Friday, June 7, 2013

Getting Out of Canada Alive

After my interview with Tricycle magazine, I suggested they send a reporter to Vancouver for the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference (May 31-June2) because “people with baseball bats will be waiting for me.” Actually at the conference ( the only talk of baseball bats was from Bill Staples, author of Kenichi Zenimura: Japanese American Baseball Pioneer, who was there to explore Zenimura’s Jodo Shinshu faith (

I thought that with the Tricycle interview and my paper “Penetrating the Seven-Syllable Barrier,” I would be stirring up some controversy, but instead it was Galen Amstutz who bore the brunt of criticism from those who want to keep Pure Land Buddhism “pure.” In my previous blog entry (January 2012 “Call to Adventure”), I said that I wanted to contact Galen but since I never got around to it, seeing him at the conference gave me the opportunity to tell him in person how I was trying to implement his suggestions for presenting Jodo Shinshu at our Chicago temple.


(photo: Rev. Michihiro Ama talks with Prof. Galen Amstutz at the 2013 IASBS conference)
I hope to write in future posts about the various topics brought up at the conference, but for now I want to discuss how Galen ended up being the target of metaphorical rotten tomatoes. It started on the first day of the conference with a session of talks by Richard Payne (Institute of Buddhist Studies) and Kristin Johnson Largen (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg), both touching on the problems of presenting Pure Land Buddhism in the West. Galen commented that Shin Buddhist scholars were complicit in fostering many of the misconceptions about Shinran’s teachings. That session got him thinking about how to stimulate more discussion of that problem.

On the morning of the third day of the conference, Galen was the respondent for the panel dealing specifically with Shinran’s thought. He announced that if there was time after all the papers and discussion, he would like to present some “meta-issues” about Jodo Shinshu. After the four wonderfully deep papers (the real “meat” of the conference, I felt) from two Otani and two Ryukoku University scholars, there wasn’t time for Galen’s presentation. I went up to him afterwards and said he could come to my panel and talk about his meta-issues in conjunction with my paper because I felt it would be in a similar vein.

My panel was in the afternoon – more people seemed to be outside the meeting room than inside, probably having had enough of sitting for hours in hard chairs. My paper was first and after a couple comments, I asked Galen if he wanted to say something and he said he’d wait until the panel was finished. There was only one other paper since the third person on the schedule was absent. After Mutsumi Wondra (Ryukoku grad student from the Orange County temple) gave her detailed paper on “Namo Amida Butsu” referencing the Larger Sutra, Shinran’s writings and a poignant American poem, Galen got up and announced himself as the player from the stands coming up to bat as a last minute substitution. I realized later that I should have explained to the moderator and audience that I had invited Galen to speak because there wasn’t time for his presentation in the morning session. Without any explanation for them, it really did look like a random person from the stands was coming onto the field seeing that a scheduled player was a no-show.

Through the Power Point presentation he prepared, Galen threw out his ideas of “upaya” (Sanskrit for “skillful means”) to address the meta-problem of communicating Shin Buddhism to North Americans. He said the “particular kind of language, complex and rich” used in classical Shin texts just don’t have much appeal to those outside Jodo Shinshu circles. He felt there were so many different ways to make Shin Buddhism attractive to Westerners: emphasizing its non-monastic institutions, relating to the anti-self-help sentiments expressed in Burkeman’s The Antidote, bringing in cognitive science that shows our consciousness is not so much in control, etc. etc.

However, the audience was rather hostile to all the suggestions – categorizing them as trying to “sell” Jodo Shinshu by passing it off as something it’s not. Japanese Canadians from the Vancouver temple felt Jodo Shinshu is fine just as it is and it’s not for them to try to bring more outsiders into the fold. The Australians were vocal in their objections – Alex Minchinton felt any “upaya” must be based in the wisdom of Buddhism, not Western sciences, and moderator John Paraskevopoulos made the concluding remark that “re-framing Shinran doesn’t do him justice. We need to make clearer the distinctions which give the Shin teachings their compelling power.” (They must be doing something right in Australia for Jodo Shinshu to attract such sharp and sensitive people as Alex and John, and others I’ve met at previous IASBS conferences such as Gregg Heathcote.)

I regret that I didn’t insert myself more into the discussion because I agree with much of what Galen said and has been saying – that Jodo Shinshu is too insular and needs to find expression beyond a Japan-centric context. It may eventually fade away as a religious tradition in North America, but for now I’m grateful that it is well and alive for me. So much of the IASBS conference including Galen’s comments have deepened my appreciation of the liveliness of Shinran’s teachings. According to the metaphor Dr. Haneda often uses, the nembutsu is the Drano that clears the gunk out of our spiritual plumbing, so that we can truly be alive in this ever-changing, interconnected universe.