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Shin Buddhism in Modern Culture
an online course by Dr. Alfred Bloom
Shin Buddhism in the Modern Ethical Context
As we have noted earlier, worldwide social and intellectual problems have weakened the spiritual influence of major world religions. Everywhere secularization, modernization, industrialization have challenged traditional faiths to defend themselves on their own merits, that is, in terms of their ability to enhance the quality of modern life.
Within the modern context, the Pure Land tradition with its apparent other-worldliness has frequently provided critics of religion with a good example of the irrelevance of Buddhism. However, the struggles of Jodo Shinshu against the lords of medieval Japan show that such faith may not always be passive, weak in spirit, or incapable to taking a stand.
We must note also that early western students of Buddhism regarded it as an ethical religion. However, Buddhism is not essentially a prescriptive ethical system, binding on all society, though it has established precepts and disciplines as the basis for progress toward enlightenment.
Shinran also stands within the general Buddhist tradition in advocating ethical action as an aspect of spiritual or religious responsibility and responsiveness to the compassion one has experienced. Ethical activity is an aspect of the living out of faith. Consequently, Shinran does not lay down specific rules for behavior as a qualification for salvation or membership in the community.
A further observation is necessary in approaching this subject. In our contemporary situation it is common to hear people ask, what does your religion say about this or that problem? Religious people find it difficult to come up with specific and precise answers based on their tradition. We must understand, however, that all religious traditions, including Jodo Shinshu, originated in the pre-modern period where our social and technological problem could not be imagined or expected. The increasing scientific and secular complexity of modern life has raised issues of human worth, dignity and welfare as well as global environmental concerns.
While we cannot expect precise and uncompromising fixed answers to all problems, the spiritual traditions can assist in value formation and establishing priorities. Religious faith can offer perspectives and insight into the human condition that will enable people to approach problems more sensitively, openly and reciprocally. Truly religious persons will more share insight rather than seek domination for their viewpoint, and they will be more cognizant of the broad range of individual needs and circumstances.
Shinran's understanding of the unconditional, all-inclusive vision of Amida's compassion as it illuminated his own passion-ridden ego provides a basis for the contribution of Shin Buddhism to the contemporary dialogue. As we Shin Buddhists combine a deep awareness of the working of the Vow in our own lives and a more competent grasp of the problems of our world through being intelligently informed, we can join with others in common struggle to secure the welfare of all beings. Despite our limited and seemingly petty individual efforts, we will perceive the Great Compassion at work in our world and lives, thereby gaining a deeper sense of life-meaning in an otherwise absurd world of despair. In such a context religious faith enables us to retain our sense of human worth, despite the dehumanization that challenges and undermines our most cherished values.
There are various issues which require attention in the discussion of Shin Buddhism in society. These include consideration of the social implications of Pure Land Buddhism, Shinran's self-understanding and religious orientation as the background for his ethical perspective and the concept of the two truths, absolute and conventional which developed in Shin Buddhism to correlate faith and social obligation.
Social Implications of Pure Land Buddhism
Though Pure Land Buddhism is frequently criticized for its other worldly, social passivity, its teachings have implications which can be applied socially. The foundational story of the creation of the Pure Land by Dharmakara Bodhisattva narrated in the Larger Pure Land Sutra implies a judgment on the character of life in this world. The ancient king, surveying the mass of suffering in the world, renounces his throne to devote himself to establish an ideal world where all forms of suffering would be abolished.
What is socially significant in this story is that the kind abdicates his throne and recognizes that political power alone is not sufficient to bring meaning and salvation to all beings. Through this story, the self-sacrificing altruism of Mahayana Buddhism is clearly depicted together with a social awareness that the highest endeavor is to establish ideal conditions for the happiness and welfare of all beings.
The Primal Vows which are an essential element of the story teach that salvation and the welfare of beings are not merely universal in scope but are indivisible. No one truly gains liberation who does not work to share it with others. The story implies egalitarianism and universality which are fundamental for vital social concern.
The Pure Land, though beyond this world, recognizes the importance of the environment in fulfilling ideals. The Pure Land represents the ideal context for realizing enlightenment. The activities of the Bodhisattva in establishing ideal conditions for enlightenment provides a model for modern people to labor to improve society so that all people may have opportunity to realize their potentials. It could also be applied to ecological thinking, motivating efforts for a more healthy physical environment.
The Sutra itself shows great concern for moral conditions when it describes the effects of wickedness. It declares that with the help of Buddha, these evils are abandoned and people attain good.
In Japan, Honen established the Nembutsu as the sole practice leading to enlightenment because it did not require a person to be rich, educated, wise, well traveled, or well disciplined in religious practice or perfect in morality. Honen implicitly criticized the aristocratic elitism of Japanese society in his time. As a consequence, his teaching was repressed and his followers persecuted.
For Shinran, Pure Land teaching was presented as a matter of this world. Faith bestowed by Amida gives certainty of future enlightenment now. We are freed from anxieties toward the future. Shinran's understanding of the all-encompassing quality of Amida's compassion released people from superstitious folk religion. He shows great interest in justice when he criticizes the authorities for exiling Honen and his disciples, including Shinran as unjust and without proper investigation or due process. In his Wasan (hymns), he quotes Prince Shotoku's constitution which states that if there is no impartiality on the part of the officials, the complaints of the rich are resolved like throwing rocks into water, while for the poor it is like throwing water into a rock.
When we survey the Pure Land tradition, we see that it is inspired by an ever-expanding vision of Amida's compassion. It embodies a humane idealism which neither discriminates nor rejects any person. It aims to inspire everyone to seek the highest welfare of others as the goal of their own progress toward Buddhahood. Shinran caught the spirit of Pure Land teaching, and it inspired him in his mission to communicate Amida's compassion to the masses in Eastern Japan where he settled after exile.