I would like thank all of our Sangha members who supported the World Buddhist Women’s Convention that was held in San Francisco over this past Labor Day Weekend. Our San Mateo Sangha was well-represented on the committees that handled registration, translation and interpretation, the marketplace, and the organizational leadership for the convention. The planning and preparation for the convention was in the works for ten years leading up to the event, and I am truly inspired by the dāna of time, energy, and resources that our Sangha generously provided at every step along the way. 1,700 attendees joined the conference from Japan, Hawaii, Canada, South America, and the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). In addition to a large number of lay Buddhists who attended, many ministers—women and men—also participated in the gathering.
At one point during the conference, I had the opportunity to provide interpretation for a frank conversation that occurred over lunch among a group of ministers from Kyoto, Japan and the BCA. A minister from Kyoto had been speaking on the topic Shinran Shonin’s teachings regarding birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha. A question came up about whether birth in the Pure Land must be understood to be an event that occurs after death, or if one can experience aspects of birth in the Pure Land during this present life. Citing several examples from the writings of Shinran Shonin, the minister from Kyoto set out to demonstrate that for a person who entrusts deeply in Amida Buddha, birth in the Pure Land will be realized after this present life comes to an end.
One of the ministers from the BCA said, “This is a matter of keen interest for us because many newcomers to the temple are seeking practices to guide their lives in the present moment. These seekers are unconcerned with matters of the afterlife.” The BCA minister went on to say, “Don’t you think that, as ministers working to propagate the Jodo Shinshu teachings, we should endeavor to share the teachings in a way that speaks to the interests and concerns of the people who are walking through the doors of our temples seeking the Dharma today?”
“I agree that it is important to speak to the concerns of everyone who comes to the temple seeking the Dharma. At the same time, it is also important to faithfully maintain the traditional teachings that have been passed down over the generations.” replied one of the ministers from Kyoto.
“Setting tradition aside for a moment, how do you personally understand this matter of birth in the Pure Land?” inquired a BCA minister.
“I don’t intend to share my own personal views. My purpose as a minister is only to clarify what I have understood based on my reading of the writings of Shinran Shonin.” said a minister from Kyoto.
“Here in the BCA, I find it necessary as a minister to share my own personal understanding of the Dharma as it relates to this world that we live in right now.” said a BCA Minister.
Hearing this comment, another of the ministers from Kyoto offered the following insight, “In Japan, great value has been placed on the authority of tradition. The desire to maintain and uphold tradition has been particularly strong in our Jodo Shinshu community since the Edo Period (1603-1867).”
“You’re talking about 400 years ago! What about right now?” countered the minister from the BCA.
“Many people in Japan are inclined to continue the values and perspectives that have served their ancestors well over the centuries. As such, they are not inclined to be the one to stand up and call for a new direction.” said a minister from Kyoto.
“That sounds like stagnation to me. Without movement, a body of water becomes stale and lifeless.” said one of the ministers from the BCA.
While affirming the validity of the BCA minister’s perspective, a minister from Kyoto offered the following insight: “Shinran Shonin’s teachings ought to be shared in a way that is suitable to the cultural background of the people who are hearing them. It is natural that the Jodo Shinshu teaching will find one expression in Japan and another expression here in the United States.”
The conversation went on in this manner throughout the meal, continuing and over coffee and dessert, without reaching an elegant conclusion. To me, this spirited dialogue was an uplifting reminder that our Nembutsu teaching continues to thrive thanks to our tradition of frankly and openly exchanging ideas. As Rennyo Shonin wrote in the 15th Century, “time after time, [we must] clear the channels of faith and let the waters of Amida’s Dharma flow.” (Rennyo Shonin Ofumi: Letters of Rennyo 2-1, BDK English Tripitaka Series, p. 61)
Namo Amida Butsu