Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Living in Amida's Universal Vow
Essays in Shin Buddhism
Edited by Alfred Bloom

This book was an unexpected treat. Unexpected because it is such an interesting collection of essays and comes from neither an academic nor sectarian source; a treat because the essays are so eclectic and are garnered from sources most of us would otherwise miss. Like any such collection the essays are of variable quality and no one reader is likely to find all of them of equal interest but all were worth reading and some were very thought provoking. The essays come from a variety of sources and many of them were originally published in Japanese so the collection is especially valuable for we who do not read Japanese. The level of knowledge of Jodo Shinshu assumed by the texts varies significantly, but in the main these texts are not for beginners.

The book is made up of four sections. The first section, 'Modern Shin Buddhist Thinkers' is perhaps something of a misnomer. The best of the essays date from the early twentieth century, but do represent the start of the 'modern' in the sense of a post-feudal Shin sensibility that is a determinedly personal and even individualistic. A series of talks by D. T. Suzuki given in New York in 1958 make up a large part of this section. The language of these talks, perhaps of necessity in view of the time and place, seems dated and with rather too many references to Christian theological concepts to resonate deeply with me.

The second section, 'Interpretations of Shin Buddhism', includes a brief but lovely essay by Omine Akira entitled 'Shinjin is the Eternal Now'. Next is a contribution by Alfred Bloom, 'Shinran's View of Absolute Compassion', full of inspiring thoughts, but notably this:

If we try to assess the meaning of these teachings in terms of our contemporary life, we must stress that the Pure Land tradition, and notably Shinran, was showing that despite the problems and sufferings of existence, there is hope. Compassion is the essence of life and reality even when we are unaware of it.

How fortunate we are to have Professor Bloom's illuminating works! The essay here is valuable, and his effort as editor to collect and arrange the pieces in this book was, of course, essential.

Dennis Hirota's contribution, 'Religious Transformation and Language in Shinran', expands on an understanding of the transformative character of shinjin and Nembutsu that he has presented elsewhere, but in greater depth and detail. This is a subject little discussed and one very difficult to present in an intellectually rigorous way. Hirota's presentation is densely argued and requires more than one reading to become intimate with its concerns.

Ueda Yoshifumi gives us 'Freedom and Necessity in Shinran's Concept of Karma'; a fascinating and important consideration of a foundational Buddhist concept in relation to Shinran's insight. He writes;

In the belief that we merely reap the fruits of our own acts, there is only causality and no transcendence of it, but that the person of shinjin in awakening to his or her karmic evil carries on [his] life subject to causality, and, further, has transcended it.

The third section, 'Modern Issues in Shin Thought', really does give voice to thoughts on contemporary issues in Shin Buddhism by contemporary thinkers. Although Takagi Kemyo's 'My Socialism' is not very recent, it is apposite to read it after Ama Toshimoro's 'Towards a Shin Buddhist Social Ethics' puts it into context. This latter essay is full of historical and philosophical information that most non-academic readers would never otherwise come across and is another good illustration of the value of this book.

Galen Amstutz contributes 'Shinran and Authority in Buddhism', an essay written in his typical dense, almost telegraphic, erudite style. I enjoy Amstutz' writings but one must concentrate to not miss anything and this essay is worth the effort. Amstutz' perspective is that of a well informed and sympathetic outsider and his views on Shinran as 'one of the most shrewdly and profoundly rebellious individuals on East Asian history' are fascinating.

In 'Shinran and Human Dignity: Opening an Historic Dimension', Futaba Kenko argues against what he calls 'the burial of Shinran' in an interpretation of his teaching as one of despair, arguing that the crucial part of Shinran's message was our return to this world after rebirth in the Pure Land and the resultant exercise of compassionate power in this world.

The section is completed with Kenneth Tanaka's contribution, a fairly comprehensive essay with a self evident title: 'Ethics in American Jodo Shinshu: Trans-ethical Responsibility.'

The longest essay in the last section, 'Historical and Comparative Perspectives', and indeed in the whole book is Takeda Ryusei's 'Mutual Transformation of Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity: Methodolgy and Possibilities in the Light of Shinran's Doctrine'. It is also for me the least interesting. As a Western convert to Buddhism (although convert is an interesting word in this context; I did not convert from Christianity and have not rejected the lessons and methods of science as I find no conflict between Buddhism and science generally speaking - a better concept would be an opening up to or acceptance of the Buddhadharma, perhaps, rather than conversion) I simply don't see the value in engaging in the type of critical dialogue with Christinity that this essay explores. I do not expect a sincere Christian to undergo a transformation of his or her faith on exploring Pure Land Buddhism or vice versa, and I am not interested in intellectual comparisons of different faiths. The Buddhadharma is always fundamentally about the experience of the practitioner and I do not find this kind of discourse deepens my experience. Others whose opinions I respect would disagee with me, so I do not ctiticize the inclusion of this essay in this book.

I must, however, take issue with one of the concluding statements.

We must work with a postmodern worldview according to which, in true reality, all things in past, present and future exist within the meshes of a net of nonsubstantial relationships.

I do not accept that any secular worldview demands my adoption of it, and the concept of a transhistorical 'net of nonsubstatial relationships' is surely in fact Hua-Yen metaphysics - something I do accept, but why not let it be expounded as part of the Buddhadharma and not 'postmodernism'.

Other essays in the concluding section of the book include 'Shinran's Indebtedness to T'an-luan' by Bando Shojun in which he traces how the insights of Vasubandu were clarified by T'an-luan and how crucial was T'an-luan's thought to Shinran and to the composition of his major work, the Kyogyoshinsho. This transmission demonstrates the trans-historic lineage of the Pure Land teachings. Allan A. Andrews 'Pure Land Buddhist Hermeneutics: Honen's Interpretation of Nembutsu' is full of useful insights.

In sum this is a very interesting and varied collection well worth exploring. Many of the essays will provoke worthwhile contemplation and all may deepen the readers understanding of Shin Buddhism.

- Mark Healsmith

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