana Buddhism that the problem of the Other is fully taken up, with all its attendant complications. He characterizes Mahayana Buddhism as the practice of relationality: “The spirit of Mayahana Buddhism is embodied in the Bodhisattva— the Bodhisattva aims to realize both self-interest and altruism. While it’s possible to practice self-interest on one’s own, altruism requires the Other.”[10] In short, the Bodhisattva is concerned with aiding the awakening of all beings. It’s important to recognize that Sueki does not naively preach the superiority of the Mayahana tradition to the Theravada tradition: he asserts that by including the Other as part of religious practice, “Mayahana Buddhism shoulders all sorts of difficult problems.” [11]This becomes particularly evident in regard to the moral ambiguity of the doctrine of emptiness (Sunyata 空) in Mayahana practice, a type of thought that stresses the equivalence of the world of awakening and the world of suffering , which Sueki mentions can lapse into opportunism.

Having established this relationality as the core of Mayahana Buddhism, Sueki proceeds to take up the Lotus Sutra and its teachings on how the Bodhisattva, a being who has taken the vow to attain Buddhahood, is to relate to the Buddha. To be clear, Mayahana Buddhism is marked by a belief in a multiplicity of Buddhas. The Bodhisattva is engaged in an ongoing relationship with the Buddha— on a near-infinite time scale, going towards the past and future— until they too through training become a Buddha. It is significant that in the Lotus Sutra, “the basis for the Bodhisattva isn’t found in the self but in a relationship with the Other.” [12] The central feature of the Lotus Sutra thus becomes one’s relationship with the ultimate Other— the Buddha. And, since the historical Buddha has died (entered Nirvana), the Bodhisattva relates to the Buddha principally as one of the dead. To sum up this line of argument: “The Buddha, from the beginning, has a profound relationship with the dead. Nirvana is both ultimate awakening and death. Through dying, the Buddha is able to obtain his original power.”[13] In this sense, Buddhism can be viewed as a religion based on an ongoing relationship with the dead— one thrust upon us regardless of whether we want it or not. The living, Bodhisattvas, unceasingly interact with the Buddha’s absence. It is an absence as presence.

Sueki is an eminent Buddhologist. I am not. What I am interested in here, is bringing his thoughts into discussion with my own experience, and hence a radically different cultural context. Buddhism is often thought of as a religion (or philosophy, or science, or psychology, though these terms are all part of a very elaborate discourse and not as transparent as one might think) primarily of and for those living in the West. This is all good and well, but what about those morbid freaks who lose a grip on life in the massive expanse called death (and here I refer to myself)? Sueki’s alternate reading of Buddhism may prove a useful tip in finding a way to conceive of the dead, even if one isn’t Buddhist.  Put another way, by thinking about the relationship between the dead and the living, the meaning of dying changes. The thought experiment goes like this: what if the dead exist beyond death, and not just as memories? Where do they reside? It’s surely a liminal space: somewhere in-between nothingness, metaphor, magic and faith. It challenges our understanding of secularity and finality.

In Sueki’s philosophical Buddhist framework, I interact with my grandpa the way a Bodhisattva interacts with the Buddha: honoring his continuing absence as a presence through such a profane act as eating an In-N-Out double cheese burger. The relationship is unavoidable, even if I have no faith with which to frame it. By extension, I realize that, as the dead interact with me, I will one day interact with the living from beyond life. In this sense, there is continuity between the dying and the dead, not a rupture. My presence will continue to be felt and constitute the extension, not extinction of identity. Of course, the dimensions of these interactions are ill-defined, made all the more so by my lack of religious spirit (I don’t consider myself Buddhist). I don’t write these words attempting to convince you that Buddhism is an ideal framework for thinking about the dead. I write because it is the only framework I have to work with now. Finding points of contact with those in “that” world is a perennial job for those in “this” one, and too often forgotten in secular models that overestimate the agency of the living.

A link to an English translation of the book (by Anton Luis Sevilla) can be found here. All translations featured in the article are my own, however, to reflect my reading of the work.


Works Cited:

Anti-Buddhology 反仏教学— Sueki Fumihiko, Chikuma Press. 2013, originally published in 2006

Introduction to Anti-Philosophy 反哲学入門— Gen Kida, Shinchosha. 2007

Introduction to Modern Buddhist Thought 近代仏教思想入門— Toshihiro Ohmi, Chikuma Press. 2016

Bonds of the Dead — Mark Rowe, University of Chicago Press. 2011 

About the Author:

Jeremy Woolsey is an MA student at Tokyo University of the Arts, where he studies the relationship between contemporary art and Buddhism. He is also a musician and translator. You can find more of his writing and contact info on his blog:



[2] ああ、こうやって死ぬんだな、と思いました。しかし、私がそのとき苦しみながら考えていたのは、ああ、あの歌いい歌だったけど、とうとう覚えないでしまったな、ということでした。あとから思い出してみると、どうやら「ふきのとう」というフォーク・デゥオが唄っていた「白い冬」という歌だったようです。(中略)あとになって、われながら、生死の境でよくこんな下らないことを考えるものだとあきれましたね。16

[3] 私は、なにか災害があっても自分は必ず生きて戻ってくるという妙な確信を持っていた人種です。「中略」ホテルの火事なんかで、よくお客さんが敷布を繋いで下りてくるのをテレビで見たりしますが、あれを見ていて自分一人なら大丈夫だけれど、家内を背負うって下りるのは無理かな、なんて考えてしまいます。17

[4] しかし、仏教に特別こだわるつもりはない。仏教は手がかりであり、それ自体が目的ではない。それを僕は「方法としての仏教」と呼んでいる。13

[5] その点からしても、信仰から入る宗教の立場よりも、疑いから入る哲学の道のほうが親しい。それは信仰篤い方から見れば、いかにも不謹慎で仏教を冒涜するように見えるかもしれない。しかし、信じられないものはどう無理しても信じるわけにはいかない。19

[6] こうした事情を考慮するのであれば、民衆の仏教に対する身心と、それに応えた僧侶たちが存在したからこそ、寺請制度は可能になったのだ、とも考えられる。(中略) 身近な死者の葬儀や供養を、信頼できる寺院・僧侶に行ってもらうことで、死者がきちんと成仏してくれることを期待する、人々の切なる願いがあった。18

[7] Pg. 119

[8] 他者は、われわれが不可避的に出会わなければならないにもかかわらず、予測不可能で、「人の間」を逸脱する。そのような他者の極限的な形態として、死者を考えることができる。174

[9] 近代の社会契約説は、それぞれ自立して生存する個人が相互に利害を調整するために契約を結び、そこに国家がうまれるというものであるが、原始仏教の中にはそれと類似した発想もみられ、きわめて合理的な発想にたっていることが知られる。41-42

[10] 大乗仏教の精神を体現するのが菩薩であるが、菩薩は自利と同時に利他の実現を目指す。自利は他者がいなくても実践しうるが、利他は他者なしには成り立ちえない。46

[11] こうして大乗仏教は(中略)解決困難な厄介な問題を背負い込むことになる。47

[12] その菩薩であることの根拠は自己の中にではなく、他者との関わりの中にあるのである。133

[13] 仏は、もともと死者と深い関わりを持つ存在である。仏の涅槃は、究極の悟りであるとともに、死を意味する。仏は死者となることによって、仏としての本来の力を獲得するのである。230