I have been asked on more than one occasion why I’ve chosen to follow the Shin Buddhist path. Many times, I get the strong impression that the asker is thinking to him/herself, “Isn’t Shin Buddhism a Japanese Buddhist path? You’re not Japanese. You didn’t marry a Japanese Buddhist. What’s the deal?” I think, despite the obvious problems with those stereotypes, that it’s still a valid question. It’s as valid a question as why one chooses Zen or Nichiren or Shambhala or any other school of Buddhism.
And I’ve always had a hard time clearly articulating my reason. I used to think that this was in part due to the issue of practice (i.e., why this practice and not some other) and how difficult it is to talk about practice in the context of a school that, on paper, doesn’t actually practice. Or, perhaps, it was due to the fact that my choices are largely personal, and some of those stories, frankly, are none of your business!
But I’ve been reflecting on this more over the past week or two and I think I know where the confusion comes from. I think it has to do with the nature of religion and spiritual practice, with different folks’ expectations of what spirituality looks like.
There’s a well-worn trope out there that suggests that most folks who come to Buddhism in the West do so in part because of the spiritual technology of Buddhism, i.e., they wanna meditate. And certainly there is a well-developed path of religious/spiritual practice in the world that focuses on the sole practitioner and his/her valiant efforts at pursuing some sort of personal spiritual fulfillment. And, let me be perfectly clear, despite my often sarcastic asides around here, I think this path of spirituality is a perfectly valid, perfectly appropriate path.
But the thing of it is that it’s just not for me. I’m not a lone crusader. Despite the fact that I spent a good portion of my youth desperately clinging to my individuality, my uniqueness, my self-appointed status as “not a joiner,” the truth of the matter is that I really do want be a part of something, that I really like being with other people.
As much as there is the ideal of the lone practitioner in the long history of world religions, there is an equally valid path that suggests that one can be spiritual (some may say should be spiritual) in community. That spirituality isn’t something one does alone on the cushion or sequestered in a monastery but is something one does in the world, with others.
My earliest experiences with Buddhism, my earliest memories of sitting in the zendo, doing kinhin, of being silent these are uncomfortable, lonely memories that facilitated feelings of disconnect, of isolation.
These memories are in stark contrast to my experiences with Shin Buddhism. These experiences include temple services filled not only with chanting but with singing, with music, laughter, and with children. And the spontaneity that children always bring to any social event. These experiences include bar-b-quing chicken over an outdoor pit behind the Berkeley Buddhist Temple during the bazaar with a bunch of total strangers, all whom were welcoming and friendly. My experiences of Shin Buddhism are largely experiences I’ve had out here in the world of work and family and friends, countless small moments where I am reminded of my deep interconnection to other people, moments where I am forced to pause, reflect on how beautiful, how fragile this world is, how grateful I am for this life, with all its joys and all its imperfections. Just as it is, as the saying goes.
For me, spirituality has always been something out here in the everyday world, not something I set aside time for, not something I “practice” necessarily, but something that just happens. Something that is an integral part of my life, my friends, my family even and especially those friends and family who aren’t Buddhist. For me, spirituality is something that I strive to integrate into all aspects of my life, a vehicle to connect me to the world, not to isolate me from it.
I have deep respect for folks who are able to use the spiritual technology of mediation for similar ends. But it never seemed to work for me. So I was deeply fortunate to find a model of Buddhist practice within Jodo Shinshu that does work for me. And that’s why I stick with it.