Social Behavior and Religious Consciousness among Shin Buddhist Practitioners

Article excerpt

The doctrinal intricacies related to the teaching of other-power and the absence of precepts in Shin Buddhism have not traditionally prevented the development of a distinctive ethic and forms of social interaction. The data from a survey conducted by the author among a sample of Shin Buddhist practitioners show that high expectations of good social behavior are still present within the religious community, and that there is a meaningful correspondence between morals and religious consciousness. Practitioners seem to be oriented toward core Shin Buddhist values such as compassion, responding in gratitude to the Buddha's benevolence, and peace of mind; traditional Japanese values which are generally related to human relationships, and, in the case of lay followers, also ancestor veneration; and other core Shin Buddhist values such as equality and nonviolence, which may be also characterized as modern values. There are indications that the inclination toward a rich interior religious life does not preclude interesting levels of social engagement, an anti-discriminatory attitude, and support for peace and nonviolence, which also appear to be positively correlated to high standards of religious consciousness. However, the latter is also shown to affect the inclination to religious exclusivism, and to be intertwined with patriotism and ethno-cultural defense.

KEYWORDS: Shin Buddhism-social ethics-religious consciousness-Shin Buddhist values-traditional Japanese values-modern values

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

One of the major characteristics of Shin Buddhism (Jodo Shinshu ..., literally "True Pure Land school"), the tradition of Japanese Buddhism which traces back to the work and activities of Shinran ... (1173?1262), lies in its guarded attitude toward normative ethics. This is a direct consequence of the emphasis placed on the "other-power" of Amida Nyorai as the source of religious liberation, that is, birth in the Pure Land. This does not mean, however, that in Shin Buddhism no room is left for moral action guided by religious principles. This approach to an internalized version of Mahayana ethics, namely, morality without precepts, may be already seen at work in Shinran's thought, and continues to characterize much of the doctrinal debate on social ethics, as well as forms of social activism within Shin Buddhism. At the individual level there are signs that the moral expectations of the practitioners might be quite high, but so far there has been scant attention in the field of religious studies to the character of Shin Buddhist ethics and its interplay with the level of religious consciousness. The analysis of these two issues will be pursued in this article through the data of a survey carried out by the author in Japan among a sample of Shin Buddhist practitioners.

Shin Buddhist Social Ethics

The core of the Shin Buddhist approach to ethics lies in Shinran's claim that all sorts of "calculations" (hakarai ...), including the good acts aimed at accumulating merit, are nothing but an obstacle to the fundamental religious experience of shinjin ... and the achievement of Buddhist liberation.1 Following the path opened by his master Honen ... (1133-1212), Shinran believed that the meritorious acts of "self-power" (jiriki ...) should be superceded by the exclusive practice of the nenbutsu (senju nenbutsu ...), which, on the basis of the universality of Amida's Vow, can also direct the less fortunate and capable to birth in the Pure Land (ojo ...). In this connection, Shinran was also eager to clarify that the nenbutsu in itself was not a means but rather an act of gratitude to Amida's compassion and "other-power" (tariki ..). This attitude also provided the pattern to the main traditional Shin Buddhist approach to morality, characterized as a "response in gratitude to the Buddha's benevolence" (button ...) (cws i, 564; and ssz ii, 702). In this way, the newly established tradition was at the same time drawing from, and contributing to, the traditional idea of ho-on . …