Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 95

Sentient beings who, with hindered understandings,
Doubt the Buddha's unhindered wisdom,
Will sink for many kalpas in various forms of pain
In the hells of Samvara and Pindala.

Fear of Religious Conviction

'Religion' has not only become a rather contentious subject since the rise of industrial society a couple of centuries ago but in recent times it has become common, especially in Australia, to see religious commitment as mostly a negative thing. Perhaps, it is suggested, people become 'religious' because they are neurotic in some way, or weak - needing a crutch to support them in the face of life's challenges.

Treatments of religion as a phenomenon abound: social, anthropological, political, philosophical, historical, ethical and so on. Most try to objectify, analyse and understand it. It seems to me that the entire process of seeking to objectify and 'understand' religion as a 'phenomenon' is, in the final analysis, unconvincing and unsatisfying. Perhaps there is a need on the part of some philosophers and analysts to understand religion in order to defend it from its critics.

Religion is too much a part of the human organism and too ingrained in our emotional make-up to be objectively understood in any meaningful way. 'Conclusions' about it's significance rarely seem to achieve much, except to re-inforce the expectations of those engaging in the study. It seems likely to remain for a long time one of those intangibles which defy any definitive reduction. In spite of this, religious commitment has become for a significant number of Australians a source of fear and consternation - something that needs to be tamed.

In his study of ethics, the early twentieth-century theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer describes the deeply private nature of religious devotion and says that even he feels embarrassed and like an intruder if he discovers someone at their prayers.

There are perhaps other things that lie behind the fear of religious conviction in our time. One common reason that is given for a sense of repugnance in the face of it is that religion is a prominent cause of violent conflict. This argument is really difficult to rebut, even though much misery has been inflicted - especially during the last century - in the name of irreligion. Indeed, historical events which are incontrovertible, like the early mediæval Crusades which extended to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and against the Albigenses in Southern France, the Byzantine persecution of the Armenian Paulicians, the Hundred Years War in pre-modern Europe and, of course, the recent spate of highly publicized mass murders and suicides associated with Islam - the list is endless.

The fact that it is possible to point to these events as having been inspired by religious conviction is, indeed, a strong argument against all religious belief. My feeling about this is that since religion is so integral to human nature it is difficult to separate it from other aspects of human personality - like violence. On the other hand it is striking how prominent injunctions against violence and revenge are contained within the codes of most of the world religions.

Of course, the sense of well-being that has accompanied technological progress has no doubt had a strong influence on the way people see religion. Here is an imaginative and creative movement within the human realm which has found practical ways to ease suffering and pain and bring many welcome material benefits and comforts to us. The fact that technology appears to be materialistic can lead people to adopt a sceptical attitude to the claims of religious traditions. There is, I think, a point of failure on the part of religious traditions evident here. It is a pity that any religious traditions ever allowed their teachings and practices to be used so prominently as a resource for the promise of material benefits. Such things may be dividends but are not the primary objective of faith.

In any case, whatever objections may be raised, I am sure that religious conviction of one kind or another is an integral part of what it means to be human - as much a part of human experience as sex and death. Perhaps, in a consumerist culture which is habituated to the idea that it is growth, acquisition, youth, productivity and ingestion that are the chief requirements of a fulfilling life, anything that reminds us of weakness, diminution, idleness, relinquishment and death is terrifying. So, the negative reaction that seems so common is more likely to be a matter of denial.

The joy and purposefulness - along with the anguish and ambivalence - that accompany religious conviction is an integral part of what it is to be human. I do not know why religious pursuits, study and understanding are so important to so many of us but I think we are the lucky ones. At least we can say that our lives are at the very least, enriched by it. Religious conviction is part of the good life and belongs with philosophy, questions of life's meaning and purpose and the experience of good art and craft. But merely to compare religion with these things is to weaken the significance we know it has. And it is to cheapen it even more to make it a vehicle of trade: my religious conviction only being acceptable as long as it 'contributes' something to me and society at large.

We may not quite know why it is that the nembutsu has come to hold centre-stage for us, but it is a fact that we cannot deny. In some ways it is inconvenient and I have often wondered if it would be easier to give it up and live without the dharma. But the truth is that this would be to turn one's back on the very core of existence itself - the Primal Vow - and that such denial would be nothing less than hell.

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