In my powerpoint presentation (see title slide below) I did at the recent Eastern Buddhist League conference in Minnesota, I made the point that after we get serious about a particular religious path, there is a phrase of “sorting out” where it is necessary for us to cut ourselves off from the influences of our previous way of life. To receive the message of spiritual liberation from a particular religion, we need to dive in and not get distracted and discouraged by those authoritative voices that formerly held sway over us – whether it’s our parents pleading for us to return to the family fold or a whole society telling us our heritage is inferior to the prevailing culture.
Somewhat paradoxically, the deeper one goes into a spiritual tradition, there arises the calling to go out and work together with people of different religious allegiances. To me, an understanding of one’s own religion is not complete unless it has a vision of inclusiveness, respecting and defending the dignity of all people.
In Jodo Shinshu (“Shin” Pure Land Buddhism) there are many people stuck in religious segregation. In Japan the Buddhist groups are entrenched to the point of ridiculousness. We can’t help chuckling at gatherings of Higashi Honganji in Kyoto when officials speak as if they’re the only ones promoting Shinran’s teachings when we know that just a few blocks away is the headquarters of Nishi Honganji. At American temples you hear too much talk, sometimes coming from the ministers, denigrating not only the Abrahamic faiths but all the other Buddhist sects.
In researching the life of Malcolm X, I read (in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable) how through his immersion in Islam, he came to work with a wide range of civil rights activists, respecting those who were secular, Christian and (shocking to his former Nation of Islam cohorts) women. It made me come to feel that one reason for Shinran’s return to Kyoto after spreading the nembutsu teachings in the Kanto area was his desire to reconnect with the larger tradition of Buddhism. Out in the countryside (of the area that would later develop around Tokyo), he probably felt isolated from the deep soil of Buddhist transmission from which the nembutsu blossomed. It’s just a theory of mine, but I think in looking at Kyogyoshinsho and Shinran’s other works, one can see a widening of his view from sectarian “Pure Land” to true Maha-yana (“large vehicle”) Buddhism.
In Shinran’s place and time there wasn’t any opportunity to meet non-Buddhists, but I think we can feel his appreciation of all lives whenever we engage in dialog and work together with people outside of our temple membership. I applaud the Twin Cities Buddhist Association for hosting the interfaith panel (with Lutheran, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish spokemen) at the Eastern Buddhist League conference and I hope more Jodo Shinshu groups help their members appreciate the wider community of diverse faiths.