Monthly Archives: May 2012

Dove Jesus, Hawk Christians, Go Figure

Jesus had, if we follow accepted chronology, about three years in which to preach and/or perform anti-Roman warfare. But as far as we can glean from the New Testament, he did no such thing.

On the contrary, Jesus’ teaching was overwhelmingly pacifistic. In most situations of foreign occupation, there is at least one “peace party” which, while opposed to the collaborators at the top of the system, nevertheless argues for non-violent solutions. Jesus seems to have been affliliated with such views. We know that some of the most stringent anti-Roman, anti-collaborationist people were also non-violent, namely the Dead Sea Scroll, or Qumran, community. They held that while they would be ultimately be called to an apocalyptic battle with God and the angels on their side, their role in history was to eschew what they saw as the corrupt Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, and wait for God to decide the time of the final battle. So they retired to the shores of the Dead Sea to farm, pray, and await the End which would come in God’s good time..

Jesus himself believed in God’s apocalyptic transformation of the current age, but he went beyond Qumran’s idea of an apocalyptic battle. Instead, Jesus seemed to think that  a mysterious agent of God – the Son of Man – would appear at the end of the age, to perform God’s “cleanup” of the world. Some scholars believe that the Son of Man is Jesus’ oblique reference to himself, or  to some other Yahwistic agent whose secrets were somehow acquired by, and known to,  Jesus. In any case, the judging Son of Man is to separate the sheep from the goats not in terms of Jewish nationalism, but rather in terms of the Jewish Torah. Living out the Torah’s social mandates of care for the imprisoned, poor, widowed, orphaned, sick and rejected will be the moral measure by which the sheep are divided from the goats.

Not only did Jesus value simple charity as the saving point in the apocalyptic judgment. He further explicated the details of the Torah’s social mandate, and his explication is pacifistic. Not only to murder is wrong; but the simple wish to murder is equally wrong, with the same kind of inner application holding for a number of sins and human failings, with mercy topping the list as the highest virtue. This is demonstrated in Jesus’ mercy toward the woman caught “in the very act” of adultery, in his parable of the Good Samaritan, in his advice to aid even the fearsome Roman soldier in carrying his pack “the extra mile”.

Moreover, Christians acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, the rightful King of Israel. Some scholars think that Jesus may have thought of himself as a king in the sense of being the unique agent of the Kingdom of God, and therefore its earthly “king”. If this is true, then clearly Jesus’ messianic response – his kingly response – to Roman occupation and priestly collaboration was pacifistic.  He never encouraged his disciples to revolt. He never refused them the freedom to pay the Temple tax in good conscience. As far as we know, Jesus’ sole rebellious act was his demonstration in the Temple – the so-called “Purification of the Temple” – which was his lived-out criticism to the collaborationist priesthood. It was also an act of animal liberation, since Jesus’ prime motive was not the money changers, but the selling of animals for sacrifice. It is highly probable that Jesus was opposed to animal sacrifice, which is an ancient tradition within Judaism, although this is not a familiar idea to many. In any case, Jesus’ prophetic act in the Temple was a case of non-violent resistance.

In view of all this, it is baffling to see so many American Christians defending the US’s recent military interventions in the Near East. “Whatsoever you do to the least of these,” Jesus said, “you do to me.”  From attacks with weapons associated with depleted uranium, to deadly drone attacks, to the highly questionable assassination of Osama bin Laden, to contemplation of war with Iran, it is clear that US foreign policy is far from Christian, if by “Christian” one means the pacifistic ethic of Jesus himself. How sad that the Prince of Peace has been assimilated by Christian hawks; stolen, disfigured, and re-created along militarist lines into a Lord of War.

Clear Shin is Hard to Find

I am by no means a scholar of religion. But in the play, Inherit the Wind, the character representing Clarence Darrow asks in frustration of the character representing William Jennings Bryan, “Do you ever think about what you think about?” This is in response to “Bryan’s” refusal to critically examine his own religious presuppositions. I post this article simply as a token of “thinking about what I think about” – in this case, the current state of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America. In reading books and on websites, and in viewing online videos, it seems to me that the essentials of Shin are being largely ignored, to the detriment of Shin itself.

“Seems to me” that there are some very basic Shin truths that cannot be excluded without mutilating the teachings of Masters Shinran and Rennyo – and the heart of Jodo Shinshu. An informal, incomplete list of essentials might consist of points such as:

Amida is a real Buddha.

This means that Amida is not a mere symbol for “Life” or “Cosmos” or “Enlightenment” – although, of course, Amida does symbolize all these, and more. It doesn’t mean that Amida is/has a body like the risen Christ, or wears fabrics or a gold crown, or answers petitionary prayer or physically intervenes in the material world. Instead, it means that Amida is a transcendent Existent/Non-Existent (recalling that a Buddha is no longer a human person in any usual sense – and not even a being by samsaric standards), exercising Other-Power from a Dharma realm that is foreign to the samsaric realm, the Pure Land.  Simply put, Amida is neither a god nor a guy. Amida is a Buddha, who eons ago, transformed from living as the monk Dharmakara, to being the Vow-promising-and-bestowing Bodhisattva, who now as a trascendental Buddha, issues the Call and answers it in us.

The Pure Land is real.

The Pure Land is real, but not material. It, like Amida, is a transcendent factor which is inconceivable to samsaric beings, who can only describe it by analogy and metaphor – both obviously imperfect means. The Pure Land does not, in Jodo Shinshu, correspond to the Christian Heaven. The Christian Heaven is a goal to which the Christian aspires, where s/he will dwell eternally. Not so the Pure Land, and this is a very important point.

Like all schools of Mahayana Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu teaches that the aspirant’s ultimate goal is Buddhahood. However, Jodo Shinshu adherents differ from both the Mahayana and the Theravada, by claiming that Buddhahood is not attained in the samsaric life, but rather in the Pure Land, by Amida’s Other-Power. But note that Shin’s goal is not eternal life in the Pure Land. The goal is Buddhahood. The Pure Land, however one wishes to conceive it, is only a way station, the final step in progress toward Buddhahood. The Pure Land means non-dual alignment of the adherent with Amida Buddha; the Pure Land is the process  (not the “place”) by which Buddhahood is finally realized. Once Buddhahood is realized, the aspirant-now-a-Buddha doesn’t “stay” there eternally. Rather, the newly-born aspirant-Buddha acquires the unimaginable freedom of a Buddha, and goes on to function as a Buddha, or if s/he wishes, return to samsara one final time for the benefit of all beings. Thus the Pure Land is not Heaven, but much more like a combined education, rehabilitation and enlightenment way station, which – as in the parable of the boat when it reaches the far shore – is to be abandoned.

The Nembutsu is real Other-Power and Shinjin is Other-Power faith.

This point is simple and elementary, even easy. Shin teaches that Amida issues the Call, and we gratefully respond to it with the Nembutsu. Shin also teaches that our response is not derived from, or an expression of, self-power. If it was, then it would be we who save and enlighten ourselves (as in the “Path of the Sages” forms of Buddhism), thus vitiating Amida’s working as well as our need for it. The simplest image of this process that I know is: Amida calls; we echo the call via the Nembutsu; which itself is Amida’s working, because we are utterly incapable of good works or storing up merit. The Call and its Echo are one process of Amida’s activity for our well-being. Even our Shinjin, our deep entrusting, is Amida’s creation, since we are incapable of it ourselves.

= = = = =

When teachers stray from such basics, they are no longer teaching Jodo Shinshu. I say this in no way as a fundamentalist, but simply as a purist, and an adherent to the deliberately designed-to-be-simply-understood teachings of Shinran. The teaching is both simple – and mind-boggling to the point of being, in Shinran’s own words, inconceivable. Inconceivability is built into Shin, whether teachers and sanghas like it or not. Shin is not philosophy or science. Shin is a means of being “embraced, never to be let go” by Amida in this samsaric world, and then to finally attain Buddhahood during a temporary stay in the Pure Land.

In all too many of the online Shin sermons, Amida, Shinjin and the Pure Land are rarely mentioned. Instead, there is a lot of talk about anger management, family values, appreciation of the journey of a grain of rice from the field to our plate, and many other trivial and/or important subjects, but no reiteration of Shin essentials and no commentary on Shinran and Rennyo. And there is so often a puzzled pondering over why Jodo Shinshu is losing people to other religions or to no religion at all. The answer is easy: teachers are not teaching Shin, but rather some kind of bromidical “Buddhism is for relaxation and feeling good and being tolerant” – without any reference to, or explanation of, the reasons we are 1. Buddhists and 2. why we are Shin Buddhists.

It strikes me that post-modern theology is so frightened of the object of its study that it is unwilling to turn an attentive eye to what the transcendent traditions really teach. Thus, both eyes averted, many so-called Dharma teachers shun the transcendent Amida, the real Buddha who is the wellspring of their work and the activator of their salvation and enlightenment. Instead they turn their eyes inward, to a bloodless idol of their own creation. They have the stage, the lighting, the props, the seating and the audience. But they don’t have the play itself, or at least not the one that is billed. No wonder, then, if audiences are dwindling. No wonder at all.



A Dawkins Delusion

It is possible that the historical Jesus abides in the same category as the historical Richard Dawkins: both are myths, constructed by schools of believers: in the first case messianism-mysticism adherents; in the second, reductionism-atheism adherents.

In the first case, the means are relatively simple and textual; in the second, the means are sophisticated, complex and technologically advanced.

In the first case, “the living voice” of Jesus is purported to be preserved, textually; in the second case, “the living voice and image” of Richard Dawkins is purported to be “recorded”, presented, and preserved, technologically.

Just as scholars analyze Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in order to establish its simplest and perhaps earliest form, so too with Richard Dawkins, when they analyze, for example, his Parable of the Scientifically Deficient Religionist.

Difficulties arise when scholars concede that while there are perhaps three versions of Jesus’ parable, there are said to be no less than fourteen extant versions of Dawkins’ parable, each of them told – and more importantly, technologically “recorded” – supposedly by one, single, person named “Richard Dawkins”. This situation makes it apparent that the Dawkins Conventicle is being somewhat careless in the daily creation of its completely imaginary friend and group leader.

Because of this unfortunate gear-slip in Dawkins-manufacturing, the Dawkins-creators are saying that, far from indicating that Dawkins is imaginary,  these very contradictions and inconsistencies ought to be considered strong evidence for his reality. After all, they argue, all real people tell a story a bit differently each time they repeat it; therefore, argue Dawkins-constructionists,  the inconsistencies in Dawkins’ “recorded” presentations are proof positive of his reality. Moreover, the Dawkins-inventors are busily publishing books with titles such as, Richard Dawkins is my Friend; I Shook Hands with Richard DawkinsAn Afternoon with the Very Real Richard Dawkins;  There is Only One Dawkins – and He is Real, etc.

Only time will tell if scholars and technologists will be able to deconstruct “Richard Dawkins” and to pin down his actual creators and the state-of-the-art machinery by which they have created, and continue to create, the popular delusion of an imaginary but best-selling “atheist”.