Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness
Jeff Wilson
Wisdom Publications (Boston 2009)

The English-speaking reader interested in the Jodo Shinshu teachings is very well served these days with regard to the essential resources. The complete works of Shinran have, of course, been translated into English, as have the three Pure Land Sutras and there is a good deal else in print and online. There remains, however, only a relatively small selection of books that explore and explain Shin Buddhism and which have been written by Western authors for the Western reader. Happily, the number available continues to slowly, but steadily, grow and this book is a very worthwhile addition.

Wilson has structured his book so as to make it very user-friendly. It consists of more than fifty essays - vignettes really - the longest of which is only ten pages, so that the book can be easily read and digested a little at a time or in more prolonged bursts. Some of the short essays tell stories that will be familiar to many Shin Buddhists but, probably, not to those new to the tradition. Most, though, derive from Wilson's experiences or reflections. They are homely essays but cleverly wrought. Without being overtly didactic, Wilson introduces the reader not only to the teachings of Shinran but also to the fundamental teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. He lets the reader know much about his background, not in any sense as self-promotion, but to contextualize the value of the Jodo Shinshu teachings to him as an individual - as a husband, father, son, university teacher and 'failed' student of Zen and thereby inviting the reader to take the teachings into his or her own life. As a 'failed' student of Zen, Wilson is able to speak to disillusioned or dissatisfied practitioners of other schools of Buddhism in a way that lets them know that they are not failures at all if they find their practice spiritually or emotionally non-availing or too demanding for the lay person. He makes it clear that there is an alternative - a profoundly Buddhist, warmly human and accepting alternative - waiting to be discovered and experienced by those who despair of feeling good enough, pure enough, clever enough or disciplined enough to ever realize enlightenment.

Wilson's approach to the Jodo Shinshu tradition is refreshing. An example of this is his essay entitled 'Our Debt to the Foundresses of Jodo Shinshu'. In this essay, Wilson's starting point is a theme he returns to many times in this book: that following the Jodo Shinshu teachings gives one insight into the interdependence of all things of life in general but, in particular, for each individual so that a feeling of gratitude for all that makes our individual lives possible arises. He makes the point that 'Shin only exists because of the effort of women' (p51), citing the contribution of Shinran's wife, Eshinni, and of his daughter, Kakushinni, to the nurturing of Shinran the man and of his legacy - his teachings - and to what was to become the institution of the Hongwanji.

Wilson's two-page 'Deep Hearing' concisely but profoundly explains how listening to the teachings takes us deeper and deeper into the teachings and into ourselves, and how even if 'we only understand things partially, out of faith we go back again and again to encounter the Dharma, until it sinks into our bones.' (p70) This is the essence of naturalness, and Wilson's essay will help the reader new to the tradition - who looks for a formalized and goal-oriented practice and finds nothing familiar - begin to understand what practice in Jodo Shinshu consists of. The chapter 'Preferences, Prejudices and Mistakes in the Narrative of 'Americanized' Shin' should be required reading for Westerners curious about, or critical of, Shin Buddhism. Wilson makes an interesting comparison with American Judaism which has 'Americanized' its practices because it is, well, American. But also Jewish, and no one would say it is Christianized. It is, of course, a form of Orientalism to expect all Buddhists to sit on the floor and meditate and Wilson gently but firmly puts such ideas in their place.

In some Jodo Shinshu circles in the United States, a mistaken (I think) eclecticism which, in practice even if not in intention, devalues the importance of the Primal Vow and shinjin has become accepted. Wilson charts a careful course through the debate this generates in his essay 'Changing and Sharing' and comes to a fair enough conclusion that a bit of borrowing of practices from other traditions is acceptable as long as the practices don't become overvalued. There is nothing wrong with Shin Buddhists meditating as long as they are not doing it with an expectation of it achieving anything or with the view that it is a prerequisite to being given shinjin.

There must be any number of ways that an author can bring the teachings of Shinran to a Western audience. The manner that any particular author chooses will depend on his or her spiritual experiences, knowledge and writing ability. The heart of the matter, of course, is to have something worthwhile to say but there is no point in writing a book that no-one will read so the likely readership must be considered. Wilson has plenty to say and his book has appeal and interest to readers with significant knowledge of Shin Buddhism, but will also instruct beginners and offer food for thought to outsiders. I warmly recommend this book to all.

- Mark Healsmith

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