Buddhism・The Jodo Shin sect・Q&A

Q: In a nutshell, what is Buddhism?

Q: What is the Jodo Shin sect?

Q: What kind of person was Shinran (1173-1262)

Q: What kind of person was Honen (1133-1212)

Q: What kind of person is a bodhisattva?

Q: What is the fundamental difference between Buddhism and Christianity?

Q: What are the similarities and dissimilarities between the Buddha and Jesus Christ?

Q: What difference are there between the Bible and Sutras?

Q: What is the difference between the word "love" in the Christian sense and in the Buddhist sense?

Q: Are Buddhism and Islam related in any way?

Articles on this page were reprinted from "Talking About Buddhism Q&A"
(Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1997)  

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Q: In a nutshell, what is Buddhism?

Buddhism is the teachings of the Buddha, just as Christianity is the teachings of Jesus Christ and Islam is the teachings of Mohammed.

Yet there is one major characteristic that is unique to Buddhism, and this is that those who embrace Buddhism can also become Buddhas. In Christianity, Judaism and Islam, believers are encouraged to learn the teachings of the founder and to devote themselves to a unique, absolute deity, but human beings cannot become a deity.

However, in Buddhism, by learning the teachings of the Buddha, and awakening to the truth concerning the universe and human beings, anyone is said to be able to become a buddha. Hence it can be said that ultimately Buddhism is everyone's attempting to become such a buddha.

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Q: What is the Jodo Shin sect?

Honen's disciple Shinran founded the Jodo Shin sect. In the present day the sect is divided into the Jodo Shinshu Honganji branch, with Nishi Honganji as its main temple, and the Shinshu Otani branch, with Higashi Honganji as its main temple.

When Honen was banished to Shikoku, Shinran was sent to present-day Niigata. Afterwards when he was pardoned, Shinran moved with Eshin whom he married in Echigo province to the Kanto area, and it seems that around this time he had formed his own way of thinking.

In the "Buddha of Infinite Life Sutra" is the story of Amida Buddha before he became a Buddha and was still known as Hozo Bosatsu (Dharmakara). It was while Amida was this bodhisattva that he made forty-eight vows and pledged not to become a buddha until he had fulfilled them. The eighteenth vow was to have all sentient beings born in his own Pure Land, and if he could not bring this about with ten prayers then he would not become a buddha.

Shinran focused on this vow. Amida had already become a buddha, which meant that the vow was already fulfilled. In other words, if we but have faith in Amida, we have already been saved. Taking the nembutsu as an invocation of gratitude to the Buddha, he categorically denied practices of "one's own power" as superfluous. He preached absolute reliance on "power of the other (=Amida)," such that one is saved when one achieves correct faith.

The teachings of Shinran were transmitted to posterity at Honganji, and with the appearance of Rennyo, the eighth head abbot, the Jodo Shin sect witnessed dramatic growth. Its influence touched off uprisings of the common people against the authorities, but under the eleventh abbot Kennyo the sect was suppressed by Oda Nobunaga. During the subsequent period of warring states the Jodo Shin sect split into the East and West Honganji factions which have remained to the present time.

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Q: What kind of person was Shinran (1173-1262)

A disciple of Honen. Shinran developed his teacher's ideas and founded the Jodo Shin sect of Pure Land Buddhism.

He was born in a family of the nobility in 1173. But his family was poor and noble in name only, so when he was nine, he was sent to live in a temple. Later he was sent to serve as a menial monk at one of the temples on Mt. Hiei.

It appears that Shinran's personality led him to stare straight at and be seriously distressed by his own desires and attachments. Neither the monks nor the doctrines on Mt. Hiei were able to save Shinran from this anguish. It was then that he heard regular rumors about Honen propagating in thecity.

Bearing this unresolvable anguish, Shinran decided to carry out a hundred-day retreat at Rokkaku-do, which had been constructed by Prince Shotoku. On the ninety-fifth day, Kannon Bosatsu appeared in Shinran's dream and proclaimed an affirmation of his sufferings.

Shinran left the hall, his anguish intact, and visited Honen who was preaching his belief in Amida Buddha. This encounter changed Shinran's life. Upon hearing Honen's teachings, he was deeply moved and he immediately became a follower.

As Honen's disciple, Shinran was able to delve into the depths of the teachings of the Jodo sect, but when Honen was banished to Shikoku, Shinran too was implicated and sent to what is now Niigata prefecture. He was then thirty-five.

Pardoned four years later, Shinran set out for present-day Ibaraki prefecture where he spread the teachings of the nembutsu. The preaching of the absolute power of the other, that one need only trust entirely in Amida Buddha, captured the hearts of the people in that region. It is also said that it was there that he wrote "Teaching, Practice, Faith, Attainment."

After continuing propagation in the Kanto area for a while, Shinran moved to Kyoto where he wrote a large number of works. He left this world at the age of ninety.

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Q: What kind of person was Honen (1133-1212)

Honen was the founder of the Jodo (Pure Land) sect. He was born in 1133 in present-day Okayama prefecture. His father was an official and was killed in a fight when Honen was nine. After that, Honen left his family to live in the care of the family temple.

Later Honen was sent to Mt. Hiei where he studied Tendai doctrines as well as doctrines of other forms of Buddhism, but he remained unconvinced and dissatisfied.

One day when he was reading the "Commentary on the Meditation Sutra" by Chinese Pure Land master Shan-tao (613-681), his eyes came to a striking passage. It said that one should awaken to the fact that one is an ordinary being without the ability to achieve enlightenment, and that one need only rely on Amida Buddha. When Honen read this, he recognized that his conceit in attempting to attain enlightenment by his own strength was actually impeding his emancipation.

Honen then left Mt. Hiei and began preaching to the people "the exclusive practice of the nembutsu," which means that if one but practices invocation of the name of the Buddha one will unfailingly attain rebirth in the Pure Land. That teaching received wide support from the general populace for whom practices dependent on their own strength were formerly impossible.

When this exclusive practice of the nembutsu spread rapidly among the commoners, the priests of the older Nara schools and those of Mt. Hiei sensed a crisis coming on. They sought the government's help in suppressing the movement. Eventually Honen was even banished to Shikoku. However, this had the reverse effect of strengthening the people's belief in Honen. The following year the banishment was lifted, and for several years thereafter Honen took residence in Otani in Higashiyama and continued to spread his ideas. He died there at the age of eighty.

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Q: What kind of person is a bodhisattva?

The Indian word for one who seeks enlightenment is "bodhi-sattva." The Chinese translated this into the four-character "bodaisatta," and the Japanese took the first and third characters to make "bosatsu."

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Q: What is the fundamental difference between Buddhism and Christianity?

Christianity preaches the existence of a single absolute deity. Jesus Christ is that deity's son and God manifests Himself in the human heart through Jesus.

This deity is the creator of all things and ruler of the universe. Jesus Christ teaches people to believe in God and accept his protection. "Ask and you shall be given," he preached.

In contrast, Buddhism denies all absolutes. It preaches that nothing is absolutely permanent and emphasizes the transformation and extinction of all things in the teaching of "impermanence" and non-existence of a self that is eternally non-extinguishing in the teaching of "non-self."

It explains the original nature of all things in the notion of "causation." Everything is the result of a particular cause and is brought about by certain supplementary conditions. Therefore, if that cause and condition change, it makes everything relative to the change.

In this way, Christianity emphasizes the existence of an absolute divinity, but Buddhism does not recognize the existence of any absolute. This is the fundamental difference between the two.

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Q: What are the similarities and dissimilarities between the Buddha and Jesus Christ?

There are a number of similarities between the two. First, they are the respective founders of Buddhism and Christianity. They both devoted their lives to the propagation of their respective truths and saving people.

Moreover, the Buddha has two aspects---that of a human and that of one who has attained enlightenment. This is also true of Christ, who has a human aspect and a divine aspect as the Savior Christ. The teachings of both still give encouragement and support to the hearts of many people around the world.

The difference between the two lies in their teachings. In contrast to Christ, who preached devotion to God as an absolute being, the Buddha denied the very notion of that an absolute existed.

It also seems that there was a difference in how the two propagated their teachings. In contrast to Jesus who commanded that when the disciples went forth as missionaries they should go in groups of two or more, the Buddha told his disciples to go alone. It appears that during the time of the Buddha there was relative peace, whereas in Jesus' time Israel was under the control of Rome and there were many dangers.

The death of the two were also quite different. Christ was captured and crucified, but the Buddha lived to be eighty years old and was said to have been mourned at death by every living entity.

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Q: What difference are there between the Bible and Sutras?

The sutras are Buddhist scriptures which the disciples of the Buddha created by arranging and compiling the teachings of the Buddha.

In contrast, the Bible is made up of two parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is also the scripture of Judaism and it records historically the relationship between God and Israel from ancient times. The New Testament was compiled by the followers of Jesus Christ who revolutionized the thinking of Judaism, and it is composed of gospels and epistles. Christianity places the Old Testament and the New Testament together in one scripture called the Bible.

Because the Old Testament was written by unknown writers and because it is a historical piece portraying the relationship between God and humanity, it is clearly different in nature from sutras. However, the New Testament, in the sense that it was composed by disciples of Christ after his death and preaches the teachings of Christ while he was alive, bears some similarity with sutras.

In the period of sectarian Buddhism, there was a revolt against the priests who held that in order to attain nirvana one had become a priest and study and practice, and Mahayana Buddhism arose saying that anyone could become a buddha. Christianity too arose in reaction against Judaism which held that in order to gain salvation one had to obey strict precepts and customs. In this sense, Christianity and the New Testament may be analogous to Mahayana Buddhism and its scriptures.

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Q: What is the difference between the word "love" in the Christian sense and in the Buddhist sense?

There is a hundred-eighty-degree difference. Christianity tells you to "love your neighbor" and "love your enemies." Love in that sense means having compassion for others and considering things from the other person's perspective. Buddhism, on the other hand, calls this not "love" but "compassion."

The two characters that make up the word "jihi," compassion, refer to giving comfort to others and taking away their sufferings, and together this concept is expressed as "giving pleasure and removing suffering." This may be considered close to the concept of love within Christianity.

In contrast, that which is expressed in Buddhism as "love" is also called "thirst," in the sense of intense desire for water as one would have when assaulted by thirst in the middle of the desert. It is a desire that knows no satisfaction. Therefore, "love" is used in the same sense as illusion and desire.

It also means attachment to someone as one's own, so the feelings that exist between men and women are also called "love" in Buddhism, and in this sense the two meanings have something in common. Therefore, "love" is said to be the reverse side of "malice" and in Buddhism is considered something to abhor.

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Q: Are Buddhism and Islam related in any way?

In terms of doctrine, there is no connections between the two. Islam as a religion is related more closely to Judaism and Christianity in the sense that it is based upon a single, absolute deity, i.e., Allah.

The newly created Islam risked its very existence in challenging previously established religions and called these conflicts "holy wars."

In about the 8th century, Turkish Islamic forces apparently entered northwest India. In the 11th century they invaded central India from the north. Because they prohibited the worship of idols, they defaced statues of the Buddha and chopped off the heads.

Indian Buddhism in that period was under the strong influence of Hinduism and it became more esoteric. It might be more accurate to say that it became confused with and replaced by Hinduism to the degree that it disappeared.

Then in the 13th century Islamic forces attacked and conquered King Sena who had protected Buddhism, and thoroughly demolished the Buddhist temples and shrines. The fear and trembling of the monks who underwent the devastation can be found in written records.

In this manner Buddhism in the end completely disappeared from India. The relationship between Buddhism and Islam can be said to have disappeared in the midst of the invasions and destruction.

Articles on this page were reprinted from "Talking About Buddhism Q&A"
(Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1997)  

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