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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 214-217

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Book Review

Toward a Contemporary Understanding of Pure Land Buddhism:
Creating a Shin Buddhist Theology in a Religiously Plural World

Toward a Contemporary Understanding of Pure Land Buddhism: Creating a Shin Buddhist Theology in a Religiously Plural World. Edited by Dennis Hirota. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. 257 pp.

One of the lessons I learned from Martin Luther is about "vocation." Basically, one's "vocation" is to express love and compassion toward all through engagement with the structures of existence that hinder justice through whatever social or occupational role (one's "calling") one occupies. In Luther's theology, there is no privileged ecclesiastical institution, no privileged theological class, and in his better moments, no privileged doctrinal system that mediates God's grace—meaning God's love and compassion. Instead, grace meets us where we are in the midst of whatever our "calling" might be; our "vocation" is to serve others in community through our callings: teacher, pastor, parent, physician, farmer, clerk, politician, or any other honest occupations by which persons make their way in the world. Luther's ideas of vocation—part of his doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers"—functioned as part of his critique of received medieval Christian tradition; it remains a defining theological principle of Protestant thought that Paul Tillich called the "Protestant principle."

Being critical of Christian tradition is still widely practiced in mainline Protestant circles, even though Protestantism since Luther has produced absolutized forms of Luther's original critique of Christian tradition. My own Lutheran tradition is as guilty of this sort of idolatry as other Christian traditions. But the best of Protestant thought and practice has always generated critical attitudes in many theologians. So each generation of mainline Protestant theological reflection since Luther rejects, even as it builds upon, the work of previous generations, sometimes even retrieving elements of earlier tradition that their predecessors had rejected—as Luther retrieved Pauline-Augustinian notions of grace as a means of critiquing the sale of indulgences and the entire sacramental system of medieval Catholicism. [End Page 214]

So as a Lutheran who believes that the process of personal and corporate self-criticism is an expression of faith, and that every attempt to absolutize any given form of tradition or religious practice is idolatry and constitutes nonfaith, I am always interested in learning how other religious traditions encourage personal and corporate self-criticism. As a Lutheran who happens to be a historian of religions engaged in interreligious dialogue, especially with Buddhists, and who has also thought and written about Pure Land Buddhism, I am especially intrigued when I encounter self-criticism similar to the Protestant principle at work in a form of Buddhism I deeply admire.

Toward a Contemporary Understanding of Pure Land Buddhismis a collection of essays that evolved from a 1989 symposium planned by Dennis Hirota and sponsored by the Institute for Buddhist Studies that was held in Berkeley on campuses affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union. The focus of the conference—and of this volume—was constructive criticism of Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition. The essayists—three Buddhists and two Christians—share the conference's two convictions: (1) Pure Land Buddhism has a significant contribution to make to life in the contemporary world, and (2) Pure Land teachings and practices in the forms in which they are commonly communicated appear alien to contemporary persons both East and West. The structure of this collection flows from these convictions: first, three Pure Land authors (Dennis Hirota, John S. Yokota, and Musashi Tachikawa) offer three distinct proposals for deconstructing and reconstructing Pure Land Buddhism so that practitioners can more adequately reflect on contemporary intellectual and social circumstances as the context for faithful practice in a global context of religious and secularism pluralism, followed by critical comments on the Pure Land Buddhist proposals by two Christian theologians (Gordon D. Kaufman and John B. Cobb Jr.), and concluding with reconsiderations of their original proposals by the three Pure Land...