Robert F. Rhodes: Numata Visiting Professor

Robert F. Rhodes is a Numata visiting professor, currently instructing a course on Japanese Pure Land Buddhism within the School of Religious Studies.

Since the 1999-2000 academic year, this visiting professorship program has brought distinguished scholars from around the world to teach a course on Buddhism. However, this is the first time that a specialist in Japanese Buddhism has been invited to McGill.

At the end of March this year, Professor Robert F. Rhodes retired from Otani University, a Buddhist school located in Kyoto, Japan, where he had taught for 28 years. Despite his retirement, he still remains quite active, serving as general editor of the bi-yearly journal The Eastern Buddhist, and translating Japanese Pure Land texts into English. Dr. Mikael Bauer, whose field is Japanese Buddhism and who had been a graduate student at Otani, was instrumental in inviting Rhodes to McGill, with the generous assistance of the Numata Foundation, a Japanese society focused on spreading the love and teachings of Buddhism, which includes sharing the wealth of knowledge that Japan holds on Buddhism as a religion.

Rhodes was born in Kamakura, Japan, the medieval city that was once the seat of government for the Shōgun, a military dictator of Japan. His father was an American who grew up in Japan and his mother was Japanese. Growing up, Professor Rhodes’ family did not practice Buddhism. In fact, his grandparents were Christian missionaries, who arrived in Japan in 1919 and continued working to spread the Gospel until the 1960s. This connection led him to be interested in religion. However, he says Christianity did not call to him. He instead became fascinated by Buddhism through his many visits to the old Zen temples located in Kamakura, including, by coincidence, the Engakuji, where D. T. Suzuki, noted for his work in spreading Zen to the west, practiced zazen (a further coincidence: Suzuki was a professor of religious studies at Otani University where Rhodes taught for many years). When asked why he supposed Buddhism called to him, he said,

“Because it’s the most rational form of religion there is. It talks about how to get over all the suffering in the world. People used to say Buddhism is pessimistic because it focused on human suffering but I think it’s realistic. We all want perfection and Buddhism tells us the way to overcome the limitations we feel in our lives and seek perfection.”

He also points out that the use of karma to explain why humanity is subject to suffering is quite interesting. Not many religions address the reasons behind why humans feel so much pain. He concluded by saying that all religions have their good and bad. One cannot say that one religion is better than another. He stresses the importance of keeping an open mind because all religions point to some truth.

Pure Land Buddhism, the main focus of Rhodes’ research, teaches that people can be born in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha after they die by undertaking certain practices, most notably the practice of reciting this Buddha’s name. Buddhist texts describe Amida’s land, which is called Gokuraku or the Land of Utmost Bliss in Japanese, as a wonderful paradise-like realm located far off to the west, where one can escape all the suffering and inequities that are experienced in this world. Moreover, Amida’s land is also said to provide an ideal environment for undertaking the practices necessary to attain enlightenment. Hence, many Buddhists over the centuries in India, Tibet, China, Korea, Japan and other parts of Asia, have sought to gain rebirth in Land of Utmost Bliss. Even today, Pure Land Buddhism remains one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in Japan.

As a part of his work, Rhodes translates old Buddhist texts into English. One of the reasons he decided to come to McGill, was to focus on translating the Ojoyoshu by the Japanese Buddhist scholar-monk Genshin. The text was written in 985 CE and provides an in-depth account of how one can be reborn into the famed paradise land of Amida. It is historically important, being the first systematic text on Pure Land Buddhism to be written in Japanese. In this work, Genshin first described all the suffering encountered by living beings who are caught up in the cycle of transmigration (which includes not only humans but also the denizens of hell, preta [the “hungry ghosts” in Indian mythology], animals, asuras [warlike titans of Indian mythology] and denizens of the heavenly realms). It then describes the bliss awaiting those reborn in Amida’s world and lays out the way to gain rebirth in the latter realm. The Ojoyoshu is particularly famous for its graphic descriptions of hell, which has inspired Japanese religious imagination ever since it was written. Although there are several partial translations of the Ojoyoshu, there is no complete English translation of this work.

With the Fall Semester coming to an end, Professor Rhodes says his experience at McGill has meant a lot to him. He hopes to continue working with all the great colleagues he has met and was impressed by how students were eager to learn. He called these students “a real inspiration”. His time at McGill also provided him the time to work on his translation, which he really appreciated. It also gave him the chance to experience a proper Canadian snowfall!

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