During my time in Japan this summer, I was reading the two books shown above. The book on the left is Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s book, which I’ve talked about in a number of recent posts, while the book on the right is a Japanese-language introduction to Jodo-Shu Buddhism which I encountered early on in my pursuit of Buddhism, and still have many fond feelings of. I picked this book because I was partly curious to see what native Japanese language books teach versus the translated ones usually found in the West.1In a way, these two books represent two different streams of Buddhism we all fall into in some way or another. Karma Yeshe Rabgye is a self-proclaimed secular Buddhist. While trained in the Tibetan tradition, and well-versed in it, he also openly eschews many of its traditions and superstitions to focus on the core teachings, both in Tibetan tradition and in the older Pali Canon references.
The Jodo Shu book above is written by and for Japanese audiences who grew up in Buddhism, and its focus is specifically on Jodo Shu traditions and practices. Content-wise it doesn’t delve very much into things you’d expect to see in a Western-secular book, and glosses over Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings in favor of the teachings of Honen the founder of Jodo Shu Buddhism.
Here we see one stream that tries to cut through all the cultural trappings to get to the heart of Buddhism. The other stream asserts that the cultural trappings are Buddhism.
People who follow Buddhism inevitably will gravitate to one extreme or another. It’s kind of human nature.
A lot of people new to Buddhism treat it the same way they approached their old, usually Protestant, religion. They see the texts as the final word (sola scriptura), and focus on those teachings while avoiding rituals and trappings they may seem to contradict it. So, naturally they gravitate toward a secular approach, and in particular Zen or Theravada Buddhism while other traditional Buddhist communities are seen as moribund, hidebound and exclusive.
On the other hand, these communities are vibrant and thriving in ways that, frankly, Western secular communities are not. If you go to any number of Western-style temples, you’ll get lots of limp handshakes, small talk, and endless dry debates about the Dharma. In a more traditional community, you can see families raised together, monks who earnestly care for their community and a lot of fervent followers, even if the way the practice may not seem like it’s “in the book”.
Let’s face it, we can’t go back to 5th-century BC India and live the pristine life that the early Buddhist community did. It doesn’t stop people from trying, but there’s an inherent flaw in “reconstructed” religions that eventually manifests over time and causes communities to die out. The fact that traditional communities even exist at all is a testament to finding something Buddhist to hold on to and making it a living tradition.
On the other hand, Karma Yeshe Rabgye is right in that there is also a lot of accumulated things in Buddhism that are simply distractions at best, or counterproductive at worst. For example, in the Jodo Shu book above, there is a section on installing a new Buddhist altar for the home, and the final phase is to ask a priest to perform the “eye-opening ritual” or kaigen-shiki (開眼式) in Japanese. This ritual, which is something you’ll often see in Asian Buddhist traditions, consecrates an object of veneration, so that it’s no longer just a statue or image. This tradition might be fine if you live somewhere where you know the local neighborhood priest, and don’t mind him/her coming over for a brief ceremony. However, if you’re a lone Buddhist practitioner in the middle of nowhere and want to setup an altar of you’re own, this would be somewhat impractical, and might cause one to lose faith in their practice.
In any case, this tension between secular versus traditional Buddhism is something I can’t even resolve in my own life. Having married to my wife, and by extension to her culture, Japanese Buddhism makes a lot of sense to me, but at the same time, my Western-Protestant upbringing still bristles at it some times.
Both of the books above were great in their respective ways. Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s book illuminated a lot of details about Buddhist teachings that I admit I had been kind of fuzzy on. It’s provided a lot of good content for the blog. 😉 The Jodo Shu book above is great because it provides a gentle introduction and practical explanations about Jodo Shu daily life and practice, and clarified some aspects of Japanese Buddhist tradition that I admit I was fuzzy on too. For me, I like both books and both traditions.
I feel the best advice I ever got on the subject though was from an old gentleman at my previous community. He would sometimes tell us when we have doubts about Buddhist tradition, to thoroughly understand it first, and then adjust or remove what you don’t need.
I hope this makes sense to readers as well. If you’re new to Buddhism, get to know your tradition first as best as you can. Own it, immerse yourself in it2 and such. Once you are comfortable with the tradition, like a child who’s finally learned to swim, then you can make informed decisions about how best to put it into practice.
Both traditional and secular Buddhism have somethings to offer, but it takes time to appreciate both, and learn how to make them work.
P.S. An interesting article on the challenges of secular Buddhism.
1 Surprisingly, the differences were small, and mainly due to cultural differences only (Japanese homes often maintain Buddhist memorial tablets while Westerners typically do not). Compare this with Zen books which are quite different in Japanese and English.
2 Of course, if you happen to have any inklings that your community is a cult, just back away now and save yourself a ton of grief.