Institute of Buddhist Studies professor Rev. Takashi Miyaji explains the historical context of ethics in Jodo Shin, and how this relates to current racial justice movements. Read Rev. Landon Yamaoka’s companion article on Black Lives Matter here.
Living in a western society and growing up in America, I often believed—or perhaps I was conditioned to think—that religion should be associated with ethics, and it should dictate how one should live. In Buddhism, the Eightfold Path and Six Paramita have suggested ways to live, but they are not as straight-forward nor explicit as one might perceive a code of conduct should be. However, even these systems are not uniquely Jodo Shinshu. What is Jodo Shinshu’s ethics, if any?
The issue of ethics in Shin Buddhism in the context of its historical development is much too complicated and broad to cover here. However, it is impossible to talk about Shin ethics’ historical development without addressing the central problem that has both plagued and sustained this religious tradition in the face of social engagement. This of course, is referring to the issue of the two truths theory, or shinzoku nitai (真俗二諦).
The two truths theory is a belief system that acknowledges and distinguishes between two mutually exclusive worldviews within a religious organization. On the one hand, there is the supramundane truth, in which the “Buddha’s Law,” or Buddha Dharma, is the highest principle. On the other hand, there is the mundane truth, where the realm of the secular world, the “King’s Law,” or the law of the land administered by the ruling government, is also held to be the highest principle. These two truths are said to be equal in importance and mutually supportive of one another, the balance of which is supposed to create a peaceful society. Thus, adherents of the Jodo Shinshu religious orders were encouraged to follow the Buddha’s teachings and be loyal and law-abiding citizens of the country.
In the context defined above, Shinran Shonin understood that the two truths were not horizontally mutually dependent, but rather, that the supramundane truth should be the basis for determining the mundane side. For example, Shinran Shonin greatly respected Prince Shōtoku because he was a political figure who implemented public policy based on Buddhist principles. However, after Shinran’s time, many examples in history show that the various Shin Buddhist religious orders prioritized loyalty to one’s country and maintained the status quo and social order, at the expense of observing Shin Buddhist religious principles. We see this particularly around the time between the Meiji Restoration of Japan to the close of World War II (1868–1945).
As mentioned above, the two truths theory helped sustain the Jodo Shinshu religious orders, primarily the Hongwanji. However, it also greatly hindered its ability in terms of proactively engaging in social issues. As a general and broad overview, which certainly warrants further research and discussion, there was a tendency to be hesitant, or even negligent, of speaking out on social and political matters in the name of this religious tradition. The two truths theory gave a doctrinal basis for the Hongwanji to be lukewarm on social and political matters. It could claim that one’s religious path of following Amida Buddha’s Great Compassion has nothing to do with engaging in society’s many problems. In this way, by not aggressively taking stances on many social issues, the Hongwanji maintained the status quo, which further gained favorability from those factions in power. However, the Hongwanji did so at a grave expense. It created the problem of irrelevancy and the growing disconnect with the general public—a problem that in many ways can still be seen today.
Now let us look at the context of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America from the late 19th century to the present. In history, the Japanese immigrants from Japan and the Japanese-Americans born and raised in America were consistently marginalized and ostracized. Their presence, including their religion, was not welcome in the new country. Nevertheless, the temples, mainly built by the first-generation Japanese known as issei and their offspring nisei, were the social and religious havens for them. When we factor in the tragic incident of the internment camps and the outright hostile persecution of the Japanese-Americans, this only helped fuel the want to close-off the temple—and practically the religion—from non-Japanese people even well after the war’s end. Here, we see that from the doctrinal standpoint through the two truths theory brought over from Japan and from a cultural and historical context, Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America has largely been operating unseen to the general public eye. In many ways, this is what the Japanese-Americans wanted due to their public humiliation and persecution from white America throughout their history in the new homeland.
From the late 20th century to the present, we start to see some trends that push for more active social engagement from Jodo Shinshu organizations. This is primarily due to the alarming rate of the dropping number of organizational members in Shin temples in America, as well as the growing emphasis of wanting to spread this religion to the non-Japanese American public. By doing so, Jodo Shinshu followers would help give desperately needed exposure to this religious tradition, despite the fact that it has been established in this country for well over a century. In addition, it would also give a sense of concrete religious identity—and not just a cultural, ethnic one—to its adherents.
If we take one of the more recent trends as an example, we see certain temple sanghas taking initiatives that include the LGBTQ community and letting the general public know through social media, internet, and events that their temples stand in solidarity. We have also seen a concerted effort to voice opinions on racial injustice in America, and support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
This broad overview of Shin Buddhist ethics is meant to show the complexity of Shin Buddhist ethics and that this issue incorporates historical, doctrinal, racial, cultural, spatial-temporal diasporic, and anthropological factors. All of these elements show why Shin Buddhists have been both slow on the issue of social engagement, but at the same time, witness the resilience, perseverance, and strength through solidarity of a given spiritual people. If we are going to see a stronger emphasis on Shin Buddhist ethics and engagement with social issues in the future, there must be a strong and specifically Jodo Shinshu doctrinal justification for doing so.
Furthermore, this ethical schema should not be based on a system that promotes the status quo such as the two truths theory, nor even just on general Buddhist principles such as the teaching of interdependence. Instead, it must be founded uniquely on the teachings of Shinran Shonin and Amida Buddha’s Great Compassion. Finally, we must remember that Shinran Shonin teaches us, just as Śākyamuni Buddha did 2,500 years ago, that the problem of one’s existential plight is never about any specific group of people, political party, or the status quo. In Buddhism, the true problem is, and will always be, how to understand, overcome, and accept the self. Here is where Shin Buddhist ethics must begin.