A scholarly introduction
Living In Amida's Universal Vow:
Essays on Shin Buddhism
Alfred Bloom, editor
World Wisdom, 2004
344 pp.; $19.95 (paper)
"Of all the developments Mahayana Buddhism has achieved in the Far East," D. T. Suzuki once said, "the most remarkable one is the Shin teaching of the Pure Land school." Shin Buddhism (a contraction of the full name, Jodo Shinshu) is the largest school of Buddhism practiced in Japan, and was among the pioneering sects in nineteenth-century America. Nevertheless, it remains relatively obscure to many American practitioners. The dean of American Pure Land Buddhism, Alfred Bloom, professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, helps to correct this omission with Living in Amida’s Universal Vow: Essays in Shin Buddhism. This impressive anthology contains works by important Shin scholars such as Suzuki, Kiyozawa Manshi, Kenneth Tanaka, and Taitetsu Unno, and includes many articles previously unavailable to the general reader.
Founded in the thirteenth century by Shinran, Jodo Shinshu takes its inspiration from the legend of Amida Buddha, who vowed to find a simple way for all beings to achieve enlightenment. For those encountering the Pure Land tradition for the first time, its intellectual rigor and philosophical sophistication may come as a surprise. Shin Buddhist practice, which includes chanting the nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu, "I take refuge in Amida Buddha"), has a reputation as an "easy" practice for laypeople in their everyday lives. Bloom’s anthology, however, points to the more challenging aspects of the tradition, such as the contemporary Japanese scholar Soga Ryojin’s koanlike insight "The Tathagata becomes me." A reversal of the usual formula that through practice one becomes a buddha, Soga’s intuition suggests the way in which wisdom and compassion naturally work on ignorant beings to bring them to awakening. The metaphorical, nonliteral approach to Buddhist mythic motifs—long a prominent strand within Shin thought—is on display in many of the essays. As Soga makes clear:
Dharmakara Bodhisattva [who became Amida Buddha] is never presented as an historical figure. Instead he is born directly in the hearts and minds of human beings. That voice beckoning to living beings everywhere does not come to us from on high, from the lofty reaches of the world of pure light, nor are we being beckoned to by someone objectively distinct personality who exists as an individual separate from us. The voice of Dharmakara Bodhisattva issues forth from within the breast of each person trapped in the darkness of suffering and despair.
The most exciting material in Living in Amida’s Universal Vow showcases how Shin grapples with problems of the modern world: science, industrialization, Western philosophy, authority issues, human rights, postmodernism, and other religions. As Gerhard Scheppers points out in "Shinran and Modern Individualism," Pure Land Buddhism is the most openly self-critical and socially engaged of Japan’s sects. Indeed, the collection works best when the authors remember that, as Soga puts it, "the great problem is what we must do as the protagonists in the real-life drama of human life."
It is this engagement with the messy facts of life that has given Shin its vitality and popular appeal. As Galen Amstutz explains:
Rather than relying on precepts, visualization, and meditation, Shinran’s approach relied on critical introspective study of the operations of the ego in daily life. . . . The world of ignorance was examined and exploited as part of a systematic scheme to lift and direct attention to the presence of other liberatory possibilities. In the case of Shin, one major aspect of this approach was the acceptance of sexuality in normal life, or at least a marginalization of renunciant sexual control as a major issue.
Shin’s validation of sexuality helped it avoid some of the discrimination against women that is found in other sects, and today there are many female Pure Land priests and scholars. In light of this fact, and of Shinran’s own insistence that Shin was especially designed for women and others often excluded from monastic Buddhism, it is especially disappointing that there are no female voices in the anthology.
Readers new to Shin Buddhism might want to pair Living in Amida’s Universal Vow with a less scholarly introduction, such as Taitetsu Unno’s Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold, or Bloom’s The Promise of Boundless Compassion: Shin Buddhism for Today. Nonetheless, with this anthology—the latest volume in World Wisdom’s Library of Perennial Philosophy—Alfred Bloom has once again made a major contribution to the study of the Pure Land way.
Jeff Wilson is a contributing editor to Tricycle. He is working toward a Ph.D. in religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.