If someone had asked me when I was growing up if I had a sense of vocation, I would have had an easy answer. Yes! I have wanted to be a teacher since I was in the first grade. But if someone had asked me if my religion talked about vocation, I would not have had such a quick answer. Buddhism didn’t talk in those terms. The historical Buddha’s teachings were the result of his search to understand the causes of the suffering inherent in human life.
This is not to say that Buddhism didn’t have things to say about how to live. The Four Noble Truths contain a profound understanding of the sources of our suffering (ignorance, desire, and ego) and the Eight-fold Path lays out precepts for living a good life. Early forms of Buddhism were monastic with Enlightenment as a goal. But my form of Buddhism, Jodo Shin Shu Buddhism, is a Pure Land school, founded in the 13th century by a Japanese monk, Shinran Shonin, who left his monastery feeling monastic life could not bring him to Enlightenment. In fact, his profound sense of his imperfection and inadequacies led him to emphasize the need for faith in the love and compassion of the universe, personified in the figure of Amida Buddha. Shinran lived in a time of civil unrest when 90% of the population was uneducated, and Jodo Shin Shu became the Buddhism of the masses. It was eventually brought to America at the turn of the 20th century by Japanese immigrants like my grandparents.
Studying the Buddha’s teachings was certainly important; however, my form of Buddhism emphasized living a life of faith and gratitude. But what does that mean? I think too often we think in terms of belief and feelings. I am fulfilling my religious duty if I believe in the precepts of my religion and I feel gratitude. But just as Enlightenment is not an end in itself, neither is faith and gratitude. Buddhist Enlightenment is always defined as Wisdom and Compassion. The reason for this is that Enlightenment is understanding Reality, the way the world is and works, but that is to see the suffering that surrounds us in the world and our interdependence. Thus, if we are truly enlightened, the logical response is compassion and the desire to help others. I think that truly believing that we are surrounded by the love and compassion of the universe calls us to service just as surely as Enlightenment does. We are called not to having faith and gratitude but to living a life of faith and gratitude.
Here is where Mindfulness comes in. “Buddha” is a title that means the Enlightened One or, significantly for my point here, the Awakened One. The historical Buddha realized that we are asleep most of the time. We are so often wrapped up in thoughts of the past or future that we do not pay attention to the here and now. This is why Buddhism emphasizes Mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying full attention to the present moment and what it can teach us, but also how it calls us. Mindfulness is not a goal in itself; it is an instrument that leads us to action.
Mindfulness helps us serve others better. How many of us have cringed at stories about Americans patting themselves on the back for their generosity to underdeveloped countries while giving them unusable “fixes” because they hadn’t thought about the situation fully enough. And how many of us have been frustrated or tempted to give up when our ideas seemed to have been ignored or our plans failed? Buddhism reminds us that this response comes from our unrealistic expectations and our ego. Realizing this should help us let go of the results and persist in trying to do right, especially if we want to tackle the big issues of our time.
Knowing there is no Buddhist temple in our small town in southern Minnesota, my Christian friends have often asked me if I practice my religion. Fortunately, Buddhism does not demand that I follow any particular ritual or liturgical practice. Practicing my religion is how I live my life. Active involvement in the chapel program and discussions with friends and colleagues from a variety of religious backgrounds have allowed me to both study and practice my Buddhism to an extent I would not have done otherwise. Being at a Lutheran college has made me a better Buddhist. It also led to my belief that my Buddhism calls me to be a conduit for the love and compassion of the universe, that I am called by the world. To do that well I am called to learn as much as I can, to be as wise as I can, and to be as mindful and egoless as I can be.
Although how and what I do is multiply determined, Buddhism has reinforced some of my central values. As an advisor, Buddhism’s emphasis on mindfulness reminds me to pay attention to the needs of that particular student at that particular moment—Is it help in recognizing their gifts and assets as a person and worker? Expanding (or narrowing) major or career alternatives? Deeper questioning about the values or influences that are driving their choices or creating conflicts? Do they need support or challenge in that moment?
As a teacher, I want my students to learn to be more awake and mindful. I want to expand my students’ views of the world in all its complexity, to support their examination of values and their place and possible roles in the world. I want them to test what society says against their own experiences and values and not unquestioningly accept the status quo. I want them to see the interconnectedness of life. Buddhism teaches that everything (and everyone) is interdependent. The Buddhist concept of “no self” comes from the fact that one is constantly evolving in response to the influences always around one. But this also means we are constantly influencing everything around us. Their choices about what they value and what they do matters not only to them but to the wider world.
I introduce students to Buddhist ideas and ask them to think about how they compare to their own beliefs and values. Students usually hone in on the similarities of the Buddhist call to compassion to Jesus’ injunction to love the neighbor and the Buddhist idea of interconnectedness to ideas in the environmental movement. But Buddhist ideas such as no-self, egolessness, and detachment also challenge American valorization of individualism, competition, and success. I want to make these values visible so students can think about what they want to value, as they formulate their life stances, values, and directions, as they think about themselves, their relationship to their neighbors, and their futures. Because non-Western religious traditions may not approach vocation in the same way Christianity does, they can, I think, help our students think more deeply about the most profound questions of existence, of purpose, and of living a meaningful life, and give them the impetus, wisdom, and resilience to be a light in the world.
Florence Amamoto retired last spring from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota where she was an Associate Professor in English and held the Sponberg Chair in Ethics. She was also affiliated with the Japanese Studies, the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, and the Three Crowns programs, with a long-time involvement with diversity, church-related higher education, and vocation initiatives. Her essay, “Response-ability in Practice: Discerning Vocation through Campus Relationships,” is included in the latest collection of essays published by David Cunningham, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (Oxford, 2019).