This is an off-shoot from my original reading list, but something I’ve wanted to take a look at for some time now. I’v found Buddhism fascinating since high school, and though I hold onto my identity as a Jesus follower with a somewhat closed fist, I’ve found the teachings of the Buddha and those who’ve learned from him to be both fascinating and helpful in times of need.
The other reason I’ve wanted to read this particular text is because it’s adapted from lectures by D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese Zen master whom I’ve found quite a bit of respect for in terms of his wisdom and teachings. While by no means a perfect man (he held something of a sympathy for Nazism), Suzuki is responsible for the spread of Buddhism in the west, particularly Zen Buddhism. This particular text, however, is actually out of his Zen expertise, dealing with a very popular sect of Buddhism in Japan (20% of her population identify with it) known as Shin, or Pure Land, Buddhism.
Shin Buddhism follows the teachings of the Buddhist monk Shinran, who lived in 12th century Japan and advocated for a form of Buddhism that focused on the Buddhist eschatological teachings of mappo, or the belief that, over time, the Buddhist teachings and practices would become ineffective in helping its practitioners come to Buddha-hood. Shinran began to focus his teachings on the 18th vow of the Amida Buddha:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.
This makes Shin Buddhism unique in that it places its focus on an Other Power, a Higher Being, if you will, because its practitioners depend on the actions of someone other than themselves to help them attain enlightenment, unusual, considering that many Buddhist sects depend solely on the efforts of the individual to reach Nirvana. In his lectures on this topic, Suzuki provided for his listeners more than a few parallels between Pure Land Buddhism and Christian mysticism, particularly Meister Eckhart (people in the West apparently like this sort of thing).
I found some good in reading this rather short text (doesn’t even clock in at 100 pages), particularly in the way that much of what Suzuki communicated as the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism, he communicated using story. There was some exposition and comparison, yes, but I love the fact that much of the teachings of the East come in the form of parables and proverbs, rather than academic exposition. It gives me far more to ponder than the verbose treatises you see in Western philosophy, which, while giving an answer, do nothing to illuminate the truth without just giving it away. I’m not saying there’s not room for treatises…I just wish they used story to communicate more often.
Other than that, I found the work to be intriguing, but certainly not life-altering. I don’t think that even matters, really; Suzuki certainly doesn’t care. He just wanted to tell some people about Shin Buddhism, and he succeeded in that, so if Buddhism is interesting to you, you’ll like this text. Go for it.