Monday, January 16, 2012

Call to Adventure: An Iconoclast's Journey

It was Rev. Michihiro Ama who sounded the bugle to charge into battle. At the Higashi Honganji ministers’ training session this past July in Los Angeles, he lectured on the history of Jodo Shinshu but wanted us to also think about its future. He gave us excerpts from “Kiyozawa in Concord: A Historian Looks Again at Shin Buddhism in America” by Galen Amstutz (see “Writings” section). In the article, Amstutz accuses Shin Buddhist scholars (followers of Kiyozawa) of being too Japan-centric and squandering opportunities to attract Americans (followers of Thoreau and Emerson) to the nembutsu teachings. Rev. Ama was throwing Amstutz’ criticism at us as a challenge: “So what are you going to do about this?”

Not being in the scholarly ranks, I felt all I could do is put Amstutz’ commentary to the test at our temple’s study classes. I started with his suggestion that we draw parallels between Shin Buddhism and the Protestant Reformation (see previous blog postings) which for me was somewhat familiar territory, having been brought up in the Presbyterian denomination.

But Amstutz’ other suggestion of bringing out the “mytheo-poetic” aspects of Shin Buddhism was alien to me. In our temple’s presentation of Buddhism, we make it a point to avoid the “mumbo-jumbo” of mystic elements and we readily explain away (or outright dismiss) any descriptions of supernatural events.

For an iconoclast, the journey into the world of icons is an adventure into the unknown. I’ve thought of writing to Amstutz-sensei for advice – haven’t done it yet, but I did buy the Doty book he cited in his article. When I confessed to the study class that for the winter term we would be looking into something I hardly know about, one member lent me a copy of The Power of Myth, the book based on the 1985-86 PBS interviews of Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers. For me, reading the book is a plunge into strange waters. I am grateful for the plain-speaking Moyers’ questions and comments – a side of cooked vegetables to offset the heaps of mashed potatoes and gravy.

As in the hero’s journey scheme, a guide appeared to give me support as I stepped into the unknown. At the Sunday service I announced that we’ll be reading Joseph Campbell in the study class and afterwards William (aka FierceBuddhist in the blogosphere) came up to me, letting me know he had studied and taught mythology and folklore. He came to the first meeting of our class bringing a large color reproduction of the hero’s journey scheme from the comic book “Action Philosophers!” (Giant-size thing, volume 1) and he has given me some material from the David Leeming book.

 Already I can’t help being the muckraker. In Campbell’s account of Shakyamuni under the Bodhi tree, he recounts the usual episodes of Mara’s army of warriors and seductive daughters. But he adds:

Finally the Lord of Lust and Death transformed himself into the Lord of Social Duty and argued, “Young man, haven’t you read the morning papers? Don’t you know what there is to be done today?” The Buddha responded by simply touching the earth with the tips of the fingers of his right hand. Then the voice of the goddess mother of the universe was heard, like thunder rolling on the horizon, saying, “This, my beloved son, has already given of himself to the world that there is no one here to be ordered about. Give up this nonsense.” Whereupon the elephant on which the Lord of Social Duty was riding bowed in worship of the Buddha, and the entire company of the Antagonist dissolved like a dream. (p. 140)

I wondered where Campbell got that, so I went to and found an article by Ananda W. P. Guruge, a Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar, titled “The Buddha's Encounters with Mara the Tempter.” In Section III dealing with non-canonical Buddhist literature, Guruge points out that the stories of Mara’s temptations were embellishments of the Buddha’s philosophical analysis detailed in the Pali canon. A couple of examples he gives seem to jibe with Campbell’s version: A Chinese source says “Mara brought a bundle of official notices purporting to be from Sakya princes to dissuade the Buddha from continuing his quest” and another compilation has Mara trying “to challenge the Buddha’s right to the seat on which he is seated; the earth is summoned as a witness; the earth quakes and Mara and his hosts run in disarray.”

The story of the Lord of Social Duty is not that far-fetched as many Buddhist teachers have had to struggle against the expectations of the society of their day (for example, Kiyozawa was burdened by his samurai-class Confucian ethics). But Campbell’s account shows we have to take the “monomyth” idea with several grains of salt. Myth theorists can easily pick and choose stories from non-canonical Buddhist literature to make neat parallels (“Jesus had three temptations and so did Buddha!”). And much of that literature has been translated by westerners adding their own Romantic spin – and then the myth scholars regurgitate it with even more spin.

Still, I think it can be valuable to me (and maybe the others in the study class) to use these mythical accounts as a source of encouragement and inspiration. We may not have a hero’s journey as exciting as Luke Skywalker’s but there are very real battles in life that we are called to fight.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to help out Rev. I look forward to being there more.