A couple of weeks ago, I put up a guest post discussing Nichiren Buddhism from the point of view of a practitioner of that sect. This week is a similar to that, but this time, our guest will discuss Shin Buddhism.If you would like to write a short essay or article explaining “your” version of Buddhism, e-mail me what you want to do and we’ll work on it. I’d like to see several more denominations represented here, so topics are still very much wide open.
Jeff Wilson is the author of Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness (Wisdom Publications, June 2009). He is also a Contributing Editor for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
Shin Buddhism, by Jeff Wilson
As a Shin Buddhist, my primary practice is not meditation, Sutra study, ritual, or precepts. All of these can be valuable of course, but in our school of Buddhism our main focus is the practice of gratitude.
About 800 years ago, a Japanese monk named Shinran founded a new Buddhist school with his wife, Eshinni. After twenty years spent at the center of Buddhist studies in Japan, Shinran’s insight was that meditation, precepts, and other rigorous practices have a tendency to subtly reinforce our egos. As we become better at sitting still for long periods of time, we may start thinking “man, I’m a great meditator, too bad all the other poor slobs out there don’t have my capacity.” A glimpse of emptiness leads us to believe we are more enlightened than normal people. And when we manage to adhere to strict precepts, we tend to slip into thinking “I’m a good person, and those people who don’t stick to the precepts are bad, they’re a bunch of weak-minded, self-indulgent losers.” Indeed, Shinran found these sorts of attitudes in himself, and in his fellow monks. I’m guilty of this too. Meanwhile, despite a lifetime of efforts, it seemed as if there were few if any monks that Shinran could look to who were reaching genuine levels of attainment akin to those described in the Sutras.
The solution that Shinran hit upon was to flunk out. If traditional Buddhist practice so often reinforced self-attachment and created divisions between people (even as practitioners believed that they were making spiritual progress), then the way out of the trap was to stop practicing. Or rather, to stop striving egoistically. Instead, Shinran turned away from self-power (since the self is a delusion anyway) to power-beyond-self, using a Buddhist theory with a long history in India, China, and Japan.
For Shinran, Amida Buddha (the name means Infinite) was the embodiment of power-beyond-self. Hundreds of Sutras attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha describe Amida and his Pure Land, as well as his helpers Avalokiteshvara and Mahastamaprapta. Pure Land motifs and practices are part of virtually all Mahayana schools of Buddhism, whether in Japan, China, Tibet, or elsewhere. Amida is described as infinite light and life, symbols for unlimited wisdom and compassion. Tibetan monks visualize Amida Buddha, Zen monks chant his name during funerals, and Foguangshan nuns seek to create the Pure Land here in this life.
Shinran taught that Amida is actually reality in its true, liberated nature, and the Pure Land is a poetic description for nirvana. Putting the insights of Mahayana Buddhism into narrative format, he talked about how Amida embraces all beings no matter how bad or good, and liberates them from their greed and delusion. In fact, this liberation is something that has been accomplished in the primal past (i.e. it is always naturally present), and so we should stop endlessly chasing after attainment. Instead, when we give up attachment to our ego-laden efforts to become enlightened, and relax back into the embrace of inconceivable wisdom and never-abandoning compassion, we are freed from our anxieties and pettiness. Our practice, then, stops being about getting Buddhahood for ourselves, and instead is refocused to be about expressing gratitude for all that we have received, spiritually and materially.
Shinran’s daughter founded a temple in his memory, and this helped keep his teachings alive. Over time, the Shin school grew to be the largest form of Buddhism in Japan. Much of its appeal came from the fact that anyone could be involved, even people who were traditionally excluded from advanced Buddhist practice, such as women, peasants, fishermen, hunters, soldiers, outcastes, prostitutes, and others who were not allowed in the monasteries. Shin Buddhism today is the school with by far the most adherents in Japan (the second largest is the Pure Land school of Honen, Shinran’s teacher), and it came to Hawaii and North America in the late 1800s. There are about a hundred temples, many of them over 100 years old, in the United States. They include people who are fifth- and even sixth-generation Buddhist Americans. During that long Western history they have often been at the forefront of developments in American Buddhism, from giving Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac their first taste of living Buddhism, to founding the first Buddhist seminary in the West, to pioneering Buddhist prison ministry.
For me, Shin practice is about humility, gratitude, and service to others. And also good food and dancing, since Shin temples are true communities, with many activities for all ages and lots of yummy Japanese cooking. Our mid-summer Bon festivals give us an excuse to hold Buddhist parties, including traditional folk dancing that itself can be a vehicle for expressing our thankfulness through pure joyous motion. And happily, our festivals have participants from all sorts of Buddhism, as well as Christians, Jews, atheists, and others. We can all celebrate together and appreciate one another’s diversity.
None of us are deluded about our level of attainment-we are ordinary people, prone to foolishness. But everyone, Shin Buddhist or otherwise, exists within an inconceivable network of support from all things, an ever-changing matrix that provides us with nourishment, shelter, love, and, if we don’t let our egos get in the way, pushes us on toward final liberation. Awakening to this inner togetherness which we all share helps us to get a perspective on our karmic limitations, and this engenders humility, patience, and a sense of humor about our shortcomings and those of others. When we wake up to how power-beyond-self is always nurturing and supporting us, we often say the nembutsu in gratitude. Nembutsu is a phrase, Namu Amida Butsu, that expresses our happiness and thankfulness. It isn’t a mantra or a prayer-it doesn’t accomplish anything other than letting out that bottled-up gratitude in a joyful utterance.
People have all sorts of karma, so I don’t expect that everyone will find Shin Buddhism to their liking. Luckily, there are lots of options for people in the West these days. But for those who can’t seem to meditate, or have trouble following strict precepts, or who are looking for a Buddhist path that says “just as you are, you are affirmed and included,” Shin Buddhism can provide an ancient Buddhist tradition adapted to their situations. Regardless of what path you take, Shin Buddhists believe we will all be born together into Pure Land-liberation-and become bodhisattvas who work to care for any beings who suffer and need help. I’ll end this with a selection from Issa, the famous Japanese haiku poet and Shin Buddhist priest. It nicely illustrates the attitude of all-embracing trust and compassion that characterize Shin Buddhism:
tossed in cold autumn wind
trusting in Amida. . .