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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 95-113

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Further Buddhist Christian Dialogue: A Review Article of Hee Sung Keel's Understanding Shinran: A Dialogical Approach

Alfred Bloom
University of Hawai'i

It was my original intention to write a review of Professor Keel's book. The exceptional quality of the book itself, however, and the issues it raises concerning Shin Buddhism call for a more detailed exploration and discussion. Therefore, this essay is a review article offered in the interests of promoting the dialogue which Professor Keel has so eloquently and capably initiated.

With the appearance of Professor Keel's book the development of Shin studies has reached a major milestone. Aspects of Shinran's (1173-1262) life and thought have occasionally been discussed by scholars in the West and by participants in Buddhist-Christian dialogue conferences. In this work we have a detailed analysis of Shinran's thought and the problems and questions that emerge from his interpretation of Mahayana Buddhism and Pure Land teaching. The breadth of Professor Keel's knowledge of Shinran and the depth of his insight into the teaching will carry Buddhist-Christian dialogue into the relatively unexplored area of Shin Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

Professor Keel underscores the fact that the translation of Shinran's writings into English has significantly advanced Shin studies by making the teachings available to a wider range of inquirers. It also demonstrates the great responsibility shouldered by Shin scholars who have produced these texts. They must respond substantively and positively to the issues raised by Professor Keel.

Though he is clearly Christian, he offers a lucid, sensitive, and fair summation of Shinran's religious experience and thought. He has opened the door of dialogue by presenting an interpretation of Shinran which requires a response. He does not take the position that he possesses the truth, nor does he attempt to refute Shinran in favor of Christianity. He does not judge Shinran to be in error, so much as to point to the paradoxes and dilemmas that are implied in his thought. We shall focus on these later.

His volume addresses features of the study of Shinran. Chapter One, entitled The Easy Path, takes up the social and religious background and context of Pure Land [End Page 95] teaching out of which Shinran emerged. Particularly important is the teaching of Honen (1133-1212) whose interpretation of the sole practice of nembutsu (recitation of Amida Buddha's name) threatened the traditional Buddhist establishment. Honen taught that the nembutsu recitation was fully sufficient to realize birth in the Pure Land and ultimate enlightenment without depending on the elaborate, complex Buddhist institutions which offered arduous, rigorous methods for attaining liberation from the bondage of finitude. The elevation of a single practice as the way to enlightenment characterizes the new forms of Buddhism in the Kamakura period (1185-1332).

The emphasis on the sole practice of nembutsu devotion marking Honen's Pure Land teaching, Dogen's dedication to zazen meditation alone, and Nichiren's insistence on the recitation of the title of the Lotus Sutra [Saddharma-pundarika-sutra] all countered the worldliness and decline of the contemporary Buddhist order of the period, as well as responded to the social turbulence and disorder arising from social change and shifts of power in Japan at that time. These developments also provided the background of Shinran's religious search and inspired his interpretation of Pure Land teaching which, while trying to clarify Honen against his critics, went beyond the master in significant areas.

In Chapter Two, Shinran the Bonpu, Keel takes up Shinran's religious development and life. Bonpu means a foolish, common mortal, an ordinary person. As Keel points out, religion begins with problems intrinsic to human life. In the case of Shinran, he became deeply aware of the great evils of ignorance, greed, and anger within himself and in his world. Shinran's existential seriousness and honesty led him to draw "the ultimate conclusion from the message of his master [Honen] and [push] it to the extremity of paradoxicality, giving...