Saturday, August 15, 2015

Cracking the Shinshu "Code" - Some Initial Thoughts

I’m still mulling over that remark from the IASBS (Int’l Assn. of Shin Buddhist Studies) conference, that the modern Higashi Honganji presentation of Jodo Shinshu is “esoteric.” In a way, it’s a reminder to me that every time I attempt to present Jodo Shinshu to any audience, it’s more likely than not that they’ll find it all Greek to them.

It is the case for any serious religion that because the teachings challenge our habitual thoughts and feelings, those teachings will seem too complex and subtle to understand easily. Of course, there’s the “Sunday School version” which serious Christians lament about – “How can people as adults keep believing in the Big Daddy God who grants our wishes and punishes only those people we call ‘bad guys’?”

The Sunday School version of Buddhism, particularly Shin Buddhism, is not much better. I think Honen would be the first (followed by Genshin, Shandao, et al) to go into dry heaving, hearing the Pure Land teachings described as, “You get to be reborn in a luxurious paradise after death if you behave like good little kids and keep reciting Namu Amida Butsu as your reservation confirmation number.”

One reason the modern Higashi presentation sounds “esoteric” is that so many temples still give people the “Sunday School version” of Jodo Shinshu. Listening to some Nishi Honganji trained ministers, such as Rev. Bryan Siebuhr, I wonder if that’s the only version they were taught in Japan and at the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Maybe Amida Buddha looks different from the Big Daddy God that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but instead of giving Mankind the finger, Amida sends out rays of light from his third eye to the chosen few who’ve earned the badge of “shinjin” (requirements: donate to your temple, look pious, don’t question any B.S. from headquarters).


Kiyozawa Manshi [pictured above] as a deep thinking intelligent person who wasn’t raised in the temple-family system, couldn’t help but feel, “This is so stupid,” when he was taught the Sunday School version of Jodo Shinshu as much as he tried to fit in as the outsider awarded a Higashi Honganji scholarship (to be groomed as an expert refuter of the waves of Christian missionaries invading Japan at his time). Thank goodness he was motivated to read deeply into what Shinran actually taught and the fundamental teachings of the historical Buddha.

What Kiyozawa found was not only a philosophy of a highly developed sophistication rivaling anything produced in Europe (he and Kierkegaard would’ve hit it off marvelously), but a religious presentation that would become the spiritual basis of his own life.

For those of us influenced by Kiyozawa through Akegarasu Haya and his Chicago minister students, Rev. Gyomay Kubose, Rev. Gyoko Saito and Dr. Nobuo Haneda, there is this so very accessible portal to Jodo Shinshu. It is such a useful portal that it gives deep meaning to whatever we hear from those of the Nishi Honganji presentation (and so, I can appreciate people like Rev. Siebuhr for the truths they point out in the teachings).


Tomorrow is the Obon service, considered a major service to attend by many ethnic Japanese. No, I’m not going to talk about the Ullambana Sutra story – I’m sick of it already. But it’s another opportunity for me to crack the “Shinshu code” – to try and explain why these teachings of Shinran are so life-saving for me.
[8/16/2015 Post-rant edit/postscript - I decided to talk about Nembutsu since people are coming to the service to nen (think about, remember) their loved ones.]

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to understand what makes Higashi 'esoteric' - in fact, the use of 'esoteric' in Buddhist studies is utterly daft. In contrast to exoteric, the generally accepted standard? or esoteric meaning rooted in a gnosis-epistemology? Or simply a lack of imagination coupled with improverished vocabularly. Is there a copy of a paper dealing with that?
    I haven't been to an IASBS conference in 20 years, and only because I presented then. Most of what comes out as Shin studies is so obscured with misinterpretation due to 19th century Christian missionaries and the Western European Gnosis Deficiency Disorder as to be ripe for the dumpster. Especially the Shinran-Luther garbage, or insistence on use of 'faith' for 'shinjin'. It's as if headway has been made in some aspects of buddhist studies shinshuists remain immune to, favoring carrying on as a prideful bastion of secondary Orientalism (after Faure's use).

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