Thursday, May 6, 2010

Shin Buddhism

Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue of Amida Buddha

Buddhism is often thought of – especially in the West – as a predominately rational path to spiritual enlightenment that emphasizes wisdom over devotion. This is simply not the experience of most Asian Buddhists, however, who worship Buddhas and Bodhisattvas much like Christians worship Jesus or Hindus worship Krishna. Probably the most widely worshiped figure in Asian Buddhism is Amitabha Buddha (‘Buddha of Infinite Light’), who is extremely popular across the Far East, with millions of devotees keen to be reborn in his heavenly realm, or ‘Pure Land’ – hence Pure Land Buddhism.

One such country where Pure Land Buddhism is predominant is Japan, where Amitabha Buddha is known as Amida Butsu, or simply Amida. In order to be reborn in his Pure Land, this Buddha’s devotees not only fulfill certain moral precepts and perform particular rites, but also recite a formula intended to act as a ‘bridge’ between them and Amida. In Japanese, this incantation is “Namu Amida Butsu” and is pronounced something like ‘Na-moo A-mi-da Buts’, with the final word rhyming with the English word ‘looks.’ In translation, this phrase is “Homage to the Awakened One of Infinite Light” – thankfully Japanese is more concise here than the English!

As already mentioned, Pure Landers hope to be reborn in Amida’s heaven, rather than strive to achieve enlightenment in this world, as most forms of Buddhism encourage their practitioners to do: why is this? Well, Pure Land Buddhism teaches that we live in wicked times (tell me about it!), so wicked that it’s nigh on impossible for most of us to realize enlightenment through our own efforts (‘self-power’, or jiriki in Japanese). Thankfully, Amida has made the vow that good persons reciting his name will be reborn in his Pure Land, wherein they will find conditions conducive to attaining awakening. This is ‘other-power,’ or tariki in the Japanese tongue. All this talk of a divine savior and going to heaven after death may well sound way too Christian or Hindu in flavor for many modern Buddhists, but one branch of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism that has dovetailed the ‘other-power’ (tariki) of Amida with the goal of enlightenment is called Shin Buddhism, or Jodoshinshu (‘True Pure Land Sect’). The reason that we cannot realize enlightenment quite so swiftly was explored by the founder of Shin Buddhism, Shinran Shonin (1173-2262) who taught that as individuals we are full of vice, motivated by egotistic yearnings. When unenlightened, we act from self-centered viewpoints that impede experiencing existence as it is as opposed to the viewpoint of a Buddha which is untainted by selfishness. Shinran further taught that because of this all-conquering egoism we are unable to do anything that can help us to awaken to our innate Buddha Nature.

The central practice in Shin is the recitation of the Nembutsu (‘Remembrance of Buddha ’) which is the phrase given above: Namu Amida Butsu. If mindfully chanted with a devoted heart, one’s entire being is taken up in this practice, and all sense of being an individual self separate to Amida is lost, along with all the suffering that accompanies an ego. Devotee, Buddha, and mantra are unified into the present moment as the wisdom of a focused mind, the love of a focused heart, and the chanting of a focused body converge. Thus, with mind, heart, and body committed to the practice, the devotee is ripe for receiving Amida’s grace. In theory, it is believed, even reciting just once in this manner is enough to achieve rebirth in Amida’s Pure Land, though probably for most of his followers it takes many, many times that number to transcend identification with our delusionary selves!

It is only through the grace of Amida that the ego is transcended and what is revealed in the centre of human existence is Amida himself. And, rather than waiting to be reborn in the Pure Land and there achieve enlightenment, Shinran believed that upon death, the devotee of Amida realizes Nirvana with the letting go of the body. This involves self-abandonment (or absolute trust, shinjin in Japanese) where the devotee transcends any trace of effort by dying into the vast Void which is Amida, lying at the very core of existence. For some, even waiting until this short mortal existence ceases is too long a time to postpone seeing Amida’s Pure Land, and some followers of Shinran have taken his teachings to their logical conclusion, at least in terms of the immediacy of salvation (or enlightenment).

Here, Pure Land Buddhism begins to sound a little like another Japanese form of Buddhism – Zen. For, just as Zen Buddhists use ‘self-power’ to awaken to their True Nature, so Shin Buddhists can use the ‘other –power’ of Amida to realize enlightenment in this very life. A widely-respected advocate of this kind of Shin was the late, great Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), most famous for introducing Zen Buddhism to the West, but who also wrote of the former in glowing terms in such books as Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist and Buddha of Infinite Light. This author (G) has recently read both works and been immensely impressed by the way that Suzuki draws the reader into the world of Amida.

According to Suzuki, Shin has produced many devotees of Amida who managed to transcend the dichotomy of jiriki-tariki (‘I-Thou’ in Christian mystical language) and realized enlightenment in this very world by merging their separate self into the universal Being of Amida. This is akin to the Zen Buddhist losing his egoistic self into that of the Buddha Mind or ‘No-Mind.’ The paths are substantially different, however, for the Shin Buddhist gives up all hope of achieving spiritual awakening through his or her own efforts, whereas the Zen Buddhist relies on no one else for his or her enlightenment. Ultimately, as Suzuki emphasizes, these two apparently opposing approaches converge in their final destination, however – enlightenment.

D. T. Suzuki has written of those Shin devotees known as myokonin (‘Wonderfully Fragrant Person’) whose practices involves totally immersing themselves in the reciting of the Nembutsu to the point where Amida takes over and it’s no longer an individual that chants “Namu Amida Butsu”, but Amida chanting through the myokonin. This is where ‘other –power’ comes into its own, for when perfected there is no sense of self involved in the recitation, just the sound of existence (Amida) singing the song of life. And what a song it is! Suzuki personally translated the wonderful verse of one such myokonin called Saichi, an unpretentious artisan who wrote volumes of simple odes describing this process of merging into Amida. Here’s a taste of this delightful poetry taken from Suzuki’s book Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (pages 126, 140, and 154 respectfully):

As I pronounce ‘Namu-amida-butsu’
I feel my thoughts and hindrances are like the spring snows;
They thaw away as soon as they fall on the ground.

Shining in glory is Buddha’s Pure Land,
And this is my Pure Land!
‘Namu-amida-butsu! Namu-amida-butsu!’

My heart and thy heart –
The oneness of hearts –

Thankfully, we do not need to go to Japan and become myokonin to taste the fruit of reciting the Nembutsu, for if we attend the way things are right now, we can experience the ‘other-power’ of Amida, our inner formless truth. Sitting in a quiet room – closed eyes may help in concentration here – say “Namu Amida Butsu’, paying attention to the silence in which the words arise. This silence is the very Emptiness that Buddhism teaches about, and is also the essence of all Buddhas, including Amida. If we are alert to this moment as we continue to chant the Nembutsu, we become aware of the fact that the words are coming out of this silent knowing, and that any sense of individual self that remains is of the world, like the chanting, whereas the Void-Silence is that out of which these things come.

As some readers may already be thinking, the use of mantras predates Pure land Buddhism by hundreds of years, and has been found in many meditative traditions around the world, including the Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the Hare Krishna mantra, the Sufi chanting of ‘Allah,’ and the Tibetan’s ‘Om mani padme hum,’ to name but a few. The famous Twentieth Century spiritual teacher Jiddhu Krishnamurti taught that such practices were nigh on useless, and once said that one may as well chant, “Coca Cola, Coca Cola,” but it seems that he missed the point. If recited with mindfulness, and backed up with a devoted heart, chanting a mantra can have a profound effect on how we perceive ourselves. This is when sound reveals Silence and Silence transcends sound, for “Namu Amida Butsu” is not only sound arising in Awake Silence, but it is that silence, or at least an expression of it, coming from it.

Such an endeavor requires a sincere heart, of course. Simply reciting the words without mindfulness will probably result in an understandable reaction: “So what?” If, on the other hand (Or ‘other-power-hand,’ to be precise!), we repeat the Nembutsu with a pure, focused mind we are open-minded enough to experience the Buddha Nature that is none other than Amida. According to Shin teachings this does not require the visualization of Amida as found in some other Pure Land sects. Rather, Amida is understood to be beyond being personalized in the mind of the Shin devotee, and is nearer the formless Buddha Nature than a particular Buddha, as such. Surrendering one’s entire sense of being a separate self to this ‘inner Buddha’ in the heartfelt reciting of “Namu Amida Butsu” reveals this Nature, and the Earth itself is transformed into the Pure Land. “Namu Amida Butsu” indeed!

Over on the Tricycle Editor's Blog there's a post inspired by this article with relevant links. Please click the following for more: More on Shin Buddhism 


Timmy Mac said...

Thank you for posting this. I've been curious about Pure Land Buddhism and haven't found a good explanation anywhere. This is an excellent primer!

G said...

Thanks for the thanks, Timmy.

Barry said...

Gary, thank you for this informative and engaging post. I learned a lot from it.

Although I've practiced in the Korean Zen tradition for over 20 years, I actually have little knowledge about the reality of Zen in Korea.

However, I do know that Korean Zen incorporates many elements of Pure Land practice, including mantra recitation (which is my own core practice).

And I also have read scholarly works that make it clear that Ch'an, as it originated and developed in China, also was quite syncretic and freely adopted Pure Land methods into the basic training of monastic practitioners.

This leads me to believe that the sharp delineation between Zen and Pure Land is common mostly in Japan - but I'm not a scholar and don't have any insight into why that might be the case.

My teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, translated the Pure Land mantra, "Namu Amida Bul" (Korean rendering) as "Become One With Amitabha."

This "become one" is fundamental Zen teaching and reveals perhaps adapted Pure Land teaching to the possibility of awakening right here, right now.

Thanks again,

Raf said...

Thanks for this informative post.

G said...

Great insights into Zen and Pure Land, Barry. As far as I know, these two schools of Buddhism are indeed mixed together in China, Korea, and Vietnam - whereas in Japan, as you write, they have been kept separate, as have the sub-sects as well, such as Jodoshu and Jooshinshu, and Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen. This seems to be an expression of Japanese thinking.

Zen Master Seung Sahn is in tune with D. T. Suzuki when he speaks of becoming one with Amitabha. And this is realized in the nembutsu itself, when chanter and chanted are unified in the awareness of the Buddha. Excellent comment, Barry.

Thanks, Pinoy Buddhist!

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