Note: an update to this post can be found here.
“These five downward-leading qualities tend to the confusion and disappearance of the true Dhamma. Which five? There is the case where the monks, nuns, male lay followers, & female lay followers live without respect, without deference, for the Teacher. They live without respect, without deference, for the Dhamma… for the Sangha… for the Training… for concentration. These are the five downward-leading qualities that tend to the confusion and disappearance of the true Dhamma.”
–The Saddhammapatirupaka Sutta (A Counterfeit of the True Dhamma, SN 16.13)
This is kind of an awkward subject to talk about, but I wanted to get this off my chest. Consider this a theological rant.
In the past few months, I’ve been studying Buddhism and Jodo Shinshu doctrine closely to prepare for a series of “Introduction to Buddhism” classes I’ve been teaching at the local temple, plus further my own training for ordination or tokudo (得度). But the more I’ve been studying, the more I am having serious questions about Jodo Shinshu. Rather than go into a long explanation why, let me contrast two books about the Pure Land and Amitabha Buddha:
- Jodo Shinshu: A Guide,1 published by the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha Hongwanji International Center. The so-called “purple book” as Jodo Shinshu followers sometimes call it, is a kind of official handbook for both lay followers and clergy who are in training. Overall it’s a well-organized book in that it covers all the essentials of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism: history, basic teachings, sutras, holidays, temple organization, etc.
- Finding Our True Home by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book is Thich Nhat Hanh’s somewhat idiosyncratic Zen-style interpretation of the Pure Land as a healthy sangha, though based on limited experience it tends to draw upon a broader Zen-Pure Land tradition found in mainland Asia (China, Vietnam, etc).
Anyhow, let me quote a passage from Jodo Shinshu: A Guide on the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha:
Generally speaking, in Buddha Dharma, the way to become awakened and attain Buddhhood is to accept the Buddha’s teachings and perform prescribed spiritual practices.
However, when we consider the reality of our lives, we begin to realize how difficult this is. As long as we have a physical body, delusions and problems will confront us. It has been 2,500 years since Sakyamuni Buddha appeared in this world and attained Awakening. If prescribed practices were extremely difficult to fulfill then, Awakening would be impossible to achieve in the same way now with so many expectations, distractions and conveniences in our fast-paced world.
On the surface, we may believe that we can approach ultimate Truth if we just follow the practices taught in the Buddhist tradition. But actually, the more we perform spiritual practices, the more entangled in our limitations we become. Then, the more we become aware of the depths of our unawareness, the more we realize how impotent we are to realize Awakening through our own efforts. Accordingly, although the ideal of aspiring to attain Buddhahood is very important, in reality, it is practically impossible. (pg. 66-67)
Now compare with Thich Nhat Hanh’s book:
The teachings of the Buddha are beautiful and wonderful, because they can bring happiness right at the beginning of practice. When we begin to practice breathing in to calm ourselves and breathing out with a smile, when we take steps in a leisurely and relaxed way, we already have happiness. There is no reason why we should have to wait a number of years to be happy. If we practice like that it s sure that in several years we shall be happy, but we are also happy in this moment.
That is why a lotus bud from the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha can arise and open at any time in the form of a smile, in a breath, or in a step. We can help the bud to grown and to open. We do not have to wait for the future. (pg. 45)
These passages are not like-for-like, but you can definitely notice a difference in tone in how the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical founder, are described. The Jodo Shinshu book has a more negative, almost cynical tone when describing the Buddha’s teachings, while Thich Nhat Hanh’s book is more positive.
In describing Shakyamuni’s role in Buddhism, the Jodo Shinshu book states:
In other words, Sakyamuni Buddha is the historical being who founded a spiritual teaching and taught us about Amida [Amitabha] Buddha’s liberation, and urged us to experience this Buddha’s Primal Vow….Shinran [the founder of Jodo Shinshu] reveres Sakyamuni as the human conduit for Amida’s teaching. (pg 71)
Compared with Thich Nhat Hanh:
The Buddhas of the ten directions praise the Buddha Shakyamuni [in the Amitabha Sutra] on two points. The first is that in all the difficult circumstances of this planet Earth he was able to realize full awakening and teach others the same path. The second is that he was able to teach Dharma doors which people at first find very difficult to believe. (pg. 121)
The Jodo Shinshu book seems to diminish the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, into a mere prop or vehicle for conveying the teachings of Amitabha Buddha. Meanwhile, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that the Buddhas are equal in quality and support one another, while emphasizing Shakyamuni Buddha’s role in bringing the Dharma to people.
Reading these two books side by side, I find that I tend to lean more toward Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach to Pure Land Buddhism. I find the tone of his book more inclusive and broad than the Jodo Shinshu book which somehow feels narrow, almost exclusive. Thich Nhat Hanh quotes from other sources such as the Lotus Sutra (pg 55) and Sutra on the Four Frames of Reference (pg 45), and some sutras I’ve never even heard of (pg 127). In contrast, the Jodo Shinshu book seems to assert that only the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life is the “true teaching” (pg. 66) of the Buddha, rendering other teachings as unnecessary.
Interestingly, both teach the notion of Amitabha Buddha as the Dharmakaya, or “Dharma-body”, the ultimate embodiment of the Dharma. Also, both see the Pure Land as a place of liberation and refuge. And yet, how they approach these teachings are drastically different. Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanation works from within the broader Buddhist tradition, including mindfulness, meditation and good conduct, while the Jodo Shinshu book has a subtly antagonistic attitude toward traditional Buddhism, while asserting that the true path lies elsewhere.2
I quoted a certain sutra from the Pali Canon at the very beginning of this post because I felt it got the heart of my unease: if dogma becomes somehow more important than the “teacher” (Shakyamuni), the “training”, etc. it just doesn’t feel right to me. I simply feel teachings such as the Pure Land and the Dharmakaya work better when they work from within the Buddhist tradition, rather than trying to overturn it.
Anyhow, I have some serious thinking to do. If I am to continue on the path toward ordination, I will be entrusted to represent the particular school I am ordained with, so I have to sincerely represent it. However, if I harbor serious doubts that I cannot reconcile, I can’t do that in good faith. That’s not fair to the temple, nor to me.
P.S. I know one might argue that the Jodo Shinshu Guide just doesn’t agree with me, and I should read book X instead, but bear in mind that the Jodo Shinshu Guide was intended as the authoritative source on the subject, and was specifically recommended as part of my training. I can’t disregard it just because there might be more agreeable books out there. Also, other Jodo Shinshu books I’ve read so far simply state the same things, but couched in different language.
1 Also available as a free PDF download from the Buddhist Churches of America website.
2 Jodo Shinshu writings frequently cite Shinran’s own example, and his personal struggles as a young monk which ultimately drove him to give up the monastic life. I can’t put myself in another person’s shoes, but somehow I feel that just because it didn’t work for one person means that we should throw out the Buddhist tradition altogether.