I was going to title this post about the EBL conference “North American Faces of Jodo Shinshu.” But I think everyone who attended the banquet will remember the conference’s highlight was when we did the moves of the Japanese dance “Tanko Bushi” (Coal Miner’s Song) to the live band’s performance of the 1960s pop hit “Guantanamera” with a revved up Latin beat. (You can see a video clip on our temple’s Facebook page.)
Shin Buddhism in North America should be multi-cultural – embracing the varieties of peoples in Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Caribbean nations. Let the other Western Buddhist groups worry about being an elite sea of pale faces with a few dots of color. From the get-go (in India and Central Asia) the Pure Land tradition was about crossing the ethnic tribal divides and welcoming all by dropping restrictive requirements such as monastic discipline, specialized education, pumped up bodies and finely honed mental skills.
The conference’s keynote speaker Prof. Jeff Wilson is the face of Jodo Shinshu in North America. He’s much younger than us baby boomers on the downhill side of life, so he’ll be around for the current and future generations of seekers. His upbringing and adulthood in the U.S. reflects several regions – New England, the South, LA and NYC. He currently teaches and lives in Canada and the good parts of Canadian culture seem to be rubbing off on him – the considerateness and unjaded sense of humor (I think of the old comedy show Second City TV, more kindler and gentler than Saturday Night Live).
Prof. Jeff has received tokudo (initial ordination) from Nishi Honganji and can function pretty much as a minister but since his main job is as a college professor and also a published researcher on Buddhism, he’s much like the late Dr. Taitetsu Unno in knowing the need to speak about Jodo Shinshu to people outside the temples. For those people he can help them understand Shin Buddhism as an authentic path of Buddha-Dharma and not some aberrant idol-worship offshoot from East Asia.
As much as I enjoy these annual EBL gatherings for the chance to be with dear old friends and make new ones, we seem to spend much of the time talking about organizational issues rather than doing deep listening of the teachings. So I appreciated that Prof. Jeff brought up some essential teachings about the limitations of self-centered efforts and even quoted Shinran (gasp!).
For me the biggest shock was during the Q & A session when a member of the Midwest Buddhist Temple said Shin Buddhism needs to use language that’s more understandable “instead of professorly terms like innermost aspiration.” I was surprised that person said that even after he attended the recent seminar at our temple where Rev. Marvin Harada (Orange County Buddhist Church) explained why he liked to use “innermost aspiration” as a more accessible translation for hongan than the standard “Original Vow” or “Primal Vow.” It makes me wonder how the Buddhist Churches of America organization is training its minister assistants. Because the great majority of them don’t know the Japanese language, they are taught to accept terms such as shinjin as having no English equivalent. But as much as the word hongan can’t be captured exactly in any English translation, there should be involved discussions of the meanings and implications of those Chinese characters and how Pure Land teachers used the word in their commentaries.
I know the last thing Rev. Gyoko Saito wanted was for us to sound “professorly” in our sharing of the Jodo Shinshu teachings. But just because BCA and Higashi are training ministers and leaders in English, it doesn’t mean we should stop explaining the meanings of the Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese terms. It sounds like the BCA through the Institute of Buddhist Studies has been trying to standardize all the Jodo Shinshu terms and phrases (I was a bit disappointed when Rev. Marvin gave the party line justification for continuing to say “saved” and “salvation”). But as Prof. Jeff said, this is the time for Shin Buddhist groups to experiment and offer various types of presentations, including using different translations for terms. Maybe those at our temple who speak languages other than English can give some multicultural richness to the Jodo Shinshu vocabulary, so our texts will have more mambo and less mumbo-jumbo.