Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Essays on Theory and Practice
Edited by Mark Unno
Wisdom Publications
Boston 2006

There is a growing field of intellectual endeavour concerning the confluence of Western secular religiosity - psychology and psychotherapy - and Buddhism. I have read little of it up to now, as I am fundamentally suspicious of the appropriation of the Buddha's teachings by Western intellectuals and the distortion of the teachings away from their salvific power. Shakyamuni Buddha did not leave his followers with an admonition to be happy, but to work out their salvation with diligence. However this book attracted me because of the contributions by Shin Buddhists.

The first section of the book is 'Promises and Pitfalls: Dialogue at the Crossroads.' The first chapter, by Jack Engler, starts things well. Engler does not conflate Buddhism and psychotherapy here, but instead points out the psychological barriers and baggage that Westerners typically bring to Buddhist practice and which will impair that practice unless they are recognized. I found aspects of my own previous thought patterns and behaviors in his list of 'ten unhealthy motivations' and I felt gratitude that I was able to abandon them when I found the teachings of Shinran Shonin.

Next is an essay by Richard K. Payne, Dean and Professor of Buddhist studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, which gave me an important new insight into my own culture. He points out that there is a biblically derived 'atonement narrative' pervading most of Western thought. Certainly it provides the intellectual structure of psychotherapeutic thought and Payne gently but convincingly points out the fragility of the whole intellectual edifice of psycho-analytic thought. The atonement narrative tells us that there is an original state of 'wholeness' that we have fallen away from and to which through redemption/atonement we can return. Payne contrasts this with the Buddhist concept of 'path' as exemplified 'Bodhicaryavatara' of Shantideva. Jeremy D. Safran mounts a rather weak defence of Western psychotherapeutic thought in the next chapter.

I found the next chapter, by Harvey Aronson, to be rather a mixed bag. As a psychotherapist with apparently extensive experience of Buddhist practice he has his feet in both camps. I found his analysis of the role of psychotherapy for Western Buddhist practitioners unconvincing and full of special pleading. Special pleading for the insights of psycho-analysis and special pleading for the 'Western psyche' which Aronson holds to be different to the 'traditional Asian psyche.' He also argues, more convincingly, that perhaps traditional Asian practitioners are less troubled by psychological issues than Westerners because theirs is more likely to be full-time (and although Aronson does not state it explicitly) monastic practice. Well, true for some.

William S. Waldron's contribution explores how the Yogacara (Mind Only) school concept of the alaya-vijnana (storehouse consciousness) might be used to help produce an understanding of the mind (and in particular the subconscious mind) that goes beyond the often crude mechanism of neuroscience and the either explicitly acknowledged or subtly hidden trap of the 'ghost in the machine' that lies within depth psychology. Finally in this part of the book is a very interesting, but rather unfocused essay by Tarutani Shigehiro entitled 'Transcendence and Immanence: Buddhism and Psychotherapy in Japan. This essay considers the perverted spirituality of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, then moves toward the genuinely transcendent but everyday faith of 19th century Shin Buddhist, Hara Inashiro.

The second section of the book is 'Creative Possibilities; Psychotherapy and Buddhism in Mutual Encounter.' The first essay, 'Psychotherapy and Buddhism: Attending to Sand' by Okada Yasunobu is very disappointing. Okada conflates the Shingon Buddhist use of sand in esoteric practice with the use of sand play as a psychotherapeutic technique. The two practices in fact have nothing in common apart from the use of sand and Okada's attempt to bring them together is unconvincing.

Mark Unno's essay is, as is usual with his writings, both learned and deeply considered. He takes the reader on a fascinating journey from the world view of the protagonist of Albert Camus' 'The Plague' to a consideration of the practice of rule breaking psychotherapists' and then on to the intersection of Shin Buddhism and the quest for meaning and healing in the modern world.

Taitetsu Unno's contribution is entitled Naikan Therapy and Shin Buddhism'. He starts by introducing the very useful concept of the contrasting 'utility value' and 'truth value' of religion. Utility value is the immediate material and psychological benefit obtained from the practice of religion, and would function, I should think, on a subtle as well as an obvious level. Much of the content of this book is, of course, concerned with how Buddhism can produce psychological benefit, but utility value is also produced for those who would use religion as a motivator for political action. Truth value is concerned with the matter of life and death, or as Unno puts it, 'why we exist at all.' These concepts are rather subversive of a consideration of Naikan therapy which must, in itself at best fall under the rubric of utility value, but Unno moves beyond Naikan to examine Shin Buddhist religious life itself.

Next is 'Psychology, the Sacred and Energetic Sensing' by Anne Carolyn Klein, a densely argued essay from which two themes stood out on my reading. Firstly that in both psychological and spiritual development the role of the body, and specifically the energetic channels of the body must not be neglected. On the one hand there is surely truth to this as we go beyond the trap of mind-body dualism, but Klein emphasizes too much specific Eastern theories of energetic channels that not all will accept. Her second theme rather shows up one of the problems of the enterprise of considering psychology and Buddhism together in that she stresses the role of spiritual goals in psychology and the emphasis is on the Dzogchen school of Tibetan Buddhism. All very well if one is a devotee, but not all that useful beyond that.

This brings us to Part 3, 'Death and Dying in Pure Land Buddhism', for me the heart of this book. It begins with Julie Hanada-Lee's 'Shandao's Verses on Guiding Others and Healing the Heart', a deeply personal account of her spiritual growth as she went from being a Jodo Shinshu temple priest to practicing and teaching hospital chaplaincy. She elucidates a Shin Buddhist approach to the Four Noble Truths in the context of helping people with 'dis-ease (her term for 'dukkha'). This is a mature and thoughtful essay, steeped in Shin Buddhist spirituality but not sectarian.

The same could be said for Seigen H Yamaoka's Shin Buddhist Ministry: Working with Issues of Death and Dying'. Yamaoka uses case studies to illustrate the conceptual framework he uses in his pastoral work. He draws out six aspects from his experience of shinjin - expansion, self-reflection, great compassion, great joy, gratitude and a life of growth and meaning - and explains how these concepts are meaningful in the context of death and dying.

Finally there is Nabeshima Naoki's: 'A Buddhist Perspective on Death and Compassion: End-of-Life Care in Pure Land Buddhism'. This essay takes the reader through a brief history of death-bed practices in Pure Land Buddhism, then focuses on the Vihara movement, a Japanese Buddhist hospice movement. Naoki takes the reader through eight dimensions of caring for the here and now in being with the dying, all arising from a Shin Buddhist perspective. This is a liberative and open perspective and I especially appreciated the dimension he expresses as 'the causes of death are infinite, the manner of death is unimportant'.

At the end of the book there is a good index and extensive bibliography. Before this though are three appendices. Firstly a dense and to me rather too psychologically specialized one by Franz Aubrey Metcalf, 'Illusions of the Self in Buddhism and Winnicott', then, as background for readers from other traditions, 'Shinran's Thought Regarding Birth in the Pure Land' by Naito Chiko and 'Key Terms: Shin Buddhism' by Mark Unno.

In all this is a very worthwhile book despite my criticism of some of the content. It is inspiring to find Shin Buddhist engaging with the wider Buddhist and intellectual communities.

- Mark Healsmith

Return to the list of book reviews.