Buddhism is often thought of in the West as a path of practice firmly embodying self-reliance. Bhaktika introduces us to a book outlining another approach to Buddhist practice: complete reliance on the Buddha Amitabha.
“Shin Buddhism has a long history of scholarship and academic learning — but that won’t be the focus of this book. Instead, I’m just going to talk about Buddhism in the manner that regular Pure Land Buddhists have always approached it; through story, anecdote, reflection — and humor”. Thus states Jeff Wilson in his introduction; in my view this is an accurate description of what is in the can. And as one who identifies as a Pure Land Buddhist I enjoyed and appreciated what I read.
The book comprises some 80 chapters, most of which are one to two pages in length. There is a foreword by Mark and Taitetsu Unno, Shin priests, respected teachers and writers, which locates Jodo Shinsu (Shin) Buddhism in the context of Buddhist history, geography and core teachings. The foreword and the book itself serve as an excellent introduction to the core ideas and the feeling tone of Pure Land Buddhism.
“As a stream within Mahayana Buddhism, Shin’s Pure Land Buddhist thought — as articulated by its founder Shinran Shonin — subscribes to the two-fold truth of form and emptiness, of words and the truth beyond words. This is regarded as a ‘twofold’ truth rather than two separate truths — much like the two sides of the same coin. The truth of form and of words belongs to the world of appearances. Thus, when we see a tree, we see ‘green,’ ‘willowy,’ ‘shade,’ ‘photosynthesis,’ and so forth. These concepts all describe the truth of the form through words and concepts, and Shin — like Buddhism generally — does not deny this reality. And yet, there is a deeper truth that discloses itself only when one empties the mind of these ideas. That is the truth of emptiness, the oneness of reality that lies beyond categories. It is the flow of reality as it is beyond words, before conceptualization, things just as they are in their ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’.” (from the foreword).
Wilson himself originally encountered Buddhism as a Zen practitioner and then turned to Shin Buddhism, the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan, but relatively unfamiliar in the western world. He is a contributing editor to Tricycle magazine and lives in Canada.
Early chapters are about the historical Buddha and Amida Buddha. One, entitled ‘Once Upon a Time’, is a brief story of key life events of Siddhartha, concluding, “The Buddha did not discover something unique and special about himself. He did not become something different from other things or people. He awakened to the true nature of all things (himself included) as liberated suchness. This awakening came after he had been supported in innumerable ways by countless beings and conditions, and after he had ceased to strive after enlightenment and relaxed back into his natural state. As a much later Japanese Zen thinker named Dogen said , ‘To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things’.”
Jeff Wilson brings in experiences from his own life as stories that contain a learning point. His fear of flying generates a realisation in response to the question “Why am I doing this? … What is it about Pure Land Buddhism that leads me to step into this death trap?” that all his answers arise from gratitude toward all, and in appreciation of this when flying he says the Nembutsu (Namo-Amida-Butsu — the core practice for Shin Buddhists) under his breath — not as a prayer but as a statement of thanksgiving. He concludes, “Pure Land Buddhism teaches that the source of our suffering is clinging to egocentricity and the deluded belief that one’s own individual power is itself fully sufficient to overcome the deep resentment, greed, and ignorance that mark human life. We are counselled to rely wholly on Other Power, the natural activity of all things to reveal our inner togetherness with all things. Flying plays right into this in a nastily direct way: Unless you are the pilot, flying is a complete surrender, which is why so many folks prefer to drive even though it’s a far more dangerous manner of travel. Truly giving up self-power is virtually impossible, especially for many Americans. But on a plane you have to relinquish that power — relinquish it, or go crazy.”
As someone from the UK I’m interested in Wilson’s view on how Shin Buddhism is perceived in the USA. His view is that the tradition that has come from Japan has been ‘Christianized’ in its form as practiced — as evidenced by pews, hymns, organs, and a minister. He observes that the reaction can either be bemused or critical. Examining the phenomenon, and the accusation that Shin has become divorced from its roots, Wilson observes that similar changes in form have occurred in Judaism, in response to US culture, but this criticism is not generally made. His attribution for the difference in reaction is a sort of Orientalism on the part of American observers. “People look at Judaism as a Western, monotheistic faith, and don’t expect it to look significantly different from American Christianity. But Buddhism is expected to look, sound, and feel totally other. Indeed, on some level it seems that both anti-Buddhists and people with generally favourable opinions of Buddhism need Buddhism as some sort of ultimate other. For anti-Buddhists, Buddhism plays the role of the demonic other; for people disenchanted with Christianity, it plays the role of the alluring, exotic other.”
Wilson’s family comes from Texas and this personal history generates a teaching point about Amida’s Vow. Apparently, when slavery was abolished, and the Emancipation Proclamation legally set slaves free on 1st January 1863, nobody told the Texas slaves. It was more than a further two years (19 June 1865 — known as Juneteeth) that an American general arrived to announce and insist that slavery be abolished. Huge celebrations broke out among the freed slaves. “We are just like those poor men and women in Texas before they heard the announcement. They were free, but they didn’t know it (worse still, weren’t allowed to know it, just as there are whole industries devoted to preventing us getting over our addiction and attachments). Then someone told them they were free, that they had been free all along, and when they trusted this amazing proclamation they felt the bonds fall off and disappear. Just so, Amida’s Vow — Buddha’s Emancipation Proclamation — freed us long ago, but we don’t realise it, and we continue to toil and suffer in the endless cycle of samsara. Then, one day we hear about Amida’s actions on our behalf and entrust ourselves to Amida’s compassion, and we are filled with awe and gratitude.”
One chapter is entitled “Awakening the Buddha Without” in contrast to Lama Surya Das’s book Awakening the Buddha Within, a popular teaching which Wilson describes as “a basic tenet of most Buddhist converts in America”. He quotes a passage from Lama Surya Das’s book, “When you genuinely become you, a Buddha realises Buddhahood. You become a Buddha by actualizing your own original innate nature. This nature is primordially pure. This is your true nature, your natural mind. This innate Buddha-nature doesn’t need to achieve enlightenment because it is always perfect, from the beginningless beginning. We only have to awaken to it. There is nothing more to seek or look for.” Wilson comments this was for him an appealing vision but he now worries it can lead to misunderstanding of core Buddhist principles.
“My understanding of Buddhism is based on shunyata, often translated as ’emptiness’. Shunyata is the phenomenon of lack: we lack any ‘original’ nature, any ‘innate’ nature, any ‘true’ nature — heck, any ‘nature’ at all. All things are selfless, built on composite parts that come together temporarily and later disperse. There is no Buddha hiding inside somewhere waiting for the other parts to get out of the way.”
One further example, a story that appeals to me. It concerns the Reverend Kenryu Tsuji, a famous Jodo Shinshu minister who played an important role in American and Canadian Shin Buddhism in the twentieth century. The other players are a Chinese-American professor described as a devout Buddhist with a somewhat conservative frame of mind towards Buddhism and a more philosophical Buddhist inclined to question things and sometimes unable to commit himself sufficiently. “One day, after the weekly service, the Chinese-American professor approached Reverend Tsuji and asked ‘Amida Buddha — is he real or a myth?’ Reverend Tsuji smiled and said, ‘Amida is a metaphor.’ The professor went away in thought. The other man jumped up, pleased to hear a teaching that seemed to cement his personal prejudices. He walked over to Reverend Tsuji and said, ‘So, it’s true, Amida doesn’t literally exist, he’s just a metaphor.’ Without a moment of hesitation, Reverend Tsuji told him, ‘Oh no. Amida is very real’.” Wilson comments “Each man got a teaching that shook up his fossilized views, forcing him to consider other ways of approaching the tradition, and thus notice the way even notions of Amida are used to reinforce our egoistic desires.”
By giving examples of Wilson’s writing and story telling, my intention has been to illustrate the diversity of issues addressed and the vivid style that brings together contemporary concerns with traditional teachings. In my experience the book works well as one to dip into for a moment of uplift or insight (a ‘Thought for the Day’) and has proved useful for selecting short readings offered as part of a Buddhist service.