In popular culture, the term “Zen” has lost almost all meaning. Sadly, it is no longer a noun that refers to a Japanese school of Buddhism. Instead, it is now an adjective that connotes anything that is “cool,” “relaxing,” or “minimalist.” It also refers to a commodified form of self-help through mindfulness. As a layperson, I understand this, but as a Buddhist minister, it still frustrates me. Recently, a Zen candle appeared on my kitchen table. I like it, and it smells great, but it also elicits sadness in me. I’m sad because popular culture has reduced the term for a great Buddhist tradition to a candle.
Two recently published books discuss how this happened to Zen and not to Shin: Mind Sky – Zen Teaching on Living and Dying by Jakusho Kwong, and the other Shin, and The Promise of a Sacred World – Shinran’s Teaching of Other Power by Nagapriya. The Zen experience has been described as follows:
“The misuse of mindfulness, without a spiritual basis, people hope to be acquiring something. In mindfulness, instead of giving something up, there can be a goal of gaining something, like relief from stress or chronic pain – or blissful happiness. I think we have to be careful about this.” (Page 4)
“People find that this form of mediation is a way to ease anxiety and stress, and it has become hugely popular and widespread. Ever since Time magazine devoted its cover and full issue to the “Mindfulness Revolution” in 2014, there have been endless articles and bestselling books – even monthly magazines – devoted to the subject of mindfulness. But without some spiritual foundation, meditation practice doesn’t go very far. Mindfulness programs are marked commercially and are found in large corporations, public schools, and government agencies. Corporate mindfulness programs are intended, essentially, to increase workers’ productivity through stress reduction. Mindfulness has become commodified to such an extent that I am reluctant now even to use the term.” (Page 4)
The Shin experience has been quite different:
“In contrast to Zen, […] Pure Land has attracted limited attention outside East Asia. It is worth reflecting on why this might be [...] Many converts to Buddhism are either consciously rejecting Christianity or else have never had a religious sensibility. They see in Buddhism tools that they can make use of in their process of personal growth, and their search for well-being, and peace of mind. They are looking not for redemption or salvation but for adjustment. Richard Payne has suggested that Shin Buddhism doesn’t offer a ‘compelling religious product’. Its focus on a seemingly external locus of awakening (Amida Buddha and their Pure Land) ‘preludes it from being easily commodified and marketed within the religio-therapeutic marketplace.” (Page 17)
The reason for this is that “Shinran’s vision is, in some ways, brutal. It is an assault on the notion of personal growth and self-development. It is an assault on human autonomy. It is an assault on the idea that I can redeem myself. Unlike Zen [...], which emphasizes personal effort and discipline as a means to ‘advance’ on the spiritual path, the Shin perspective only becomes relevant to someone prepared to abandon this self-directed project. Better, it speaks to those who have no choice but to abandon this project because it has burnt itself out. It requires us to surrender the ambition to redeem ourselves and to recognize that liberation occurs when ego-driven effort collapses.” (Page 18)
One solution, some may say, is to start marketing Shin candles as soon as possible, but of course, commodification is not our aim. We are lucky that, as Shin Buddhists, we still have control of our message, and our brand is still intact. We still have the opportunity to connect with others. We are free to infuse the term “Shin” with meaning that is authentic to our tradition. We might say that our candles are metaphorical, representing the light of wisdom and the warmth of compassion that embrace all beings just as they are. The message of wisdom and compassion is much more appealing than the scent of white ginger and amber.
Rev. Jon Turner