Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Shin Buddhism for Today
Dr Alfred Bloom

As well as the book under review I recently read 'The Best Buddhist Writing 2004' edited by Melvin McLeod (Shambhala). I found this book enjoyable enough, more for the essays exploring Buddhist spirituality in general than those giving specific teachings. However, although I know I should not be, I was somewhat perplexed and disappointed that such a book should be published and not include even one voice from Shin Buddhism. There is plenty of good Shin Buddhist writing about. Not much appears in the popular Buddhist journals though - and I do mean Tricycle and the Shambhala Sun. That is a shame for the readers of those periodicals. Especially so for those with only a casual interest in or knowledge of Buddhism who would, I feel, be put off by the relentless insistence that any religious practice not centered in a rigorous meditation practice is not Buddhism once the attraction of the glossy psychic aspirationalism that is the surface look of these journals wears off.

Some of the best Shin Buddhist writing for many years has been by Professor Alfred Bloom and his latest book is an excellent addition to his body of work. This work originated however long ago as the first summer session lecture programme for the Honpa Hongwanji Mission's Buddhist Study Center in Honolulu in 1974 and was eventually revised to become the 'Shin Buddhism in Modern Culture' self study course on Professor Bloom's web site. The current work is a further reworking of this material and is the fruit of Professor Bloom's years of reflection on the meaning of religion in general and Shin Buddhism in particular and also reflects his generosity of mind and expertise as a teacher. It serves as a beautifully valuable work in its own right, but also a complement to the internet based work. For sad old technophobes like me it enables one to gain the benefit of Professor Bloom's wisdom in friendly book form rather than having to stare at a screen or read flimsy printouts. Also, one day no doubt the web site will no longer exist or may be changed out of recognition. I like to think a book will last if not forever, then at least indefinitely.

This book is structured to guide the reader through the foundation and some of the elaborations of Jodo Shinshu spirituality. Each chapter is fairly self contained and can be read and contemplated separately, but read as a whole the work is quite thorough and didactic in an open minded way. By this I mean that there is a significant amount of factual material presented, but, since the book begins with a chapter entitled 'A Personal Perspective' and continues with 'The Contemporary Problem of Religion' it is clear from the outset that Professor Bloom wants to encourage the reader to think about what is to be presented and not just to accept and digest it. The point is not just to learn what the Jodo Shinshu way might be, but to actively engage with the tradition and to continue to reflect on what the tradition means, both personally and in relation to one's life in the world.

The second chapter raises much that we should deeply reflect upon. Bloom states there 'is no longer any overarching, unifying ideology' current in the world. How true this is and it leaves us in 'the West' all potentially rootless and alienated, but the delightful irony is that were it not for the ruptures that modernism has inflicted on traditional ideologies, then most of the readers of this review would be Catholics. There is, of course, never one isolated aspect to any thing or any thought in samsara and nor would Bloom propose there were. In this chapter about the use and misuse of religion and the spiritual crisis of the modern age Bloom is contextualizing the concept of the age of 'mappo' or the decline of the dharma. This concept was central to the development of Shinran Shonin's insight and is just as relevant today as it was in his time. No monolithic thought system, not even the (to us) self-evident fundamental insights of Buddhism can hold this fragmented world together. To our infinite regret, most of our contemporaries will be uninterested in genuine spirituality and in the West perhaps the monastic forms of Buddhism will not take organic root and thrive.

I personally don't see how they can since most Western Buddhists seem to want to be part-time monks rather than lay supporters and there is therefore no growth of an organic support base for the monastics. Also in this age of 'mappo' the true attainment of the fruits of the monastic way (the path of the sages) will be rare. There are quite a few disappointed ex-Buddhists out there. Jodo Shinshu has always offered an alternative way, one that may become naturalized in the West, but as one amongst many in an infinity of beliefs. We must live in this confusing world, not by hiding behind any shield of fundamentalism or its emotional equivalent, self-righteousness, but by constantly reflecting on Amida's gift of infinite grace and accepting the uniqueness of each person and of each moment.

The true foundation of the Jodo Shinshu way is stated in the title of this book, and the heart of this book is perhaps the 11th and 12th chapters - 'The Assurance of Final Fulfillment' and following on both in the book and as a consequence of the acceptance of this assurance that is the attainment of shinjin, 'Faith, Joy and Gratitude.' In Chapter 11 Bloom shows how radical even today, yet how essential is Shinran's conviction that 'the foundation of the unconditional and non-discriminating salvation of each and every person lies in the work of Amida Buddha, not in the accumulation of our good karma or our mental discipline through the process of death.' We can none of us know how we will die and what our mental state will be at the time of death. When we reflect on the multitude of unskillful or just plain wrong and mean thoughts and acts that fill our lives, how could any of we ordinary people feel confident of a good, spiritually confident state of mind at the time of death? If such a state of mind were essential for our entry into the Pure Land then a poisonous despair could be the only response possible. Shinran surely felt this despair, but the teachings of Honen showed him the antidote to the poison.

Bloom takes the reader through a detailed discussion of the nature of faith, the shape of Shinran's thought and the nature of the Nembutsu. The comprehensive presentation of Shinran's thought and its consequences culminates as Chapter 15 'The Ultimate End of Faith.'

The final three chapters return to the question of the place of religion and specifically Shin Buddhism in the troubled, diverse modern world. Our experience of shinjin will allow us to 'perceive clearly the intersection of the absolute and the relative where the Buddha works in all aspects of life.' This insight must tend to free us from a narrow minded clinging to any feeling of self satisfaction in our spiritual and temporal lives and will allow us to appreciate all people and all things as they are.

I commend this warm and wise book especially to those new to Shin Buddhism, but it will stimulate and inform those who have been following the Jodo Shinshu way for any length of time.

- Mark Healsmith

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