Thursday, July 9, 2015

Seeing the Goodness of the Other(Power)

At the Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue, there was a lot of bashing of Calvinism. I would like to think French theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) was a kind and compassionate fellow, but somehow his version of Protestantism has been linked to the most ruthless aspects of capitalism. In Wikipedia’s article on “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” by Max Weber (1905), there’s this paraphrase: 
According to the new Protestant religions, an individual was religiously compelled to follow a secular vocation (German: Beruf) with as much zeal as possible. A person living according to this worldview was more likely to accumulate money.
The new religions (in particular, Calvinism and other more austere Protestant sects) effectively forbade wastefully using hard earned money and identified the purchase of luxuries as a sin. … [Donating] money to the poor or to charity was generally frowned on as it was seen as furthering beggary. This social condition was perceived as laziness, burdening their fellow man, and an affront to God; by not working, one failed to glorify God.

Of course, the Catholics are quick to point out this failing of Protestantism. Instead of demonizing those in need, we should look in their eyes and see Jesus there (Matthew 25: 35-40). Most of the Buddhists agreed that we should see the “basic goodness” in all people. But that declaration was not easy for us four Jodo Shinshu ministers to agree with.

[John Calvin, painting by unknown artist, from Wikipedia]
In some ways, Jodo Shinshu is a kind of Buddhist Calvinism. Since we see ourselves as all morally corrupt beings dependent on Amida’s salvific power, we feel that we can’t help exploiting our fellow corrupt beings for our own selfish gain. In the same way that Max Weber linked Protestantism to the rise of capitalism, Galen Amstutz in his presentation at our temple (November 2013) showed the rise of the merchant class in Japan (17th and 18th centuries) was influenced by the spread of Jodo Shinshu. In many ways it was a positive development – the merchant class helped bring Japan out of the feudal age (lord over serfs) and into a more fluid social structure. But as seen in the poet Miyazawa Kenji’s rebellion against his pawnbroker parents for making money off their poor neighbors, the link between the merchant class and Jodo Shinshu led to abandoning a sense of community with those who are economically disadvantaged through myriad causes and conditions.

Although we want to follow Shinran’s example of seeing ourselves as zai-aku jinju bonbu, foolish beings sunk in sinful evil, it is easy to project that assessments on others. And so we see no “basic goodness” in those suffering in poverty, disability, substance abuse, trapped in the skewed maze of the American prison system etc.

I think Jodo Shinshu teachers need to emphasize how Shinran saw those around him. He didn’t demonize them or project zai-aku jinju bonbu on them. Instead he saw Amida Buddha in every being. Even those who were behaving badly, such as the characters in the Contemplation Sutra, he saw as acting out negative behavior only as a way of educating him.

So in the same way the Catholics talk about seeing Jesus in the eyes of the needy (the poor, the imprisoned, the homeless, the mentally/physically disabled), in Jodo Shinshu we should recognize that tariki, “Other Power,” is manifesting itself to us as “the Other,” that is, as the people outside our comfort zone, those who seem threatening and repulsive.

In that context, I can wholeheartedly agree with the Catholics and Buddhists who see the “basic goodness” of all humans. I myself do not have that basic goodness but I should recognize Amida, the unbounded Light and Life, is always manifesting itself to me as the people I encounter. “Namu Amida Butsu” is not merely a recitation of praise to some far-off divine being but it is saying “Good morning” or “Hello, how are you?” to each person I see on the street.


  1. I'm very sorry, I'm a Buddhist who originally started studying in the Soto Zen tradition, but I just moved to Chicago and I'm looking for a good sangha to practice with close to my house, due to a strict work schedule and time limitations....
    After reading this post I'm concerned Jodo Shinshu does not follow what I have learned through my practice. But I don't like thinking or saying outright other traditions are wrong, so maybe you can elucidate?

    Isn't 煩惱具足凡夫 directly in opposition to 佛性 (which I do adamantly believe in)? And how can you reconcile the idea that the Buddha himself said enlightenment is possible in this lifetime by one's own efforts, with the idea of the necessity of salvation by Amida?

  2. Celia - that's a lot to comment on, but instead of wanting a way to reconcile Jodo Shinshu with your beliefs, just accept that different paths work for different people. For some of us (like Shinran), Buddha-nature doesn't seem to show up within ourselves and our own efforts aren't doing much for us towards enlightenment. It's okay with me if some people can easily access their Buddha-nature and can attain enlightenment purely by their own efforts (Buddha said "it's possible" - not "everyone has to do it this way"). One place I heartily recommend is the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate on Irving Park near Ravenswood - Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton is very grounded in Soto Zen. Of course you are welcome to visit us whenever your schedule permits.

  3. Reverend Nakai, I am definitely of the same mind as far as, "certain paths are better suited for certain people," goes. I don't know much about Shinran's writings, but just curious how or if Jodo Shinshu recognized or acknowledged those ideas as well. What I meant to say was (if I came off as offensive in anyway) I don't know enough about Jodo Shinshu to even think it might be "wrong." Thank you for satisfying my curiosity.

    And thank you so much for your recommendations! I will have to look into those temples as well. Gassho

  4. Shinran's statements are first person singular, as are much what the Buddha said. "This worked for me - but you have to find out for yourself what works for you." The big problem with English translations is changing Shinran's "I alone" into the royal "we" - labeling everyone as bonno gusoku bonno that must recite Nembutsu or else. BTW there are some Soto Zen temples in Evanston, if that's more convenient for you