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.
Many people of your generation who got involved in Buddhism were drawn to Zen or Theravada practice. What was it about Shin Buddhism that spoke to you? I think we all respond to things based on our personal background. In my case that included Baptist fundamentalism, and I brought this narrow, arrogant fundamentalist attitude with me to Japan during the Second World War. One day, during the postwar occupation, I was giving a talk at a Japanese Christian church in which I spoke of Paul’s concept of grace, and the minister who was translating said to me, “This is like Amida.” It shocked me! In the fundamentalist view, you don’t make comparisons with other religions, because that implies there’s something on the other side that has meaning or that could be true. If you have the only truth, anything else out there is from the devil.
I was only nineteen when I first went to Japan, and my view of Christianity was, of course, quite unsophisticated. After I came back to America, I came to view fundamentalism as an erroneous interpretation of Christianity. While studying at Harvard Divinity School, I met a Jodo Shinshu minister’s son from Hawaii. This young man had some translated Shin texts, which he gave to me. One of them was Shinran’s Tannisho (translated as “A Record in Lament of Divergences”), and when I read it I was amazed. I thought, “My God, such a radical. I’ve never seen anything like this in Christianity.” So I began to study Jodo Shinshu.
What was it in Tannisho that struck you as being so radical? Shinran had this tremendous vision of the universality and the oneness of all people. We all know how divisive religion can be. Coming from a fundamentalist background, I knew this especially well. Religions so often are based on who has the truth and who doesn’t, who is good and who is bad, and which group is right and which group is wrong. For Shinran, Buddhism was about liberating us from religion.
People would come to Shinran and ask, “What is your teaching?” He would say, “Well, I follow my master, Honen,” and then he would explain various things. But at the conclusion, Shinran offers what I consider a really important phrase, “It’s up to you to decide what you will do or believe.” It’s your responsibility. He didn’t cram his beliefs down people’s throats or say if they didn’t follow his way they were going to hell. He was so free from the authoritarian perspective that you find in so many religious figures. He said, Yeah, I have my faith. I know where I stand, and I’m witnessing to that. But at the exact same time he also said, It’s up to you to take it or not, as you see fit.
Shinran said that we’ve all been mother, brother, father, and sister through infinite transmigrations, so everybody is related. His teaching is inclusive, not divisive, and that had a big impact on me. He doesn’t condemn those who are different or think differently. He is always trying to bring people together.
How does this connect with his views about Buddhist practice, particularly the core Pure Land practice of reciting the nembutsu, “Namu Amida Butsu”? Elsewhere in Tannisho, Shinran wrote, “Nembutsu is neither a religious practice nor a good deed. Since it is practiced without my calculation, it is ‘non-practice.’ Since it is not a good created by my calculation, it is ‘non-good.’” It is easy to misunderstand this point, but it is vitally important. Usually religion is based on the practitioner thinking, “What do I get out of it?” But Shinran said, “You have nothing to get—you already have it. It’s already given to you.” Nembutsu is not about getting enlightened or receiving merit or achieving any other goal.
For Shinran, the problem with religious practice based on achieving something, on “calculation,” is that it actually reinforces the ego. You think: “I’m good, I meditate,” or “I follow the rules,” or “I’ve attained something special,” and so forth. As soon as that happens, you’ve defeated the whole purpose of Buddhism. Shinran realized that because of our pride, religion is a dangerous thing, it’s spiritually destructive to people. When we do religious practice with the idea that we can make ourselves better, we underestimate the trap of cloaking egoism in the guise of religious effort. Rather than focus on how one should practice, Shinran talked about the importance of one’s attitude.
What did Shinran mean by the importance of one’s attitude? For Shinran, the way to short-circuit the trap of egoism in chanting the nembutsu is to do it out of gratitude. Shinran saw nembutsu as a response to something that is supporting and helping your life, but you don’t create it and you don’t manipulate it. You can’t do something to get it. And so the gratitude that Shinran advocates is a kind of wonder, a kind of awareness of “I owe so much.”
Gratitude is a way of undercutting your ego—that is, it is a way of being Buddhist. It really goes back to interdependence and those basic Buddhist concepts. There is an awareness that we get now and then about what we owe to others, and Shinran feels that that should become the moving force of one’s life. Then the egoism kind of takes care of itself. That awakening, that awareness, transforms your way of dealing with life, with people, and with all things. One thing that really comes through in Tannisho is Shinran’s down-to-earth humanity.
This might have to do with the nature of the text itself. It is a record by Yuien-bo of his dialogues with Shinran, which was composed after Shinran’s death in response to disputes that had arisen over interpretations of the master’s teachings. There is something very personal about it. In the ninth chapter, Yuien-bo comes to Shinran and says, “Scripture says, ‘You’re supposed to dance for joy because you’re going to the Pure Land,’ but I don’t feel that way.” He sees that the text and his personal experience don’t always match, and he’s worried that he might go to hell or something if he isn’t in accord with the text. Shinran says, “I have the same problem.” He didn’t tell him to pray some more or read the sutra some more or chant some more. He says in effect, “Yeah, that’s the way we are. I have the same problem, and Amida understood that when he made his great vow. So don’t worry about it.”
Shinran has a statement where he talks about how he doesn’t enjoy the prospect of going to the Pure Land, that he didn’t want to die any more than anybody else did. He also said, “For the sake of fame and profit, I pose as a teacher.” I had never heard any teacher or preacher who said, “I’m as bad as you are,” and got down off the pedestal. When I came across these passages, I realized that what he’s saying is not Buddhist doctrine in the formal sense: he is talking about an attitude, a way of looking at life, a way of relating to people that is tremendously liberating.
The idea of shinjin, or true entrusting, is so important in Shinran’s thought. Would you talk about what shinjin means to you? Shinjin is a kind of awareness that is awakened, an awakening to what I really am. I don’t mean this in the lofty sense of awakening to Buddha-nature or becoming a saint or penetrating the truth that lies at the heart of all religions. Shinran never asked anybody to have supernormal or exceptional experiences of something to show their religious qualifications. Neither did he ask anybody to demonstrate their shinjin. Shinjin is a modest awakening, not a lofty one. It is an awareness of really just how deep my passion-ridden condition is. You come to realize that, yeah, this is the kind of guy I am: insensitive, uncaring, unthinking—a real bastard most of the time. Recognizing that that is really what you are helps you to stop beating other people over the head for their imperfections. And that’s compassion.
The problem, though, is that when you say one should have shinjin, then right away people want criteria. But Shinran took all the criteria away. There is no criterion for shinjin, but those who have it know it within themselves. They recognize an understanding about themselves that becomes indispensible for how they live.
I think we have to qualify it by saying that it’s true for me, it’s true in my experience. We have to leave that truth open. One might find something that resonates with one’s being that comes through Jodo Shinshu and is true for oneself, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be true for somebody else. We can be true to our own basic insight of what we see as true, but we can embrace other people, knowing that they also may have their truth too, and we try to find where we can join together in common effort.
Could you explain how you understand who or what Amida Buddha is? Well, if we take Shinran as a starter, his understanding of Amida Buddha went beyond the traditional Pure Land teaching of his time. People thought of Amida Buddha as the buddha of the Western Pure Land and the central buddha for followers of Pure Land teachings, which was the traditional understanding. The point, though, is that he was seen as one buddha among many, as, in the Mahayana conception, there are buddhas through all the directions of the universe and throughout infinite time. Prior to Shinran, people recited the nembutsu in order to acquire the merit that would allow them to be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land and from there proceed to final enlightenment.
But Shinran identified Amida Buddha as the eternal Buddha, similar to how Shakyamuni is portrayed in the Lotus Sutra. That means that Amida has no beginning and no end. There’s never been a time when there was not Amida Buddha. So he symbolizes reality.
When I discuss Amida Buddha with Christians, they often ask, “Is Amida a god?” and I say, “No, he’s not a god, he’s reality.” Amida is the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life, and this sense of things draws one’s mind out beyond boundaries to contemplate the infinite. Shakyamuni is from the Shakya clan, and that can be a limiting concept. Amida, though, is not just a being, not just a concept; rather, it’s a mythic symbol, a window through which to contemplate reality and to see ourselves better in relationship to the whole. It’s a way of focusing our understanding about reality and how it embraces us. We live within the infinite, the infinite lives within us. The totality of life, of nature, of the world and the universe—whatever’s out there, it is all Amida.
How does the Other Power that Shinran describes relate to the more commonly understood Buddhist idea of personal striving for enlightenment? People misunderstand when they think tariki, or Other Power, is a power that somehow comes in from the outside. The Shin point of view is that the Other Power / self power dichotomy is a delusion. Actually, all of existence is Other Power. Whatever we do is possible through Other Power. If I run a race, I am only able to do it, to put my effort into it, because the world is constructed in such a way that it supports me and makes my running possible. If, for example, there were no gravity, I wouldn’t be able to run. If there were no Other Power, in the sense of there being an interdependent reality within which I undertake my efforts, I wouldn’t be able to do anything.
Other Power is really interdependence, and interdependence is really the totality of the relationships we have with everything that we deal with. Other Power isn’t an externalpower. It’s not an isolated power located someplace that zaps us from the outside. It’s power through others. We can’t deal with our life unless we have other people involved with us. Other Power involves power with others, which leads us to act out of a sense of reciprocal relationship with them. I am benefited by Other Power and I benefit others, and so on. It is from the web of relationships that is our reality.
How has Shinran made an impact on you personally? I see Shinran as a towering figure. He took Buddhism, turned it upside down, and made it something that could illuminate people’s personal experience in a new way. Even though it comes out of medieval Japan, I believe his teaching is universal. And so he intrigues my imagination.
I think it’s the right time to explore a deeper interpretation of Shinran, because I think it might help those who are racked by guilt, by distinctions of flesh and spirit, and by the other dualisms of Western culture. He also speaks to those who have tried so hard to have the victorious life, to change themselves, only to find “I can’t do it. No matter how hard I try, I’m still what I am.” But Shinran basically said, “You are what you are. If you accept that and see through it, there’s a deeper level in you.” Shinran trusted in Buddha-nature. He taught that when the awareness of just what you are as a foolish being appears, then your Buddha-nature comes through too. It comes to fruition. To me, Shinran points directly at my reality. What I see in Shinran, I can’t let it go. And it won’t let me go.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.