- Path of No Path: Contemporary Studies in Pure Land Buddhism Honoring Roger Corless
Roger Corless (1938–2007)—Catholic devotee, Tibetan Buddhist meditator, Pure Land interpreter, and renowned professor of religious studies—was a frequent contributor to the dialogue between Christians and Buddhists in the West, including through the auspices of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies. Although he passed away in 2007, his spirit continues to enrich this historic encounter, including through several major posthumous works. Path of No Path is the first of three such works planned for release by the Institute of Buddhist Studies, a seminary and graduate studies institution associated with Jōdo Shinshū, the largest form of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. Originally intended as a festschrift, the book unfortunately had to become a memorial volume. In addition to some laudatory material reflecting on Corless’s life, it contains articles by ten scholars focusing on the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism, broken into three categories of practice, transmission, and interpretation. Many contributors, such as Ruben Habito and Al Bloom, will be familiar to readers of Buddhist-Christian Studies.
Edited anthologies are always a mixed bag, but happily Path of No Path holds together well and offers many interesting essays for scholars interested in this field, although at times the connection to Corless’s own work seems a bit forced. Alternately, we might view those essays with relatively tenuous connections to Corless’s work as representing the sort of playfulness that Corless famously displayed in his writings and speaking appearances. A good example of this is the first essay, by Harvey [End Page 225] Aronson, on Vajrasattva meditation. Vajrasattva, a major figure in Vajrayāna Buddhism, is not traditionally associated with the Pure Land tradition. Yet Aronson begins by putting a Jōdo Shinshū framework around his subsequent article, which deals with meditative visualizations as healing techniques. Like Corless frequently did, Aronson looks for connections between seemingly disparate cultures and religions. In the process, he offers some insightful comments on how Asian and Western practitioners approach healing within a Buddhist context. For example, he finds that the Westerners are far more heavily psychological in their orientation, and tend to react negatively to situations of obligation and responsibility to others that are comfortable to Asian participants.
The second essay’s relationship to Corless is much more organic, as it deals with Chinese Pure Land Buddhism, a subject that he published important works on. This essay, by Charles Orzech, analyzes the Rites for Contemplation of and Offerings to Amitāyus Tathāgata (Wuliangshou rulai guanxing gongyang yigui), an esoteric text based in part on the famous Scripture on Contemplation of the Buddha of Limitless Life (Fo shuo guan wuliangshoufo ling). Orzech skillfully demonstrates how the Rites reframed the Scripture on Contemplation in a tantric context, contributing to the ongoing esotericization of Chinese Buddhism in the Tang period (618–907).
James Sanford’s contribution also relates to both tantric and Pure Land forms of Buddhism. Sanford offers a translation of and commentary on the Guide to the Eighty Thousand Dharma Principles (Hōri hachiman chō). This is a short apocryphal text purporting to reveal secret teachings passed on from Jōdo Shinshū founder Shinran (1173–1263) to his grandson Nyoshin. These secret Jōdo Shinshū lineages are an important historical phenomenon that have not been given nearly enough attention, in part because they are actively disapproved of by the orthodox, nonesoteric schools of Jōdo Shinshū (and indeed orthodox Shinshū has at times persecuted these minority traditions). Sanford’s introduction, translation, and commentary therefore provide a major service to scholars of Japanese religion.
Gordon Bermant’s entry is short but nonetheless contains some pithy observations on the role of “practice” in American Jōdo Shinshū, a subject that Corless himself wrote about numerous times. Traditionally Jōdo Shinshū is often understood not to include any sort of formal practice—religious practices, in fact, are seen as evidence of egoism or lack...