The Best Kept Secret of Buddhism:
Shin Buddhism in America

When I meet Western people interested in Buddhism and say I'm a Shin Buddhist, they often give me a blank stare and ask: "Is that “nammyohorengekyo?" or "What kind of meditation do you practice?" – implying some form of Zen or Tibetan Buddhism. As the questions imply, in this form because these movements have been the most popular and prominent in the media, catching the attention of people seeking peace of mind in a turbulent world or a new approach to their fragmented lives. People of Japanese background would probably know the name, if not the teachings, since Shin has been so conspicuous within the Japanese community in the West.

I myself probably would share the bewilderment with other non-Japanese had I not encountered Shin Buddhism as a soldier during occupation duty in Japan at the end of World War II. Being a Christian fundamentalist at the time, I was shocked to discover that there was a teaching of "grace" in another religion. My subsequent graduate work led me to the engage in a study of Shinran (1173-1262), whose interpretation of Buddhism and Pure Land thought established the basis for this movement in Japan. Supported by a Fulbright scholarship, I went to Japan in 1957 and, since receiving a Ph.D. degree from Harvard University in 1963 with a thesis entitled "Shinran's Life and Thought," I have explored many aspects of the tradition.

Through Shinran's writings I discovered a liberating teaching which offers realistic insight into human existence, a cosmic perspective on the meaning of life, and a basis for intellectual inquiry while encouraging a positive spiritual and devotional approach to life and human relations. My studies and activities in the Shin community over the last twenty years have enabled me to observe at close range many aspects of temple life, as well as the issues and problems now confronting the tradition as it struggles to survive in, and contribute to, the highly competitive contemporary American religious environment.

In the midst of its many vicissitudes, Shin Buddhism has sought its role in modern society, especially in the West. Despite the fact that as a Buddhist tradition it has a universal character, Shin evolved as an ethnic tradition in North America and, while the ethnic character has been important in providing a rallying point for a community that has been under stress of discrimination, segregation, and distrust, Shin now faces the challenge of transcending its ethnic character to become more universal.

Historically, Shin Buddhism was initiated by Shinran (1173-1268) during the Kamakura era (1185-1332). The movement is known in Japan as Jodo Shinshu, True Sect of the Pure Land. Shinran laid the doctrinal foundations of the teaching, drawing on earlier Chinese and Japanese Pure Land sources, which he adroitly reinterpreted in conformity with his own religious experience. Brought to despair by his failure to attain the spiritual ideals of Tendai discipline and practice, Shinran abandoned the monastic life of Mount Hiei and became a disciple of the noted Pure Land teacher Honen. From Honen, and during his exile, he developed his distinctive interpretation of Pure Land teaching.

The eighth successor Rennyo (1415-1499), sometimes regarded as the second founder, established the movement as a popular religion and a social force with its base in the peasant class. It became closely allied with the feudal structure that solidified during the 250 years of Tokugawa rule (1600-1868). Eventually, a highly complex ecclesiastical structure with formalized doctrinal and scholastic traditions evolved which relied upon a broad-based popular faith and piety among the adherents.

With deep roots in peasant society as a result of Rennyo's efforts, Japanese Shin was particularly suited to the needs of a rural community in that it offered ordinary lay people a simple way to spiritual deliverance. A practitioner need only have faith and recite the name of Amida Buddha [Namuamidabutsu] with gratitude in order to reach the Pure Land. Moreover, Shin was particularly suited to lay life since it rejects the notion that monks must leave society as celibates to pursue enlightenment through the practice of precepts and meditation. In the course of my travels among Shin temples, I have observed considerable effort, particularly among younger members, to distinguish the specifically Buddhist element in Shin teaching and temple life and what is a carry over of Japanese culture. A case in point is that Buddhism is egalitarian, while Japanese culture is hierarchical. Hierarchy is not essential to Buddhism. I have often been challenged that the emphasis on gratitude in Shin may merely mean subordination of the person in the Confucian mode. I have had to explain that Shinran was not an authoritarian, and his stress on gratitude is based in his spiritual experience of faith.

As Shin Buddhists, we are constantly asked the Shin view of women, race, ecological issues, or political questions. The response requires thinking on a more universal plane. Shin, as a facet of Mahayana Buddhism, has a clear mandate to reach out to all people in the ideal of the Bodhisattva and in Shinran's teaching. Moreover, the translation of Shin texts has reinforced this obligation because Shinran clearly expressed the ideal. Consequently, by making the teachings more easily accessible to members, more questions are being raised concerning the deeper meaning of Shin in society. Nevertheless, there is a tension within the group between the efforts to appeal to all people and the responsibility not to abandon the cultural heritage, particularly the first generation immigrants who sacrificed so much to establish the teaching in America. However, as the problems remain unsolved, an attrition of members and ministers of crisis proportion continues.

There is currently a crisis in the Shin community in the United States which, as the following figures show, is reflected in the decline in general memberships and number of ministers. According to one study, the number of Shin Buddhist ministers peaked in 1930 with 123 ministers. By 1981 there were seventy-one. In 1977, general membership in the BCA stood at 21,600 families (approximately 65,000 people) but, figures from1992, which probably reflect family memberships, show that the number has fallen to 8,816. Clearly, attrition has been going on for many years.

In recent years "outmarriage" (i.e., marriages with other ethnic individuals) among Japanese-American youth has also grown to about 50%, and few of the children of mixed marriages or their parents are active in the temples. If there is any sign of hope, it lies in the dharma schools for small children, which are still thriving. Though the numbers rise and fall, in 1984 they totaled approximately 2,550 students and in 1993 the number had grown to 3,045. Since1990 there has been a significant increase. This may be due to better organization and efforts of dharma school parents and encouragement of the minister.

In addition, the crisis is deepening as the clergy are aging and retiring. Out of a total of sixty temples in the United States, ten do not have full-time ministers while eight ministers serve two or three temples and some retired ministers are being pressed into service. And as is the case in Japan, for the rank and file members, the tradition has come to emphasize memorial services for the dead. Along with other forms of Japanese Buddhism with a similar emphasis, Shin is generally regarded as an otherworldly religion and dubbed as “Funeral Buddhismïm". This view has persisted in its transfer to the West and has contributed to the decline of members and ministers. Japanese-American youth who experience the emphasis on death in the tradition are not greatly challenged to become ministers when there are so many other options in society.

Moreover, the high degree of professionalism of Japanese-Americans contributes to this problem. Young people are encouraged to become doctors, lawyers, dentists, scientists, engineers, and business people. Today, only six percent of Japanese-American students in Ph.D. programs pursue studies in the humanities which involve traditional disciplines that might lead to a consideration of ministry. Non-Japanese youth, however, do occasionally decide to enter the ministry. Many encountered Buddhism in its various forms through exposure to Asian spiritual and religious traditions in their own quest for meaning. They may have studied Buddhism in its more ideal forms or they may have practiced other forms of discipline, such as marital arts training. For deeply personal reasons, they turn to Shin Buddhism as the way to cultivate Buddhist experience and values. They have not, like their Japanese-American counterparts, been subjected in their early lives to an emphasis on rituals associated with the dead, but have been drawn by the character of Buddhist teaching.

Compared to other Japanese Buddhist denominations with in the United States, there are proportionally more non-Japanese active in the BCA Shin ministry. Despite previous bad experiences with Euro-American ministers, Shin welcomes those who make such a commitment and are willing to undergo the requisite training. Presently, there are five non-Japanese ministers, out of a total of about 62 ministers in service, one of whom has become the chief minister of a very important temple. In my own case, thought I did not become a temple minister, I received the initial stage of ordination (tokudo) and have, over the years, participated in many temple programs and sat on temple boards.

Though problems may arise from a lack of understanding between a minister and the ethnic community being served, the congregations, because of prior conditioning, may also have a problem fully accepting and responding to a person from outside the ethnic community.

In the early years of Shin in America, ministers were enlisted in Japan and sent to the West. Because of the large numbers of first-generation Japanese in the community, this arrangement was optimal. Now, however, Japanese priests who make the trip have great difficulty in culturally and linguistically relating to the younger generations. In addition to problems of adapting to another culture, life for a priest is better in Japan than it is in the United States. Priests in Japan are more or less in control of their temples, whereas in America priests are considered to be employees of the congregation. They receive lower wages and benefits than their Japanese counterparts. Most Japanese priests who come to the U.S. do so only on a temporary basis, awaiting permanent positions in family temples back home.

While external, historical circumstances such as these are partially responsible for attrition in Shin, it is also due to a lack of dynamic leadership within the tradition. Despite the high degree of professionalization of its members, Shin lacks a vibrant intellectual center. There are few members with the training and background in religious and philosophical studies to explore issues critically and to move the community in a more positive direction. Within the temples, some younger ministers have become aware of the richness of their ethnic and religious heritage as a result of study in Japan. As a consequence, they sometimes appear to reinforce the conservative tendencies of the community that wishes to return to former times when temple life seemed more vital and cohesive. Hence, there is ambivalence toward developing practical programs for outreach. In my own experience, one long-standing member informed me soon after I had arrived at the Institute that many of the members did not want white, black, Chinese, Korean, or any other group in the temples because they would take the temples away from them. That is, large numbers of non-Japanese would take control of the organization. And despite claims to the contrary, there is no policy within the BCA established to carry out a concerted or organized effort of outreach.

Moreover, although a school has been established to train English-speaking ministers, trainees must still go to Japan for a number of years to imbibe the traditional teaching and learn Japanese. Since the teaching given in Japan is shaped by issues of Japanese history and culture, the ministers who return have difficulty culturally translating the teaching. In my own limited experience of listening to sermons, I have rarely heard any discussion of Buddhism and contemporary issues, and where doctrinal themes may be addressed, seldom are the further philosophical implications and meanings explored. In fairness, however, I must indicate that members often desire simple presentations.

For these reasons, Shin Buddhism still remains relatively isolated in American society, where even after one hundred years it appears to be a foreign religion. Charles Prebish in “American Buddhism” notes:

“As the issei (first generation) members of the congregation die, Buddhist Churches of America cannot seem to decide whether to follow the general wishes of the nisei members (second generation) and Americanize more fully, or honor the wishes of the clergy (and many young members) and reassert their Japanese heritage.”

“Consequently, the national organization finds itself in the curious predicament of having been present on American soil longer than any other Buddhist group and having acculturated the least.”

He might also have noted that it not only has the longes history in america, but is the best organized, and endowed with the richest human and financial resources. Yet it has not been able to make the transition.

The issue is not one merely of statistics and sociology or history, however. Shin Buddhism has a great opportunity to become transnational because of its similarities with Western religion, but it has not realized this potential. Rather, inner problems, such as Shin's system of religious education and its priestly character, limit the impact of the teaching.

There have been several attempts to upgrade and improve the temple's educational resources over the years, but dharma school teachers are all volunteers, and there are few programs which offer systematic training for teachers. They introduce young students to basic Buddhist teaching such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, many stories about Shakyamuni, as well as ritual, but their exposure to the basic principles of Shin Buddhism itself is very limited. Youth frequently leave the temple at adolescence or when they go to college and may not return to the temple - if they return at all - until middle age when they have their own families. Adult classes that take up contemporary problems of religion and modern life are few as sermons and lecture programs remain the main source of information. The amount of literature in English has increased, but few members read such materials. Consequently, lay people who should be taking the lead in sharing the teaching with others have only a hazy understanding of the relation of early Buddhism to Shin or of the content of Shin Buddhism itself.

There is also Shin's element of anti-intellectualism. This derives in some degree from Japanese religious tradition generally, and also from Shinran, who emphasized that one should not try to rationalize the mystery of faith or exhibit faith openly to flaunt one’s spiritual superiority. Lay practitioners often claim that it is the priest's responsibility to know the religion, thereby discounting their own responsibility to become knowledgeable. Models of Shin piety are constantly held up for admiration in sermons and lectures and, while originally these stories demonstrated the values and attitudes required in feudal society, today they also work to devalue intellectual issues. This trend goes against early Shin, which was originally a lay movement in which every person was equal. Shinran never taught dogmatically; he wrote in a way that all members would understand. The eighth abbot, too, advocated that members study the teachings, question them and discuss their meaning. However, over time an ecclesiastical structure developed. During the feudal age any questioning of the dogma was prohibited. The cumulative effect of these beliefs in a modern competitive, pluralistic environment has been disastrous for the vitality and growth of the denomination as we witness also in the decline and turmoil in the Catholic church and among Protestants in Christianity.

The appeal of Shin Buddhism in the West has also been limited by the perceptions of outside observers. Some scholars have questioned its authenticity as Buddhism. Christmas Humphreys, a noted early English Buddhist scholar and proponent of Zen, once declared that Shin “is a form of Buddhism which on the face of it discards three-quarters of Buddhism. Compared with the Teaching of the Pali Canon it is but Buddhism and water. . .” Shin is often presented as a degenerate form of Buddhism merely designed for the spiritually ineffectual masses. It has been called a “do-nothing” religion with a cheap form of salvation because of its faith in Amida Buddha and its assertion that one cannot attain enlightenment through one's own self-power practices. However, it calls for deep self-reflection and constant awareness of one's gratitude to the Buddha and compassion for all beings arising from it. There is here a demanding discipline of the heart, not as a means to gain salvation, but as a response and responsibility to what has already been assured.

It is true that Shin rejects traditional disciplines such as meditation and precepts which have been the core of Buddhist practice as the way to enlightenment. It views those practices as compassionate means given by the Buddha to lead to deeper insight into ego-centrism and its attachments, which Humphreys and others overlook. By going further in the understanding of ineradicable egoism, Shinran altered the general Buddhist assumption that enlightenment could be achieved through determined, rigorous practice

Further, the stress on the evil, defiled character of human life that appears throughout Shinran’s writings appears negative and would hardly appeal to Westerners who already gave up belief in original sin, a term Humphreys uses to describe the basis of Shin teaching. However, what seems negative at first glance may be a more realistic recognition of the passion-ridden character of human existence. This understanding led Shinran to a positive understanding that if salvation were possible, it is only possible by virtue of the Buddha's action, not from a practitioner's own finite, unstable mind and actions. Shinran gained insight into the complexity of motivation and sincerity, as well as the impossibility of building a bridge to infinity through finite acts, no matter how demanding in difficulty or quantity. According to Shinran, absolute Other-Power is the essence of life since it is rooted in the process of interdependence. In any case, while Shinran's insight may seem negative, it opens the way to a positive approach to life.

Another feature that distracts seekers is the apparent otherworldly character of Shin Buddhism. Occasionally Shinran employed the symbolism of the Pure Land to console grieving disciples with the hope of reunion in the Pure Land. Such statements imply a more concrete or literal understanding of the Pure Land.

However, in his major scholarly text “Kyogyoshinsho” Shinran describes birth into the Pure Land as the birth of non-birth or nirvana, which is beyond conceivability. He also connects it to the ideal of the bodhisattva who returns to this world to save all beings. We should note that there is no necessary contradiction between the literal, personalistic expressions and the more abstract, philosophical concepts. It is instead a question of context. Religious expressions are commonly adjusted to the need of the listener and the strong, otherworldly cast of traditional Shin Buddhism is the result of its popularization and institutionalization within feudalistic society. Similar developments may be seen in other traditions.

Finally, the apparent similarity of Shin Buddhism to Christianity also deflects interest for those who want something clearly different from what they had in Western religion. Though the similarities between the beliefs about faith and "grace" may reduce Shin's attraction to Christians, their affinity indicates universal, common human problems and aspirations. Similarities are not to be completely discounted, even though differences among faiths are more decisive in evaluating their meaning.

A ray of hope for better understanding is emerging from Buddhist-Christian dialogue studies which grapple seriously with the dharmalogical principles and issues presented by Shinran. Comparative studies are helping to clarify similarities and differences between Christianity and Shin Buddhism. As this process continues, it will eventually challenge and stimulate Shin teachers to interact more seriously with Western culture and through this effort to discover its own meaning and mission within modern society.

Clearly, the future is up to the membership of the temples. Dr. James I. Doi of the Seattle Buddhist Temple, and formerly a Dean of the School of Education at the University of Washington, in addressing criticisms of the Buddhist Churches of America as an ethnocentric religious organization and its gradual decline, has suggested several strategies that temples may employ to integrate and activate new members. Among these are a more vigorous education program which places education above the social aspects of temple life. Members should be encouraged to make use of the increasing variety of literature on Buddhism and, furthermore, temples need to cultivate members who can speak articulately about Buddhism in English.

If these ideas were put into practice, he foresees that, despite the fading of Japanese-American culture, Shin Buddhism will be able to contribute to the flowering of American Buddhism toward “the mainstream of American intellectual and spiritual life.” With perceptive leadership, both lay and clerical, there remains great potential for Shin in the United States, despite the many problems and complexities that confront the community.


Alfred Bloom served in the occupation of Japan (1946) following World War II where he encountered Pure Land teaching. Subsequent to theological studies, he received his Ph.D. (1963) from Harvard University in the history and Philosophy of Religion with a study entitled “Shinran's Life and Thought.". During his research, he held a Fulbright scholarship for study in Japan 1957-1959. He has taught at the University of Oregon, University of Hawaii and most recently has been Dean and Honganji Professor of Shin Buddhism at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley until his retirement in the Spring 1994. Among his publications are “Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace; The Life of Shinran: Journey to Self-Acceptance; Strategies for Modern Living: A Commentary with text of the Tannisho;” and “Shoshinge: The Heart of Shin Buddhism.” In addition, he has authored numerous essays and book reviews.