Graduate Theological Union

Self Power and Other Power

Richard Payne on Shin Buddhism, Practice, and Transformation

2001 Alum of the Year Richard K. Payne, who earned his Ph.D. in 1985, is Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies (a GTU affiliate). He is the author of Tantric Ritual of Japan, and editor of Re-Visioning "Kamakura" Buddhism. After earning his M.A. in philosophy, Payne traveled to Japan to study the Tantric tradition for his doctoral research. In order to gain access to the Mt. Koya temple to study Shingon, an initiatory, esoteric tradition, Payne was required to enter the training process as a monk. It was, he says, "the ultimate participant-observer situation."

As the GTU Alum of the Year, Dr. Payne was honored in a reception at the AAR this past fall in Denver. He remarked that "the best part of being alum of the year was having a chance to express my appreciation to the GTU," explaining that "the GTU has enabled me to do exactly what I wanted to!"

Future GTU classes Dr. Payne will co-teach include "Visions and Visualization," with GTU's Reindert Falkenburg and a UC Berkeley art history professor; a class on pilgrimage with Clare Fischer; and one on counseling and theories of the self with Rosemary Chinnici. Dr. Payne also works with CTNS and Dr. Ted Peters on the relationships between cognitive science and Buddhism.

Payne's scholarly interests center on developing a theory of ritual that connects ritual activity with all kinds of human activities, and Currents begins the interview on this subject.


Currents: You are known as a scholar of ritual. How does your view of ritual depart from the mainstream understanding?
RKP: Much of what goes on in ritual studies is a kind of interpretative approach-that is, looking at rituals as a series of symbolic representations, the meaning of which is by reference to something outside the ritual. For instance, the meaning of the Eucharist is referred back to the Last Supper. We have long assumed, with Durkheim, that belief or doctrine is what determines ritual activity. But we are now finding that rituals have a life of their own. Rituals are more self-contained than the referential theory would imply. For example, in East Asia, ritual practice or religious practice is more important than doctrine or belief system. What it means to be a Hindu is what kinds of practices you engage in.

Currents: So you're saying that the emphasis in Eastern religions tends to be on practices rather than belief.
RKP: You can be an atheist, a pantheist, a monotheist, a communist, or a socialist. Those are all irrelevant to the identity of being a Hindu. People with radically different belief systems can engage in what are effectively the same rituals. Certain Hindu Tantric traditions engage in funerary practices that are identical to those of the Brahmanic tradition, yet they have a monist theology, whereas the Brahmanic is dualist.

The fire ritual that I studied as a GTU student originates in Vedic tradition. It was carried into Tantric tradition and is found in both Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, and then was transmitted to East Asia, China and Japan, and Tibet. A kind of ritual that is identifiably the same exists in these very different religious cultures and under very different kinds of conceptions, even of what the goal is.

I think ritual is a kind of performance art. The modifications in the ritual are analogous to West Side Story's relationship to Romeo and Juliet. You have the same basic plot structure, but it's been adapted to a different environment.

Currents: The Institute of Buddhist Studies, where you serve as dean, trains ministers in Shin Buddhism. What are the key beliefs of Shin Buddhism?
RKP: The term "Shin" has been translated as "faith," and both the origin of that translation and the result of that translation have been to create an image of Shin in the West as comparable to a kind of simplistic Christianity: just have faith in the saving power of Amitabha and you'll go to the Pure Land.

The difficulty with that is that the meaning of the term "Shin" is very complex, having just as much depth and complexity as "faith" in Christian terminology. It is not simply a matter of firm belief. Rather, it points to the ways in which one interacts with a religious tradition with transformative results. And one of the ways in which I understand the founder of these teachings—this is putting it very much in contemporary Western psychological terms-is that you can't pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

Within Shin, there developed a rhetoric distinguishing between self-power and other-power. Although this has been applied in a polemic fashion, I think that more effectively it points to the limitations of the ego's own ability to transform itself. The ego cannot get outside of itself to provide any leverage point from which to make changes. Everything that the ego does is involved in the ego's own projects. This doesn't mean that the ego is bad or is wrong, but rather it simply needs to be recognized for what it is. It is that which holds our social identity together.

So in order to make any change, there has to be something outside. And that's what I understand the Buddha Amida to provide: some perspective on our own lives, a place outside of ourselves. Transformation is not through one's own willful action. And the notion in Shin is that the power of Amida's vow, or what in Christianity might be called grace, is always available. It's there for anyone.

Currents: How would you compare Shin Buddhism to Tibetan and Zen Buddhism?
RKP: What is thought of as Tibetan Buddhism is usually the Tantric tradition. Tibetan tradition per se is mostly scholastic. But the Tantric tradition within Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the layer of mind that is already pure, and utilizes ritual practices as a means of accessing that. The ongoing presence of Buddha is seen as that consciousness which is not obscured. Sometimes the term "defilements" is used, although "obscured" is closer to the meaning I would want to present, in that there are certain types of emotional and intellectual errors. A good phrase for it is "mistaken conceptions and misplaced affections."

I think that all three of those-the Tantric tradition, the Zen tradition, and the Shin tradition-have some fundamental similarities about how they see the limitations of the personal ego and the need for something outside of it, whether that's talked about as the Buddha Amitabha, or the Cosmic Buddha, or primal, pure consciousness.

When asked to address Shin congregations from time to time, I have told them that they have been tricked by their own religious tradition. Their tradition says it is the easy path. But it is really the hardest path, because it means seeing oneself from a different perspective, of what it means to already be assured of birth in the Pure Land. If you really understood that, it would shake your life down to its very foundations. It would absolutely transform the way that you relate to everybody and the way that you choose to live. Because there's nothing to hold on to except that stark truth, it's really a very difficult path.

Currents: What is your experience of being the Dean of a Buddhist school in a largely Christian theological consortium?
RKP: Perhaps because I'm some kind of contrarian, for me it has emphasized the differences between Buddhism and other religions. One perspective says, "Well, all religions are ultimately the same anyway, right? We're all headed to the same mountaintop." Although it has been presented as a liberal view, I think it's actually very conservative, because it ultimately says there is no reason to examine your own tradition or make any change in your life. It tends to downplay the differences, and to pick out those aspects which provide the appearance of uniformity. Perennialism is one term for this view, and I think that both religiously and intellectually there are serious problems with it. So rather than finding myself gradually moving towards a sense of greater identity, being dean at the sole Buddhist institution at the GTU has brought the differences to the forefront. It has made me increasingly aware of the religious importance of understanding the unique character of each tradition.

Currents: Can you say more about that religious importance of understanding the differences between traditions?
RKP: If one just kind of muddles around, picking and choosing aspects of different traditions that one likes-because, after all, they're all the same, so you can do what you want with them-then one is never confronted by how a tradition can challenge oneself to grow and change. And this also occurs, if one says, "Well, all religions are the same, so I don't need to understand this other tradition. I don't need to see how it is really different." To my mind, Buddhism is very different. The emphasis on emptiness, on the lack of any permanent, eternal, absolute or unchanging essence to anything, is really different and ought not to be glossed over for the sake of harmony. Systematically ignoring the fact that there are fundamental differences, I think, fails to make the potential of the different religious traditions available to anyone. So the kind of New Age-y, pick-and-choose religion doesn't, I think, challenge one to really live.

Currents: What's your take on the GTU's future in terms of expanding the interfaith mix?
RKP: I think that within the GTU there is still the question of, "Is the GTU a Christian institution?" However, it is important to recognize the reality of the pluralistic situation. It is no longer a matter of policy as to whether or not there be a pluralistic dimension to the education of tomorrow's religious leaders. They already live in a religiously plural world. I think that for all congregations of all denominations within the U.S., it's simply reality.

So I think that the GTU does need to expand the interfaith mix in order to fulfill not only its academic and intellectual mandate, but also its ministerial education mandate, which is primary to IBS as well as to all of the member schools. To fulfill that mandate, I think that the institution needs to reflect the pluralistic character of our society more adequately than it does.

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