Buddhism in the Epidemic Age

By Rev. Ken Yamada

Amid a global pandemic caused by the coronavirus, the life and times of Shinran Shonin are surprisingly relevant.

This week in the San Francisco Bay Area, we began living under a “shelter at home” order, severely restricting our movements and social contact. I saw long lines immediately formed at grocery stores and markets by crowds of anxious people. Store shelves lay bare of food and toiletries as panicked shoppers grabbed what they could. Throughout this country and the world, people are confronting fear and anxiety caused by the virus outbreak.

Our Jodo Shinshu temples have cancelled services and activities, even “Hanamatsuri,” the Buddha’s birthday service which was scheduled next month, although some temples plan to stream services online. Please check with your local temple for the latest update.

With our daily lives in disarray, let us draw lessons from the teachings of Shinran (1173-1263), founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, who lived during a similar time.

In a Japanese literary classic published in 1212 called “Hōjōki,” Kamo no Chōmei wrote about the calamities befalling the times, including fires, typhoons, floods, famine and pestilence.

“So the first year passed and it was difficult enough to live, but when we looked for some improvement during the next, it was even worse, for a pestilence followed, and the prayers of the people were of no effect. As the days passed, they felt like fish when the water dries up; and respectable citizens who ordinarily wore hats and shoes now went barefooted, begging from house to house. And while you looked in wonder at such a sight, they would suddenly fall down and die in the road. And by the walls and in the highways, you could see everywhere, the bodies of those who have died of starvation. And as there was none to take them away, a terrible stench filled the streets, and people went by with their eyes averted. The ordinary roads were bad enough, but in the slums by the riverbed, there was not even room for carts and horses to pass.”

Although Kamo’s description is a literary account and his accuracy can be questioned, the times certainly were troubling. Officials changed the era’s name five times between 1221 and 1232 in hopes of bringing better luck.

In that era known as the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), established Buddhist institutions offered little solace to common people. They established their power and influence by catering to the aristocracy, who provided generous support. Temples were known for their vested interests, cumbersome rituals and incomprehensible doctrinal formulations.

No wonder Buddhism was viewed as the “Age of Mappō,” referring to Shakyamuni Buddha’s prediction of the decline of the dharma. Accordingly, the “true” dharma would only exist for about 500 years after the Buddha’s time, followed by a “semblance” of the dharma for 1,000 years. “Degeneration” of the dharma would follow for 10,000 years. This description puts Shinran’s time squarely in the Age of Mappō.

Joseph Kitagawa, in his “Religion in Japanese History,” wrote, “Having been accustomed to the generous support of the aristocracy and the lucrative incomes from their land holdings, the old schools neglected the laymen, who, as a result, were driven to the simple teachings and cults of Amida pietism.” The old schools of Buddhism did not understand the changing society and failed to evolve with the times.

Consequently, elaborate Buddhist ceremonies and mysterious rituals gave way to a simpler sense of spirituality and practice.  “Dogma gave way to personal experience, ritual and sacerdotalism to piety and intuition, and this new type of religion exerted its influence beyond class limits, exhibiting many democratic features,” according to Kitagawa.

Seen in this light, Shinran’s thinking really was a product of the times. Earlier Japanese religions before Shinran used magic and ritual, capitalizing on the superstitious beliefs of the common people. These religions were essentially controlled by the state and used to serve the existing political power and ruling classes. During that time, large temples often used their power for financial gain, while many religious leaders and priests used religion for personal advancement and wealth.

Shinran saw that society did not and could not fulfill the needs of most people. In those troubled times, he encouraged people to turn inwards to find stability and integration in their lives. Shinran stressed one’s personal search and spiritual awakening, dispensing with elaborate rituals and costly ornaments required by the older traditional Buddhist schools.

In a time when civil rights were virtually unknown, Shinran taught all people equally, calling them “fellow travelers.” He felt compassion expressed as Amida Buddha embraced everyone equally, whether they be rich or poor, of high birth or low birth, educated or uneducated, female or male. No one was preordained by class or wealth to be reborn in a higher realm than any other person. According to Shinran, “No wisdom, virtue, or effort can be on the outside, for falsehood sits within.” He emphasized shinjin, a “mind of faith.”

Arising from this mind of faith comes acceptance of oneself as a common, passion-ridden mortal. With this mind arises a feeling of brotherhood to all humans, understanding that we all share the same existence. Becoming aware our existence is interdependent upon all things fosters a natural respect for the lives of others. This understanding naturally extends outward in people’s behavior, helping to create a compassionate, just, and peaceful society.

Shinran was greatly influenced by his teacher Honen Shonin. The writer Hyakuzo Kurata (1891-1943), who wrote “A Priest and His Disciples,” felt that even though Honen believed in equality, his thought was far superior to that of the Marxists since Honen saw that people cannot remain similar. Each had different needs such as the size of one’s family, health, and even opinion as to what was a satisfactory way of living. He felt individuals must determine their own needs and not trouble others. Therefore, Honen advocated that people of faith live “effortlessly, able to call the nembutsu,” and should examine their own lives in order to lead modest but inspired lives. In this way, he stressed personal responsibility for the smooth working of the whole. True social order came not from enforcement by a larger power, such as government or military, but from one’s own sense of personal responsibility.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy spoke about this sense of personal responsibility, interdependence, and acceptance of one’s finite existence in a 1963 speech made at American University:

“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breath the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

For Shinran, our actions are best when rooted in a mind of faith that deeply understands and appreciates our interdependence to each other. That deep mind gives us inner peace and security, and provides a strong foundation in which to confront the world’s problems. Thus, tumultuous times may upset the world, but our minds will not be upset by the world’s problems. Anchored by this mind of faith, we can see the situation of our lives more clearly and act more responsibility, helping others as if they were family.

May you all be safe and healthy. Let’s do our best to help in these challenging times.


Rev. Yamada is editor of Higashi Honganji’s Shinshu Center of America.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *