Rev. Ken Tanaka Calls for "Engaged Pure Land Buddhism"

Excerpted from The Argus Newspaper, Fremont, CA, Saturday, July 11, 1998

The Argus Newspaper of Fremont, California, recently published an interview with the Rev. Ken Tanaka, minister of the Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church in Union City, California, a Shin Buddhist temple affiliated with the BCA/Nishi Honganji. The interview concerned Rev. Tanaka's newly published collection of essays called Engaged Pure Land Buddhism: The Challenges Facing Jodo Shinshu in the Contemporary World. In the interview, Rev. Tanaka states his feeling that it is now time for Shin Buddhists in America to join other Buddhists and become more "engaged" in the world, and to begin working to help to reduce suffering in the world.

Rev. Tanaka clarified the meaning of the word "engaged": "The traditional understanding of Buddhism has been to focus on the inner self. But engaged Buddhism emphasizes the outer work, which is not foreign to original Buddhism. As a modern phenomenon, it started in Vietnam. The term itself was coined by (Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist) Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh and others during the war were caught between working on the inner self and working to help the victims of the war. And they realized you have to have both."

"In America, you have the social justice tradition, encouraging, nudging Buddhism to elicit that dimension which has been somewhat hidden. But Buddhism also has had a tradition of engagement. In America, the value of a religion is in how the teaching is demonstrated. I think that's one of the hallmarks of American religiosity."

Of course, Shin Buddhists, one of several Pure Land sects in America, have not historically been "engaged." Rev. Tanaka commented that this tendency of Shin Buddhists to not be involved, to not work to translate the teachings to a broader society has many historical reasons, such as Japanese-Americans "...being an immigrant community, suffering discrimination and incarceration during the Second World War. It has really, I think, turned the Buddhist temples into a kind of social center. There's definitely a need for that, but I feel we can do both, be a social center ... but at the same time be able to contribute."

How does Rev. Tanaka envision "Engaged Pure Land" translating to everyday life? "Engagement can include social work as well as more ordinary things, being engaged with your children, and your spouse," he said. To illustrate the most basic sense of "engagement," Rev. Tanaka quoted the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, who, when asked, "What is the essence of Buddhism?," simply said, "Kindness."

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