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Unformatted text preview: 1 * This paper was published in Japanese Religions , The NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions, January 1989. Otto’s Theory of Religious Experience as Encounter with the Numinous and Its Application to Buddhism Hoyu Ishida Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) greatly contributed to the discussion of religious feeling and knowledge in attempting to characterize the experience of the “holy” as disclosed and distinctive in all religions. This article will first analyze his fundamental theory of the “numinous” experience, and then examine the notion of the “numen,” the object and source of the numinous experience, which he claims to be universal. I shall then apply this examination to Buddhism in order to see if Otto’s conception of the numinous experience is capable of universal generalization. ( I ) Otto believed that religious experience was unique and fundamentally different from other kinds of experience. He maintained that “If there be any single domain of human experience that presents us with something unmistakably specific and unique, peculiar to itself, assuredly it is that of the religious life.” 1 In order to show the uniqueness of religious experience, Otto turned to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) for help. Kant had taught that experience contains formal elements contributed by the mind itself in addition to the matter of experience which comes through the senses. These forms or categories are our ways of understanding. They are a priori, for though they are found in experience they do not come from experience. Otto was especially influenced by the notion of the a priori category. He quoted with approval the opening words of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason : That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt. For how is it possible that the faculty of cognition should be awakened into exercise otherwise than by means of objects which affect our senses? ... But, though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience. 2 Otto, however, thought that Kant wrongly identified religious experience with moral experience. In this criticism he agreed with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), whose analysis of the religious feeling as such was in many ways a forerunner of Otto’s own analysis. Schleiermacher perceived religion as a unique feeling or awareness, distinct from ethical and rational modes of perception, though not exclusive of them. He then said 1 Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), tr. John W. Harvey, p. 4. His original work, Das Heilige was published in 1917 and the first English edition appeared in 1923. In this article, I mainly rely on The Idea of the Holy when I refer to Otto’s idea of the numinous, since it is his major work regarding the issue....
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