Jodo Shinshu and the Challenge of America;
America and the Challenge of Jodo Shinshu
by Frederick Brenion (Shaku Hoju)

This year of 2004 marks the 100th anniversary of Higashi Honganji's (Jodo Shinshu) Los Angeles Betsuin (head temple). It is an exciting time; this consideration of where we came from, where we are now and where we might be in the future. In some ways this is a rather funny thing for Buddhists to be doing. The impermanence of all things is, after all, one of our most precious teachings! Of course, as Shin Buddhists we know that impermanence is not a bad thing. It means change amidst challenge, growth amidst the issues of life and death. It means the receiving and then the letting go into other hands, the marveling at what our work, once the work of others, might become. Effervescence is the dynamic of the life that is lived in the light of impermanence. All of this is worth celebrating, is worth remembering.

I ponder how this temple, and the temples that have flourished from beneath its wings, have met the challenges of coming to America, being in America, becoming part of America, striving to become American. In the challenges of the last hundred years I hear the story of the arrival of Jodo Shinshu into America. I hear how the bearers of this faith, the Japanese émigrés, the Japanese-American community that grew through their efforts, endured the racism and bigotry that has been prevalent throughout the years. From the yellow journalism of our “free press” that screamed of the “yellow peril,” the strivings to close or limit the immigration of Asians, to the internment camps of World War II, much suffering has been inflicted on this good community that has continually striven to prove and shown that it wants to be here. That has something to offer a country, which in its own turn, and often in spite of itself, still offers a vision that requires of itself an openness to the offerings of all as it strives to become the America that it wants to be.

And I hesitate within this pondering. I was not born into this tradition. I was not raised in it. I had not even heard of it and only recently have become a member, having came from outside into your midst, asking to walk this nembutsu path along with you. By way of spiritual adoption your tradition has now become my tradition, part of my history. It has always been one of my marks to strive and view all of human history and all of human cultures as part of my heritage. But I hesitate because as I hear your story, now part of my own story, that I am struck with shame and sorrow. Because I am a son of that America which has been your challenge and challenger. It was my forebears who placed obstacles in your way. It was my culture which demanded that you forsake your culture and ways which you brought for our enrichment. I know this on a deep and personal level. I remember well the days when I would came home from school and share what I had just learned about the history of this country during the second world war. How Americans took Americans and placed them into camps, in total disregard of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. My father was livid at my growing liberal leanings, this being the age of the 1960’s and the ensuing “generation gap.” He made it very clear to me that he totally supported such actions and would have happily had seen even more done. I shan’t recount the many arguments and fights my father and I had on such issues through the years. If you recall the famous song from the musical of James Michener’s “South Pacific,” he had been taught so carefully “how to hate.” He tried to teach me to hate those whom he hated—and he hated so many. I, on the other hand, strove to learn to hate only his hatred. A son, after all, should gain something of value from his father.

And so these challenges of our pasts have brought us forth to the challenges of the present. A son of such challenges is here among you wanting to share in this Nembutsu Way. Never have such good teachings fitted one so well as those which I have received Jodo Shinshu. How has this come about? I stand here, at this culmination of a hundred years, choosing this Nembutsu path, wanting to walk this walk in a country that to my mind has lost its own path, and having also abandoned my own way. I came to this new path having found that the religious paths I once embraced growing up were inadequate to the reality I've come to know and experience. In the collapse of my beliefs, I could have chosen some form of atheism or humanism, but they too were ultimately of the same cut of cloth as the faith that had vanished. They were but the other side of the same coin, suffering the same delusions. It was in darkest perplexity that this American—descendent of the same Americans who had challenged the Japanese émigrés—was himself challenged. Challenged by the Dharma. Challenged by the Buddha. Challenged to recognize that not only was I sick with delusions, but I was also living in a country, a world, blinded by delusions. All that I once knew had been a false knowing. I had only but begin to know anew.

As I eagerly struggled to receive the treatment that the Buddha had provided in his Dharma-cure, I in time became aware of the Pure Land teachings. Again I was perplexed, particularly as many scholars have described Pure Land as being like a “Christianized” form of Buddhism. These descriptions, I know, have been a source of embarrassment and frustration for Shin Buddhists. But I have come to appreciate the depths of the Dharma in the Pure Land teaching. I have come to see that Buddhism is for broken people and for broken countries: People who are breaking under the self-serving illusions of a self bloated by its own imagined self-importance, and a country breaking under the self-serving illusion of always being “number one” no matter what the cost to a world already stretched beyond its limits, a country seeking to impose what has become its death-enthralled dream of dominance. I have come to see that our Buddhist life is but a Nembutsu Walk in the face of the winds of impermanence. It is a life and a walk taken on total trust, a total giving up of our selves, a total accepting through acceptance by that Power of Accepting we know of as Amida Buddha. I see in Shin the desired hopes of the religions and philosophies of the west brought to fruition in this path from the East. There is no better path that is better prepared to meet the needs of this land because it speaks with the same heartfelt aspirations that drive Americans. The noted similarities, instead of being an embarrassment, give the very means to share aspirations on a common level and offer an honest answer expressed through the compassionate means of the “walk.”

And the challenges of the present usher us to the challenges of the future. It is this: that we are called simply to become the Challenge itself. We will always be challenged by others, by our country, by the events of the day. But we answer these challenges with Challenge. Buddha never apologized for his teachings. He lived them, and offered them to those who asked. When questioned he answered not with a defense of his own self but by opening the eyes of his hearers to the real truth of the inner illness that drove their very challenges in the first place. He was their Challenge. We are followers of that same Buddha, called to serve with him and to apply the life-giving medicine that is the Dharma. Our own founder, Shinran Shonin, when sent into exile, himself became a challenge to all whom he encountered. His Nembutsu Walk was nothing but a Challenge to others even as it challenged him! Can we ourselves do any less?

The Namu Amida Butsu that we have been given can mean nothing less in this land we are called to challenge by our lives and actions than that we accept (namu) this awakening (butsu) to Life and Light (Amida). We are called to become a Challenge to America, and to each other, and to ourselves; so that our land may live a real Life and shine with a real Light that will truly stretch from sea to shining sea.

-Frederick Brenion

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