Institute of Buddhist Studies student and Jodo Shin priest Landon Yamaoka reflects on engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement. For context on the history of Jodo Shin ethics as it relates to political movements, read Dr. Takashi Miyaji’s article here.
This summer the Buddhist Churches of America’s Ministers Association put out a statement in early June in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in opposition to racism. I feel this was the right thing to do and as a religious organization we should speak in solidarity with those who are also suffering in the communities around us. Before the statement I had seen a handful of reposts on Facebook from various ministers sharing articles that supported the movement, and a close friend who is also a Jodo Shinshu minister did a dharma talk on why the Black Lives Matter movement is important. I have seen that since his initial talk, more of our priests started to show support for the movement. This led to the Ministers Association’s statement in support of BLM.
I feel as a Shin Buddhist it is imperative one takes the teachings of our founder Shinran Shonin and emulate his lessons as best as we can. Our practice is to come to understand the workings of Amida Buddha that are given to us so we are able to attain enlightenment. This process is one of gratitude, as over time the teachings guide a stronger understanding of what has been done for us, so all we have to do is take refuge in Amida’s working for us. This process is mirrored in a view of the self as limited by delusions and ego.
Recently I was able to attend a reunion workshop for the Jodo Shinshu Correspondence Course in which part of the training dealt with Jodo Shin ethics. This discussion centered on viewing the self with our appreciation for the Vow of Amida Buddha to liberate all sentient beings. Our trainer said that from an orthodox or doctrinal point of view, there is no set code of conduct or prescribed set of rules for ethical behavior in the Shin tradition. We all have to search our own understanding of what we have learned in life, and come to understand that our rebirth is what allows us to really do good. This is because we are beings born into Amida’s Pure Land and we come back to help guide others to the same birth that we were given.
I believe our minister was pointing to the fact that in our tradition, our practice is to understand that we are driven by ego and deluded thoughts so we need the spiritual liberation provided to us by Amida Buddha. In section five of the Tannisho, Shinran is quoted as never saying the nenbutsu for his parents’ sake, but for himself alone. Shinran’s thoughts show that we cannot transfer Amida’s merit to save other beings who are suffering, at least in the spiritual or religious sense of helping. However, I do not believe this precludes helping others who are struggling. While we cannot do anything for another person’s religious enlightenment, we can allow the teachings to inform us how to recognize those who are suffering around us, and then help them in other aspects of their lives.
The Vow of Amida is for all beings, but more so for the ones who are incapable of creating meritorious acts for themselves. The Tannisho states in section three that “If a good person can be saved, how much more so an evil one?” This statement is important as it is informing our followers to rely on the Other Power of Amida Buddha, and not to rely on our own abilities to do “good.” This is because we are full of blind passions, which prevent us from freeing ourselves as we are stuck our own egos, putting ourselves at the center of the universe. In the statement from the Buddhist Churches of America’s Ministers Association regarding opposition to racism and supporting the BLM movement, they mentions Amida Buddha’s “Wisdom of Non-Discrimination.” This reminds us that Amida embraces all regardless of age, gender, class, or race. It reminds us that non-enlightened beings cannot achieve a perfect view of all beings; in other words, we cannot view humans without bias. While we cannot perfectly view others without falling into making categories, the statement reminds us that we should still strive towards creating equality for all even though we are deluded.
The policies of systemic racism are centered around the idea that one group is superior and should have more power. When we see that we all have blind passions and self-centeredness, I believe this is where people can learn to unlearn any narratives they may have that “other” different groups of people. Amida’s Vow was created solely for me, as I too am full of these blind passions, but I have tried to understand how I constantly put myself first. Even though I am guilty of harming others, the Vow works even more so for my liberation and because of this, I can not feel like something has to be done to help others who are suffering as well. Not because I think they need to be converted, but because the Bodhisattva Path to liberation includes me, so I feel I have to address the suffering of others who have it worse than me.
I do believe that what stops us from having a stronger appreciation of the Buddhist teachings (ego, delusions, cravings, etc.) also create the need to dominate and oppress other racial groups in order to make us feel safe and “good.” I cannot make anyone do anything, but personally as a priest I do believe it is only natural when I receive a gift that cannot be paid back (in regards to what the Buddha has done for me), that I should support all who are suffering, and do as much as possible for the ones who really need it right now. Jodo Shinshu’s teachings make me reflect on my own foolish nature and how to navigate my own suffering. Through this process I do believe then we have to also recognize others who are suffering more than us, and this is why I feel we have to support the BLM movement and try to understand their needs as human beings as well.
Reverend Landon Yamaoka