The Future of Shin Buddhism
In 1992, a talk given by Dr. Nobuo Haneda appears to have foreshadowed many of the comments we hear today. Not only does his vision of the future for Shinshu and the need for change, appear to be in line with the statements from the Times and Bee articles (see: Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America: The Challenge of the Future) but he helps us to understand why change is necessary.

Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, was himself a radical who broke away from the meaningless, out-of-date traditions of his time. Quoting from an article by Dr. Haneda, " order to insure a future, we must first make a distinction between two kinds of tradition in our temples. The living tradition of Buddhism is self-examination. Self-examination is the process of examining and accepting our shortcomings, our self-centredness and arrogance. It is a humbling experience, but one which also leads the way to the desired attitude of a student, a seeker. As such, self-examination is completely non-ethnic and non-cultural. It is universal...Buddhism is either for everyone, or it is worthless." The dead tradition, on the other hand, is made up of things like chanting and ancestor worship.

Of the two traditions found at the temple, it is the living tradition that Dr. Haneda feels we need to promote in our temples. The living tradition is universal, dynamic, practical, and is the essence of Buddhism. Thus it is the one thing that can foster the survival and even the spread of Buddhism in America. The dead tradition, according to Dr. Haneda, is only of secondary importance. Although practices such as chanting and ancestor worship are given secondary priority, that is not to say that they should automatically be abandoned.

Quoting again from the article: "They are like 'containers,' he said. Whatever importance they have is only because they hold or perhaps stimulate something that is important...that is the living tradition, the process of self-examination. All Buddhists who are serious about the Dharma clearly differentiate the Living Tradition from the Dead Tradition. An example is Shinran Shonin: he was a harsh critic of the dead tradition, a radical negator and destroyer of the dead tradition. But this was out of deep respect for the Living Tradition. It was not for the sake of negation, but out of deep respect for the Living Tradition."

In a separate article, Dr. Haneda challenged us to redefine our priorities, to place the emphasis in our temples on the essence of Buddhism, the Living Tradition and "not on the ethnic and cultural elements or part of the Dead Tradition...This is the essence of Buddhism. It is the spirit of the student, the seeker. It is also the creative spirit. The living tradition comes directly from Sakyamuni himself, from his enlightenment which was the insight into the truth of impermanence." Dr. Haneda goes on to explain that there is a difference between culture and religion: "Culture is not self-negating. It is something that we enjoy. Religion, on the other hand, challenges and negates the self. Culture can give us amusement, comfort and pleasure, but only the Dharma can give us deep joy, rebirth and a fundamental spiritual transformation."

In conclusion, he called the living tradition of Buddhism a "wonderful treasure," and declared "If we hide it in our ethnic container, it is a crime. It is the living water that can quench the thirst of all humanity. It can liberate all the people in the world." To Dr. Haneda, an ongoing problem is that the Shinshu Buddhist tradition here is controlled by a Japanese headquarters. He says, "What is crucially needed is a 'July 4th Independence Day' in our Buddhist calendar too. It is our problem, we have to do something about it ourselves...there is precedence for this independence--Christianity, Judaism, Catholicism,--they all became independent from the country of origin. This is the inevitable way if Buddhism is to survive in this country."

Another noted Jodo Shinshu scholar, Dr. Alfred Bloom, Professor Emeritus of Religion, University of Hawaii, echoes in many ways the feelings of Dr. Haneda. To Dr. Bloom, the problems we see in our temples seem to "point the finger" as it were at the "entangling web of tradition and subordination imposed by the Japanese religious perspective," to quote from his series of articles entitled Shin Buddhism in Modern Culture, published on the Shin Buddhism Network homepage. "Tradition," he says, "should be a stepping stone to deeper insight and experience, and not a barrier to growth. Tradition should not become ingrown, but should be out-growing as it correlates to the ongoing times...we should consider Buddhism in the following way: Buddhism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result; a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation."

Dr. Bloom goes so far as to identify what he calls the "Japanese Problem" or how the Japanese ethnic and cultural traditions have stood in the way of progress, the true process of renewal, self-questioning and growth that is the essence of Shinshu. He writes, "On or Giri--duty or obligation has operated among the Japanese Americans as a basic ethical foundation for human relations. This on-giri relationship is essentially conservative. It can be stultifying in personal groups...the individual must be more conscious of his external relations rather than what one may perceive in their inner awareness. There is a tendency to be conformist, unquestioning, and prudent." Another aspect of this problem, says Dr. Bloom is that "racial homogeneity, reinforced by language and culture, makes it difficult for non-Japanese to enter the heart of the Buddhist tradition."

Echoing Dr. Haneda's and others' call for American-trained ministers who can comfortably and confidently communicate the Dharma to Americans, Dr. Bloom writes, "Since most Buddhist ministers in Hawaii are recruited from Japan, a large percentage of them have problems speaking or relating easily in English and are often ill-at-ease in the ways of western culture." To Dr. Bloom, one can begin to wonder if in fact Buddhism is only a Japanese religion, as the appearance of its membership might indicate. Or is it indeed, a world religion as indicated by its historic process of spreading from India through all of Asia. "Somehow, in America," Dr. Bloom observes, "Buddhism must develop its own distinct form as a part of western culture, as, in Japan in the sixth century, it began to develop its own distinct form as a part of Japanese culture. Though twentieth century Buddhism in America is indebted to Japanese sources and inspiration, it should not be entirely controlled from that source.

Of course, there have already been attempts to adapt Buddhism to the West but, as Dr. Bloom points out, these were carried out only superficially, in "piecemeal" fashion. "Change and adaptation were limited to alterations in church services, music, hymnology, pews, and temple construction. The crucial internal adaptation in thought and communication with the broader culture of the American community--is only now beginning to occur."(sic) Furthermore, like Dr. Haneda, Dr. Bloom makes a plea for us to question tradition: "If tradition does not manifest and make clear the truth, what is tradition? For religion to remain vital, its followers must keep the question of truth open and uppermost in their considerations."

Dr. Bloom points out, questioning Buddhist tradition is indeed difficult because, "Buddhism, wherever it appears, Mahayana or Theravada, Southeast Asia, Japan or Hawaii, is highly traditional and this traditionalism is one of the factors that makes it difficult for Buddhism to change in the face of modern problems." However, says Dr. Bloom, to question a religious tradition does not mean disrespect, but instead, "a deeper respect in any attempt to understand and appreciate deeply the roots which brought that tradition into being."

Despite the challenge, however, Dr. Bloom, like Dr. Haneda, is optimistic basing his optimism on the timeless and liberating truth that is the essence of Buddhism. He states, "I believe that, despite its past experience and history, Buddhism in America stands at the threshold of a new era... Buddhism--and in particular Shin Buddhism--has the opportunity to become free, to chart new paths for those who are Shin Buddhist by inheritance, as well as those who are attracted to the teachings, thought, and the existential meaningfulness of Shinran Shonin. That existential meaningfulness is rooted in the life story of Shinran, of his personal, spiritual struggle which bears such strong parallels to the deep personal struggles, the alienation and sense of loss and failure of modern men and women."

October 27, 2005
Originally Published In: The West Covina Buddhist Temple, Gateway, Vol. 32, No. 7, July, 1996 [edited for Dharma Rain]