Buddhists in America

I really ought to comment on this. I mean, it’s not every day that there’s an article in the New York Times that I actually know enough about to comment on in an intelligent and thoughtful and informed way (unlike most of my comments that are from the hip and mere speculation).

Buddhism with a New Mind-Set You’ll need an NYT on-line subscription to read the article.

First, I have two clarifications. They’re the sort of clarifications I think the Times can be forgiven of considering that this is a mass-media paper for a mass-media audience. But, in the interests of clarification:

“It’s really something that’s needed in our modern lifestyle,” he said, because that lifestyle “is so hectic, so fast-paced, we have a shorter attention span.” Only by renouncing all self-effort in attaining enlightenment and trusting in what Shin Buddhists call “Other Power,” embodied in the form of the Amida Buddha, revered by Shin adherents, can a believer attain birth in the transcendent realm of Pure Land. That is a place — similar to the Christian concept of heaven — where nirvana can be achieved.

Emphasis mine. The Pure Land is really nothing like the Christian concept of heaven. And I’ll tell you why. First, while there are a few hard-liners left in the hierarchy of Pure Land Buddhism in China and Japan who are convinced that there is, in point of fact, an actual physical place into which one is actually and literally born into after death, the majority of Buddhists I know and the majority of contemporary books written about the Pure Land talk about it in metaphorical and symbolic ways. That is, the Pure Land is a representation of the enlightened mind. Here and now is the Pure Land if one allows oneself to see it such.

Secondly, and much more importantly, the Pure Land is not somewhere where one goes forever and ever, living the high life, and being fed grapes by Greek maidens. The Pure Land is where one goes to become a bodhisattva, a being whose sole purpose is to attain enlightenment and then come back for the rest of us. Shinran speaks repeatedly of our “going forth” to the Pure Land and then “returning” to the smasaric world in order to work for the benefit of others. This is an important distinction and one that I think any self-respecting Buddhist ought to harp on more vociferously. But my opinion the matter may be the direct result of my desire to get Buddhists and leftists to reclaim the moral high ground from Evangelical Christians. Frankly, I think this idea of going forth and returning stands in stark moral contrast from the idea of being Left Behind. Rather than say, “Hey I found Christ and now I’m going to heaven!”, Pure Land Buddhists are suggesting “Hey I’ve found peace and awakening and clarity of mind and I want to share it with other because people are really suffering and hurting.” Which isn’t a bad thing at all.

On to the next clarification!

In some ways, Pure Land Buddhism has always been at a disadvantage in this country because its teachings about the Amida Buddha make it appear similar to Christianity. During World War II, Shin Buddhist practitioners also started calling their temples “churches” and holding regular Sunday services as a way to appear more Christian in the face of anti-Japanese discrimination. Many Westerners looking for the exotic, or an alternative from their Judeo-Christian upbringing, have gone elsewhere. Now Shin Buddhist leaders are hoping to lure them back.

There’s a widely held misconception buried in this paragraph. American Shin Buddhists did not start using the word “church” in place of the word “temple” during World War II. In point of fact, they started using the word “church” in the 1910’s. And they used it because the mother-organization back in Kyoto does not allow American “temples” to be called “temples.” The Hongwanji has only afforded one temple in North America the special designation “ji” (or temple) — the Enmanji in Northern California.

This is important,I think, because it points to the international (dare I say “globalized”) character of 20th and 21st century Buddhism. American Buddhism does not, and has not, existed in a vacuum cut off from Japan, from Asia, from the rest of the world. And I’m harping on this issue for one simple fact: it plays a crucial role in my dissertation. So this correction is really little more than self-promotion plug!

So that’s it for me. I was going to ramble on a bit more about this article, reflect deeply on the changes that this article points to in the demographic and practical make up of the Buddhist Churches of America. But the truth of it is that I’ve got a lot of work to do here in the office. It is, after all, less than a week before the first camp starts, and everyone here is a little tense. Expect more. And take care.