Bright Light, Dark Amida 

By Rev. Jose M. Tirado

Because I now live in Iceland, without a Shin or Pure Land temple nearby or even a community to be with, I have depended quite a lot on the Internet for a developing "cyber-sangha."  Recently, I was engaged in a heated discussion on one of the online "lists" used by Shin Buddhists. Well, it might be better to describe the exchanges as awkwardly polite, sometimes avoidant and sometimes quickly dismissive. Like some embarrassing relative shuttled behind the scenes when wealthier friends visit, the topic causing all this fuss was simply a suggestion I made and some questions I raised.

Imagine, I said, a Black or Latino Amida on an altar of a Shin church where all the other "accoutrements" and atmosphere were likewise representative of Black or Latino culture. For example, perhaps the liturgy was said in Spanish or the hymns sung in enthusiastic gospel tunes. Perhaps the emotions and expressiveness inside, from the minister's sermon to the audience responses were characteristic of Black or Latino spirituality. The monthly potlucks, the parking lot festivities, the ethnic and racial makeup of the congregants, the music, the food, the language spoken and fellowship all reflected a tight-knit group comfortable with each other and confident enough to be tolerant of interested visitors. Would you attend such a church, I then asked?

How many of us would join such a community seeing how so many of the "externals" were unfamiliar or dissimilar to our own cultural "comfort zone?" The answers I received were sadly negative and made me wonder if the draw of Shin Buddhism is still too dependent upon an "exotic" Asian context which, if removed, would weaken its grip on many followers and possibly be abandoned?

These are just some of the questions I hope to raise here in the interest of proactively expanding the discussion of Shin Buddhism into realms that may not typically be broached. It is also a call for a new and revitalized Shin Buddhism, not so bound to particular cultural forms and flexible enough to allow itself growth in areas traditionally not considered. I believe that unless fundamentally different approaches are soon taken to expand Shin Buddhism, bringing its message of universal salvation to more and different peoples, it may perish or be relegated as just one of many "Japanese" Buddhist sects that came and went.

The history of Jodo Shinshu in the west has been fairly well-documented as a common immigrant experience of holding fast to one's traditions and cultural expressions even while attempting to assimilate into the broader culture. Japanese immigrants and their children managed this tension fairly well but were also afflicted by a particularly vicious racism, which, during the Second World War disenfranchised, imprisoned and expropriated the property of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent. This remains one of the most shameful periods in American history. Over the years, Jodo Shinshu had made certain changes in order to better "fit" in such an environment (for example, use of the word "church," inclusion and adoption of pews, hymnals, etc.) but its reach has extended little beyond those Japanese American (J-A) enclaves, where it served a dual purpose: It retained its distinctive Japanese atmosphere as a method for cultural preservation while at the same time carrying on the missionary spirit of Jodo Shinshu, so recognized as crucial for its universal message.

The history of Buddhism in general however, was a bit different where as a movement for spiritual liberation it regularly adapted itself into the cultural streams of vastly different cultures stretching from Russia to Southeast Asia, from Pakistan to Korea and Japan. Remarkable adaptations to different cultural contexts around the world created an exquisite explosion in the variety of statuary, paintings, imagery, architecture, gardens, liturgies and other outward expressions of Buddhadharma in people's lives.

Another part of what generated my interest in this topic was a set of conversations I have had with some Latino and African-American friends over the years about Shin Buddhism, their curiosity piqued as I became more seriously involved with it. While other forms of Buddhism have made inroads into the African-American and Latino communities, (though still by-and-large retaining the Asian forms mentioned) Jodo-Shinshu, or Shin Buddhism remains largely entwined within the Japanese-American experience. The "set-up" of church life generally revolves around the J-A community and its culture, immersed in, as I once wrote, "teriyaki, taiko and tatami." Though I love all those things and spent years in Japan, they limit the attractiveness of Shin to those only comfortable with such. Some of those African-American and Latino friends who have been exposed to Shin find the totality of the above somewhat constraining and unrelated to their own preferred cultural expressions, driving them away from Shin despite their sincere interest in it.

In all fairness, the situation is gradually changing and regular discussions have been occurring as to how to nurture the demographical changes into something that maintains the "integrity" of Shin while welcoming new input, ideas and members. The near future however, looks mixed in this regard. While in Japan for my own ordination last October I heard some ministerial trainees lament that even the growing mixed-race makeup of Shin congregations these days was "sad" and might "change our [sic] church." I also noted that one Nishi Hongwanji representative disagreed saying, without worry or displeasure that "change is going to come." Apparently even the new BCA Bishop is committed to making efforts to extend the ministry and message beyond the present cultural borders.

Yet, though many articles have been written and lectures held bemoaning the loss of membership, the declining interest among second and third generation J-A´s in Shin, the growing rates of intermarriage and the lack of new ministerial candidates, still little seems to change. Thus some recognition that reliance upon those institutions whose faithful work over hundreds of years preserved the tradition safely, is not going to do it, needs to be acknowledged. And likewise some latitude from those very institutions, to "let a thousand flowers bloom" so to speak, should be given, without doctrinaire fear of heresy. Perhaps this process can begin by us, here and now, in a call to reinterpret Shin for the world.

Jaroslav Pelikan ´s "Jesus Through The Centuries" is one book that may have some helpful information for us here. It shows how the evolving nature of Jesus' representation in art has reflected more than simply theological debates. It has also demonstrated that part of Jesus' enduring legacy is the remarkable transformation viewpoints and visuals underwent as Christianity moved from era to era, country to country, viewed by different classes and different people. Christianity, whether willingly or not, under the auspices or approval of the various ecclesiastical authorities or not, developed a remarkable flexibility that, across the planet expressions of Christianity are as now as diverse as the cultures that make it up. As Shin likewise moves cross-culturally around the world, what changes will it undergo? And what should we do to nurture that process so that it becomes available to all while preserving some "core" that carries the label "Shin" or "Jodo Shinshu"? And what precisely, is that "core"?

Many articles have been written concerning the universal nature of Shin beliefs and doctrines but how much has been said about the smaller, but more tangible nature of Shin in terms of race or culture? In the chapter entitled, "Is Our God Listening?" Diana Eck, in her book "Encountering God, From Bozeman to Banaras" examines a set of positions to the challenge of diversity adopted when people are faced with inter-religious dialog: inclusivism, exclusivism and pluralism.

She refers to "inclusivism" as the belief or mind-set that suggests there is no significant difference between us since we believe ultimately in the same basic thing, yet it always looks like "my thing." "For the inclusivist" she writes, "our God" is indeed listening, but it is our God as we understand God who does the listening." [Encountering God, p.168] In Shin, the statuary, kanji, altar arrangements and implements, liturgies and orientations are all Japanese-related, or east Asian.  What if they were not? When I posed some of these questions to test the waters out over the web, the majority of responses were defensive or suggested that "it doesn't matter" what Amida looks like (so long as it "looked" like what they are used to). Yet when pressed no one wanted to respond further about a Black or Brown-looking Amida and the discomfort led the subject to be changed quickly with little satisfaction for me.

Perhaps then this should be the place to put out a call for artists, composers and others to help redefine Shin for the future by stretching all boundaries, depicting an Amida who reflects different races and cultures while visualizing new and innovative churches, altars, liturgies and approaches to Amida him (her?) self. What would happen then? Indeed, what might happen?

I remember as a child hearing about tennis pro Arthur Ashe praying before a white Jesus image and asking "Is God on my side?" For a number of years now, many African-Americans have been engaged in a spirited debate over Jesus´ color and depictions in media and throughout churches. Altar spaces, popular artwork, book covers and posters have all been designed to reflect a growing sense that the pride and joy instilled by seeing depictions of one's spiritual tradition in forms that look like oneself, one's family and culture, is invaluable.

I too had a similar experience. I remember watching "The Greatest Story Ever Told" one Easter evening with my family and my father—a short, stocky, very dark-skinned Puerto Rican man—pointed out with what I felt was some bitterness, that if Jesus existed then he probably looked more like him than the 6 foot plus, blond, blue-eyed, Max Von Sydow.  The comment left a deep impression on me, making me later wonder about the use of imagery and its power to inspire confidence or instill a sense of inferiority.

In Mexico, Christianity took a giant leap forward when The Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to a native Mexican, speaking Nahuatl, dressed like an Aztec woman and with the brown-red skin of native Amerindians throughout Central and Latin America. It might be said that no sermonizing, no mass conversions (forced or voluntary), no grand theological arguments or reasoned discussions carried Christianity into the hearts and minds of the people there more than that single image. Is it too much to imagine that should Shin be presented in like fashion in say, Africa or South America, that its appeal and possibilities might grow equally a thousand fold and reach the great potential we all believe Shin can have for the future?

Modern icon artist Robert Lentz has made an admirable career out of redesigning the traditional art of Icons and has included such diverse figures as Hildegaard of Bilgen, Cesar Chavez, Mohandas Gandhi, Oscar Romero, Albert Einstein and Mother Theresa in powerful and beautiful ways. His art respectfully addresses the desire to bring to all the most powerful symbols of devotional art and redo them for contemporary audiences. Why can´t such be done for Shinran, modern-day myokyonin or for Amida, Kannon, and others? Why is "tradition" held so tightly, like some locked-in-a-vacuum-sealed, historical time capsule that while carefully preserving the past breathes nothing of the present or future? Isn't there room for a nembutsu life that breathes and pulses, dances and celebrates, speaks in different languages, sings in various melodies and looks like different people of the world?

We see already the creeping influx of Zen and other forms of meditation into Shin churches, despite the almost constant admonition by Shinran that all such efforts are for naught, filled with calculation and indicative that we are not even approaching the true entrusting that is the sine qua non of Jodo Shinshu life. If, with little shame or remorse we can do something explicitly proscribed by Shinran himself, then what is the difficulty in imagining Amida and Shin in forms that are presently unfamiliar to ourselves and our common spiritual heritage? Are Asian forms and expressions value-neutral, without implicit or explicit assumptions contained within them? And by extension, are non-Asian forms and expressions value-negative? Is Shin so weak that some of us would leave it rather than see its message disseminated in a way that is different from what we are normally used to? And what does that say about our ´faith´?

In the end, it may be a matter of prudent necessity to acknowledge that a new Shin Buddhism, one not tied to particular cultural forms or expressions needs to be developed. If Hongwanji, through its representatives in BCC/BCA deem it necessary, through formal writ, informal consensus, or passive indecision, to remain primarily an ethno-centric Buddhist institution that, though generally welcoming of "outsiders" intends to preserve its particular ethno-racial emphasis, should there then be created a non-ethnic based, "generic" Shin church/temple that continues the Jodo Shinshu line but functions independently of Japanese institutional direction? This question may be one of the most important questions for Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism as it enters the 21st century. Perhaps a collection of Independent Shin Churches/Temples needs to be established, one whose relationship to Hongwanji is as an independent child, created by the love of particular parents but free to express itself in ways unlike those very parents.

And what would be the relationship between Hongwanji and such independent Shin churches in the future? In this regard, is the model of the Anglican Communion and its relationship to the Episcopal Churches one that might have some answers for us? And what of the European Shin churches, their histories and traditions? Can they be at the forefront of a Shin for the future or are they too still locked into a dominant ethos derived mostly by medieval Japanese cultural forms and expressions?

The saving Light of Amida is said to be of the purest, most inconceivable brightness, but why can't Amida be as Brown or Black as the peoples of the world? When depictions of Amida (as well as rituals and other aspects of religious life) are given in forms more akin to that of the different races and cultures on the planet, Shin, with its universal message might just become more alluring. And when the institutions of Shin Buddhism, in the universal spirit of Shinran and former Bishop Imamura embrace such adaptation rather than avoiding it or fearing it, then perhaps we can say with truth, that Shin's promise of deliverance into the embrace of Infinite Light and Infinite Life is truly a religious message for all people as well as for all times.

Rev. José M. Tirado is a writer, poet and Green activist whose articles have appeared in Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Swans Commentary, the Gurdjieff Internet Guide and the Magazine of Green Social Thought: Synthesis/Regeneration.  He is also a Shin Buddhist priest teaching in Iceland and welcomes correspondence at www.thepathofmyexperience.com.

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