trendy? i hate being trendy.

I was fortunate to stumble across this short article from the Guardian on Japanese Buddhists trying to be more trendy to attract younger people who aren’t particularly interested in religion. There’s a lot of great stuff in this piece (and plenty of other folks have already picked up on it including the ever-wonderful worst horse and Kyoshin), so I’m not sure where to begin. I think, for starters, I’ll start at the end.

At the bottom of the article is brief little bit about the development of Japanese Buddhism. It’s surprisingly accurate in its brevity, and one of those times that I’m happy to read about Buddhism in the mainstream press. It doesn’t foreground “Zen” as the Japanese religious experience. And the article in general spends all of its time talking about Shinshu.

That said, let’s talk about Shinshu. The priests in this article are doing, among other things, participating in fashion shows, hanging out in jazz clubs, drinking, smoking, and (presumably) cutting hair. Hmm. Let’s see. Fashion. Food and wine. Music. And Buddhism? What? Have they realized the radical notion that enlightenment isn’t somewhere else but right here, in this world?

I kid, of course. I kid because I love this stuff. I love it when Buddhists are actual people. Because, surprise surprise, we are. And this so wonderfully flies in the face of the old (American) stereotype of Buddhists sitting around in meditation acting so godamn serious all the time. Get. Over. It.

But, and more importantly, I think this is a good way to start thinking about Buddhism out here in the wild frontier of America. The Worst Horst put it bluntly. It ain’t happening here, and if the Dharma is to spread, it’s up to us. (I find myself agreeing with that guy a whole lot. Gotta read him more often.) The future of Buddhism in America (or Buddhism in anywhere) is up to the people who like to call themselves Buddhists (whatever the hell that might mean), so we’d better get down to business and make it happen.

This little rant, for me, is directed squarely at the Buddhist Churches of America. Since I profess to be a Shin Buddhist, and since the BCA is the largest organized representative of Shin Buddhism in the States, and since, if you follow the paper trail far enough, they pay my rent, they’re my community-colleagues-co-conspirators-employers. And very often they miss the mark in remaining attractive to people. And their recent attempts to be attractive to non-Shin Buddhists have been to foreground what we don’t do very well (meditate) and to disregard what they’ve traditionally been pretty damn good at (raising Buddhist kids).

Oh how I wish I could get into that. But it’s just about time for me to pick up Dana, so off I go!

(It’s been a hectic week, by the way. Turned the dissertation in and have been teaching all week. But class ends tomorrow and then I’m taking a well-deserved break.)


13 thoughts on “trendy? i hate being trendy.

  1. I’ve tried to understand the atttraction of Shin Buddhism, since I read the blogs of several Shin Buddhists, but I fail, really.

    Shin Buddhism, largely, strikes me as a very similar sort of spirituality that one gets in any church, be it Western or Eastern. Being a former Tibetan practitioner and now one of the more esoteric Japanese traditions, I’m not sure of what to make of a Buddhist tradition where contemplation is not a central facet.

    What is the draw of Shin Buddhism for you? Other than Nembutsu chanting, what do Shin Buddhists actually do?

  2. Al! I’m disappointed you haven’t read my long winded why I’m a Buddhist rants(s):
    long buddhist rants

    But seriously, let me first ask, why do Buddhists have to “do” anything?

    Those superficial similarities between Shin and other religions are, I think, superficial. To sum up the long winded Buddhist rants, what attracted me to Shin was that the community (something just as important to religion, I think, as “contemplation”) was composed of surprisingly, refreshingly, normal people.

    Pure Land Buddhism is based on the basic Mahayana principle that there’s no difference between samsara and nirvana. Everything that happens to us in our ordinary experience has causes and conditions. Nirvana, on the contrary, is not conditioned. It just Is. But if you accept that nothing “causes” nirvana, then you have to also logically accept that there’s nothing you can do to make yourself enlightened. So, while the Pure Land school (a category of Buddhism Shin belongs to) was described by Nagarjuna as the “easy path,” accepting that we’re all already enlightened — just as we are with all our fucked up shortcomings — has always seemed to me a particularly hard pill to swallow.

    And like Whitman’s path less traveled, it’s the one I chose.

    Or, to put it another way, why do we have this idea stuck in our heads that Buddhists have to “do” anything?

    Or, since you’re a mikkyo Buddhist, what is the fundamental difference between an esoteric practice where you identify in a real and substantial way with Vairocana Buddha and Pure Land practice where I identify in a real and substantial way with the compassion of Amida Buddha?

    Thanks for the comment! I love this shit!


  3. I’m familiar with Pure Land Buddhism, both in the context of Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism. Heck, I’ve done Nembutsu chanting before but only as a supplementary practice.

    It’s just that Pure Land Buddhism, as its own path, has always struck me as a kind of “Folk Buddhism” as opposed to the forms used by monks or other practitioners. I don’t mean for that to sound insulting, if it does, and I understand a little about the milieu in which it became a dominant form of practice in certain classes of Japan.

    Leaving aside arguments around the nature of Tantra, I just have never seen a lot of similarity between what the Buddha taught his followers as the path and what most Pure Land practitioners, especially Lay ones, are doing. I can intellectually understand the evolution or how things wound up that way but when making a choice to become a Buddhist, if one didn’t grow up as a Shin Buddhist, it doesn’t seem compelling to join. I suppose that’s why I’ve never even considered it. 🙂

  4. Whew! How to respond to that one!?

    Frankly (and know that I’m not offended or bothered by why you wrote, per se), to call something a “folk religion” is necessarily insulting. There’s no two ways about it, and I’ll tell ya why.

    To make a division between two different forms or categories or types or whatever of religions and then assign one more or less “import” or “authenticity” necessarily means that one type of religion is “more important” or “more correct” than some other type of religion. It might very well be that one type is more important (for you) than another. But when you make that claim, you have to own up to it. You have to know that you’re denigrating something in preference to another. Think, for example, about the difference between “Hinayana” and “Mahayana.” Early Mahayana Buddhists called “the other” (i.e., non-Mahayana practices) Hinayana to highlight specifically how they were inferior.

    “Folk religion,” historically, has been used to describe the religion of “the people,” the “commoners,” the uneducated masses who practice religion without necessarily having an intellectual understanding of the tradition. This preference of understanding religion intellectually has become, for me, increasingly irrelevant. And again, I’ll tell ya why.

    I think it’s downright arrogant to claim that any particular brand of Buddhism is “more authentic,” more closely related to “what the Buddha taught his followers” than any other kind of Buddhism for the exact same reason that I think it’s arrogant for the Christian right to assume they know, unequivocally, that god hates gay people. I don’t profess to know what god wants. And I certainly don’t profess to know what the Buddha actually taught. All of the written sources about what the Buddha taught were actually written two to five hundred years after his death (some more than a thousand years, and in China). Which, historically, is even more flimsy than the gospel of John. So I don’t know what the Buddha taught. All I have is what two and a half thousand years of his follower’s history have said about what they think he may or may not have taught.

    Some of what they think he taught, I think, is rubbish. Other stuff is pure gold. Whether it came straight from the horse’s mouth or not makes very little difference to me since we can’t prove anything anyway!

    Furthermore, and more to the point, “folk religion” may not be as intellectually sophisticated and may be nothing more than the inauthentic invention of heathens, but that doesn’t change the fact that folk religion has been extremely powerful and meaningful for the people who practice it. It helps them organize their lives. It helps them, to use Thomas Tweed’s words, “intensify joy and confront suffering.” So, at the end of the day, if a religion makes people happy (without simultaneously causing other people suffering), I’m okay with it.

    Buddhism wouldn’t exist without lay people. Period.

    Fortunately, I’ve never been one to proselytize. So I have no strong urges to convince you that Shin Buddhism is just as okie-dokie as non-Shin Buddhism, or, worse, to convert you. For me, the old adage that there are a thousand doors to enlightenment has always been forefront in my understanding of Buddhism. Shin works me (and millions of other people). Tantra works for you. Cool. But the valuing of different practices as more or less “authentic” or appropriate in some essentialist or general way for all people has always, for me, reeked of prejudice and borders precariously close to religious fascism. (Which I know is not what you intended. It’s just what came up in my little head.)

  5. It is a valid criticism and does match my view, which is fairly traditional, of folk religion.

    I don’t have a nuanced understanding of the theology of Pure Land Buddhist sects but my understanding is that people chant the nembutsu in order to be reborn in the Pure Land of Amida in the next life because gaining enlightenment outside of his Pure Land is so hard.

    I can understand that. Heck, when my father died, I had a Phowa practitioner that I knew through a friend do a Phowa ceremony over my father’s corpse (with the help of myself and another) in order to help my father be reborn in a Pure Land in his next life (or, that is one interpretation of things).

    That said, this desire to be reborn in a Pure Land (aka a “Heaven”) after death is part of my comparison between Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity.

    Unless other methods are not effective, why would someone want to reborn in a Pure Land and *then* achieve enlightenment instead of working in this life to do so? It does seem to be a fundamental split in Buddhist philosophies. Even if I wasn’t a tantric practitioner, I would still practice meditation for both the realization of enlightenment as well as more wordly benefits.

    It just feels to me that Pure Land Buddhism works from a philosophy of “Life is hard so I’ll do this good thing so I can do better after my death.” It feels like giving up in a way.

    I don’t mean to put you on the defensive because I strongly believe that I am not the holder of all truths, etc., and I’m not in the position to judge the practice of others but I do have my own impressions of things.

    I do wonder if this view of Pure Land focused Buddhism explains why the BCA is shrinking over time in America and remaining largely limited to the ethnic Japanese community when other forms of Buddhism seem to be growing largely through conversion.

    How many non-Japanese are there in the BCA? How much of the senior membership in America is non-Japanese?

  6. Whew. Well, I’m not feeling particularly defensive, but I do have to wonder at your motivations here. If you believe that Pure Land is sort of like giving up and not for you, that’s fine. But why come to the blog of a Shin Buddhist and tell him that? What do you get from this?

    Oh right. A healthy little conversation.

    That said, I think before we go any further you need to drop the association in your mind between “the Pure Land” and “heaven.” While I am pretty sure that there’s some people out there in the Shin community who take the literal view of the Pure Land as the place to go when you die in some physical sense, I would argue that they are by far exceptions to the norm. Most Shinshu thinkers (I’ll steer away from “theology” because that implies a “theo” where there isn’t one) I’ve talked to and read don’t think about the Pure Land in these terms at all.

    To whit. First and foremost, the Pure Land may be someplace we can hope to go in the next life, but we don’t go there to get some “reward” for a life well-lived for the rest of eternity. In point of fact, Shinran (Jodo Shinshu’s founder) makes it pretty clear that we go there to get enlightened and *then come back here* to help other people get enlightened. I think that’s a fundamental point that often gets lost in translation. Heaven’s forever, an end in itself. The Pure Land is expedient, a means to a end, aka, doing good bodhisattva work.

    However, and let’s stick with Shinran here, he tells us that all the “self-power” stuff you list (contemplation, meditation, etc.) and even reciting the nembutsu itself aren’t going to get you enlightened. Why? Because whenever you sit down on your cushion and say to yourself, “I am going to meditate and I am going to watch my breath and I am going to be mindful and I am going to attain some higher spiritual state,” you’re making a basic, fundamental, and (to use his words) delusional mistake of dividing Reality into “I” and “enlightened.” What Shinran says time and again is that there is no “I.” There’s just “enlightened.”

    To me, this is a huge, giant, spectacular leap *away* from the idea of heaven as a place you go to when you die. To me, Shinran is saying what most Buddhists say, something that is simultaneously obvious and revolutionary: right here, right now, in this very life, we are, with all our failings and delusions, already (to use his words) “embraced by other power.” And by “embraced by other power,” Shinran means imbued with Buddha-nature and therefore enlightened.

    So, this is not to say that you *shouldn’t* do other practices. You shouldn’t sit down and meditate or do any other sort of spiritual practice. Practice to your heart’s content. Knock yourself out. Just be aware, Shinran suggests, of those practices’ limitations.

    In this way, I don’t think he’s telling us to give up. I think he’s trying to change our way of seeing the world and thinking about our place in it. Which is, I’ve found, extraordinarily difficult.

    So. What do we do? We live our lives. Rather than retreating into the zendo or going off on spiritual retreats and focusing all our intentions (good or bad) on ourselves and our personal spiritual practices, Shin Buddhists generally go out into the world, lean into it, embrace it, live their lives, and try their damnedest to understand how it is in this messed up world we’re all already okay. To me, it’s the very essence of “engaged Buddhism,” conceived by an ex-monk 700 years before some white guy in California came up with that term.

    As for the BCA and all those questions you asked, I’m not sure if the BCA keeps those kinds of statistics. And, because of the way individual temples “count” members, I find the BCA’s over-all statistics somewhat suspect. Without getting into it, I suspect that the number of Shin Buddhists in the US is actually higher than is usually reported.

    Moreover, I’m not sure if non-Japanese communities are growing exclusively through conversion. At least, not anymore. A few blog posts ago I quoted some statistics about Buddhism’s general growth in this country over the last decade, but I’m not sure of the reasons for this growth. Is it simply conversion? Or is it also immigration? And what about second-third-fourth generation Asians? In short, I think the question is considerably more complicated than a blog-comment has the space for.

    However, I think that the reason the BCA has been so fiercely “Japanese” even after a century has a lot more to do with external (and internal) racism and World War II incarceration than it does with Buddhism, Shin or otherwise. The fact of the matter is that during and after the War, Shin temples became community centers, places where Japanese folks could *be* Japanese and be safe. That’s huge. And there’s still a sizable minority of older members who resist change and want the temples to *stay* Japanese. It’s a real problem for the continued existence of Shinshu in America; but I don’t think it’s an insurmountable one.

    After all, I am not the only non-Japanese practicing Shin in America!

  7. To be fair, I’m asking because you are the only Shin Buddhist that I’ve ever met in the flesh knowingly and definitely the only convert that I know. I have no one else to ask these (potentially awkward) questions.

    Without any personal engagement, even if it seems too confrontational in some way, I only know what I have read in books. Those books are not, generally, by Shin Buddhists of any sort. There isn’t exactly a wealth of material on any form of Pure Land Buddhism in English and I would say that much of the other Buddhist materials don’t exactly let Shin Buddhism, for example, really speak for itself.

    I do know a lot of Tibetan/Vajrayana Buddhists. I have a pretty fair understanding of why they choose to practice as they do and their ideas concerning enlightenment. I’ve been on retreat with them, practiced with them, etc. The same goes, to a slightly lesser degree, with various Zen Buddhists. Both of these traditions are very practice oriented though, which puts them in a very different place than where you are coming from.

    I certainly wouldn’t disagree that enlightenment is right here, right now, and that creating divisions pushes one away from it. The idea with much meditative practice, as I’m sure you know, is to teach techniques that *eventually* cause the collapse of this division, either gradually or suddenly, depending on the school, and the realization of enlightenment.

    I do read at least one other blog (Eighth Level Buddhist?) by a Shin practitioner who is of European descent but it is still rare.

    I’d have many of the same sorts of questions if I had a chance to talk to a follower of Nichiren as well.

  8. I fully agree. And please know that despite some of my own language, I’m certainly not taking offense with anything you’ve said. It’s conversation like that are my own motivation for writing a blog, being a scholar, etc.

    Yes, there isn’t a lot of stuff about Shin Buddhism… unless you know where to look or what to look for. I’ve got a post a couple of weeks ago called “Five buddhist books” that lists three written by Shin Buddhists and a fourth that deals with them in some tangential way. One of them, Interpreting Amida, speak directly to this issue we’ve been dancing around, namely the ways in which Shin has been equated with Christianity and as a result has been left out of the Western conversation. Anyway, if you’re interested, I could list more.

    And of course I certainly don’t hold the position that Shin Buddhists have a monopoly on the idea that enlightenment is right here, right now. I have a need respect for other forms of Buddhism, in part, because I really really really really really suck at them. Couldn’t meditate to save my life!

    Also, I think there’s a lot of practices in Shin Buddhism that we don’t talk about much. I mean, there’s all kinds of chanting and “dana practice” and even some esoteric visualization stuff. It just doesn’t get a lot of press within the tradition, so it doesn’t get any press outside the tradition. But that’s another long story. Ritual ritual ritual.

    Level 8th Buddhist is brilliant. And he likes Dune, so you know. Hooray.

  9. Hi Marcus. Thanks for the “free press”!

    Your post is really interesting. I see from your reading of my post that I may not have been very clear about my own feelings vis a vi “Buddhist morality,” a subject I don’t often talk about in this blog. It makes me think that a post about my particular viewpoints on Buddhist ethics may be long overdue.

    Who knew this little one-off post about Buddhist fasionistas would generate so much conversation!

    thanks for the comments

  10. Thank you Scott,

    Yes, I see what you mean. Your focus was more on the modern approach of the priests, which I have to agree is wonderful, than on the specific precept-breaking part of it that I picked up on.

    Please accept my apologies if I have misrepresented your opinion in any way. Perhaps, in hindsight, I would have to go back and change that paragraph in my blog somewhat.

    I mean, your main point is absolutely spot on. The vast majority of Asian Buddhists do not meditate and it’s weird that meditation is the stereotype attached to Buddhists in the west (but, you have to agree, it’s been largely of our own making).

    You say it’s a pity that American JDSS is turning to meditation as a method to make themselves more attractive rather than what they’ve traditionally been “pretty damn good at” – raising Buddhist kids. And I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Thank you again Scott.

    With metta,


  11. Coming into this a little late but…

    DJ: I totally agree, I wish JDSS churches would play to their strengths, and not try to cover up their weaknesses

    Al: I am not of european descent actually, I am american. 🙂 In any case, JDSS is not a replacement of other Buddhist sects, but rather a way for people who cannot devote themselves to say, meditation or tantra, to have a meaningful path. If tantra works for you, please continue it to fruition. For my part, the nembutsu is the only thing that’s worked for me. If it should fail, then the fault is all mine. 😉

    Marcus: you’ll like reading the latest Tricycle article about a “crazy monk” in Thailand whose rescuing drug-addicted kids on the fronteir. It’s a really touching story and kind of reminds me of this.

    Take care guys!

  12. Namu Amida Bu! to all.

    Situated in South Africa, the last place I would think of finding a Pureland / Zen master, I fallen for the ‘nembutsu’.

    (Note: it is not easy to fall, when falling with pots and pans and a hiking bag and a walking stick and …)

    In fact I never thought of Pureland Buddhism in-itself (as an established path within Mahayana) until I was informed that all I need is the ‘nembutsu’.

    So, when it was first revealed to me, I was pleasantly blissing out and in grotesque stupification. I couldn’t make it out, logically.

    The master said that this path is easy to practice and hard to understand… no kidding!?
    Anyway, once I realized that the ‘nembutsu’ was helping me let go of my spiritual striving and “spiritual materialism” (and no offense, but I find that western practioners of Tibetan Buddhism to easily fall into a “spiritual materialism” – myself being one!) it becomes much easier to be an ordinary human again – ordinary in the sense that I can engage the world without spiritual guilt and know that I am banbu (not a superman but probably a custodian).

    I have found that the ‘nembutsu’ remains the ‘nembutsu’, whether you are in the poop or in ecstacy, it stays the same. It is Zen, for every one.

    I haven’t sat in meditation for a while, or like I used to… many will state that this is a direct contradiction of Buddhism? right?!
    Well, meditation is not the goal of Buddhism as far as I know, one should be in a clear state of mind as often as possible. The ‘nembutsu’ is the perfect support for this – your mind is on Amitabha, Amitabha is in your mind, no difference when reciting the ‘nembutsu’… whatever, Namu Amida Bu!

    Anyway, as for modern/postmodern buddhism… mmm, this is soo exciting, why I have soo loved Buddhism is its ability to shape-shift without hesitation. I believe the same can be done with Pureland Buddhism.

    So the point is, besides one large Fo Guan Shan temple out in a small town, the locals are still reserved towards accepting ‘foreign’ styled religions (ironic) – it must be a thing towards the Chinese culture? I don’t know?

    My suggestion is this: to introduce the ‘nembutsu’ into modern/postmodern society one should consider the mainstream… bring the retreat temple into the heart of the city, next to Macdonalds and Starbucks or whatever… a ‘Nembutsu’ Cafe!

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