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GUIDELINES IN TALKING WITH NON-BUDDHISTS
Entering the Heart of Jodo-Shinshu Teaching

Rev. Kenneth K. Tanaka, Ph.D.

This text is offered as a suggested set of guidelines for Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists to more effectively respond to questions from people of other faiths or other schools of Buddhism. It will have served its purpose if Shinshu followers are able to utilize it for formulating, with greater confidence, an understanding of their own unique life experiences and articulating this awareness to others.

Q-01: What is Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism?
Q-02: What does one become aware of?

Q-03: Isn't Shinshu teaching a little pessimistic then?
Q-04: What happens when you become more aware?
Q-05: What does the statue in the shrine represent?
Q-06: Is Amida some kind of God?
Q-07: So Amida has nothing to do with the creation of the universe?
Q-08: So, your understanding is not one of "worshipping an idol"?
Q-09: What happens after you die?
Q-10: How does your idea of "Pure Land" fit in with all this?
Q-11: Do Shinshu followers believe in reincarnation?
Q-12: What kind of practice do you do?
Q-13: What is Karma?
Q-14: Are there monks and nuns in Shinshu?
Q-15: Going back to Amida, what does he do if he did not create
    the world or judge our actions like the Christian God?

Q-16: What does it mean?
Q-17: What other meanings do you see in Amida?

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Q-01: What is Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism?
A-01: It is a religion of awareness.

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Q-02: What does one become aware of?
A-02: That (1) life is a "bumpy" road, (2) life is impermanent, (3) life is interdependent, and (4) life can be joyful. There are the basic truths of life understood by all schools of Buddhism. But Shinshu teaching also stresses the need to become aware of one's own nature which is (a) incomplete, (b) foolish, and (c) powerless when striving to realize Buddhahood by one's own power.

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Q-03: Isn't Shinshu teaching a little pessimistic then?
A-03: No, it's realistic, and it provides assurance of enlightenment. You must remember, the goal of all Buddhists is to become a Buddha ("One who has become completely aware"), and from the perspective of this extremely high standard, our human nature is, surely, far from perfect. Without acknowledging this fact, to some degree, a person will not fully appreciate the Dharma (Teaching) or any true religion for that matter.

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Q-04: What happens when you become more aware?
A-04: We try to live each moment fully with deep appreciation for all beings and things that sustain and nurture our lives. We come to realize that "life is a privilege and not a right." When such awareness deepens, we naturally work for the betterment of all beings, not just humans, as an expression of our concern and appreciation. When this awareness leads to a fundamental transformation within, it is called "Shinjin" (awareness, faith or entrusting).

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Q-05: What does the statue in the shrine represent?
A-05: It represents Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Boundless Life and Boundless Light, a personification (in human characteristics) of universal compassion and wisdom.

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Q-06: Is Amida some kind of God?
A-06: What do you mean by God? (Note: We should not simply assume that the questioner is confident in his own understanding of what he means by "God"; many questioner are often not as certain or knowledgeable as we expect. Discussions have proven more lively and meaningful when I began asking the questioner about what he or she means by "God." After the questioner responds, we can speak about Amida.) Amida Buddha is pure selfless compassion and wisdom which are qualities also attributed to God in Christianity. But Amida is not considered a supreme being who created the universe and now resides in heaven to watch over me, judging my thoughts and actions in this life according to some divine standard. Instead, Amida is the dynamic "spiritual power" manifesting as wisdom and compassion that I am made aware of in the ordinary experience of my daily life. Wisdom helps me to see myself and life as they really are, not just as I wish them to be. Compassion enhances my appreciation for things and assures me that I am embraced by a wider community and not forsaken as an isolated individual.

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Q-07: So Amida has nothing to do with the creation of the universe?
A-07: That's right. Though knowledge is important in our lives, our knowing how the world/universe began (even if it could be known for sure) does not help us to attain the main Shinshu goal of true awareness or enlightenment.
To be overly concerned about creation reminds us of the famous "Poison Arrow" parable in which a dying man shot with a poison arrow would not allow the physician to put out the arrow until he got answers to such questions as the type of arrow and the background of the man who shot him.

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Q-08: So, your understanding is not one of "worshipping an idol"?
A-08: That's right. The stature is a symbol or representation of wisdom and compassion; it does not possess magical or supernatural power. However, the stature can help to evoke in us deeply religious feelings. Amida's facial expression conveys warmth and reassurance. The stature leans slightly forward, reminding us of the cosmic compassion that is constantly at work to embrace and awaken us.

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Q-09: What happens after you die?
A-09: People of Shinjin-awareness no longer worry seriously about life after death because they are at peace within themselves. According to our founder, Shinran Shonin (1173-1263), we are assured of realizing Oneness (nirvana) immediately upon death in becoming one with cosmic wisdom and compassion. Then, as part of the dynamic benefit of Oneness, we help liberate all beings. Oneness is the dynamic cycle of compassion, like the river water that flows into the ocean only to eventually return as rain water to nourish the plants and all other living beings.

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Q-10: How does your idea of "Pure Land" fit in with all this?
A-10: The Pure Land is the same as Oneness or nirvana. It's a more concrete and aesthetically appealing way of speaking about the same truth.

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Q-11: Do Shinshu followers believe in reincarnation?
A-11: Some do and some don't. Some take it literally, while others see it symbolically.
The idea of reincarnation goes back to India but it is also esteemed by many Western thinkers, past and present. Belief in reincarnation is not part of the core teaching in Shinshu and thus is not a requirement for the realization of the most important goal, Shinjin-awareness.
In my view, the idea of reincarnation (we prefer "transformation") is an attempt to explain two fundamental aspects of our existence. First, the essence of an individual's life is far greater than just the years we live in this present life. Each person is the product of myriad causes and conditions that have interacted from the beginning of time with all other living things in the universe in a wondrous interrelationship that defies rational understanding. Second, it attempts to show us that our self-centered ways have been deeply ingrained in us that it has taken countless previous lives for the right conditions to mature. By that I mean we are finally fortunate to meet up with the Dharma in this life and find ourselves on the verge of enlightenment.

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Q-12: What kind of practice do you do?
A-12: Our teaching does not prescribe any one particular form of practices as many other Buddhist schools do, such as sitting meditation, since it is not our action that directly causes our enlightenment. However, it does not mean we do nothing. In our daily affairs we strive for awareness of our self-centered imperfections and our indebtedness to the interdependent nature of our existence. In appreciation of the teachings we try to learn more about ourselves. We take part, for example, in listening to and discussing the Dharma, participating in religious services at home and temple, reflecting on the before-and-after meal recitations, and engaging in efforts to reduce suffering whenever possible. These activities serve as a mirror to increase our awareness of our imperfections and indebtedness to our family and friends, the community, and the world.

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Q-13: What is Karma?
A-13: It does not mean "fate" as is so often misunderstood. There are numerous ways to explain karma, but basically it means our mental and spiritual well-being is determined by our own actions (karma) and not by fate, chance, miracles, or divine being. By cultivating correct awareness about life, we gain a balance within the "ups and downs of life" and remain generally at peace within ourselves.
Karma works somewhat like a computer data base. By entering and storing more correct information in the data base, we expand our capability to meet new challenges that may arise. For example, by entering the concept of "impermanence" into the data base one is better able to cope with changes in one's life (e.g. aging, illness, or divorce) and thus grow from those very experiences inspired by the conviction that "karma is full of possibilities."

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Q-14: Are there monks and nuns in Shinshu?
A-14: No, Shinshu is essentially a layperson's movement. Shinran Shonin was a monk until the age of 29 years, but he found the monastic life spiritually unfulfilling. He left the order after he found a Buddhist path that could be traversed by everyone. Later he married and raised a family. As a layman-priest, he worked tirelessly to spread the teaching to all, regardless of whether they were monks or laypersons. The Shinshu priesthood has from the beginning allowed married clergy, because what is ultimately important is not one's deeds (following precepts or practicing meditation) but attitude (Shinjin-awareness).

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Q-15: Going back to Amida, what does he do if he did not create the world or      judge our actions like the Christian God?
A-15: The essence of Amida is boundless compassion and wisdom, as the name indicates. (Note: The name "Amida" is a combination of "Amitayus" (Boundless Life or Infinite Compassion) and "Amitabha" (Boundless Light or Infinite Wisdom)). The statue of Amida, therefore, is not an anthropomorphic (human-like) representation of deity to be worshipped. The importance of the form is the deeper meaning it represents: boundless compassion for all living beings.

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Q-16: What does it mean?
A-16: For me, personally, it means that when I say I have faith in Amida Buddha I mean that I have faith in the boundless compassionate reality that embraces my life now as well as after death.

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Q-17: What other meanings do you see in Amida?
A-17: I find Amida in my daily experience of awe and appreciation for the life-giving realities that, whether we are aware of them or not, produce, nurture, and sustain life: the DNA molecules, the sunshine, the rain, the oxygen in the air we breathe, just to name a few.
Also, I can't forget to mention the beauty and grandeur of nature that enhances the aesthetic quality of my life; and last but not least, the inextricable bond I have with my family members and true friends, which is so painfully precious.
I also find Amida in the "negatives" of life, such as the funeral of a cherished friend, who died at a young age. In my anger, sorrow and eventual acceptance, I am gently led to see life "as it really is" and not just as "I would like to see it." The funeral experience is another reminder for me to cherish the present and contribute, in my own small way, to alleviating suffering in its various forms.
From the Shinshu view these ideals are difficult, if not impossible, for any Buddhist to fully actualize, but they serve to point the way. And in the process of trying to live up to the ideals of seeing reality and alleviating suffering, one surely is humbled in the realization that "my very existence is indebted to the myriad conditions that pervade the universe." Even this very realization, in the final analysis, originated from beyond the self; it was endowed through the insights and knowledge imparted to me by my parents, teachers, books I've read, and all other legacies of the community to which I belong.
This boundless and ever-expanding everyday compassion reflects what Amida means to me. Amida is not a transcendent (far, yonder) supreme being, but the immanent (here and now) fundamental reality that was there all along, of which I am a part, like a wave is to the ocean waters. I was just too "wise" and too busy to notice.
When these meanings are felt deeply within, I find myself reciting the Nembutsu, "Namo Amida Butsu" (Buddha and I are one), as a spontaneous expression of my appreciation and amazement for all that is!

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