Sunday, July 2, 2006

Differences, again

I had a recent post called Differences where I posited that in many ways several Mahayana schools and traditions (and by implication other forms of Buddhism as well) are really talking past one another. In other words, their views of the other schools are often based on caricatures, although to be fair I wouldn't necessarily say they are always strawmen because there may be folks who do think/practice in certain ways. Plus, let me repeat what I said then about "true Buddhists" or true Buddhists of any particular tradition--I am not suggesting what a "true" this or that should think or say or do in light of their cultural and historical associations with various rituals, stories, etc.

I think the "talking past one another" phenomenon is especially prevalent among East Asian Buddhism, particularly the Japanese-based varieties. I mentioned before that Zen, Nichiren, and Shin all have their version of "all existence in a thought-moment", which is the result of the implications of dependent coarising and emptiness. They all talk about some form of "not two, not one". And they all try so hard at times to distinguish themselves from the others.

From one of the newer listings on the blogroll, Jeff Wilson's blog at the American Buddhist Study Center, we have a story which is supposed to sum up the differences between the "Path of Sages" (typified by Zen) and the Path of Pure Land (in this case Jodo Shinshu). Two priests auditioning to be the new clergy of a village each take turns demonstrating what they have to offer. The Zen monk sits in a pot of boiling water without being harmed, owing to his Self-Power cultivated through years of mindfulness training. The Shin priest, on the other hand, uses his boiling pot to make soup and feed the village, showing that he had no special powers other than true entrusting to Amida and through this limitless compassion for all sentient beings. Hence the Shin priest's own limited Self-Power was encompassed by and transformed though Other Power for the benefit of all.

Yet I can just as easily imagine reading a similar story on a Zen or Chan Buddhist blog. It would go something like this: The Shin priest goes first, chanting "Namandab namandab namandab namandab..." and telling people to simply trust in Amida and they will be reborn into the Pure Land upon their death where they can find the right conditions to realize their enlightenment. The Zen monk, however, simply sees what needs to be done in the village and takes action in the present rather than delaying concern for others until another lifetime or relying on a mantra to set things right.

Now, a Shin Buddhist can argue that this is more like a traditional Chinese forms of Pure Land than Jodoshinshu, which does focus on the hear and now. And she or he could also argue that the nembutsu is not a magical invocation or spell but a means of appreciating/valuing their connection to and inclusion in the greater whole of reality linked through dependent coarising and emptiness. Yet a Zen Buddhist could take issue with the idea that they are all about "Self-Power" or acquiring superhuman abilities. He or she could make the case that it isn't about attainment but realization and acceptance, born from awakening the great doubt, i.e. challenging the ego-centric view of the universe. He or she could point, for example, to the Ox Herding pictures, in one of which after the seeker finds the Ox and is riding it both disappear in the next panel (signifying nonduality and emptiness). The sitting and walking meditation is used to help focus the practioner, not to provide amazing superheroic abilities. Just as the Shin practioners develop "deep hearing" through their practice, so to do the Zen students through theirs. The sitting and walking in Zen are just training for the real practice which is everyday life, much like the chanting and contemplation of Amida functions in Shin.

Now, it is true that Zen and other traditions like Tendai still incorporate the monastic model, but I also know of ordained monks who live in regular houses and have wives but who have shaved heads and wear the robes during formal practice and ceremonies. Maybe this is more of a Western thing, but they seem to generally be using the robe and bowl (and bell and drum) as a way of setting a mood and honoring a tradition/teaching rather than substituting these symbols for that to which they pointing (which would more or less be a form of idolatry). I've written before that for me, when someone shaves their head and/or dons the robe, sets up an altar, etc, its value isn't in showing some "higher rank" or "personal authority". Rather it is in recreating the objects of refuge--the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It is in a sense an act of servitude, eschewing one's own identity for a time to represent something greater. On the other hand, I don't have a problem with those Buddhist clergy who want to just dress like everyone else.

And of course, if you've read much of anything by Nichiren or his followers you will notice the same kinds of critiques as the above-mentioned stories highlighting the differences between Zen and Shin. One thing I did like about some Nichiren Buddhists' perspective was that based on the chapter in the Lotus Sutra on expedient means, they don't see the other traditions as totally misleading or wrong-headed just outdated provisional teachings. Of course, that's not the only conclusion one can draw. One can also simply see how in the end many different Buddhist schools, while superficially (in ritual, phrasing of doctrine, etc) different, have at heart the same core teachings regarding the Noble Truths and the Dharma Seals. So then...

Namu Amida Butsu.


Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.

Namo Dai Bosa.

Om Mani Padme Hum.




  1. I think you can widen the circle further and include those religions that value a path of compassion and gratitude, freeing us of our grasping ego-self. Since becoming a buddhist I have come to have a greater respect and understanding of the Anglican tradition in which I was raised.

    Namo Amida Bu

  2. Of course it can (and thanks for pointing it out!) but so often the (East Asian) forms of Buddhism seem to take so much effort to distingish amongst themselves. I also concur that I have a greater appreciation of my own Christian heritage in large part due to my study and practice of Buddhism :o)

  3. Hi,

    You've a very great weblog. Many people usually do not realize what mind power can do to one's accomplishment.

  4. Hi,

    You've a very great blog. To turn out to be a productive man or woman the essential issue is always to have positive thinking.


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