Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Amida comes West
Caroline Brazier
O Books
Winchester, UK
Washington, USA

This book is difficult to review. The author, especially in the early part of the book, shows a potential for mature insight into the psychological and spiritual failings of most of us, but in the end the book is disappointing and disturbing.

The book opens with an insight into the fragility of life and happiness using the examples of the death of the author's mother-in-law and the bittersweet imagery of the Japanese poet Yugen as a way to introduce the central Buddhist teachings of the four-fold Noble Path. The author also touches on her conception of faith. She goes on briefly to the teachings of Honen Shonin and the concept familiar to us all, the bonbu. As she continues Brazier introduces the concepts of self and other power. She references Nagarjuna Boddhisattva as a Pure Land teacher. This is all fairly standard stuff and, although lacking depth, fair enough, but already by the fourth chapter Brazier is deep into what I found disappointing about this book. A psychotherapist by training Brazier relentlessly over psychologizes the spiritual life. She continually references our deeply flawed nature, our bonbu nature, but doesn't really seem to grasp what insight into our nature truly implies - a radical self-acceptance. Instead she repeatedly returns to the possibility of change. The book peters out with an over long discussion of the stories of Patacana and Kisagotami (exemplifying loss/grief and subsequent transformation) and Joanne Macy's concepts of our relationship with the world. This is disappointing because this book is not, as the title might imply, an accessible introduction to Pure Land teachings and practice for Westerners. If that were all that was wrong with the book, though, it could be accepted as a flawed attempt.

This book has, however, a disturbing sub-text. Its agenda is really an attempt to appropriate the Pure Land teachings to a naïve and self-generated 'Western' sectarian project, an act of appropriation as blatant and misguided as the 19th Century 'discovery' of Buddhism. The title of the book is the opening gambit. 'Amida comes West' is an inherently presumptuous title since Pure Land Buddhism as represented by Jodo Shinshu in the United States is arguably the longest established form of Buddhism in the West, but if the book had given us a comprehensive guide to the theory and practice of Pure Land Buddhism the title could have been appropriate. The book being such as it is, the title merely illegimately appropriates a special understanding for the author, as if she and her group were bringing 'true' Pure Land Buddhism to the West for the first time. The next gambit is to rename the thing that is being appropriated. Throughout the book a new word is used for the teachings - 'Pureland'. This term is devoid of the breadth and depth of meaning of the term it replaces - Pure Land - and its use implies a new and special understanding, again, an act of appropriation.

Brazier expresses reverence for Honen Shonin, but does not do reverence to his teachings as she does not present them in any detail. Nor does she seek to give the reader the teachings of Honen Shonin as transmitted by his pupil Shinran Shonin or by his other pupils as the teachings of the different branches of the Jodo-shu. She gives us an outline of Shinran Shonin's biography and even discusses the concept of shinjin but in a way that is quite non-committal - as if commitment to this concept might necessitate commitment to the Jodo Shinshu way, which, of course, it would. She misunderstands the subtle depth of Shinran Shonin's teachings about the salvation of the 'evil man', mentioning it in an unhelpful way. Whether by oversight or design Shinran's name does not appear in the index. Brazier and the very small organization of which she is part reference Honen and Shinran and by association hope to claim legitimacy for their own mish-mash of teachings. They have set up their own forms of ordination, robes, 'vinaya', liturgy etc outside of any lineage, and therefore it can only be as an act of appropriation that they use Japanese terms such as 'Amida', 'shu' and 'kai' as parts of their designators.

The act of appropriation that troubled me most is again, as with so much that is passed off in this book as legitimate, written in such a way as to give false confidence. Brazier quotes from the 'Larger Sutra' using a 'translation we have developed in Amida-shu' (p288). I should like to know who exactly in the 'Amida-shu' has the expertise in Classical Chinese or Sanskrit to produce a new translation of the Sutra. Brazier quotes their version of the 18th Vow of Amida Tathagata and it is simply wrong, being in fact the first half of the 18th Vow with the second half of the 19th Vow pasted on. The new 'translation' is wrong according to the translations of both Inagaki Sensei and that of Luis O. Gomez. Brazier must know this since she mentions that she has 'used' the translation of Inagaki Sensei.

The Pure Land teachings given to us by Shakyamuni Buddha and compassionately explained to us by generations of Patriarchs and teachers are not the exclusive property of anyone, but it is illegitimate to claim a new and special understanding when all that is presented is an eclectic, half understood caricature of the teachings. I advise against any one bothering to read this book.

- Mark Healsmith

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