The following article was taken from the talk “World Buddhism and Jodo Shinshu: A Dialogue Between Stephen Batchelor and Kenneth Tanaka,” which took place on November 26, 2023, at Tsukiji Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, Tokyo, and was sponsored by Camphor Tree Village—the 100th anniversary project of Musashino University, and as part of the commemoration of the 800th Anniversary of the Jodo Shinshu teachings as well as the 850th birthday of Shinran Shonin of Tsukiji Hongwanji Buddhist Temple.

Stephen Batchelor (SB): I’ll try to make this as brief and as to the point as possible. For me, secular Buddhism, as I understand it, is based upon a rereading of the Buddha’s four noble truths. But rather than four noble truths, I want to speak about four great tasks. Rather than emphasizing the search for truth, I want to explore what it is that I can do as a human being.

If you look carefully at the Buddha’s first discourse, the turning of the wheel of dharma, he concludes with a definition of what it means to be fully awake, to be enlightened. To be awake doesn’t mean just to know the four noble truths, it means to respond to these truths in four specific ways.

Instead of believing that life is suffering, which would be the first noble truth, I prefer to follow the Buddha in saying that suffering is to be embraced, it’s to be accepted, it’s to be understood. That’s the task to understand suffering, not just to know that there is suffering.

But “understand” here doesn’t mean just intellectually, it means to embrace suffering existentially. It means to accept your life as it is, to be able to say “yes” to this experience, “yes” to this world in an unconditional way. So instead of thinking of suffering as something to be ended, it’s thinking of suffering as something to be embraced as primary. 

The second task is, instead of believing the craving and ignorance or the cause of suffering, is to let go of craving, to let go of confusion, to let go of hatred. It’s an ethical task to free oneself from those negative impulses that drive us to act in ways that are unskillful and harmful to others and oneself.

Kenneth Tanaka (KT): Can I interject?

When you say “embrace suffering,” it is difficult to do so, right? In the second noble task, you say “let go.” Do you feel that the afflictions or defilements will emerge and continue to emerge, because in Shin Buddhism [note: Jodo Shinshu] we feel and know, and as Shinran [founder of Shin Buddhism, 1173–1263] said, blind passions will emerge throughout our lives?

SB: The second task is equivalent to the second Great Vow of Zen. The defilements are endless, and I vow to sever them. So “letting go” doesn’t [only] mean to get rid of, it also means to embrace and accept that this is something that’s happening right now, and it’s something I need to, in a way, just let be. “Let go” suggests we get rid of it.

I think it’s our condition as human beings, and it’s a condition we need both to accept but also not to get seduced by and entangled in. To let ourselves just be with them rather than seek to reject them.

I feel that [when referring to] the defilements, we call them “reactivity,” as a general term. It is something that is effectively the result of our human evolution, and the power of reactivity is because it’s been so successful in human evolution [in] getting what we want, getting rid of what stands in our way, and thereby it is built into the human organism. The idea that you can get rid of it, I think, is a fantasy.

KT: I think that’s a very good point. I, too, agree that reactivity or defilement or affliction is what I refer to sometimes as “human instinct.” As we know, as human beings, we have it. And we need it to survive, as you said.

So I think we do agree that we cannot sever afflictions, but even in Shin Buddhism [with its extensive focus on the inevitability and intensity of afflictions], we can improve on how we let go [or let be]. By listening to the dharma you develop yourself to a point where the passions arise but you’re less influenced by them, and that is important to know. So, through Buddhism, you come to improve in how to deal with the difficulties in life.

SB: What I found very helpful with mindfulness practice is that it provides us with psychology, it provides us with contemplative methodology, that is able to be practiced systematically over time. This, I personally have found to be an extremely effective way of basically not giving into these instincts, accepting these instincts, and thereby opening up a space from which we can choose to act otherwise.

I think another strength of these mindfulness practices, which are now practiced all over the world—it’s extraordinary—is that you don’t need to believe anything about Buddhism. You can actually check this out for yourself empirically and see whether it works for you or not. That, I think, is very secular, very central to the whole secular Buddhist way of life.

KT: On that point, I do want to point out how, in Shin Buddhism, we tend to overemphasize the afflictions and that there is no very little clear “technology” or method [like mindfulness] for dealing with that on an ordinary everyday level. I think that is an area that needs to be developed.

Of course, the realization of Shinjin is important. It is the level of awakening, but just emphasizing that is not sufficient. It is especially so for contemporary people who are looking to religion to help them with how religion can impact their daily lives. This is a need that was not prevalent in ancient days as much.

SB: So let’s continue with these. The third task is actually to see the stopping, or to see a nonreactive space of mind. Because if you are mindful of these instinctive impulses that come up, the mindfulness itself is not reactive, the mindfulness is still, it’s present, and it’s able to come to rest in a perspective on life that is not driven by reactivity.

Mindfulness also requires us to recognize that mindfulness itself is nirvanic. The nirvana for the Buddha is the absence of greed and hatred and confusion. To be mindful in this way is actually to rest in that nonreactive nirvanic space. I don’t mean this in a high-flown metaphysical way but as a simple practical experience that we all already know.

KT: Can I jump in here? I think that is an important point, and maybe a strength of what you are proposing. So you’re saying nirvana is not a special [transcendent, mystical] experience that is available only to the few but it’s the state, almost an ordinary state, in which you are not reacting in an ordinary [instinctual, negative] way.

SB: Nirvana has been exaggerated into a kind of high mystical state, but there are many passages in the Pali text; there’s a very beautiful essay by the Thai Buddhist monk Buddhadasa called Nibbana for Everyone,’ in which he recognizes that each time we stop being reactive—and much of our life is not reactive—we’re at peace with ourselves; we’re at ease. The point is to recognize and value that state of inner stillness and peace, and to learn how to dwell and come to rest in that space.

“Mindfulness itself is nirvanic”

KT: So that means, today, you had about five or six nirvanas?

SB: I don’t count them, but as I try to live my life according to the dharma, I find more and more a familiarity, even in the midst of turmoil, of this quiet, still nonreactive space from which I seek to live my life, that nirvana is not the goal of the path as is usually presented. For me, nirvana is where the path begins.

KT: I think some people in Japan would welcome that, because I’ve heard over and over again how lots of people—many Japanese—feel that Buddhism is very difficult and not really for them; it’s only for monks and priests. So I think it’s a message that would be music to the ears of a lot of people.

SB: I don’t think it’s just in Japan, I think Buddhism in general has tended over time to elevate nirvana to some almost impossible state of perfection rather than recognizing that it’s actually an experience that is here and now.

At the same time, nirvana is not a place in which you remain or seek to just remain sort of blissed out and happy. The purpose of being able to rest more and more in this nonreactive space is to be able to make better judgments in terms of how you face the next moment for what you say next, for what you do next. Nirvana in this context is an ethical space.

Just one more bit. The other thing is that, from the secular Buddhist perspective, the problem with the defilements, or whatever we call them, is not that they cause suffering—of course they often do. But the real problem with the defilements is that they prevent us from advancing on the path. They keep us stuck and blocked and trapped, in a way in which we’re not able to live fully and dynamically. They hinder life itself.

[And] so the fourth task is to cultivate the path, the eightfold path, as traditionally presented. But the eightfold path originates and begins from that nonreactive space. So to live from that nonreactive space affords you the opportunity to live in a way that’s not driven by impulse and fear and hatred and confusion. In that case, it affords an entry into the stream. This is where “stream entry” happens, [it’s] available to everyone. It’s not a high mystical state either.

KT: OK, well, allow me to say a few words about what I am trying to do, in terms of revisioning Shin Buddhism, especially for audiences overseas but also in Japan [for young people and those new to the tradition].

A number of years ago, I was at an interdenominational Buddhist gathering, and I introduced myself to an American Zen priest. And that priest, when I said, “I’m Jodo Shinshu,” she said, “Oh, so you’re the Christian Buddhist!”

Inside of me, do you know what I said? I said, “Oh, my God… !”

I knew that some people in the Western world looked at Shin Buddhism as a form of [Buddhism that resembles] Christianity, but that was the first time that someone said that to my face. That’s why I speak about Shin Buddhism as part of Mahayana Buddhism, of course, but it’s a “religion of awakening.” Shinjin is also awakening, so I translate it as “Shinjin realization and entrusting.” 

So Shinjin realization … is equivalent to the stream enterer stage, which is the first stage of the sages [in early Buddhism as well as in Theravada Buddhism found today in Southeast Asia]. Shinran also talks about Shinjin as being equivalent to the stage of joy [in Mahayana Buddhism]. I think it is important for us Shin Buddhists to know and let people know that Shinjin is very much [a] part of mainstream Buddhism.

Also, there are many things we need to consider about Shinjin. One thing is, how do you know when you have it, or when you have realized it? Is it just a one-time event, like big fireworks, one big bang? Or does Shinjin take place in small little sparkles?

I believe that it’s more of the latter, that Shinjin is not just a one-time [experience]. There may be, for some people, one big experience, but Shinjin deepens throughout one’s lifetime as it continues to grow and develop. So we can agree with your attitude toward nirvana and that it’s not just a one-time mystical experience that only a very few people can realize.

So I want to ask you a question. In your discussion of nibbana or nirvana, you don’t say much about so-called other-power, which is central in Shin Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism. For example, even Dogen [the founder of the Soto Zen school] talks about it in his famous quote [found in Shobogenzo]:

“The Way of the Buddha is to know the self,
To know the self is to forget the self,
To forget the self is to be awakened by all things.”

[What] do you think? Where does other-power come [into] your realization?

SB: I love that verse by Dogen. It’s been a source of inspiration for me for many years. If I rephrase it in terms of my secular Buddhist approach, the purpose of Buddhism is to know the self, in other words, embracing your life fully and coming to understand it. To know the self is to forget the self, forgetting the self is another way of saying letting go of reactivity, letting “be” these reactive patterns, not getting entangled in them anymore.

If you’re not caught up in that reactivity even for a moment, you are then open to a world that’s not conditioned by reactivity. You’re open to the world in its totality. That means that you open yourself to this nonreactive space, which is also a creative space and an ethical space in which you can tap into another source of how to live your life.

I’m a writer, and my vocation, my calling, is to write. I’d like to use that as an example to answer your question. When I’m writing a book, I spend four hours each morning working with ideas, but the book, I also realize, is being written through me. It’s not my book in that sense. [The] nonreactive space is the space that allows you to be enlightened by all things.

But [even when we are] focused on the project [that we’re] working on at that time, we don’t work in a vacuum. So my experience is that at the end of four hours of writing, something has come into the world that’s never been there before quite in that way. It wasn’t me who got it there. It has come through me. I’ve learned to use the word “trust.” I have a deep trust that, if I open myself in this way, that words, ideas, sentences, insights will come through me from somewhere I cannot say but through the force, as it were, of life itself [as life] channels it into what I then end up with on the page.

KT: So there, I find some resonance with Shin Buddhists, the focus on other-power, wherein we entrust in something that is greater [than ourselves] that really infuses me and helps me to operate and do what I can [with my life in a Buddhist way].

You do not talk much about life after death either, and I know that you’re an agnostic about life after death. But is that sufficient for you? Are you OK with that?

SB: It’s more than sufficient. If I can live my life to the [fullest,] if I can lead and live my vocation and my calling, that will not only make this life as rich as it can be but, if there is another life, I cannot think of a better way to prepare for it.

KT: I personally agree, and I think in Shin Buddhism, it’s through Shinjin you come to a similar place and that you live a life of flourishing. You live a life that’s fuller. Therefore, you worry less about what happens after death, but we are still ordinary foolish beings, bombu, and there is still a part of me that wants to know what happens after death. With Shin Buddhism, it provides an ample, solid teaching, in my opinion.

SB: For me, life is an indescribable mystery, within [which] death is perhaps the most mysterious thing of all. I think we disrespect the mystery of death by somehow substituting a belief in some kind of afterlife, be that heaven [or] be that hell. We’re somehow failing. We are taking out the mystery and replacing it with a set of human ideas.

Even if I do not continue as a person in any recognizable form after death, I want to live a life that I will leave a legacy through my acts, through my deeds, through my works, that will continue on, long after I’m dead. This we see in all the great figures in Buddhism that they’re still alive today. Shinran is now 850 [years old, with 760 years having passed since his death], but he’s still alive in this room; he’s alive in our lives. I would aspire to lead a life in which I could continue to have an impact in the world long after I’ve been forgotten. 

KT: The point about life being a mystery and life beyond being a mystery, in Shin Buddhism, we talk about Amida as being inconceivable. There is a strong element of mystery. Mystery is a positive thing. It gives you hope too.

Since Stephen is here and I’m here [as evidence of the flourishing of Buddhism in the UK and the US, respectively], I would like for the audience in Japan to know that Buddhism is growing [around] the world. The example is myself and Stephen. It’s a huge change from when I was a child, when hardly anyone in the US knew about Buddhism. But now, one-tenth of the American population knows about Buddhism, and some are very fervent practitioners.

SB: What I’ve learned in Japan in the last weeks here is a sense that Shinran Shonin could well be considered the first secular Buddhist. Seriously. He set an example of someone who trained in the monastery, went up to Mount Hiei, then came down back into the world and insisted on being a monk. He engaged with the people of his time, and he presented a practice that worked. That, I think, is the challenge for our time, except now we’re not in 13th-century Japan but we’re in a global village. I think we need to come together as Buddhists of all denominations and seek to find ways in which we can achieve in this global situation what Shinran Shonin achieved in 13th-century Japan.

“I think we disrespect the mystery of death by somehow substituting a belief in some kind of afterlife”

KT: Just final words. I agree with your thoughts about Shinran but also about Buddhism in the world. Buddhism will continue to grow. It will not overtake maybe the Christians and/or the Muslims in terms of number, but amongst the thinking people who are very sensitive about life and the difficulties of life, more will gravitate to Buddhism. Buddhism does not conflict with science so much. It’s tolerant, and it’s open. For those reasons, I see its potential in the world at large. I think it’s the same with Japan. There are many people who are hungry for the real teachings of Buddhism, not just the ancestor veneration or the worldly benefits, but for teachings that can really benefit them. I think the problem with Japan is that, despite the long 1,500 years [of Buddhism in the country], many people are caught up with [its] outward appearances. They don’t realize that [its teachings] can really inspire people and enable us to [truly] live this life, [even as this] life [is one that you could describe as] a “bumpy road.” I believe that Buddhism can be an answer and solace to a lot of people.

Buddhism also has a sense of humor, especially the Dalai Lama. He has told a lot of humorous stories and made [a lot of humorous] statements. I will share one episode with the Dalai Lama. He was [once] asked, “Do you remember your past life? You are the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, so what do you remember about your Thirteenth life?” [To which he replied,] “Gee, do I remember my Thirteenth life, my past life? These days, however, I don’t even remember what I did yesterday!”

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