Friday, March 7, 2014

Eating the Popcorn and Missing the Movie: Keeping Quiet About Shinran

A couple times when we were coming home from some event, my husband would have a sudden craving for popcorn and instead of going straight home to make some, he would drive to a movie theatre and have me run in and buy a bucket. I think a lot of people who pop in a Buddhist temple are like that – wanting to satisfy a notion of “I need some meditation now!” but not wanting to stick around for the real purpose of the temple, to receive the Buddha’s teachings of transcending the self.



It’s a very common scenario at Jodo Shinshu temples – we offer meditation to get people in the door, but we can’t convince all of those people to stick around for the main feature, the service where we listen to the nembutsu and Shinran’s teachings. Unfortunately at our temple the main meditation leader is probably like the lay teachers at the other temples – they don’t see any need to encourage people to stay for service because they rarely attend it themselves. But I was surprised to hear from someone at the Midwest Buddhist Temple that she and her husband attended the meditation sessions there for years, yet Rev. Ogui never said anything to encourage them to stay for the regular service. So she was not aware of Shinran Shonin and the nembutsu teachings until Rev. Ogui left to become the Buddhist Churches of America’s bishop and Rev. Siebuhr took over. What made Rev. Ogui think it wasn’t worth mentioning Shinran to people who came for meditation – did he think they weren’t interested, weren’t “ready” because they were too enamored with Zen, or that because they were non-Japanese it wouldn’t make sense to them? Rev. Siebuhr in his zeal probably thought everybody needs to hear about Shinran and maybe he turned off the people in those three categories (not interesed, too Zen-minded, too Western-thinking), but for the woman who told me the story and quite a few others at her temple, they were grateful that he introduced them to an approach in Buddhism that really spoke to them in their struggles with real-life problems.

This past Sunday I invited a former Midwest Temple member to our monthly class on the Shoshinge (Shinran’s long poem tracing the transmission of the Pure Land teachings). I told him I started the class for people who want to be minister assistants. I said, “We’re taking our time studying the Shoshinge to learn what Shinran taught. I don’t want them to be the like BCA minister assistants, hardly knowing anything about Shinran’s teachings,” and he chimed in, “Well, they made me a minister assistant and I still don’t know much about Shinran’s teachings.”

It makes me wonder, what’s the big secret about Shinran? In Rev. Ama’s book Immigrants to the Pure Land, we see how the Jodo Shinshu ministers from Japan had to spend time educating people (particularly non-Japanese members) about Buddhism in general but that approach made it difficult to “move” them on to Shinran’s teachings because they liked the “Theravada” ethnical mode so much. But it’s been over a hundred years since those early missions in Hawaii and the West Coast and in most metropolitan areas Jodo Shinshu temples are no longer the only Buddhist game in town. We don’t have to be stuck in the “introduction to Buddhism” role anymore.

I made copies of Gordon Bermant’s essay “American Jodo Shinshu Practice“ (from Path of No Path: Contemporary Studies in Pure Land Buddhism Honoring Roger Corless, edited by Richard K. Payne) for the people in the Shoshinge class. I want them to read Gordon’s article (inspired, of course, by the tremendous outreach work of Rev. Kenryu Tsuji) because it addresses the hurdles of presenting Jodo Shinshu to people acquainted only with the “hard practice” forms of Buddhism (Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana). We don’t have to be mum about Shinran’s teachings because people seem too into “self-power” – we can show them that the nembutsu path takes time and effort but over the years the dividends far exceed the investment. We can tell them it’s okay if it doesn’t make sense right off the bat, and point to people like Gordon (and the stories of  the many Jodo Shinshu followers at all the various temples) as testaments to the life-changing power of Namu Amida Butsu.

I’m psyched right now to be going to Los Angeles to attend a lecture series by Dr. Takami Inoue about “Entering the Stream.” In other forms of Buddhism, one can get so easily discouraged by what seems to be constant backsliding and lack of progress, but Shinran reminds us that once having encountered the nembutsu teachings, our hard-to-change-bad-habits-deluded messing-up-for-others-and-ourselves self is taken into the stage of non-retrogression, supported by deep layers of wondrous awakened ones of the past and present.