In later 1996 upon receiving word of an upcoming Buddhism in America conference in Boston, I contacted one of the organizers. Conference announcement looked interesting despite the typical illiterate cliché of “Buddhism” found in objectionable periodicals such as Tri-Cycle. Why not give it a try, helping them broaden comprehension of Buddhism beyond that stale “Bit Three” of Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhisms. Al Rapaport let me know that’s it – nothing else. Besides upon learning my credentials are of Jodo Shin, he quickly added the conference was ‘not’ for popular Buddhism! Ironically, outside of mainstream “Western neo-Buddhism”, it was even then well understood the Zen, Tibetan, Theravada standard is American Popular Buddhism – even with its flagship magazine, TriCycle, said to be for those still unable to ride a two wheeler with training wheels!
Rapaport and Trike represented the latest regurgitation of that colonial Orientation fabrication named with no corresponding work in Asian languages: Buddhism, a religion of doctrines, clerics, all corresponding to recycled Western Christianity in academia as the laughable ‘scientific study of religion.’
Tooth and Nail
I was warned at the outset – our normative standard explanation of ‘Buddhism’ is deeply flawed. But I was warned by my mentor, one whose Shin Buddhism was generally agreed to be so seriously deviant from core Buddhism to question even including it. His four bedroom home was upholstered floor to ceiling in books, including several editions of the Buddhist canon in Chinese. He published in ten languages, and now was mentoring me in Sanskrit. I could not figure out how someone so steeped in Buddhism could swallow simplistic Pure Land Buddhism – ‘just chant the Buddha’s name to earth rebirth in his afterlife pure land.’ My twice weekly hour lessons quickly turned into 4-6-8 hour or longer arguments, him nailing me every time. We’d reach a point for him to say “let’s find out what the Sanskrit says”. That moved on next to “the Chinese”. An apprenticeship fighting tooth and nail every step. For his part, he was the first, likely only, non-Japanese Hokyo of the Nishi Honganji Gakkai, let’s say like a big rank above a Zen master. Before me, he’d been mythologist Joseph Campbell’s mentor leaving me to get both of their wisdom. In time I flipped or my understanding woke up, no longer that of a privileged white colonial Orientalist superimposing the categories of normative Christian theology on non-Western phenomena.
We did meta-praxis, too. Most central recitation of a mantra like phrase called the nembutsu. For me, that was immediate entry into unsuspected other realms of consciousness. In our Western tradition, doctrine settles all accounts of what you’re doing. In Shin Buddhism mythology instead of doctrine paces growth of understanding. Amida Buddha, a mythic figure whose name means Immeasurably Awake (a metaphor for emptied), is the interlocutor for entry to his Pure Land. How our colonial Orientalists invented Pure Land remains a mystery. The Sanskrit word is sukha, referencing an innate bliss embodiment as the stresses of normality are seen through, risen above. You don’t achieve bliss, instead return to a primal energy informing life. I call nembutsu chanting a portable practice – no need for religious costumes, cushions, paraphernalia. Just intone it, silently or out loud. Feel it. Transformation moves you from the roller coaster melodramas of ‘normal neurosis’ eventually to an unassailable internal stability, to an emotional intelligence immune to nonsense.
Nembutsu metapraxis has taken decades of consideration as it has progressively matured my understanding. But not by itself.
Meetings with Remarkable Men
Once connected with my mentor, our partnership became prime focus. Including through most of Japanese Buddhist University graduate school. Most. Edward Conze was with us for two quarters, opening still more vistas for me. Most remarkably, Conze detested Pure Land Buddhism, making no bones about his convictions. We did a graduate seminar in Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamika Karikas, Conze’s primary specialization of bodhisattava prajna/wisdom texts. Our text was photocopyied cut and paste of Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese versions of each of the karikas or verses, along with several English translations. For my term paper submitted one on Madhyamika in the Shin Buddhist cofounder’s work, one Shinran. Several weeks later Conze remarked in class that the most sublime expression of buddhist wisdom was the work of Shinran.
For my part Conze took me another step in deconstruction of the Western fabrication – a literary invention of the Victorian era in which the post-Christian culture of ‘scientific’ modernity was emerging, bringing along with it all the taboos inherent in traditional Christian culture. And installing a tendency to look down upon cultures not so invested. Just as Buddhism doesn’t distinguish between mind and body, more significantly Buddhists cultures never imposed a taboo forbidding development of psychology – both normal existential psychology as well as an advanced psychology of liberational transformation of mind, emotions, embodiment. Our Western culture, then, was close to 2,000 years short of development of psychology of Being.
Shin’ya Kasugai was a professor at Bukkyo Daigaku in Kyoto, oriented within the Jodo movement. After World War II he’d lived for years in India, becoming fluent in spoken Sanskrit, several dialects as well as classical Tibetan. Kasugai was the closest to Carlos Castenada’s don Juan. The ‘paranormal’ or miraculous dimensions of Buddhist naturalism were just that with him: awakening to our fuller nature. His graduate students were encouraged to show me the real buddhism unseen and rejected by Western students up to their ears in politically correct Zen – to the exclusion of learning the bigger remarkable picture in Japan.
1976 at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Michael Murphy, co-founder of Esalen Institute was Regents Lecturer for a month. I knew of him through Adam Smith’s book, especially his work in meditation and in sports. He wasn’t expecting to meet an official Kyoshi (Teachings Master) and gym rat combination. I’d been living what he was researching all by myself for close to twenty years. Mike’s background in yogic sutra tradition and tranformational psychologies was just what a I need for some imiportant loose ends.
The guiding mythic image of the majority tradition of Buddhism is the person waking up, the widom-being or bodhisattva. An immense literature began in India, continued developing through Central Asia, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. Western scholarship’s paradigm paralysis addiction to doctrines extends to schools or sects and orthodoxy. That’s how they mistake the forest for the trees. The guiding mythic image of bodhisattvas is bodhi building, wisdom embodiment, enlightenment phenotype. Declaring myself a bodhisattva generalist in the likes of Joseph Campbell liberated me to understand a complex developmental meta-psychology of mature waking up to our innate human potential – not some damned religious dogma. While still in India, bodhisattva mythos included Piaget like developmental models guiding emergence of wise intelligent sentient beings.
Several years ago Murphy directed me to Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University. Jeff’s works brought more catalyst. I will not attempt summarization, instead recommend reading them all. A student of Wendy Doniger, holder of the Mircea Eliade chair at Chicago, Jeff has shown how reframing the history of religion to the history of consciousness clears focus to energetic primes we shape and embody. His newer discussion in Secret Body also focuses on the energy of Other.
Tariki – Other Energy Mystery
In my understanding, the whole Pure Land movement from India forward, and particular Shinran, are pure and simple gnosis spirituality. And not one engendering cultivation of practices calculated for your enlightenment. Self-calculating effort (hakurai) defeat the natural grace endowed in the mystery – every bit as much as mentally straining to orgasm thwarts it happening. Just as they don’t distinguish body from mind, bodhi building doesn’t’ make itself religion or medicine – instead an easy, natural way of liberating innate fullness. Amida’s Pure Land has become salvation for those who don’t handle metaphor, then made far worse in a standard of English rendering amounting to Second Hand Orientalism. Also important is that awakening is the sense of mystery traditions in which you first cross over the threshold from normal to natural, then become a connoisseur of the repertoire of hidden capacities and functions in natural living.
Shifting from dogmatic beliefs to our evolutionary history of consciousness is an immense game changer, one loosening us up for the fun, the journey, the mythos of our nature.
Please correspond. Please help success with this work. I expect to merely be a shorter term catalyst from what becomes a voice and image for an emerging grassroots movement in cultural evolution in favor of Jonas Salk’s The Survival of the Wisest. I’d like to see the website grow into an online education resource including access to ideas, tools, life networks. So you’re forewarned: many folks need to become involved, not just a marginalized old man.
Contributions are solicited and will be put to good beneficial use.
Copyright November 2020, Ken O’Neill. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.