Off the Cuff: James Dobbins, Author, Professor, Translator


Kerensa Loadholt, News editor

James C. Dobbins is a professor of Religion and East Asian Studies at Oberlin. He recently edited Selected Works of D.T. Suzuki, Volume II: Pure Land.

Kerensa Loadholt, News Editor

James C. Dobbins is a Fairchild Professor of Religion and East Asian Studies at the College. He has studied Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki who wrote about the pure land Buddhist tradition. Dobbins’ talk, “D. T. Suzuki and the Rise of American Buddhism”, addressed Suzuki’s life and controversies that arose around his modern approach to Buddhism. The Review sat down with Dobbins to discuss his study of Suzuki, Pure Land Buddhism, and his new book: Selected Works of D.T. Suzuki, Volume II: Pure Land.

When did you start studying Suzuki’s writings?

Anyone of my generation who’s interested in Buddhism cut their teeth on these writings. When I was your age, or maybe just after college, that’s when I was first exposed to him. And when I first started studying Buddhism, those were the ones that I first read. But after I became very involved in the study of Buddhism, I came to see Suzuki as an inaccurate representative of Buddhism in Japan. This is after I went to Japan and had been there a long time — I studied in Japanese and got to see Buddhists on the ground there. I thought, “The pictures I got from Suzuki’s book don’t match what I’m seeing.” And I became very disillusioned with him at that point. I went for decades just ignoring him.

Then, in the late 1990s, there was a big scholarly kerfuffle around Suzuki, because he had been praised as the pure conduit of authentic Buddhism from the East to the West. People began to say that he was a cultural chauvinist who believed in the superior spirituality of the Japanese, or who was supportive of the Japanese aggressive war during World War II. Or that he basically dressed his Western ideas in Buddhist clothes and presented them to the West as if they were authentic Buddhism.

So when a colleague of mine at Duke put together a four-volume collected works of Suzuki, he asked me to edit his volume on Suzuki’s Pure Land Buddhism, because I’m a specialist in this form of Buddhism. … So at that point I returned to Suzuki but I decided that I wasn’t going to get into this big fight over whether Suzuki is authentic or whether he’s a fraud. I was going to try to simply treat him as a historical figure in the advent of Buddhism in the West, and the reform and redefinition of Buddhism in Japan.

All of this Buddhism in the West — is it true Buddhism? Is it fake Buddhism? I came to the point where I thought that these are false questions. You can only see it as a kind of morphed or evolved Buddhism, just as Suzuki is a morphed or evolved thinker who is purely Buddhist but is talking in Western discourse.

Do you think that, when Westerners read Suzuki, there is a certain level of cultural appropriation or erasure that happens when they don’t understand the roots of Buddhism?

My own framework was that I wanted to discover the real East — real, authentic Buddhism — but I’ve come to see over time that there are cultural flows that occur. In Suzuki’s day, the late 19th century, there was colonialism, and some colonists were condescending to Buddhism. Others came to be fascinated by it. Those people who encountered it, they also had to try to figure out what was true and authentic, but they were also filtering it through categories and ideas about religion — or their rejection of religion, which also shaped their reception of Buddhism. Cultural appropriation, when we get Zen centers for meditating, it is definitely true Buddhism from Asia, and it is definitely American appropriation. Both of those are present side-by-side in those places.

Is there anything you think that specifically draws Westerners to this form of Buddhism?

Out of all the forms of Buddhism, this is the one that Westerners are often not drawn to. Westerners are usually drawn to Zen. Zen is constructed pretty heavily around the practice of sitting in meditation. I think Westerners imagine that meditation is letting their true selves come out. Actually, the tradition of meditation has much more to do with the ritualized lifestyle led in the monastery. But Pure Land Buddhism is off the wall from Westerners’ impression of Buddhism, because it’s pervasive in Asia. In Asia, Pure Land is bigger than Zen. It’s based on a now outdated cosmology, where there was the belief that not only do we have our world in which a Buddha was born, and the Buddha proclaimed the dharma, the teachings of Buddhism, and people encountered them and took on those teachings as they transformed their lives through them, but there was the belief that there are countless world systems in all of the directions, and each of those world systems has its own Buddha. And each of those Buddhas have characteristics of their own enlightenment, their own teachings, and the way they engage other people to bring them to that enlightened understanding of the teachings.

One of these Buddhas in this fabricated universe is not the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, of our world, but it’s the Buddha Amida of this other world. The world he inhabits is different from our world; it’s a perfected world. If you look in Buddha’s texts, it has the classic paradise motif that you see in all types of religions worldwide. So, you develop the assumption that, if people in this world can’t attain a liberating experience of enlightenment here and now, that what they do is aspire to, in their next birth, be born to where the next Buddha is. Through all of the conducive conditions, that’s where they advance to enlightenment and attain liberation. In this world, looking toward that world, the practice they come to embrace is calling the name of that Buddha. If the core religious practice of Zen is sitting in meditation, the core religious practice of Pure Land is chanting the name of that Buddha. It’s a simple chant; Namo Amidabha. It means something like, “I take refuge in the Buddha Amida,” the Buddha of that world. People will sometimes do a sing-song chant of it, sometimes they just simply repeat it, sometimes it gets [put] together. They wake up in the morning and brush their teeth and say it, or say it while eating a meal.

This form of Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, to most Westerners looks like a fake Buddhism. It looks like a kind of Christianity flying stealth in the form of Buddhism. Because you have this otherworldly god, this heaven out there, you put faith in this god and then you’re reborn there after death.

Basically, Suzuki never saw Pure Land Buddhism as a form of Christian Buddhism. He saw it as a form of selfless compassion in Buddhism — the compassion in the Buddha and in the people emulating the Buddha. But what we see in Suzuki’s ideas and teachings is that this otherworldly goal, to be reborn in the Pure Land, won’t fly in the modern world anymore. He felt like you had to take the different components of Pure Land Buddhism and reimagine them in a form that would work today. So he came to emphasize that the Pure Land does not exist out there somewhere, but that the Pure Land exists here and now, if only you can see it. And the key to the Pure Land is not pleading to be reborn there with the Buddha, but experiencing the Buddha here and now. So this chanting of the name becomes an essence of religious experience. And the third component here is that in chanting the name, the division between Buddha and person collapses. In the chant, there is no Buddha, there is no separate person. Both are non-dual if you like.

So that becomes the framework through which Suzuki tries to retrieve an archaic form of Buddhism and make it relevant to modern forms of Buddhism. Some Westerners have gotten that, and there is some following of Pure Land Buddhism in America. But still, Pure Land is still a distant fourth behind Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism.

How do you find that Suzuki’s land of bliss differs from the traditional Buddhist idea of nirvana?

There’s an entire course behind that question, so I can’t quite do it justice. What we see more and more in modern interpretations of Buddhism is to try to see the absolute in the here and now. You have this tendency in the modern period to emphasize this non-duality. I think that Suzuki’s Land of Bliss, and that’s the Pure Land, wants to emphasize that the encounter with the Pure Land occurs in everyday life. One doesn’t separate oneself from the Buddha when one has an identification constantly occurring with the Buddha.

So it results in not a sense of spiritual lack, but in a sense of spiritual fulfillment. And that spiritual fulfillment can occur in this world. This world is the land of bliss — if only you have the eyes to see it. I think that’s how he would respond to that.