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Expert copes with anxiety over afterlife

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    Alfred Bloom, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii and an authority on Shin Buddhism, with his beloved statue of Amida Buddha in his Kailua home. He obtained the Tokugawa-era statue in 1958 in Japan. Bloom, who converted to Shin Buddhism more than four decades ago, has written extensively on the faith and on the teachings of its founder, Shinran Shonin.

With the scriptural prospect of paradise awaiting him in the Pure Land, University of Hawaii professor emeritus Alfred Bloom knows that he should be dancing for joy as he faces the end of his life.

But he’s not. Deep down, where intellect offers little comfort, the authority on Shin Buddhism says he feels some trepidation.

At age 88, Bloom is asking, as so many of his students have asked over the years, "What’s going to happen to me after I die?"

Long plagued by heart problems, Bloom said recently, "All my conditions are at a dead end. All there is left is to die. … But then you’re human, nobody wants to die."

"If I live up to my own philosophy and if Amida Buddha means to me as I believe he does, what’s to be afraid of? I don’t know what’s on the other side; I just hope I’m true to my teaching."

Bloom is an avid proponent of the Buddhist denomination founded by the revolutionary Shinran Shonin, born May 21, 1173, in Kyoto, Japan. Shinran’s birthday was celebrated this week at 37 Buddhist temples that comprise the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, the largest Buddhist sect in the state.

After converting to the faith in 1974, Bloom later became a Buddhist priest andauthored several books and scores of articles on Shinran’s teachings. He also wrote about the relevance of his faith in modern culture and political events on a blog until 2012.

A 2009 article in the publication Tricycle: The Buddhist Review described Bloom as "widely regarded as one of the most important American figures" in the Shin Buddhist school in recent decades. It noted that Bloom is "Jewish by background, Christian by upbringing, and Buddhist by heart choice."

These days, Bloom lives with family in his Kailua home, but has asked to be monitored by hospice workers. He is consoled by the fact that Shinran once confessed a similar reluctance about death and dying.

"Shinran raised questions about himself and his deceits … to confess that, ‘Yeah, I’m just as bad as anybody else,’" a humble stance that was unheard of among religious teachers of Shinran’s time, many of whom were put onpedestals, Bloom said, adding, "I just find him remarkable."

Before Shinran, Bloom said, Buddhism was accessible only to aristocracy and monks. Commoners were left to suffer on their own and were offered no hope for spiritual enlightenment, or salvation.

Bloom said he hopes that through his own spiritual writings he will be remembered as someone who helped to further "open up a world in which people accept each other."

"I would hope that what I have done will continue that process of sharing, communicating (Amida’s) compassion and embracing all other people," he said.

Shinran taught that Amida’s compassion embraces everyone, even with all their human frailties, with the hope that they would in turn express the same compassion to others. Even after death, people are "reborn spiritually in this world to help others to (develop) faith in Amida," Bloom said.

Pointing to a passage in Shinran’s teachings that asserts "no barrier can confine Amida’s compassion in such a way that you couldn’t share it, or offer it to someone else," Bloom said, "It’s so fantastic."

In a Star-Advertiser interview in 2012 ( 1Ou7ILb), Bloom explained a bit about his faith’s views on the afterlife.

"By the grace of Amida, a person’s spirit immediately receives salvation and reaches nirvana without going through eons of repeated rebirths and different realms of hell," Bloom said in the interview.

He added, "There is no working for it (salvation, with alms, offerings and various works). … There is no karmic retribution."

Jodo Shinshu ("True Pure Land Buddhism," another name for Shin Buddhism), Bloom said, is in a category of its own.

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