I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. I liked the little animated gif above, but couldn’t find a good post to use it in (Youtube version here), then I found this blog post about a certain Tibetan Buddhist group that is … controversial. This part really spoke to me:
After it’s break-away from Tibetan Buddhism, the NKT became much more fundamentalist and purist than its predecessor. They removed all books from their Dharma centres that were not written by the NKT Guru, and advised their practitioners to only read their Guru’s books. The NKT wants its followers to have only one source of information on the Dharma, or spiritual truth: their source.
When they choose some of their new followers to becomes teachers, they are instructed to teach directly from these books, and not from any other source of information….Over time, the ‘teacher’ becomes like a mindless parrot, with no understanding of their own to share and only speaking the words they have been told to speak. When they are asked a question about the Dharma, they do not refer to their own understanding, but will often begin their thoughts and speech with “my Guru says.”
During my time with Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, particularly toward the end when I sought ordination, I started to feel similar pressure. The Jodo Shinshu community in the US has been recently undergoing a kind of fundamentalist revival, driven by the home temple in Japan, and I started to notice the same patterns. I was told as a ministerial-candidate to only recite sutras that were part of that tradition, and to only teach sermons that were based on quotations from the founder, Shinran (1173 – 1263).
I remember asking the minister at the time why, and she had said something to the effect that it’s important not to mix teachings from other traditions because people will get confused. She was so worried about doctrinal purity, that to me it felt like the purity of the doctrine was more important than what the doctrine actually taught.
But it wasn’t just one minister either. When I took the online courses for ordination, I remember feeling similar misgivings. We had a cursory overview of Buddhism as a whole, and Buddhist history, but we spent a lot more time learning the Jodo Shinshu tradition, and why it was so great. This really bothered me because were just supposed to assume it was a great tradition because the course said so, but since my background in Buddhism had been more eclectic (and by this point I had been studying on my own for almost 10 years) and I just couldn’t see why it was so great. I discussed with the minister-instructor, who is a great guy and well-versed in Jodo Shinshu tradition, but was still unconvinced. Behind all his great, rational arguments, I still felt the same contradiction.
Jodo Shinshu Buddhism has some things going for it, but the empty self-praise really started to bother me. I know other Buddhist traditions do it too (Zen and Nichiren for example), but I didn’t want to just be a mouthpiece for a certain tradition. I wanted to become a minister so I could actually preach something I believed in, not something I was told to do. Behind all the crappy, low-production videos and blog posts I’ve made is my sincere intent to share what I’ve learned about Buddhism with other people, even when I get it wrong.
September of last year, I finally gave up (first post on the blog here…I think), and parted ways with the community, and haven’t been back since. For a long time, I took down all my old Jodo Shinshu posts, and tried to pretend the whole experience never happened. Despite having been there for years, and letting my kids grow up there, I threw it all away, and to be honest it’s been bitter-sweet. Mostly bitter.
I miss some aspects a lot, particularly all the wonderful people I knew in the temple, and the fun of teaching “basic Buddhism” courses there.¹ I miss the big community celebrations, and the eclectic mix of people who grew up Buddhist and those who like me had converted.
But now that almost a year has passed, I am so glad I left. It’s been a painful and lonely year at times, with lots of false starts, but it’s also spurred me to explore new things, and challenge myself. It also prompted me to learn Sanskrit among other things. There’ve been times when I missed Jodo Shinshu and Pure Land Buddhism in general so badly that I really thought about going back, but those times have become fewer and fewer, and as I delve into other teachings and traditions,² the hole in my spiritual life has slowly been filled in other, more constructive ways. The constant tension I felt in my life for years between what Jodo Shinshu taught, and what I felt the Buddhist sutras taught is no longer there.³ It made for good blog material, but in the end I couldn’t reconcile the two.
Since parting ways, a few of my old friends and colleagues at the temple have asked me to come back, but I have chosen not to do so because I wasn’t ready to go back. I may visit some time soon, just to say “hi”, but I know I am not the same person I was a year ago, struggling with a crisis of faith. I feel a lot more confident about the Buddha-Dharma in general, and thanks to encouragement from people here and on the Youtube channel, I know I made the right decision.
The Buddha-Dharma is like a deep ocean, with lots of treasure. The more you dive in, the more treasure you bring up. When a Buddhist tradition is so insecure about itself that it tells you not to dive in further to find more treasure (or only look for treasure in one particular spot but stay away from other spots), that’s a red flag. Yes, it is vital that you put those teachings into practice too, and not study for study’s sake (a mistake I frequently made), but you should never be told to only stick to tradition, or that it’s wrong to mix teachings.
In the end, a Buddhist tradition is only there to facilitate you on the Buddhist path. It’s important not to just rely on your own intuition, but at the same time, if a tradition is holding you back, you need to let it go, and take up something else that is more appropriate. And if that doesn’t work, try something else. It’s important not to lean on a teacher or teaching:
You have to think for yourself even when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable.
So, in a sense, I feel like a new student again, but I like what I am learning, and I hope I can continue for the forseeable future.
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa
¹ Those too were getting curtailed because of concerns they didn’t align with Jodo Shinshu teachings, even though the previous year I had submitted the material beforehand for approval, and after some corrections, did get the OK to teach.
² Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s books and podcasts have been particularly helpful for me. It was something I needed to hear at the right time.
³ I realize some people will take issue with this, and try to demonstrate that the Buddhist sutras teach Jodo Shinshu doctrine. I respect their opinions, but I’ve already reached my own conclusion and have no interest in debating it.