The Recent Passing of Alfred Bloom

Dr. Alfred Bloom was the most internationally recognized priest and scholar of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism to be of non-Japanese descent.

He was a real pioneer, not just for Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in the West, but for Buddhism in the West generally.

While meditational Buddhism is more well-known or more popular in the West, here is someone who brought attention to devotional Buddhism, and who staked his life on it.

Dr. Bloom’s work was instrumental to me in my own conversion to Buddhism, because it helped make real to me a Buddhist tradition that doesn’t require austerities and renunciation, while also explaining Jodo Shinshu in such a way that didn’t make it out to be the worship of a theistic god.

He was born in 1926 in Philadelphia. His father was Jewish while his mother was a fundamentalist Christian. Enlisting in the Army in 1944 he earned a degree in Japanese at the University of Pennsylvania and then was sent to occupied Japan. During this time his belief in fundamentalist Christianity began to crumble. But it was a slow and complicated process. After being discharged from the Army he enrolled as a Baptist at Andover Newton, earning his MDiv and a Masters in Systematic Theology in 1953.

However, during this time Reverend Bloom became interested in the Pure Land Buddhist tradition and shifted his academic focus doing his doctorate at Harvard in the teachings of the Thirteenth century Japanese Pure Land teacher Shinran Shonin. He was awarded his doctorate in 1963. His heart was touched… He would follow it for the rest of his life, at some point ordaining as a Shin Buddhist priest, while primarily working in the academy.

For many years Dr Bloom taught at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. In 1986 he began teaching at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, where he also served as Dean…

The academic and Shin priest Jeff Wilson writes in a preface to an interview with him, how Dr Bloom “is widely regarded as one of the most important American figures of the past five decades in the Jodo Shin school of Buddhism.” Going on Professor Wilson tells us “Bloom is probably history’s most accomplished Shin practitioner who has no Japanese ancestry. As such he has served as an example and mentor to non-Japanese Buddhists interested in the Pure Land tradition, while also spending a lifetime working within the Japanese-American community.” No wonder that in 2002 a collective of Pure Land temples in Japan designated him a Living Treasure.

Theravada Buddhism has its own devotional tradition that is little known in the West as well:

What are the discoveries that have broken the frame? Among the most interesting rediscoveries are some very early texts known as the avadanas [lessons]. These are stories about how the Buddha and famous arhats [those who have attained the penultimate stage of awakening] got started on the path many aeons ago. Like the jatakas [tales of the Buddha’s past lives], the stories are aimed at inspiring a sense of devotion. A lot of these texts were written when the stupa cult was becoming popular in India. They were advocating the idea that in order to get started on the path one needs to have the merit field of the Buddha. By performing services to the Buddha or his relics, you plant the seeds of merit that will eventually result in awakening.

The avadanas changed my understanding of some the rituals and ceremonies I experienced as a monk in Thailand. Until the rediscovery of the avadanas, it was assumed that popular devotional Buddhism as practiced in Southeast Asia today was a corrupted form. But looking at the avadanas you see that the practices are in fact very old.

These texts, with their emphasis on Buddha-fields and vows for awakening, also provide the missing link between the early canons and the Mahayana, thereby rewriting the story of how the Mahayana arose.