Buddhism outside Asia is often divided into two slightly simplified but helpful categories: ethnic Buddhism and convert Buddhism. The former centers around immigrants from traditionally Buddhist countries, while the latter refers to those from the host country or some other non-traditionally Buddhist culture who have found their way to the Buddhadharma. While ethnic Buddhists are usually embedded in close-knit religious communities called sanghas, immigrant Buddhists are often individuals who are in some sense isolated, whether in a physical sense or in the sense that they have come to the Buddha’s teachings through their own private search. It is not uncommon that these individuals are the only Buddhists in their area or even their entire country. Other times, even when they live in the vicinity of sanghas, these may be of a different sectarian affiliation.
Thus, it is common that many converts to Buddhism find themselves without access to any sangha except through the internet. Since being a Buddhist entails taking refuge not only in the Buddha and his Dharma, but also the Sangha, this situation poses a rather serious challenge for the propagation of the Dharma outside traditionally Buddhist regions. As such, developing online sanghas to provide such isolated individuals with spiritual community and support is an important task.
With this in mind, my co-author and I present below an interview with Javier Galvez, a representative of Sangha Luso-Hispana Jinen-kô. This is a unique institution: a Spanish and Portuguese-language online sangha of the Jodo Shinshu school.*
BDG: Could you share with us your personal journey into Shin Buddhism? Did you grow up in a Christian or secular home?
Javier Galvez: I grew up in a family with a Catholic tradition, and it was from adolescence when I distanced myself from the practice of religion in general. My family always respected my personal space to disagree regarding faith so it was not an abrupt or traumatic break, but rather a progressive detachment that lasted until the end of my university years.
In the first years of practicing as a doctor I felt the weight of impermanence more strongly and sought a way to reconcile what I experienced on a daily basis with my desire to know more about myself. This situation led me to explore other philosophies and religious traditions.
Without a doubt, the attitudes toward life of my parents and later, of my wife, daughters and teachers, have been fundamental in facilitating my connection with the Buddhadharma. For this, I am deeply grateful to them.
BDG: Did you come to Shin directly, or were you involved in other Dharma schools first? What attracted you to Shin Buddhism?
JG: For a few years I was only interested in Buddhism on a theoretical level. However, at the age of 28 I came into contact with a Zen Buddhist center near my place of residence and after some introductory courses in Mahayana Buddhism, I decided to participate in a couple of meditation retreats. At the end of the retreats, I always left with the intention to incorporate the practices into my daily life, but the commitments of work and family life made it clear how difficult this can be. Certainly, my daily experience was far from what I aspired to, and of course, the absence of a Buddhist community in my environment contributed to increasing my frustration.
Several years later and almost unnoticed, I came into contact through social media with people who practiced Pure Land Buddhism. Many of these people posted quotes from Master Shinran and Master Honen that I felt a strong connection with. This first impulse led me to become interested in the activities of different groups that practiced Pure Land Buddhism and for a couple of years I learned the most basic things about the Pure Land school, especially in its Japanese form.
BDG: Could you tell us the story of your online sangha?
JG: Our sangha is an initiative of the priest Enrique Galván-Álvarez of the Honganji-ha school. Everything arose quite spontaneously at the end of 2021: Enrique was interviewed by filmmaker Yujiro Seki for his YouTube channel “Carving the Divine” and several people, including myself, contacted him to find out more about the Jodo Shinshu teachings.
Enrique had the great idea of putting us in touch through an instant messaging group and that was the first step in creating our community. In recent months, we have taken very important steps for us: we have created a website, a blog, and our sangha has been presented at the 20th European Shin Buddhist Conference held in Düsseldorf last September, and two of the members of the group have received kikyoshiki** within from the Jodo Shinshu Honganji-ha school. In truth, we are very excited about how events are developing.
BDG: What is the official name of the sangha? What inspired and motivated you to create this global community?
JG: Our group is made up of people from different parts of the world—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Japan, Mexico, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The official name of our community is Sangha Luso-Hispana Jinen-kô because we aspire to be a place (kô) that welcomes people who wish to learn about the Dharma of naturalness (jinen).
The main languages are Spanish and Portuguese and, curiously, we are not all newcomers to the world of Shin Buddhism but we have some companions who have a long history within their local sanghas, especially in Brazil, Argentina and Japan. This peculiarity enriches us and we share a common language and our interest in the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism and in particular in the teachings of Master Shinran.
BDG: How can anyone interested in joining your sangha contact you?
JG: On our website (jodoshinshu.org) there are three very simple ways to contact us. The first is to write us a direct message from the same page; the second, through our email [email protected]; and thirdly, via WhatsApp with a contact person who speaks the same language. For Portuguese speakers, the contact is Carlos Viegas, an experienced Brazilian Jodo Shinshu practitioner who resides part of the year in Portugal. For Spanish speakers, the contact is usually Reverend Enrique Galván-Alvárez himself.
BDG: Many people may not be familiar with the term sangha. Could you explain what it means in the context of your online community and in Shin Buddhism?
JG: Sangha is a Sanskrit word that refers to the group of people who live in a community. In the Buddhist tradition, this sangha includes monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. Although our community does not physically live in the same place, there are online meetings and daily conversations in groups that strengthen our ties and facilitate learning. Furthermore, in the same way that Shinran himself referred to himself as “neither a monk nor a layman,” our community is quite flexible and allows proactive roles to be assumed within the community that stimulates thinking amongst the group as a whole.
BDG: How do you foster a sense of community, connection and support within the online sangha, despite the physical distance between members?
JG: The messaging group is permanently open for any questions or ideas. Sometimes these messages deal with doctrinal issues, while other times they are more related to everyday problems or the history of Buddhism in general or the Pure Land school in particular.
Our priest, Enrique, usually gives us time for each one to contribute something that seems interesting and later, he gives his vision of that topic or issue. This dynamic is very participatory and facilitates group cohesion. It is also worth noting that in these two years very happy occasions have arisen in which it has been possible for some members to see each other in person.
BDG: Can you describe the activities or practices that members of your online sangha participate in together, and how these activities contribute to your spiritual growth?
JG: The main activity within our community is the monthly meeting via video call platform. The first part of the meeting consists of the ritual chanting of a text from the Jodo Shinshu tradition (Shoshinge, Sambutsuge, or Juseige) followed by the recitation of the nembutsu (recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name). This activity is led by our priest Enrique, who then gives us a short Dharma talk. The rest of the session focuses on the questions that have arisen during the previous month.
In recent months, we have begun to explore the content of Master Shinran’s poem Shoshinge. Currently, we are finishing the section on Bodhisattva Vasubandhu. We have plans to incorporate a chanting workshop to learn how to recite our school’s texts.
BDG: What role does language play in making Shin Buddhism accessible to Spanish-speaking people around the world, and how do you address language barriers within your Sangha?
JG: Listening to Buddhism in your native language is crucial to connecting deeply with the Dharma. Many of us can understand talks or texts in English or other languages but the impact of teachings in your own language is much greater. Reverend Enrique speaks fluent English, Portuguese and Spanish so it is easy to address language barriers within the group.
BDG: What Shin resources do you have at your disposal in Spanish? For example, how many of Shinran Shonin’s writings have been translated? Have the Three Pure Land sutras been translated?
JG: Unfortunately, there are very few materials in Spanish. The three sutras are available in Spanish from translations from English or French. However, Shinran Shonin’s writings are not translated into Spanish at the moment. For this reason, one of the first initiatives of our sangha is the preparation of a service book and a direct translation from Japanese of the Shoshinge poem. Without a doubt, these small steps will be of great help to new members. On a personal note, I would love to be able to contribute to the publication of Master Shinran’s works in Spanish so that in this way, Master Shinran’s teaching can reach more Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking people.
BDG: How do you strike a balance between maintaining the authenticity of Shin Buddhism and adapting it to the needs and expectations of a global online audience?
JG: Our philosophy as a group is to maintain maximum fidelity to the Jodo Shinshu Honganji-ha tradition from the point of view of learning rituals and practices and at the same time, try to innovate in the way of communicating the teachings to reach the largest number of people possible, without losing authenticity.
BDG: Thank you very much, Javier, for your time in answering our questions.
* Jodo Shinshu is a Japanese school of Pure Land Buddhism distinguished by its emphasis on faith in the Buddha Amida granting birth in his Pure Land through the transference of merit. It is the largest school of Buddhism in Japan.
** Kikyoshiki is usually translated into English as “Confirmation Ceremony” by Jodo Shinshu Honganji-Ha. This ceremony takes the place of the formal conversion ceremony performed by other Buddhist schools. This is for two reasons: firstly, because “conversion” as such is understood to occur when one takes refuge in Amida Buddha, thus any formal ceremony can only be a “confirmation;” secondly, it is to mark the absence of precept-taking as Jodo Shinshu stresses liberation purely through the merit transference of Amida Buddha rather than through ones own meritorious acts.