I don't claim to fully understand Tom Pepper's "The Radical Potential of Shin Buddhism." But then, I don't claim to fully understand anything.
The vestiges of other-worldly mysticism remaining in my mind have found Pure Land Buddhism both utterly unbelievable and also strangely compelling. After all, what's not to like about reciting Namu Amida Butsu and earning a ticket to Nirvana Land?
Sure beats other forms of Buddhism that require you to engage in all sorts of arduous practices, including back-breaking, mind-numbing meditation for ever and ever (almost).
But Pepper presents a view of Shin/Shinran Buddhism that tosses out its unbelievable aspects and leaves a philosophical system that makes pretty good sense. That said, his essay is sufficiently intellectually dense that I found it difficult to understand much of it on a first reading.
Here, though, are excerpts that will give you the gist of Pepper's activist-friendly take on what Shin Buddhism can be all about. A seemingly mostly-compatible view, and much simpler view, of Namu Amida Butsu can be found here.
What I find in Shinran that I believe is absolutely worth recovering is his insistence that we are all completely dependently arisen, that we are constructed by our culture and our age, and so in any culture in which some members are excluded from achieving liberation, nobody can achieve liberation. We must all achieve liberation together, as a collective, with no exception, or we will only be achieving an illusory liberation, a distorted image of liberation.
The attempt, by any individual, to achieve complete awakening in the midst of a degenerate world cannot succeed, and even the idea of what awakening is will be a false one, defined only by its contrast to the corrupt and oppressive social system it seeks to escape. It will be, that is, only a negative liberation, a negative freedom, the freedom to do nothing at all instead of the freedom to make use of our human potential in the world.
...Shinran’s great insight, the universal truth he recovers for Buddhism, is that we must accept that we cannot have any true liberation that depends at all on the oppression of others. We must abandon our attempts at self-perfection, which are anyway only attempts at self-perversion, until we produce a world in which everyone has the conditions to achieve full use of all their potential.
Until this time, we must accept our “blind passions,” we must accept that we are, as Shin Buddhists are fond of saying, “foolish beings.” But this is not a matter of being resigned to our flaws, of accepting passively whatever thoughts or actions may occur, as if they were not really our “true selves,” as the “mindfulness” crowd would put it; instead, we must recognize that these flaws, these “blind passions,” are structurally produced, are the product of the social system we are a part of. The goal is not to suppress these impulses, but to understand their structural causes and work to eliminate those causes, using the very energy of our blind passions to motivate our social activism.
...The goal of dialectical thought, then, is not the Western Buddhist goal of suspending all judgment; rather, the goal is to relentlessly make better judgments. We must be judgmental in all things, at all times. I’ll come back to this point at the end, with some examples that I hope will make it clearer.
First, though, I want to address what I suspect will be the common objection to my explanation of Shin Buddhism. Because as Shin became popular in the West, it became popular exactly as a kind of anti-intellectual postmodern ideology of passive acceptance of everything “just as it is,” and retreated into thought-free comfort of purely emotional and mindless devotion. I expect that it may appear that my interpretation of Shin is simply the wishful projection of a Western leftist.
...I will begin with Dennis Hirota, a professor of Shin Buddhism at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, and the head translator on for the Jodo Shinsu Hongwanji-Ha translation into English of the Collected Works of Shinran. In Asura’s Harp: Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path, Hirota offers his account of what the practice of Shin Buddhism should look like.
As Hirota explains it, “for Shinran, truth might be characterized as a fundamental shift in stance, a transformative event in which the self is dislodged from an absolute standpoint and made aware of its conditionedness.” This radical decentering of the self occurs in thought, language, discourse, and practice—it cannot occur in silent introspection, because it depends on the collective nature of subjectivity, on what in Shin terminology is called “Other Power.”
...The meaning of saying Namu Amida Butsu, then, is simply the reminder, the acknowledgement, of the possibility of dialectical thought, a possibility that only exists because of the collective nature of the mind, because of Other Power.
The goal of the “Nembutsu Practicer,” then, is less the acceptance of certain metaphysical assertions than the nature of the conceptual constructions of the world…[t]he problem is to come to a coherent and intelligible understanding of oneself and the world that ignores neither the historical and emotional boundedness of the self nor the variety and worth of experience…[that] allows for the growth of awareness, which ceases to be repetition of prior attachments and become genuinely creative activity in the world. (121-122, emphases added)
This approach may not be the dominant form of Shin Buddhism today, but certainly Hiroata’s work demonstrates that it has warrant in Shinran’s writing, and that it is understood as a viable interpretation by Japanese scholars of Zen.
...To borrow a metaphor from Marx, the contradiction between the centrifugal force produced by the Earth’s momentum and the centripetal force produced by the enormous gravity of the sun is resolved only in a practice, the elliptical orbit that keeps both forces alive and active, and produces, as a result, the capacity of our planet to produce and sustain life.
Contradictions are inevitable, serving as the structuring gap between the abstract universal and the concrete particular which allows us to make sense of the excessive information of the world and to produce potentialities for action, to escape the sheer determination of our natural history and live as human beings.
The problem is that there is always a tendency to reify a particular set of abstract categories or concepts, to mystify a particular contradiction as the eternal and ineffable limit. And when this occurs, it all too often occurs in the service of an ideology which functions to reduce, rather than increase, our capacity for creative interaction with the world. The practice of shinjin is the practice of producing, propagating and strengthening the collective dialectical mind.
...As individuals, we are foolish beings, trapped in ideologies we mistake for natural truths. To reach the Pure Land, then, would consist simply of being born into a culture that does not reify its ideologies, a collective mind already aware of its constructedness and dependent origination.
While Western philosophy has long emphasized the individual achievement of philosophical wisdom, Shin Buddhism recognizes that this is only possible as a collective project. Liberation is collective, and the collective mind is Other Power.