(Here’s something from August 1978. Most recently re-published in 1998. I’ve added comments this time around.)
It seems that a very necessary event in the life of a Jodo Shinshu practitioner is a time when the individual is inescapably and absolutely incapable of determining, that is knowing and directing, the future of his life. Until this occurs much of what is done is a vain pursuit of some preconceived notion of what Jodo Shinshu might be. If I am not in a position to accept the absolute affirmation of Amida, then all that is said in Jodo Shinshu is a matter of convenience and morality. Neither of which are vital nor essential to one’s existence.
This is why I think there are so many problems about membership in the church. The church has actually become an inconvenience to those who do not feel that they need it. There are always activities that are more exciting, entertaining, interesting and fun to do than to go to church. An advantage which the church has is that it is one of the few places where we can send our sons and daughters to meet other good Japanese sons and daughters. You may laugh or you may reel from the statement, but if you think about it, it’s fairly accurate.
So why do you come to church, or ask others to join you? We cannot say that if you don’t you will go to hell or worse yet lose you job. Nor can we promise that if you come to church you will get a better job, solve family problems and your skin will clear up. But this is how we generally view the church; we consider the social, economic or religious advantages. Maybe not quite so callously, but is this what Jodo Shinshu is all about?
What is really difficult about this situation is that until the moment of absolute inability emerges in one’s life, we must continue to be involved in indirectly related activities. Almost to the extent that it becomes the primary concern of our so called religious life. What must be remembered, however, is that these activities are not necessarily detrimental, but they are not the central concern of Jodo Shinshu. The central concern is the realization of true and real life.
It may be pointed out that if true and real life is all that it is supposed to be then no matter what is taking it must be true and real life. This is correct, but only from the perspective of Enlightenment. It is a basic realization of Buddhism that we are fundamentally blind to reality, this is called avidya. Only after the emergence of Prajna (wisdom) can we see reality as it is. But in Jodo Shinshu we understand that because of our limitations we are incapable of attaining enlightenment. Therefore, we rely upon life itself to support and carry us to enlightenment.
Sorry the article veers often into cringe worthy pretentiousness.
In 1975, three years before I wrote the article above, I was a minister at the Honolulu Betsuin. In that year Kuakini Hospital in Honolulu, Hawai’i began a fundraising campaign to build an eight story physicians office building. In 1979 the project was competed along with an 834 space parking facility. As the fundraising progressed everyone was amazed at how many people supported the fund drive and how quickly funds accumulated. I know now the success of the fundraising was the result of good organization and strong community support.
The concerns expressed in the article have not changed very much. We still struggle with finance and membership. In Hawai’i there are temples that have closed. There are temples that once supported a minister but can no longer do so. There are temples in the BCA that face similar circumstances. Although, there are instances where temples are growing the overall participation in the BCA is diminishing.
I think Kuakini Hospital was and continues to be successful because they are good at and people value what they do. I wonder if the assurance of Amida is still valued. If you’re sick you would want to go to a good hospital. Without awareness of Amida’s assurance we would still continue to live out our lives. We all know many people who have no knowledge of Amida yet they live happy and productive lives. If I get sick and have no access to medical attention I could die. If the temple did not exist I might find what I want in other activities.
At the core of Jodo Shinshu is the assurance of Amida. That assurance (hongan) allows me to see (prajna) my foolishness (avidya). Seeing my foolishness can soften the boundaries of my prejudices and preferences. Acknowledging my foolishness I live life in gratitude. This is a way of seeing and experiencing the world that we should share with others.
Sharing the dharma should not be about gathering members. People gather to because they value the dharma. We have followed the model of temple and membership for at least fifty years. That model has, in part, brought us to where we are now. If we can shift our efforts from gathering members to sharing the dharma we will bring back the original intent of Shakyamuni and Shinran.