This month, September 2013, marks the 120th anniversary of the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago as part of the Columbian Exposition. For the ninety or so attendees of the Eastern Buddhist League Conference (August 31- September 2) hosted by our temple’s membership, the significance of the 1893 event was brought into focus with valuable insights for the outreach activities in our respective communities. (The Eastern Buddhist League consists of Jodo Shin groups in Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Illinois and Ontario, Canada.)
The conference gave us a chance to learn about Buddhism’s introduction in North America by such pioneers as Japanese Zen teacher Shaku Soen (1860-1919), his student D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), Suzuki’s wife Beatrice (1878-1939), Suzuki’s sponsors in LaSalle, Illinois, industrialist Edward C. Hegeler (1835-1910), his son-in-law Paul Carus (1852-1919) and Canadian lawyer and art expert, Norman MacKenzie (1869-1936).
For both the descendants of Japanese immigrants and the “convert” members, it sounds jarring to hear the title of Paul Carus’ 1894 book The Gospel of Buddha. But it points to the spirit of Carus and the times – his desire to present the fundamental trans-sectarian teachings of Buddhism by appealing to those who only knew the religion of Christianity. Although Jodo Shinshu teachers have emphasized the many ways we are different from other Buddhist paths and from Abrahamic religions, we should recognize that the presentation of Shinran’s teachings might be better served by taking a respectful attitude towards other faith traditions instead of being aggressively antagonistic.
The photo above depicts the re-enactment at the conference of the dialogue between Edward Hegeler and Shaku Soen, with Dr. M. Blouke Carus reading the part of his great-grandfather and Bishop Noriaki Ito reading the Zen master’s words. In the dialogue we hear the thoughtful questions and contemplations of Westerners open to what Buddhism has to say. All of us North Americans, present temple members and members-to-be, are Edward Hegeler, seeking a clearer understanding of the truth and gratefully receiving guidance for our search. And the whole Buddhist tradition, in and outside of Jodo Shinshu, is embodied in the teacher, who conveys the insights of the human being Shakyamuni, not confined by sectarian boundaries.
That the nembutsu reverberates out in ten directions means we are all - Zen and Shin, Buddhist and Christian - embraced in its all-inclusiveness. Learning about the pioneers of the past reminds us to share the Dharma with all people, regardless of race and ethnicity AND regardless of their sectarian and religious affiliation. Just as Edward Hegeler and Paul Carus called their publishing company “Open Court,” our temples should be open courts – places that are welcoming to all and full of lively discussions. Those pioneers remind us that instead of trying to convert and criticize others, we should share with them the joy of discovering what Buddhism teaches us, and that no one has the “final word” because the world around and inside of us is continually changing and bringing us new challenges.