Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Some interesting thoughts on Jōdo Shinshū

I have been reading a book called "Who Is This Man?" by a man named John Ortberg.  The book seeks to explore how the teachings of Jesus have left a mark on history, and there are some astounding revelations and challenging ideas within.  One of the interesting observations that Mr. Ortberg makes is that Jesus changed a very important and well-known Jewish teaching - in Deuteronomy 6:5 the commandment was to "love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength", but in the gospels we see that Jesus changed the word "strength" to "mind" - though in the version of the story told by Mark we see that "all your mind" was inserted and "all your strength" followed.  But the point was that Jesus added this idea of loving God with your mind.  And as Mr. Ortberg explores how this affected history, he makes some very interesting and challenging observations.  He notes how, before Jesus, the common practice of invading nations was to destroy the works of the nation that they invaded in order to wipe that culture out and insert themselves as the new dominant culture.  But this seems to have stopped after Jesus.  As Jaroslav Pelikan says:
"One may perhaps begin to comprehend how completely Christ the Monk conquered the scholarly world of the Middle Ages by checking, in the standard modern editions, how many works of antiquity even exist for us today only because they were copied by monks in some medieval scriptorium... [works of] not only Christian saints but of classical and pagan authors." 
The idea, as it is proposed by Mr. Ortberg in his book and now paraphrased by me, is that we are not to reject all that comes from those who are not members of our faith without examination, but are to engage their ideas without fear, as (to paraphrase Augustine) "all truth is God's truth".  To put it another way, as Mr. Ortberg says:
"To love God with all my mind means following truth ruthlessly wherever it leads.  It means cherishing truth whether it comes from the Bible or from science or from an atheist.  It means anti-intellectualism is anti-Christian." 
Later on, Mr. Ortberg says:
"Loving God with all your mind means answering the works of people you disagree with, rather than burning the works.  Loving God with all your mind means you don't have to be nervous about where a book might lead if its reader is sincerely seeking truth." 
It is in this spirit that I went on the intellectual journey I am about to relay to my readers in the hopes that it causes some interesting thoughts and inspiration for others as well.

Searching for Truth in Jōdo Shinshū
I have a friend from Japan.  We'll call him "Kenny" to protect his identity.  I met him at Prog Power USA, a music festival that is located in Atlanta, GA, which I have repeatedly attended with two very good friends of mine.  We were standing in line this year waiting to get into the festival on the first day and "Kenny" was in front of us wearing a Dream Theater shirt.  I complimented his shirt, and that led to more discussions of music, and we found out he was visiting from Japan and was in America for the first time.  We ended up sitting with him during some parts of the festival, standing with him on the main floor for some other parts, and we even offered him a ride to his hotel both nights.  I am very glad to have had the pleasure of meeting "Kenny" as he has a very pleasant personality, and after the festival we ended up connecting through Facebook and email, and have had a few online interactions since.

Recently I had posted an anti-fear quote on my Facebook and mentioned a Christian teaching that was on my mind the other day.  "Kenny" commented on this, expressing his appreciation of the teaching I had mentioned and made some mention of the state of religion in Japan.  So, out of curiosity I messaged him a couple days later asking him about his own religion.  He mentioned Jōdo Shinshū, which is a form of Budhism.  So, continuing in my curiosity I read a few things about Jōdo Shinshū.  I will not claim to be an expert at all, and I hope I do not butcher the teachings I am about to relay, but I found some things I read about it to be interesting.  In particular I found a teaching known as "shinjin" to be interesting - a couple sources I read about this teaching mentioned its similarity to what Christians call "faith", but went a little further by saying that this does not capture the nuances of the teaching.  You see, shinjin has a certain concept to it that has been described in English as being "egoless" - the concept being that you cannot attain shinjin (or faith) without renouncing or releasing your own ego.  Furthermore, the teaching of shinjin is that it can only be attained by renouncing self effort and taking refuge in Tariki, which is translated in English by some as meaning "other power". 

I find this nuanced understanding of faith to be quite interesting as I see some similarities to Christianity that members of the Christian faith may actually miss.  The word "ego" does not appear anywhere in the Bible...however the idea of losing one's ego is actually a familiar idea to me, as I find it very similar to the Bible's teachings about humility.  In the Bible, the first sin occurred when Adam and Eve were told that they could "be like God" if they were to eat a certain fruit - a fruit which comes from a tree we often refer to as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  So as I thought about the similarities of the Jōdo Shinshū teaching on shinjin to Christianity, I had the following thoughts on the original sin:
- Man wanted to be like God.  I'm not sure the desire to be like God is necessarily, in and of itself, evil.  For example, in Ephesians 5:1, it says to "imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children."
- So what was the real problem?  Perhaps the real problem was not that man wanted to be like God, but that he - rather than seeking God in response to this desire - tried to attain this goal through his own means.  He tried to attain this goal through an attempt to gain knowledge through his own power, from other sources than God.

So then I was thinking about the idea of needing to become "egoless" in order to attain shinjin, and its similarity to the teachings of the Bible on humility.  For example, Matthew 23:12 says:
"Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." 
And in I Cor. 4:7 Paul asks the question: 
"What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
And the most profound example of humility and its results are in the person of Jesus - as described in Philippians 2:6-9:
"Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.  When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names."

Perhaps the most similar Christian teaching to shinjin is found in Ephesians 2:8-9:
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast."

So the question that entered my mind as I pondered the Jōdo Shinshū teaching of shinjin in relation to my own faith is this:
What if we began to see faith as being unattainable through our own understanding, and saw pride (or lack of humility) as a faith killer?  How could we go about loving God with our mind and searching for truth, while maintaining humility and not relying on our own understanding?  What would that look like?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on these musings!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Geoff, I was raised Christian but converted to Jodo Shinshu, though I'm still in dialogue with the former tradition. My answer to your question ... well in Jodo Shinshu we have the term 'mon-shin' (hearing-faith) and I think my answer to your final question above points in that direction ... for me the religious life is being open to the world of change and the new revelations it bears into my life.