Boundless: The SLBF Newsletter

Read our latest newsletter by clicking on the Buddha.

Featuring:  An essay by Jennifer Munson on finding her way to the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship. Elesha Morris gives us a guided meditation for grounding and gratitude, Myoshin looks at writing haiku as Buddhist practice, plus Buddhist spoken word, and teachings from  Koyo Kubose.

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IN SHIN ‘LISTENING IS BECOMING AWAKENED’ (TAITETSU UNNO)

‘Even Dewdrops Fall’ – An Interview with Taitetsu Unno’, in:Tricycle, Summer 1995

Tricycle: Can you talk a little bit about how you understand surrender in Buddhist practice?

Taitetsu Unno: In the first place, surrender is a Western religious category. In Buddhism, surrender is at the core of giving up the ego-self; but we don’t use a special term for it, because the whole thrust of Buddhist life revolves around surrender, giving up the ego.

Here there is a cultural difference—I can use the example of the martial arts. In this country, martial arts are described as “self-defense.” In the martial arts in East Asia, the aim is to train oneself to such an extent that there is no “self” to defend. That’s very hard for people to understand. I find the same problem in American Buddhism. For example, recently I read an article in which an American Zen Buddhist described visiting Japan, and I realized that American Buddhism is “psychotherapeutic” Buddhism, whereas in Japan, Buddhism is “faith” Buddhism. The core of faith is surrender, the giving up of the small-minded ego-self.

Tricycle: But how can we learn to surrender the ego-self voluntarily?

Taitetsu Unno: In the Shin Buddhist tradition, as we listen to the teaching we are made to realize that we can never surrender ourselves. Resistance comes from the deepest center of our karmic selves. That’s why the Buddha Amida’s compassion says, “Tai, you don’t have to surrender.” When I hear that, when I understand that I can’t do it because it’s not my nature—that it’s like saying, “Fly to the sky”—then I realize that I don’t have to surrender, yet, naturally and spontaneously, the surrender takes place by virtue of true compassion. This is “other-power” working through “self-power.” But this requires a tremendous struggle. As long as I think I can do it myself, it’s not going to work.

Tricycle: But how can we learn to let go like that more often? I know I can get there in unusual circumstances, but not ordinarily.

Taitetsu Unno: In Shin, the Pure Land tradition, it comes down to listening to the teaching. There is no meditative practice as such. Listening is becoming awakened. I have my own views of things, and Buddhism presents its views. Gradually, my views are displaced by the views that enlightened Buddhist teachers have cultivated for 2,500 years.

Tricycle: Do you think that American Buddhists overemphasize meditation?

Taitetsu Unno: Yes and no. The temple of modern life requires moments of silent meditation, but that’s not the goal of Buddhism. We were in Japan for six months recently, and while there I was reading articles and essays written by Buddhist laypeople and monks. The very distinguished abbot of a huge Zen monastery wrote this little article that said, “In Zen, there are only three things. First, cleaning. Second, chanting. And third, devotion. That’s all.” Many Americans go to Zen hoping to get enlightened, but they don’t want to do the cleaning. It’s very demanding and rigorous. You get up at 3:00 A.M.—and you not only sweep the floor, but you have to mop it. On your knees, you know? And then you have to chant, for an hour in the morning and an hour at night. You can understand why a bright young American boy would say, “What am I wasting my time for? I want to get enlightened.” But enlightenment can be manifested only in the daily chores of cleaning and sweeping and polishing—and chanting and devotion.

Tricycle: And the teaching.

Taitetsu Unno: Oh yes. Some people like to meditate and physically they’re able to, but some people can’t because of health reasons or life situations such as family obligations, economic problems, and so on. That doesn’t make them less of a person or less of a Buddhist, you know?

Faith and Belief in Shin Buddhism

Here is a great blog post by James Standard regarding Faith and Belief from a Shin perspective.  For those who are under the assumption that Buddhism is void of faith, should realize that a lot of what we know of Buddhism is filtered through a Western Modernist point of view and the history of Buddhism is rich a varied.  Faith and ethical practice and devotional acts are more in line with the Buddhist experience than even mediation.  Lay meditation is a new evolution in Buddhism.

[originally Posted on November 14, 2010 by James E. S. Standard}
I am often asked what I see as the difference between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’.”

Though in common parlance we often find these terms used interchangeably, technically these terms point to very different things.

Belief in a thing may be unfounded. Faith, on the other hand, is founded upon the experience that when certain conditions are met, inevitably (of itself) there will manifest a result.

The deep religious faith of Shinran, however, is founded upon his realization that compassion, by its very definition, requires no pre-condition whatsoever for its functioning. True compassion, Shinran perceived (with a clarity rare even amongst those of the highest order of religious experience), must necessarily be unconditioned and absolute.

One may start on the Pure Land path from belief — having heard of the causal seed of the compassionate primal vow of DharmaKara Bodhisattva and the fruit of its fulfilment in the welcoming of all people, without judgement, into Amida‘s Pure Land and their consequent attainment of Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings. This is the most common way to enter into Jodo Shinshu, from belief (as yet unfounded in experience) in the underlying reality of this teaching-story as revealed in the three Pure Land Sutras.

Certain other persons, however, may have never even heard of Dharmakara Bodhisattva, Amida Buddha or the Pure Land and yet may enter into this tradition directly by means of faith (true entrusting) arising from the experience of the fundamental futility of self-willed endeavors, the illusory nature of our sense of having a self that is unique, discrete, independent and competent to know and do good, simultaneous with the perception and acceptance of the universal availability, perfect wisdom, complete efficacy and absolute compassion of Buddha-Nature which realization arises from deep-hearing of the name-that-calls.

Entrance into the Pure Land Path through belief, while common, is nevertheless provisional. In fact, it is in many ways related to those Buddhist practices of a self-willed and auxiliary nature, for it does not spring immediately from Faith (but arises, mediately, by fits and starts from belief and hope) and thus still requires effort on the part of the believer. Be that as it may, belief may very well precipitate true self-knowledge (ones utter inability to ‘know’ and ‘do’ good), followed by a sense of gratitude and joy for the qualities of Buddha-Nature as revealed by the Pure Land masters, leading ultimately to that moment when deep-hearing of the name-that-calls awakens faith in the absolute compassion of Amida Buddha and we, without calculation receive shinjin.

Entrance into the Pure Land Path through Faith, on the other hand, is uncommon, true and real. It is the foundation of the True Pure Land Path (JodoShinShu) for it springs immediately from direct experience of the universal availability, complete efficacy and absolute, unconditioned nature of the compassion of Amida Buddha (DharmaKaya, Buddha-Nature).

The primary difference between the person of faith (true entrusting, shinjin) and the person of belief, is that the person of faith, having directly experienced the reality of the absolute and unconditioned nature of compassion, perceives quite clearly that there is no difference in the ultimate fate of persons of faith and those of belief … or even those of unbelief. Ultimately, all are embraced by the primal vow, never to be abandoned.

Dharmakara Bodhisattva. Alfred Bloom

In the “Larger Pure Land Sutra,” the story of Dharmakara’s attainment of Buddhahood offers an eloquent testimony to the depth of compassion which Mahayana Buddhists perceived in the Buddha reality and which they felt impelled to express in the constant refrain of the Bodhisattva: unless and until all other beings can achieve the
same goal, he would refuse enlightenment. The focus of this Sutra on the central characteristic of the Buddha being compassion is intensified also in the first of the four Bodhisattva Vows (shiguzeigan):

“However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them …”

Or, as another version states:

“I will save those who are yet to be saved; I will make those who are frightened feel secure; I will help enlighten those who are yet to attainenlightenment; I will cause those who are not in nirvana to be in nirvana.” [1]

In this spirit of the ideal of compassion, there developed an emphasis on dana, or “giving,” the first of the six perfections to be practiced by Bodhisattvas: dana, giving; sila, morality; ksanti, endurance; virya, energy; dhyana, meditation; and prajna, wisdom. In his “Outline of the Triple Sutra of Shin Buddhism,” Prof. Fujimoto eloquently translates the application of these six perfections of the compassionate idea expressed in the Pure Land sutras:

“Each of the Bodhisattvas manages to become a friend of swarming sentient beings though not asked; takes upon his shoulders the people’s heavy burden; by preserving the inexhaustible stock of the Tathagata’s profoundest Dharma, protects and develops their seed of Buddhahood so it will not be destroyed; commiserates with them out of his ever-rising compassion; shuts the door of the three evil worlds, unlocking that of goodness; preaches the Dharma to the swarming people before being asked, just as a pious son loves and pays respect to his parents; takes care of sentient beings as well as he does of himself, thus carrying them to the Other Shore by means of the supreme root of goodness

Amazed and Confused

For those who are first introduced to Shin Buddhism, there can be some initial confusion about the tradition. This can even be more confusing since our fellowship is Shin-Zen hybrid and not a traditional Shin Buddhist Sangha.

For most of  people and for those in our community, the confusion usually revolves about Amida Buddha and the Pure Land and how to these symbols can make the Shin tradition seem like some form of a theistic Buddhism, with Amida Buddha as a Savior/ God figure and the Pure Land like some sort of Buddhist heaven. This is understandable. It is important to note that we are dealing with a religion in translation, where language can fail us or at least get in the way. When dealing with the language and diction of Shin Buddhism we can get caught up in old meanings and previous contexts of words such as “saved” “sin” and “evil” (especially for us who come from a Christian background). In translation, the same words may have been used in a previous context but when they are used in relation to Shin Buddhism, the original intent, and meaning are lost. The language used can be similar but not the same, the words can get in our way.

So let’s clarify. It is obvious that Shin Buddhists venerate Amida Buddha, and the compassion that he symbolizes, and yet veneration is different than worship. To venerate someone means that there is great respect or awe inspired by the dignity, wisdom, dedication, or talent of that person. To worship someone would be more accurately, the act of showing respect and love for a god especially by praying with other people who believe in the same god: the act of worshipping God or a god. So with Amida Buddha, there is veneration but not worship, because Amida Buddha is not God, did not create the universe, and does not judge man. In Mahayana Buddhism, there are many different Buddhas, and none of them, are worshipped as gods. Simply put, Buddhas are not gods, they are awakened beings, exert no force, that simply teach the Dharma and the path to liberation. Here is a story from Shakyamuni Buddha’s life about this very question,

” ‘Are you a deva?(God)”

“No, brahman, I am not a deva.”

“Are you a gandhabba? (demi god / celestial musician), “No, brahman, I am not a gandhabba.”

“Are you a yakkha?” ( a protector god or trickster diety)

“No, brahman, I am not a yakkha.”

“Are you a human being?”

“No, brahman, I am not a human being.”

“Then what sort of being are you?”

“Remember me, brahman, as ‘awakened.'”

AN 4.36 PTS: A ii 37

From my perspective, in Buddhism –when it speaks about deities, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas, it is a symbolic representation of different aspects of awakened humanity. Or even characteristics of reality itself, but do not refer to any god. Amida Buddha is venerated because he represents the perfection of compassion and wisdom; and the capacity within each of us, to be perfectly compassionate with others and ourselves.

When I first was introduced to Amida Buddha and the Shin tradition I was amazed at the openness and compassion that I felt within it and at the same time, it did seem like Amida was Jesus without the blood. There are similarities, but as I said earlier, similarly does not mean the same. At the core, they are very different. In Christianity, a person is separated from God by sin. The separation of God and man occurred when Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God in the Garden of Eden. Their sins of disobedience caused all of mankind to be separated from God. For some Christians, this means that each person born into this world is separated from God, doomed to Hell, and will not be allowed to enter Heaven. As Paul wrote to the Romans,

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Romans 3:2-5

This disobedience caused a separation from the moment you are born, and the only way to bridge this separation is to have someone pay the price for the disobedience. In enters Jesus Christ A Christian writer John Piper has explained,

“Since our sin is against the Ruler of the Universe, “the wages of [our] sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Not to punish it would be unjust. So God sent his own Son, Jesus, to divert sin’s punishment from us to himself. God “loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation”—the wrath-absorbing substitute (emphasis added)—“for our sins”

1 John 4:10.

So the role of Jesus is to stand between man and God and pay the price of our wrath inducing disobedience. How does one take advantage of what Jesus has done? By having trust in him and by calling on his name and he will, by his mercy and grace allow those who do to enter into the rest of the lord. Ok, now that does sound familiar, especially when we read also that Amida Buddha saves all who intone his name, namu amida butsu, even if just once with a pure heart; that they will be born in the Pure Land. So it is like Jesus=Amida or Amida = Jesus. On closer inspection, we discover that they are actually quite different, even if the way to access their symbolic aid is similar. Here is an example of how this idea of disobedience and sin just does not relate to Amida Buddha.  Here is a quote from D.T. Suzuki. Suzuki was one of the most important people in spreading Zen in the West.

“Far as Amida is concerned, he is all love, there is no thought in him of punishing anybody, such discriminative judgments are not in him. He is like the sun in this respect shining on the unjust as well as the just. A sinner comes to the Pure Land with all his sins, or rather, he leaves them in the world where they belong, and when he arrives in the Pure Land he is in his nakedness, with no sinful raiments about him. Karma does not pursue him up to the Pure Land.”

D.T. Suzuki Essays on Shin Buddhism

Literal vs. True

For many Christians, Jesus is a literal physical being existing somewhere else besides where we are now. That also could be said for some Shin Buddhists. There is an anecdote that goes something like this. There are two members that are arguing whether Amida Buddha is a literal Buddha is some far off land, one says yes and the other says no. Later on in the day and at different times they as the resident minister for clarification. The one who believes that Amida Buddha is more literal ask the minister if Amida Buddha was symbolic or literal. The minister smiles and says the Amida Buddha is more  of a symbolic representation than a literal historical being. The man walks away shaking his head.  A little later the second man approaches the resident minister and asks if Amida Buddha was symbolic or literal. The minister smiles and says the Amida Buddha is not symbolic at all but a literal historical being. The man walks away shaking his head.

For some Shin Buddhists, those of a more modernist bent, Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life is a potent mythopoetic symbol.  The Buddhist Patriarch Huineng, explains how a symbol works, that symbols can be…

“likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

Amida acts as symbol, is the finger pointing to the truth of Reality as it is. Dr. Nobuo Haneda has explained.

“Mahayanists were interested in identifying the universal source (or basis) of the inspiration that awakened and produced Shakyamuni. And they identified it as the Dharma or universal Buddhahood. In order to show this spiritual basis of Shakyamuni in a more concrete human form, Mahayanists created the concept of “Amida”—an ideal human being, a “humble and dynamic” human being who embodies the Dharma.

As we can see, Amida is not a god, nor a wrathful judge, not a creator, nor lawgiver and there is no such thing as sin per se in Buddhism, simply delusion. Amida is not like Jesus since there is no god, not god to disobey, to be wrathful, or who needs to be appeased because of our disobedience and finally no sacrificial requirement to make man/woman right with God.

A yet, Shinran Shonin, the founder of Shin Buddhism, has said that Amida saves whoever has sincere faith in him. The question then would be what does he save us from?

The Buddha taught us in the first two of the Four Noble Truths, that Life is Suffering and suffering is caused by attachment to a false sense of an anonymous separate self. From the Buddhist perspective, being “separate” or “separated “is an illusion of our true state, and that there is no real separation to the Oneness of Life, whereas in Christianity, man is in a fallen state and the state of separation is a reality. The Compassion of Amida Buddha, then could be said to acts as a symbol that helps a person to, overcome their delusion of being separate from the Oneness of Life, and “saves” one from a misunderstanding of the Dharma, of Reality as it is and of being anything less than their innate Buddha nature. Again from Dr. Haneda,

“Thus, as far as our personal attainment of Buddhahood is concerned, this second meaning of “Amida” as a symbol of the Dharma (or universal Buddhahood) is more important than the first. The goal in Buddhism is that we personally become Amida Buddhas. The Buddhahood that we are expected to attain in Buddhism is not the historical Buddhahood of Shakyamuni, but the universal Buddhahood that is symbolized in “Amida.” We cannot totally identify with Shakyamuni, because we live in a different historical context than that of Shakyamuni. However, we can and should identify with the universal aspiration that Dharmakara symbolizes, strive to fulfill it, and become Amida Buddhas. We must realize our deepest reality, our true selves, which is what the realization of Amida Buddhahood means.”

 

Amida Buddha acts not as a reconciliation of a person to God, but the reconciliator of a person to themselves and to the understanding, as Jeff Wilson has written,…” of the true nature of all things as liberated suchness.”
The story of Amida Buddha gives us an alternative narrative to our ego- entangled story. Amida is not God but a symbol of the feeling or sense that many of us have, of a loving immeasurable mystery at the heart of existence. Entrusting in Amida Buddha is trusting in that sense and is the source of the Great Compassion that frees us from our delusory ego-self – of shame, separation, and lack. When we turn to entrust in the Compassion of the Oneness of Life as symbolized by Amida, a path opens before us for us to experience true compassion. Entrusting in Amida Buddha is a skillful means to access the reality of the Oneness of Life that lies beyond language; that comes from the very wisdom and ever-present grace waiting for us at the core of becoming fully human.

Namu Amida Butsu.

The Color Gold

The Color Gold – excerpt for River of Fire River of Water by Taitetsu Unno

Though Shin Buddhism improvised a radically new form of practice, its goal is one and the same with that of Mahayana  Buddhism The goal is to awaken to the true self as a manifestation  of dharma or “reality-as-is.” What this means may be   illustrated by some popular metaphors in the Pure Land tradition.


The lotus  flower, the second metaphor, reveals the distinctive meaning of  suchness or thatness. The lotus has been an important religious  symbol in the Asian world for more than five thousand years with   different signilications. In the Pure Land tradition it represents    the uniqueness of each person, or each reality-as-is, distinct          from all others each with its own uniqueness.

 


The multiple colors of the lotus blossoms, each radiating its distinctive  luster, creates the glory of the enlightened realm. This is the  realm of the Pure Land, the world of enlightenment. But this world  is not a given; it is to be realized through undergoing a radical   transformation.

This transformation is suggested in the third metaphor of transformed rubble, based on scripture that reads: “We who are like bits of rubble are transformed into gold.” All-embracing and nonexclusive,   this path accepts everyone, even the lowliest who are considered   nothing more than “bits of rubble” in  the eyes of society. But no matter who or what one is, everyone is   transformed through the power of compassion to become authentically real as an awakened person. “Bits of rubble” is the realization of those who, illuminated by Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable   Life that is Amida, are made to see their essential finitude, imperfection,    and mortality. This realization may not sound too inspiring, but  affirming one’s basic reality is the crucial factor in the transformative  process. To bring about such a transformation is the sole purpose,   of the Primal Vow of Amida, the working of great compassion that courses through the universe.

This metaphor of alchemical transmutation is based on the Mahayana  teaching of the nonduality of samsara and nirvana, delusion and enlightenment,   rubble and gold. This is not a simple identity, for it involves a            dialectical tension between the two poles, between limited karmic  beings and unbounded como passion. The two remain separate, yet they   are one; they are one, yet always remain separate.