I had an essay in October’s issue of “The Wheel of Dharma,” the monthly publication of the Buddhist Churches of America. If, upon reading, it seems somewhat decontextualized, that’s because it is: I wrote it last year as part of the Institute for Buddhist Studies program I was working on at the time, and you can see the question to which I was responding at the beginning of my section. In the essay I sort of kind of half-assedly pick a fight with George Tanabe, and I wanted to expand on my thoughts — they gave us an 800 word limit in the program, and there wasn’t really room to work through what I was trying to say.
You probably have to read Tanabe’s essay for yourself. He’s not entirely wrong, but I think his suggestion that we westernize our practice is, and I say that as someone who didn’t actively choose to become a Buddhist (I was, as the article notes, born into this faith tradition). The roots of the problem are historical: Jodo Shinshu practice, in the United States and Canada, looks a lot like Protestant practice, and that’s not an accident. The earliest Buddhists in the US deliberately set their temples up to be as much like western concepts of church as possible, so as to not raise the ire or suspicions of their neighbors. The fact that people got together on Sundays, sang hymns, and generally behaved like a church meant that Buddhism could be accepted as a church, and that was fairly critical for survival back then.
Tanabe argues that a lot of the ritualistic practices of Jodo Shinshu need to evolve into the modern era. He talks about transforming the gathas from organ-based pieces to works featuring percussion, guitars, and hip hop styles. I… don’t really know how that’s going to go over, to be honest; I’ve only ever heard one truly good religious hip-hop piece:
(In fairness, I am perhaps not the right person to evaluate this argument, because I’ve never really liked the gathas anyway. Having said that, we sung the wasan in Kyoto a number of years ago, all 3,800 of us at the 750th anniversary service, and it nearly moved me to tears, so yeah, I dunno. But I digress here…)
My biggest problem with Tanabe’s essay is this paragraph:
Thirdly, the rituals, and especially their languages, remain aesthetically beautiful but often have no communicable meaning. Sutras written in classical Chinese are chanted with Japanese pronunciations that constitute a special language of its own, being neither Japanese nor Chinese. For many (including some priests), it is mumbo-jumbo. The texts themselves deserve better treatment than that, and need to be chanted in translation or some other more meaningful form. Ritual aestheticism has its attractions, but only to connoisseurs and seldom to younger people or strangers.
I don’t know about that. If we’re trying to appeal to folks who know what western church looks like, the fact that they’re even considering becoming a Buddhist means they don’t like western religions and they don’t like being in western churches. I’m not suggesting we need to amp up ritualistic practice and become even more monk-like than we already are — Rennyo himself eschewed the idea of having specific rituals and specific acts of worship, and asked followers to concentrate on the concept of entrusting in the Primal Vow — but, having established these rituals are part of the liturgical style, we shouldn’t be so hasty to throw them out. True, nobody understands the sutra chanting. But trying to chant in English is just downright weird; I actually find it much more disruptive and spiritually disconnecting. Jodo Shinshu doesn’t have a tradition of meditation (it’s Buddhism for people who lacked the time to be Buddhists, basically), and a lot of western converts want meditation-type activities, so why not look at the sutra chanting as a form of communal meditation? It’s not silent, but it does do a hell of a good job at shutting your brain up for ten minutes or so and forcing you to focus on your breathing.
Basically, my issue with Tanabe’s argument is that he thinks we need to modernize and westernize to attract followers, trusting in the power of the dharma to grow the community. I don’t agree. I’ll support ordaining priests here (or, at least, giving candidates the option of being ordained in North America or in Kyoto), I’ll support trying to find ways of extending the teachings to contemporary problems of morality and ethics. But you need to get people interested, and you don’t do that by making the whole thing look like everything else — you gotta stand out, somehow, and we already do a pretty good job of standing out. Tanabe is right in that we need to have some way of showing casual visitors what it means to be a Buddhist, and what it means to be a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist in particular (the most common question I get is “so how come you like beer so much?”), but it goes much further than that. The outreach needs to be directed at engaging people on a personal level, creating the space for conversations about the Primal Vow and the idea of entrusting. So you need to create a modern-day “evangelical” version of Buddhism to help get people interested — but only after they’re curious, and as humans we tend to not be that curious about things that seem familiar.
I think the hybrid ascetic practice we’ve managed to evolve is pretty good for that purpose: there’s enough of a sense that you’re engaged in something that’s old, it’s different enough from western church as to be worth paying attention to, but it’s accessible enough that if you want to learn more, you can. At the end of the day, people who are interested in Buddhism aren’t coming to temple because they want rock and roll and hip hop, they’re coming to temple because in their minds Buddhism has to do with peace, serenity, introspection, and mindfulness. I’m not saying you can’t get that with bitchin’ tunes and memorable hooks, but is that really what people want?