FOR MORE THAN a hundred years, American Pure Land Buddhists have been publishing sutra commentaries, dharma talks, and personal reflections. Indeed, those affiliated with Jodo Shinshu—literally “the true school of the Pure Land,” often called Shin Buddhism—have produced far more Buddhist works in America than any other sect. Why, then, are this venerable Buddhist publishing tradition and the many small presses that support it relatively unknown outside Pure Land circles? Most Tricycle readers are probably familiar with Wisdom Publications and Shambhala Publications, but how many have heard of Buddhist Study Center Press or the Nembutsu Press?
There’s a Catch-22 here. The Pure Land community is large enough that it’s never had to court mainstream bookstores; the widespread network of Shin temples and periodicals ensures that new books will get attention from a built-in audience. Many of these books were never intended to turn a substantial profit anyway—they are seen as offerings of the dharma, not commercial enterprises. Yet the relative lack of need for outreach by the Pure Land communities—some of which are nurturing their fifth and sixth generations of American Buddhists—means that their publications are often eclipsed by those of smaller and more recent imports, such as Tibetan Buddhism and Vipassana. These traditions, along with Zen, have actively marketed themselves to a white, affluent American audience that often encounters Buddhism in the bookstore, rather than in a traditional temple.
The net effect is that, despite the regular appearance of new books on Pure Land Buddhism, the wider reading public is aware only of the one or two books produced annually by mainstream presses. The most recent of these is The Essential Shinran: A Buddhist Path of True Entrusting (World Wisdom, 2007), edited by Alfred Bloom. With The Essential Shinran,Bloom—a scholar and Shin priest influential in Buddhist circles since the 1965 publication of his Shinran’s Gospel of Pure Grace—attempts to deepen the West’s appreciation for Shinran, the thirteenth-century founder of Jodo Shinshu and one of Japan’s most important religious thinkers. As Bloom describes it, Shinran’s “Pure Land teaching is an inclusive, human faith. It is non-authoritarian, non-dogmatic, egalitarian, non-superstitious religious faith. Through deepening religious understanding it liberates people from religious intimidation and oppression, which trade on the ignorance of people and their desire for security. Shinran’s teaching does not encourage blind faith at the expense of one’s reason and understanding.”
To counter common misconceptions of the Pure Land tradition, particularly among Western convert Buddhists, Bloom takes care to point out Shinran’s vigorous opposition to superstition and ignorance. Pure Land Buddhism has some superficial similarities to monotheism, which sometimes leads to ill-informed characterizations of Jodo Shinshu and related traditions by disgruntled ex-Christians. However, any similarities between Pure Land and Christianity are far fewer than overlaps between Vajrayana and Hinduism, for example, or Zen Buddhism and Confucianism. If anything, we could say that Pure Land takes advantage of the strengths of a rather Unitarian quasi-monotheistic religious approach but does so within a context of Buddhist insight into emptiness and liberation.
By Shinran’s time the vast pantheon of Mahayana Buddhism had multiplied to the point where there was a Buddha or spirit under virtually every stone, all demanding veneration through prayer, ritual, and (sometimes expensive) offerings and ceremonies. Pure Land’s focus on Amida Buddha—a single figure representing wisdom, compassion, and nirvana—was a way of cutting through the pomp and superstition surrounding Japanese Buddhism and returning to core principles, while at the same time maintaining a devotional practice for ordinary laypeople who couldn’t hope to meditate at length or adhere to hundreds of monastic precepts. In The Essential Shinran, Bloom elucidates the thoroughly Mahayana Buddhist foundation of Shinran’s ideas about reliance on Amida Buddha:
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