Noting the Passing of American Buddhist Pioneer Alfred Bloom

Alfred Bloom
The Reverend Dr Alfred Bloom died last Friday evening, the 25th of August, 2017. He was surrounded by family and close friends.

I didn’t really know Dr Bloom. However, our lives touched for a few minutes.

When I arrived at the Pacific School of Religion I noticed how in addition to the professional Master of Divinity degree, if I were able to squeeze another year of coursework into the three I would be there, and add in a thesis, I could also earn an academic masters in the philosophy of religion.

To be honest, I don’t recall tons of details about that crammed full experience. Okay a few, but it was a whirlwind. What I can say is that in addition to the MDiv that allowed me to serve as a Unitarian Universalist minister for a quarter of a century, I also have that MA in the Philosophy of Religion.

The original plan was to do the thesis in the year following my graduation during my first year in parish ministry. And finish up the following year. Hard, but, doable. The plan for the MA thesis was a study of Zen Buddhism in North America. Much, although not all of the focused prepartory course work was directed independent study. My principal advisor and guide on this was the Reverend Dr Durwood Foster, a Methodist minister and prominent ecumenist with a particular interest in Christian Buddhist dialogue.

It all proceeded well until I was getting ready to graduate and when Professor Foster informed me he would be retiring at the end of the year and we needed to push the process forward. He suggested instead of going on to write my thesis for the Zen study, to take a rather bloated paper I’d written on another subject (It has some original research in it, he said) and expand it quickly into a suitable thesis. Which I did.

The good news was that some years later all that original research would become a book, Zen Master Who? However, as the new thesis was a study of Christian ecclesiology, I needed to have a new committee. This meant my previous MA readers, in addition to Dr Foster, but also Dr Robert Bellah over at Cal and the Reverend Dr Alfred Bloom at the Institute of Buddhist Studies was for naught.

And that’s my brief brush with Alfred Bloom. He and Robert Bellah were to be my MA thesis readers. I’d met with both and despite both being past busy, they had agreed to serve. (I’d also tried to recruit Huston Smith, but he begged off due to advanced age, said he…) I’ve always felt a small sadness that I didn’t get to spend real time with them as teachers and guides. (Although I did have a wonderful, wonderful time with the new team. But that’s a different story…)

So Alfred Bloom. Dr Bloom was an American original.

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. This Buddhist tradition that shares some sympathetic qualities with Christianity became his shining beacon. He would follow it for the rest of his life, at some point ordaining as a ShinBuddhist 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. It was in this capacity that I met with him, asked that he join my MA thesis team, and where he agreed to begin as I completed the MDiv.

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.

Like many aging Zen people before, in my dotage I find myself increasingly interested in aspects of the Pure Land way. Now, I long ago walked away from a literal deity interfering in the play of cause and effect. I’m not going to pick up another one any time soon. But, moving away from the literal story of Amida and his Pure Land, there are pointers of enormous grace and loveliness that increasingly touch my heart.

And, Alfred Bloom is one of those who have opened the door for people to investigate this fascinating Buddhist school. When I was doing a little reading ahead of writing this I found Shin Dharma Net, a webpage tend by Professor Bloom and others. It contains a twenty-three part self-paced course in the larger Pure Land as well as his own particular sub-set, Jodo Shinshu.

I encourage anyone interested in Buddhism to know more about the Pure Land tradition, and particularly the Jodo Shinshu school. Powerful stuff. It might provide angles onto your own path. For some, maybe it is your path. For me, I see how it touches and enriches my Soto Zen Buddhism in what seems particularly healthy ways. (I suspect it could be very useful for some of my Christian friends, as well…)

Here’s Professor Bloom’s course:

Shin Buddhism in Modern Culture: A Self Study Course

Might well be worth checking out.

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