With all the hoohaw about a Muslim in the House hardly anyone has noticed that the new Congress will include the House’s first two Buddhists — Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Hank Johnson of Georgia, both Democrats.
I guess the Buddhist plan to take over America by stealth is working. Excellent.
Seriously, I thought people might be interested in a little background on these two new Democratic congress critters and their respective sects. So here goes.
Mazie Hirono was born in Fukushima, Japan, in 1947 and came to America with her mother in 1955. She was raised in Honolulu and has a JD degree from Georgetown University. You can read more about Hirono’s career here.
Hirono was raised in the Jodo Shu tradition, which in Japan is as mainstream as mainstream gets. According to this story she says she is not a practicing Buddhist today. However,
She said the Buddhist values of truth, wisdom and peace are part of what led her to public service. Hirono is adamant that there should be separation of church and state.
“I think that political leaders should not infuse religion as a central part of why they do anything,” Hirono said. “When I serve, I do my best in terms of what is good for the community, what is just, what is fair.”
There’s some background on Jodo Shu here. Very simply, Jodo Shu is a sect that emerged in Japan through the efforts of Honen (1133-1212), but it is part of the older Pure Land school that can be traced to 4th century China. The appeal of Pure Land is that it offers a devotional practice of Buddhism that is more accessible to laypeople than the more “traditional” sects, many of which demand years of monastic discipline from its followers. Through devotion to the Buddha Amitabha (in Japanese, Amida Butsu), the Jodo Shu Buddhist hopes to be reborn in the Pure Land, where the realization of enlightenment is easier and nirvana “closer” than it is here.
All together the various Pure Land sects probably are the most popular Buddhist sects in Asia. Outside of Asia they haven’t attracted as many converts as some of the monastic sects, possibly because Pure Land comes across to westerners as an Asian version of Christianity — trust in Amitabha as your savior and you get to go to Buddha Heaven.
When Maizie Hirono says she is not practicing, I assume she means she no longer chants the nembutsu (in its entirety: “Namu Amida Butsu” — loosely translated “I rely upon the compassion of Amitabha Buddha”) daily. Beyond the nembutsu, Jodo Shu teaches the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and other foundational Buddhist doctrines. Jodo Shu is often confused with another Buddhist sect, Jodo Shinshu, which I understand is sorta kinda a reformed version of Jodo Shu.
At this point I want to explain that to many of the other schools of Buddhism such as Theravada or Zen, the notion of being reborn in a Pure Land is absurd on several levels. Japanese Zen folklore (or “monklore”?) contains a number of stories about great masters who were offered entrance into the Pure Land and who refused, either because there is no such place or because the Pure Land is for weenies. On the other hand, I remember an offhand remark by a sure-enough Zen dharma lineage holder to the effect that long-time Pure Land Buddhists tend to be gentle and compassionate, whereas long-time Zennies tend to be snots.
On the whole, most of the older sects of Buddhism (note that there are exceptions to everything) have developed an attitude that there’s no salvation to be found in beliefs, because beliefs are unreal. Instead, beliefs and doctrines are understood to be provisional means to wisdom, not absolute truths. This is illustrated by a Japanese folktale about a lazy student who met a beautiful lady and fell madly in love with her. The lady was aloof at first, but took an interest in his studies. So he worked his ass off to impress her. The more learned he became, the more interested she seemed. Eventually he became the most distinguished scholar in the land. He went to his lady tingling with anticipation because now, he thought, she would not refuse him. But this time when he saw her she explained she wasn’t a woman at all but a benevolent spirit, and her goal all along had been to inspire him to reach his potential. Then she disappeared in a puff of smoke.
According to the story, the student was not disappointed at all but only grateful for what the spirit had done for him. Yeah, right.
The point is that, although western Buddhists sometimes dismiss Pure Land as too much like a theistic religion and very out of sorts with the historical Buddha’s teachings, it’s still Buddhism.
Next: Hank Johnson, congressman-elect from Georgia.