In this second installment of our series on vocation, Mark Unno—a professor, scholar, Buddhist priest, and member of the Collegeville Institute Seminar on Interfaith Perspectives on Vocation—discusses the concept of calling in Buddhism. Diane Millis, interviewer from the Lives Explored video project, sat down with Mark and other leaders from various faith traditions to discuss the calling and vocation as explored in Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2016). To view last week’s interview on Judaism, click here.
In Buddhism in general, and in your particular tradition, is there a concept of vocation or calling?
I come from a line of ordained Buddhist priests going back 400 years. So I am the 14th generation of Buddhist priests in our tradition, which is called Shin Buddhism: the largest sect of Japanese Buddhism, a development of a larger East Asian movement called Pure Land Buddhism.
In the Shin tradition there is something akin to calling, which is responding to the call to fulfill the vow of boundless compassion which arises from life itself. But there is a difference between some theological conceptions of calling and this particular Buddhist conception of calling, in that it doesn’t come from a transcendent source. In Buddhism generally speaking (and in my own tradition) there is great emphasis on the interdependence of everything. There is nothing that stands apart from anything else. So one could say that this call—to fulfill the vow to bring compassion and liberation from suffering to all beings, everywhere, and all times—arises from the web of interdependent existence itself.
This sense of calling is related to Buddhist notions of karmic responsibility: that we are all responsible for one another, not only human beings but all creatures, what in Buddhism we generally call “sentient beings.” The calling is to fulfill that responsibility to care compassionately for and liberate from suffering all beings in the web of interdependence.
In the Christian tradition a calling is carried out and reinforced by what we refer to as religious or spiritual “practices.” What helps you nurture and cultivate that boundless compassion in your tradition?
There are many practices within Buddhism, including meditation, chanting, bowing, lighting and offering incense, and forms of study. An important practice from my own tradition is deep listening and deep hearing. This involves not simply listening to the words that someone is speaking, but asking what are they really trying to convey or communicate. Where are their emotions and concerns coming from?
This is not just for human beings; animals and all creatures are constantly speaking to us from a deeper level. Because we are all interwoven in the web of interdependence, they are expressing the whole as well as their own particular concerns. So they are also the voice of boundless compassion, which ultimately is a voiceless voice because it comes from a place beyond differences, beyond distinctions, beyond words.
What is a challenge that you face in living out your calling to respond to this vow of boundless compassion?
A struggle I face—that many of us share—is that we live in a distinctive historical moment. American society is one of the most successful in the history of human civilization by certain measures. But there can be a dark side to this enormous success. The same technological and intellectual advancements have also helped to create some of the biggest challenges that we face today: climate change, resource depletion, water crisis, peak oil, population explosion, and global financial crises. All of these problems are intertwined. For the first time there’s serious discussion about the possibility that we may not have the technology or the will to mobilize the technology to solve some or all of these problems.
One of the things that is difficult for us to think about—but which has been the fate of every single species that has inhabited our planet—is that every species has arisen and has passed or will pass. So that is potentially true for the human species as well. We are one among tens of millions of species that have inhabited this planet. At some point, our time of flourishing will have come, and our time of decline will also come. So how will we be together with each other and with other creatures in facing whatever fate we have laid for ourselves through our own actions?
There are Buddhist responses to this question, namely, that the essential matter is not whether I live or die as an individual, or whether we live or survive as a species. The quality of my personal existence and our collective existence does not depend on whether or not we survive, but on how we receive the present moment. So whether we are looking at a baby who has his or her whole life to live, or whether we are with an elderly parent who is facing the final stages of their life journey, in terms of quality there’s no difference in possibility and actuality.
How we receive the present moment at any stage of life and of death determines the quality of that moment of existence, whether we are closer to the beginning of life or the end. This applies to human beings as individuals and to our species. So the question I need to consider at a deeper level—a question that is important for all of us as human beings—is how will we continue to receive and be attentive to this present moment, regardless of whether we as a species are on the ascent, at the peak, or on the decline.
For more from Mark Unno, watch his Lives Explored story and companion videos for the new book from the Interfaith Perspectives on Vocation seminar, Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2016).