shin buddhist dharma war

I’d like to make a comment about something I wrote in my last post, something (wait for it…) hyperbolic. In pointing your attention to Prof. Toshikazu Aria’s blog, Echo of the Dharma, I made an off-hand remark about his being involved in a sort of “Dharma War” with Josho Adrian Cirlea. I am probably overstating the issue.

As far as I can tell, there are (largely academic or scholastic) disagreements among what we may call “modernist” Shin Buddhist thinkers who downplay certain aspects of strict Shin doctrine and up-play the symbolic or psychological or purely spiritual aspects of the tradition. This tendency among modernist Buddhist thinkers is nothing new; David McMahan in his The Making of Buddhist Modernism discusses at length the characteristics of Buddhist modernism, among them the trend of “psychologizing” traditional Buddhist cosmology. Shin modernists will quickly downplay the supposed reality of Amida’s Pure Land and cast the experience of birth in said land as a psychological or purely spiritual experience, not a literal one. This is something that a host of Buddhist modernists have done since Anagarika Dhamrapala and D.T. Suzuki at the turn of the last century right on down to, oh, just about every prominent Buddhist who writes for an English-speaking audience today and has had their work published in the so-called mainstream Buddhist press.

So, it’s not surprising that there would be modernists in the Shin school. And it should not be surprising that where there are modernists there are traditionalists — folks who are more conservative in their beliefs and are reluctant to change or reinterpret centuries-old doctrines, practices or rituals to suit the whims of contemporary practitioners who, no doubt, will be easily distracted by the next shiny thing coming out of Cupertino. Religion, for the traditionalist, is the last bastion of stability in a constantly changing world. So let’s not go changing anything.

Now, I’m not passing judgement, here, on the relative merits or worth of either perspective. I’m merely charting some landscape here, delineating two points of view on religions/spiritual matters. And, really, if I had more time, I’d suggest that it’s more of a spectrum of positions, with extremes on both ends and most people ending up somewhere in the middle, more often than not taking up multiple locations along that spectrum on any given day or in response to any given issue. And it’s pretty clear to me that Prof. Arai comes down on the “modernist” side of the fence and those who critique him are more traditionalist.

The two blog posts I linked to in my last post revolve specifically around the work of Prof. Taitetsu Unno. The argument between Prof. Arai and Josho Cirlea represents a divergence of opinions on Prof. Unno’s work, and Josho Cirlea seems to state his opinions, shall we say, rather forcefully. But, on the whole, I doubt many people in the broader, worldwide Shin community are either that aware of this scholastic debate or are losing any sleep over it.

Moreover, in the grand scheme of things, it seems to me that this, again, scholastic debate is just that — scholastic or academic. The parties may believe that a lot’s at stake here (i.e., whether or not they’re going to be born into the Pure Land) but I really don’t know if that’s true or not, being neither psychic nor having privy to their internal states of mind (my crystal ball’s still in the shop). And, really, when compared to other high-profile debates happening within specific Buddhist communities, this one isn’t really up there on the same level as the threats of “schism” or “excommunication” within the Thai Theravada tradition over bhikkhuni ordination.

I’m making this statement because a number (albeit a small number) of people have mentioned to me in one way or another since I posted this piece that they’re bummed out about about this ruckus or they’re frustrated or saddened with division within the Shin community. And I fear that in my cavalier depiction of it as a “dharma war” I may have added unnecessary fuel to the fire or caused folks some discomfort.

Hopefully after the holidays (t-minus three days till tropical vacation!) I’ll have a bit more time to write something more substantive about this issue. After all, I think differences of opinion — especially within one community — are important to discuss. Difficult issues or opinions or points of view with which we may disagree are always helpful if for no other reason than they give us a chance to wrestle with our own opinions, make their reasoning stronger, or drop them altogether. Plus, until altasien mentioned it, I had no idea there was a video of people questioning others’ shinjin! I’ll need to check that out and wrestle with that one a bit myself before writing anything on the subject.

So, in the meantime, go about your usual Shin (or non-Shin) Buddhist business. And I’ll see everyone after the holiday.

2 thoughts on “shin buddhist dharma war

  1. Thanks to you and @altasien for bringing up this topic. I had no idea about such inner-turmoil within the Shin community (even if it is just in academic circles). My experience with Shin is limited to just Unnon’s book (Bits of Rubble turn to Gold) some of Shinran’s writings as well as a short stint attending a Shin Church while living on the East Coast.

    I look forward to your next post.

  2. I’m not much for Shin academic debate either, really. But since I live in the Bible Belt and only get to attend a church/temple and hear a real live dharma talk about 1-2 times a year, I soak up what there is on the internet… and I do often have to remind myself that what’s on the internet magnifies the extremes quite a bit.

    I really would like to see more discussion about how to relate Shin Buddhism to everyday living, and relate it to a wide range of issues, both controversial and non-controversial. The Dharma Realm podcast is a great example.

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