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from Shin Buddhism in Modern Culture
an online course by Dr. Alfred Bloom

The Contemporary Age

I myself believe that it is possible to view the variety of religious movements in these last decades of the 20th century as the vehicle of man's search for a new self which can transcend the emptiness of existence felt as a result of the conflicting forces of our mappo era. Robert Assagioli, a psychotherapist, notes in this connection:

"One major reason why the Self is coming back into currency is the tremendous search for self identity. Formerly an individual took himself so to speak for granted. He accepted himself as he was, or, more frequently, he identified himself with the group to which he belonged รพ family, tribe, clan, class, or nation or, if he was religious, with some great Being or God. But in our time, which may well be a time of total crisis, all these identifications fall away and the individual is thrown back on himself. This baffles him, he does not know who he is and this is the chief reason for the widespread 'existential anguish'. [3]

In the effort to get beyond themselves to find the true self, youth particularly have resorted to a variety of means from the use of drugs to a return to religion and the occult. They have tried to experience a 'cosmic consciousness.' Assagioli notes:

"For these people, the awareness, first of the personal self and then of the Transpersonal Self as living realities, provides a needed structure that permits a steady gradual ascent. From such awareness also comes an understanding of the nature of spontaneous or induced experiences, leading to their assimilation into other parts of the personality." [4]

From this standpoint, true Self-awareness can serve to direct and integrate human energies for positive, constructive human ends. If the contemporary spiritual protest represents in its deepest dimensions the apprehension of cosmic self-awareness, it may contribute to a deepening spiritual understanding by contemporary men and women, despite the variety of their belief and methods.

Existential anguish may well be the condition for breakthrough to a fresh apprehension of spiritual reality and its root in our lives. Because of the great diversity and character of religious movements today, we may be prone to dismiss them as temporary expressions of the imbalance of the age. However, it is possible that things of great importance may come from unexpected places. In this connection, I think of the thunder-egg rocks of Oregon in which the central core is the most beautiful agate, though from the exterior one might think to cast it away. It is a viable possibility that even the most bizarre religious group may possess a hint of deeper meaning.

However, the fact that there may be positive meaning in any such religious perspectives should not make us uncritical in assessing their overall importance as true alternatives for dealing with the wide range of contemporary problems, for seeing our mappo condition with clear eyes. The great upsurge of religious involvement today is clearly a protest against the dehumanization of life which we all experience, and a search for the deeper meaning in life which is our common hunger. Religious truth, and how it is to be determined among the multiplicity of visions, claims and experiences, remains the primary problem.

The problem of existence is always that of freedom versus security. Many modern groups offer a freedom by way of submission to a master who assures one of the rightness of his choice and assumes all the ambiguities of existence for the devotee. There is relief, but not true freedom, as witness the way in which persons become closed in, split between their minds and their feelings, accepting dogmatism and uncritical in reflecting on their experience. The diversity of religious expression makes the problem of truth very difficult. Most would give it up. However, it is an essential consideration which must be explored if there is to be firm and real commitment. Commitment implies the truthfulness of that to which we yield ourselves, and we must reflect on that truthfulness.

Since plurality can blunt the quest for truth, usually as a defensive measure, there is a tendency to discount and put aside other truth claims as merely interesting. Our age is much like the period at the end of the Hellenistic Age. Cults of all types then flooded the Roman Empire, so much so that when the Apostle Paul in the early Christian church preached at Mars Hill in Athens, where many itinerant religionists discussed their particular cults, he met people who brushed things off because they were dulled by repetitious novelty.

By contrast, search rather than religious novelty or cultism has characterized the history of religion in India. From its beginnings there, more than 2,500 years ago, Buddhism has been a search for truth. It was Gautama's goal to break through the veil of delusion that blinded humanity to things as they really are. Buddhism is a religion of enlightenment. It is not capitulation to taste or conformity to mere custom. In its more than two millennia of tradition, its basic search for truth has provided for a constant renewal and refreshment of that tradition.

Shinran's departure from the tradition of his day was such a force of renewal and refreshment. Moreover, his contribution to religious insight as he carried out his own search for truth 800 years ago in Japan is still fresh and clear in its illumination of existential meaning and spiritual reality in this mappo world of our twentieth century.

Religion today has become completely voluntary, losing the many social sanctions of society and family that enforced adherence. There is no reason to belong to, or support, a movement where one does not see the essential truth which that faith offers to humanity. To grasp the depth and relevance of Shinshu today, the place of Shinran's teachings in Buddhism, and the religious roots of Buddhism itself, must be clearly understood, in the perspective of history and the development of Mahayana.

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