Some of you may have already saw or heard about the “Dharmathon” event broadcasted on YouTube last night (April 15, 2015) from the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley. This is an attempt to recap what I wanted to say in my segment:
The title of my talk is “The Liberation Theology of Shinran Shonin.” The term “Liberation Theology” was used from around the mid-1950’s through the ‘70s for a movement mainly started by Catholic priests in Latin America to apply the Christian teachings in creating programs and lobbying for the poor and disadvantaged in their countries – to liberate them from the oppression that kept them in poverty and suffering. However, what I am calling Shinran’s Liberation Theology is not about who to vote for or what programs to lobby for in order to liberate the oppressed, but rather his teachings are about liberating us from being oppressors. Some say the term “theology” doesn’t apply to Buddhism because we don’t talk about God, but I think here it’s appropriate because Shinran is pointing to a perspective beyond our human-centered view, the perspective of the Power Beyond Self which sees the absolute equality of all lives.
As you know Shinran was born into the aristocratic class and spent twenty years at the monastery on Mt. Hiei. During his time the view of the aristocrats and Buddhist practice went hand-in-hand in looking down on the common people. Just as monks believed they could work their way up towards enlightenment through practicing purity in thought, speech and action, the aristocrats believed they earned their privileged position through their morality. The common folk were called akunin, evil persons, because in the course of their work they broke the Buddhist precepts and so they deserved to live lives of misery and deprivation.
Shinran in meeting his teacher Honen and receiving the Pure Land teachings came to see how wrong that attitude of the monks and aristocrats was. Just as we are taken into the heart/mind of nirvana, receiving this great gift that we don’t deserve, we also realize how little we have done to deserve the lesser gifts of material wealth, comfort and health. There is no real basis for our privilege – we didn’t earn it, but came into it largely through causes and conditions beyond our control.
Today in our American society there is a demonizing of the poor and disadvantaged much like during Shinran’s time. We are their oppressors if we look at them as akunin, as deserving to be miserable because they aren’t working hard enough or upholding morality. In Shinran’s confession of being a foolish ordinary person full of defilement, his declaration of being an “evil person,” we see how wrong we are when think we can look down on others.
The third verse (pictured above) of Shinran’s Jodo Wasan [Pure Land verses] sums up his Liberation Theology:
Gedatsu no korin kiwa mo nashi
The Light of liberation is a wheel with no edges, boundaries
Ko-soku kamuru mono wa mina
The touch of this Light reaches everyone
U-mu o hanaru to nobetamo
And it smashes the division between Have and Have-not
Byodo kaku ni kimyo se yo
And our lives are returned to the awakening of absolute equality
Byodo kaku ni kimyo se yo is “Namu Amida Butsu” – to have our sense of privilege challenged and crushed so that we awaken to the absolute equality of all beings. That is our liberation from being the oppressors.