Saturday, January 12, 2013

Not Sectarian: Learning Widely and Deeply

When we say our temple is “non-sectarian” it means we have no official ties to any larger Buddhist organization. But from our founding minister Rev. Gyomay Kubose on, all our ministers have been ordained at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto, which is the headquarters of the second largest Jodo Shinshu sub-sect. (The largest is Hompa Honganji, aka Nishi Honganji, the official organization of the Buddhist Churches of America.) But one of the great characteristics of Higashi Honganji in its development from the Meiji period (when Japan was opened to the West) is the fostering of awareness of Jodo Shinshu in connection to all of Buddhism and the continuing interaction with Western thought and religion.

Proof of this is the curriculum for priests at Otani University. The first president (when it was known as Shinshu College) Manshi Kiyozawa felt all priests in training should learn about Buddhism as a whole and about the religious and philosophical teachings outside of Asia. When I was at Otani, the kyoshi (full ordination) program required us to take at least two courses of Buddhist topics outside of Jodo Shinshu and two courses of Western philosophy and religion. At the same time at Nishi Honganji’s Ryukoku University, the kyoshi students only had to take required courses in Jodo Shinshu doctrine and history. (However, I’m sure there are many BCA ministers like Rev. Marvin Harada who elected to take courses in non-Shin Buddhist courses.)

In the book Cultivating Spirituality: A Modern Shin Buddhist Anthology (eds. Mark L. Blum and Robert F. Rhodes, State University of New York, 2011), you can get a taste of the progressive thought of Higashi Honganji teachers of the 20th century. (The hardback version of the book is pricey at $75, but SUNY just released the paperback edition.) Mark’s historical summary and introduction to Kiyozawa are well worth reading as are the introductions to the other thinkers, Ryojin Soga, Daiei Kaneko and Rijin Yasuda.
[no picture for now - Blogger is not letting anyone upload images, but see]
I haven’t read any of the translated articles except I’m currently plowing through Yasuda’s ”A Name but Not a Name Alone” (the title is Paul Tillich’s description of the nembutsu after his conversation with Yasuda). I have to say “plowing” because it’s written in such academic prose (with words like noesis and noema). I have a feeling the Japanese can’t be as complicated because teachers such as Yasuda wanted to communicate clearly to their audiences. In my upcoming trip to Japan I hope to hunt down some of those writings in the original Japanese.

Yasuda and the other teachers in the book very much demonstrate that wide and deep learning of the Buddhist tradition and the openness to finding similar concepts in Western thought. Back in the day (early to mid-20th century), Jodo Shinshu was presented in a sort of vacuum, as a supposedly Buddhist sect that cut itself off from the rest of Buddhism, so it’s no wonder other Buddhists treated Pure Land the same way as mainstream conservative Christians look at Mormonism, as some weird Johnny-come-lately aberration. The Higashi teachers are continuing in Shinran’s Kyogyoshinsho footsteps in that they see the nembutsu as clearly evolving from the Buddha’s teachings in its many developments (Theravada, esoteric, Zen etc.).

In our weekly study class this quarter we’ll be delving into Chinese Zen (Ch’an) to appreciate its liveliness and influence on Buddhism’s development and also because it forms the background to how many Westerners have first come to Buddhism before encountering Jodo Shinshu.