Dr. Haneda: Is America a Better Place for Buddhism than Japan?

On November 23, 1991, Dr. Nobuo Haneda spoke and participated in discussions at the Higashi Honganji Temple in conjunction with Hoonko. He gave a very stimulating and, at times, even controversial talk on Buddhism.

An unusual aspect of the event was that in attendance were four Buddhists from Koyasan and twelve from Zenshuji. Despite the fact that these Buddhists are not "Higashi" and not even "Shinshu," they presumably came because he focuses on the universal aspects of Buddhism. His comment on the presence of these guests was, "This union of Buddhists is about time." Other notables in attendance (besides the 11 members from WCBT, of course) were Rinban Saito and Bishop Sato. Knowing that Dr. Haneda has at times been somewhat at odds with the Honzan's views on Buddhism, it promised to be an interesting evening.

The controversial part of his speech came when he began to address the issue of the future of Buddhism in America. He said that in order to ensure a future, we must first make a distinction between two kinds of tradition in our temples. The living tradition of Buddhism is self-examination. Self-examination is the process of examining and accepting our shortcomings, our self-centeredness and arrogance. It is a humbling experience, but one which also leads the way to the desired attitude of a student, a seeker. As such, self-examination is completely non-ethnic and non-cultural. It is universal. This is absolutely critical to Dr. Haneda. Buddhism is either for everyone, or it is worthless. The fact that some people think Japanese Buddhism is only for Japanese, Thai Buddhism is for Thai people, etc only diminishes Buddhism and is not in keeping with the Buddha's teaching. The dead tradition is made up of things like chanting and ancestor worship (how Buddhists observe the various anniversaries of a relative's death, for example). These he cited as only secondary priorities. Of these two traditions, it is the living tradition (self-examination) that Dr. Haneda feels we need to promote in our temples. It is universal, dynamic, practical, and is the essence of Buddhism. Thus it is the one thing that can foster the survival and even the spread of Buddhism in America.

Some of the people in attendance, including most notably Bishop Sato, did not agree with these definitions, particularly with regards to the "dead" tradition. When Dr. Haneda became aware of this, he clarified his position later on in the discussions. He had not meant that such practices as chanting and ancestor worship should be abandoned, rather that they should be seen as secondary priorities. They are like "containers," he said. Whatever importance they have is only because they hold or perhaps stimulate something that is important...that is the living tradition, the process of self-examination.

Speaking further on the Buddhist self-examination, Dr. Haneda said "something in me makes me willingly do this." He admitted that the self-examination can be painful (most of us would rather not come face to face with our shortcomings), but why do it at all if it's only negative? If it is only negative, then "I must be a masochist," he said. Actually, it isn't really negative at all, but positive. He explained how, from our perspective on the "outside," when someone like Shinran says "I am a foolish, baldheaded old man," it seems negative. But that's only because we don't also see that "infinite ocean" that Shinran saw, the positive enlightenment which made him realize his own ignorance and arrogance.

Another highlight of his speech came when he made the surprising statement that "America is actually a better place for Buddhism than Japan." In Japan there is a "big tradition" but "small selves" (egos). In America, there is a small tradition (America is a young nation) but big selves. How are big egos good for Buddhism? Because, said Dr. Haneda, "...like Shinran and Buddha, who both had big egos, when that (big) ego is turned back upon itself, there is a great potential for enlightenment. The more ice, the more water."

Could it be that, just as Japan improved on our automobile, we Americans could "improve" on their Buddhism?

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