Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Devotional Buddhism - An Oxymoron?

I just read an excellent interview with two Shin Buddhist priests on Sujatin's blog Lotus in the Mud. There are so many interesting issues brought up, but I would like to share two sections of the interview with you.

The first part is actually the end of the interview. Here is the question and answer that follows:

Do you have any advice for Westerners who are interested in meditation practice but who are also interested in exploring Shin Buddhism?

MU: In China, Zen and Pure Land became fused into a shared practice. They represented different aspects of the same system of practice. In the case of Japan, it’s much more separate. However, if you look at what happened in the development of Japanese culture, the two often melded together.

For example, one of the most popular figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism is the fifteenth-century Zen master Ikkyu. Ikkyu was very close friends with Rennyo, who is often considered the second greatest Shin teacher. He and Ikkyu were bosom buddies. At the end of his life, Ikkyu said, “If people ask what is my opinion, tell them I also turned to Shin Buddhism.” As someone who experienced the whole range of his own humanity in this world, with all its greatness and its failures, all its magnificence and its squalor, for him there was no separation between the austere path of Zen and the Shin path of saying nembutsu. Another example can be found in the Zen monk Ryokan (1758–1831) who lived among the people in the villages, and who, when asked for his death poem, replied, “If someone asks if Ryokan has a death poem, just let them know, ‘Namu Amida Butsu.’”

I think that kind of understanding can be very helpful for converts to Buddhism. In Asia, laypeople generally relate to Buddhism devotionally. But in America, when laypeople engage in these traditions they most often want to relate to them solely as a yogic path, beyond devotion. The problem is that they have all of the problems that lay Buddhists have always had. Trying to force yourself into the yogic path while living with all of the distractions, complications, and follies of the lay life may not always work so well. In order to ease some of the strain on this artificial image of what a Buddhist life might be, it could be very helpful to bring in the Shin emphasis and recognition of our blind passions and our natural limitations as laypeople. Of course, monks and nuns might also have limitations they have to contend with.

Some Western converts to Buddhism associate devotional practices with religions they don’t like, and so they reject the deep devotional traditions of Buddhism. But there is more to it than what they see on the surface. Initially, Shin devotion might appear to be very dualistic, but the deeper you go, the more yogic it becomes. Some Westerners also don’t seem to understand that Zen Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism—all these paths—have very strong devotional elements along with the meditative-yogic aspects. In fact, the deeper you go into the yogic dimension, the more devotional you become, because you realize how unenlightened you are.

This will definitely appeal to the eclectics out there, and will probably make others bristle. However, the point Rev. Unno makes about the struggles lay people are having in North America and other places with attempting to practice primarily or solely in a monastic way is a very important issue to take up. I've noticed a lot of wrangling over the years when it comes to issues of mixing practices from different schools. And it's true that some people hope around, cherry pick, and never go very deep with much of anything. However, I think the examples of Ikkyu and Ryokan aren't all that rare, and I think it would be foolish to condemn those guys as surface practitioners. Maybe part of the reason there is such a separation in North America between Jodo Shinshu, for example, and Zen is that there's some kind of longing to remain "pure," which is actually just driving people apart for no good reason. This is definitely not the only reason for this divide and others, but it could be one of them.

The second section of the article has to do with the "Other Power" often spoken about in Shin practice. I've seen a lot of convert Buddhists struggle with this aspect of Shin, wondering if it's a method of creating a separate deity to be worshiped. Here's what Rev. Unno has to say:

That’s why in Shin Buddhism we emphasize that chanting nembutsu is not one’s own practice. It’s a practice that comes from Buddha-nature. Even though my deepest, truest reality is Buddha-nature, my immediate experience of myself is still of my deluded passions. The mind set that obsesses over “What am I going to get out of the nembutsu?” or “When am I going to get enlightenment?” is precisely what is causing me problems. Being reminded that practice comes from Buddha-nature helps release me from the calculations of the karmic self.

In Shin Buddhism we distinguish between “self power” (jiriki) and “other power” (tariki). Other power is more intimate to ourselves than self power, because self power is based on a self of our projection, of who we think we are or who we think we should be. When we speak of other power, we mean that it is other than the false ego. For that reason, other power is the most intimate reality. The Shin poet Saichi wrote, “In other power, there is neither self power nor other power. Only other power.”

Pretty interesting, eh? I don't feel the need to add much here other that to remind people that Shinran, the founder of the practice, was basically a contemporary of Zen Master Dogen. And both of them, contrary to the establishment of the times, offered up a single practice as the vehicle to an enlightened life. So, in terms of history, these guys are completely linked, and I think their practices, though different in appearance, don't actually diverge if you go deep enough.


Adam said...

I really don't know much at all about Shin Buddhism, so thank you for this peak.

Also, awesome photo. Is that near you?

Barry said...

As in China, the Korean Seon (Zen) school incorporates many aspects of the Pure Land school, including mantra practice.

What is pure?

Nathan said...


The pic is from a state park about two hours from where I live.

Barry - good question - I've never come up with any answer that feels right when it comes to "What is pure?" Mostly, I just don't ask it anymore.


Unknown said...

Due to my own situation I am forced to be somewhat eclectic.

Far from divergence, I am finding that all rivers flow from the same ocean.

Algernon said...

"Other power is more intimate to ourselves than self power, because self power is based on a self of our projection, of who we think we are or who we think we should be."

Neatly put.

Anonymous said...


All beings - one Buddha-nature,
Namu Amitabul,
Kwan Seum Bosal.

Peter Schogol said...

I have a strong, lifelong affinity for the celestial bodhisattva Kuan Yin, who embodies the compassion available in life. I don't worship her but I do meditate in an atmosphere of recollecting her presence.

I work on practicing the Six Perfections, ever aware of how far short I fall from perfecting them. Kuan Yin is the compassion which accepts my efforts, feeble though they be; encourages me further, and assures me that upon my death I will be an aspect of Kuan Yin for others.