Buddhism of the Heart - Foreword

Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness


264 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861715831

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by Mark Unno and Taitetsu Unno

Is Buddhism in the West continues to evolve, significant but relatively unknown expressions of the Dharma continue to come to light. Among them is Jodo Shinshu, or Shin Buddhism as it has come to be known in English, the stream of Japanese Pure Land tradition that originated from India, made its way across Korea, China, and then on to Japan. In East Asia, Pure Land communities grew into a broad and vast river that eventually came to encompass one of the largest bodies of practice. Although it made its first appearance in the West in the late nineteenth century, practices devoted to Amida Buddha are only now becoming more widely recognized here.

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 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.” This is true not only for the things of this world such as trees and grasses but also in our relationships with other people. A stranger who we may have a negative initial impression of, once we get to know them beyond our preconceptions, often turns out to be someone very much like ourselves, with similar fears, concerns, joys, and hopes. But we will never know this as long as we prejudge or pigeonhole them into the categories of our own making.

Form and language, then, are not negative or problems in and of themselves. It is only when we become dogmatically attached to them, or when we insist on seeing the world through a preconceived filter, our “rose-colored glasses,” that we run into trouble and cause suffering to others as well as to ourselves. Yet, the moment that we are led to recognize our prejudices, dogmatism, and rigidity, and we are able to see ourselves with a bit more humor and humility, we have already begun to let go into the great flow of emptiness, oneness, and suchness, where we are in intimate kinship with all beings and things.

Within Shin Buddhist communities, such concepts as blind passion, foolish being, and boundless compassion have become part of the English-language vocabulary of Pure Land practice. Nonetheless, many people—even readers of Western Buddhism— may not yet be familiar with these terms, so brief explanations of a few key terms may be in order here.

In Shin, the person who is entrapped in the mental prison of his own making is said to be caught in his own “blind passions.” Passions and desires, like words and concepts, are also not negative in and of themselves. It is only when we become obsessed by our ideas about what we think we are or should be that we become blind to the reality before us. Just as love must be allowed to unfold and cannot be forced, our broader experience of life and death can only truly unfold in the freedom of mutual encounter between us and the world, when we are no longer merely blinded by our desire to force things into a mold that has been pre-made in our minds.

This encounter with reality, the realization of emptiness, is described in Shin Buddhism as the embrace of boundless compassion. Although emptiness, being beyond all distinctions, is formless and characterless, the experience of being released from the suffering of our blind passions into the vast, ocean-like emptiness is nonetheless experienced as a positive realization. Compassion comes from the Latin com- meaning “with,” and passion, “feeling.” Thus, “compassion” is “feeling with” the flow of reality, a compassion that is boundless because it is beyond categorization, ineffable, inconceivable.

The one who is filled with blind passions is called a “foolish being,” and the embodiment of boundless compassion is said to be Amida Buddha. This corresponds to the Sanskrit Amitabha Buddha which means the “Buddha of Infinite Light” (alternately, Amitayus Buddha, “the Buddha of Eternal Life”). Yet, since boundless compassion is always unfolding and never static, it would be more precise to render Amida Buddha as “the awakening of infinite light.” Just as we experience a palpable darkness when we are troubled and a countervailing clarity or illumination when we are freed from our worries, the realization of emptiness comes to us as a vivid sense of limitless light.

Blind passion and boundless compassion, foolish being and Amida Buddha: these are terms of awakening in the daily religious life of the Shin Buddhist. Furthermore, these polar pairs are captured in the central practice of Shin Buddhism, which is to speak or chant the Name of Amida Buddha, which is known in terms of the six-syllable phrase, “Namu Amida Butsu”—literally, “I entrust myself to the awakening of infinite light.” This phrase is called the nembutsu.

Even though blind passions bind us, we can never get rid of them entirely, as long as we live in this limited mind and body that we call the “self.” In the moment of release from our ego-prison, we may feel the deep impetus to never complain again, to never prejudge others again. And yet, we do complain; we still prejudge. However, once we have been awakened to the working of Amida’s boundless compassion, each moment of ignorance and blind passion becomes another opportunity to gain insight and learn anew. Thus, in Shin Buddhism, we greatly value our blind passions as the very source of our own wisdom and compassion. It is only through recognizing our mistakes that we learn and grow; our blind passions are like fertilizer for the field of our own spiritual development. Blind passions and boundless compassion go hand-in-hand; the deeper we go into the ocean of boundless compassion, the more we realize our foolishness.

This is our dance with reality, and with ourselves, the rhythm and song of “Namu” our foolishness and “Amida Butsu” the wellspring of boundless compassion that arises from our own deepest, truest reality. Ultimately, even the nembutsu arises not from ourselves, from our own ego, but is experienced as the call from the deepest level of reality, from the depths of our own being, in which the flow of emptiness/oneness is realized in each manifestation of form and appearance. The movement of boundless compassion is also known as the Vow of Amida, the realization of the vow to bring all beings to the realization of oneness. The nembutsu expresses our receiving this deep vow to liberate and realize oneness with all beings.

Yet, this kind of philosophical explanation can only take one so far. And so, alongside the profound philosophical works of Shin Buddhism composed by Shinran Shonin and others, diverse genres of literature also evolved, in some ways less systematic but no less enriching. These include the stories and observations of ordinary Pure Land followers that have been collected down through the ages in what has come to be known as setsuwa, or folk literature, and other sources such as memoirs, essays, and biographies.

As Jeff Wilson notes in the present work, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the poems and stories of the myokonin, the “wondrous persons” of the Shin tradition conveyed the lives and reflections of ordinary followers, of peasants and craftspeople with little or no formal education. And in contemporary Japan, there has been a proliferation of memoirs, biographies, and essays, most of which have yet to be rendered into Western languages.

Although few in number and little known, we do have examples of such literature in English. These include Shinmon Aoki’s Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician, the memoir of a contemporary lay Shin follower translated from the Japanese. In terms of works that were composed in English for Western audiences from the beginning, there are such Dharma talk collections as Gyomay Kubose’s Everyday Suchness and Hozen Seki’s Great Natural Way: Pure Land Dharma Lectures, Sermons and Sayings. Yet while the lives of ordinary Shin followers are conveyed through these works, they are presented through the lens of full-time ministers who tended to their congregations.

Kenneth Tanaka’s Ocean: An Introduction to Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism in America is a work that helps to make Shin teachings accessible to Western audiences. It contains both ideas and stories and in that sense points to understanding that brings doctrine to life through experience. It reflects Tanaka’s status as both scholar and minister. Another work is Alfred Bloom’s A Life of Serendipity: Blown by the Wind of Amida’s Vow. Bloom is also an accomplished scholar and ordained Shin minister, but in this memoir he offers glimpses into his journey from the time of his youth, and as his religious journey unfolded organically from days long before he knew anything about Shin Buddhist philosophy. This kind of organic narrative helps to illuminate the religious quest as life process, one in which religious stories, personal reflections, and cultural observations are intertwined.

Jeff Wilson’s Buddhism of the Heart similarly conveys his organic experience as he has found his way deeper into Shin Buddhism. Through a series of essays, vignettes, and stories, Jeff relates various life events, the contexts of his study and practice, along with personal reflections that are woven together into a colorful tapestry of thought, emotion, and experience. In his own words, “This book is about one of the ways in which people work to wake up to the true nature of life and of this universe we share—a universe that includes much suffering and much potential for going beyond suffering.” Yet, this one way, Shin Buddhism, contains many ways. It includes reading works of Shin literature, attendance at the Sunday services of Shin Buddhist temples and its attendant liturgy of chanting, bowing—and even Buddhist dancing. There are Shin Dharma talks to be heard, retreats attended, and rich personal encounters with teachers. So too are there the myriad spontaneous life experiences framed in Shin terms, the comings and goings of people and things, and chance encounters where “sleeves brush past one another” that nevertheless carry great meaning. In Buddhism from the Heart, Jeff shares some of these intimate moments of joy and of suffering as when he meets with fellow seekers or when he describes the passing of close family members.

Through the discipline of a religious path, one comes to know more deeply oneself and others, and one gains greater command of one’s life. At the same time, much of what we experience remains beyond our control, and so much of what we learn in life depends upon how we receive the circumstances of life and death beyond our grasp. As Jeff suggests, “Perhaps it would be helpful to think of Shin as a kind of artistic endeavor, an art of living with wisdom, humility, and gratitude through the heart that has been opened and the mind that has been filled with sacred stories, passed down, elaborated and reshaped generation after generation.” Indeed, this is a helpful description of Shin Buddhism—for it is not a monastic path but welcomes all people, making no distinction between genders, social classes, educational backgrounds, wise or foolish. Jeff sums up the basic approach open to anyone seeking a religious path that is available to all: “In the Shin view awakening isn’t something to strive desperately for and obtain through our own effort at study and meditation; it’s something we settle into and receive.”

This book, Buddhism of the Heart, is a welcome addition to the growing English-language literature on the vast tradition of Shin Buddhism.


How to cite this document:
© Jeff Wilson, Buddhism of the Heart (Wisdom Publications, 2009)

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