Late last August, I stopped by the Buddhist Study Center in Honolulu to talk with the Rev. Dr. Alfred Bloom. Now in his early eighties, Bloom is widely regarded as one of the most important American figures of the past five decades in the Jodo Shin school of Buddhism. During this time he studied in Japan and the United States, served as a professor at Harvard and the University of Hawaii, became an ordained Buddhist priest, ran the only Shin seminary in the West, wrote numerous books on Pure Land Buddhism that are both scholarly and accessible, and pioneered the development of a far-reaching Shin presence online. It is not surprising, then, that in 2002 the dozens of Hawaiian Shin temples designated him a Living Treasure.
Jewish by background, Christian by upbringing, and Buddhist by heart choice, Bloom is probably history’s most accomplished Shin practitioner who has no Japanese ancestry. As such he has served as an example and mentor to non-Japanese Buddhists interested in the Pure Land tradition, while also spending a lifetime working within the Japanese-American community. He recently released a detailed memoir that describes his experiences in this unique position, A Life of Serendipity: Blown by the Wind of Amida’s Vow.
Bloom’s hair is white these days, and he carries a cane, but he shows few signs of slowing down. Still active as a writer and lecturer, he has lost none of his intense fascination with the revolutionary teachings of Shinran, the 13th-century founder of Shin Buddhism. Over the course of a warm afternoon, we sipped tea and discussed how Shinran’s vision of a radically egalitarian Buddhism centered on power-beyond-self had worked a transformation in Bloom’s life, leading him from Baptist missionizing in Japan to become a preeminent presenter of Buddhism to the West.
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