Buddhism of the Heart - Introduction
Introduction: Buddhism of the Heart
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. It is about Buddhism, a very old and beautiful path, and particularly about Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, the most popular type of Buddhism in Japan and the oldest organized form of Buddhism in the West. Also known as Shin Buddhism, it belongs to the Pure Land tradition, the most widespread type of Buddhism today, especially in eastern Asia.
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. There are stories in this book that compare Shin and other Buddhisms, but their point is to show why I find value in practicing this form of Buddhism, not to suggest that you should, or that one Buddhism is really better than another. Rather, my goal is to convey a sense of how it feels to live as a Shin Buddhist, especially one in modern North America.
This seems important to me because whereas other Buddhisms often seem to be mainly about the mind, Jodo Shinshu is about the heart. It relies on emotions, imagination, and relationships between people to bring about spiritual awakening, an awakening that might be better described as the opening of the heart to “deep entrusting,” rather than the enlightenment of the mind with penetrating wisdom. But this isn’t to say that mind and heart are separate things.
Yet there is a greater degree of emphasis on “heart feeling” in Jodo Shinshu than in any of the many other forms of Buddhism I’ve encountered, and since this is crucial to how I approach my individual Buddhist life, that is where I want to put my focus in this book. As the Shin author Itsuki Hiroyuki wrote, “Religions do not originate in doctrines and organizations. They arise from natural human emotions.” With that guidance in mind, this will be a collection of short essays designed to convey feelings and attitudes. I hope you will find some value in this approach. You can find some further reading suggestions in the back of this book for folks who want to explore doctrines, traditions, and history in greater depth, and you’ll find a glossary back there too, since try as I may, you can’t talk about Buddhism without using at least a few foreign terms.
One of the important things to understand about Shin is that for nearly 800 years it has been solely devoted to providing laypeople with a way in which to experience awakening and joy in their own everyday lives. And one of the primary methods that Jodo Shinshu hit upon was sacred storytelling. Through the written legends and oral traditions around Amida Buddha, the Pure Land, past saints and fools (who are often the same folks!), and present-day people, we encounter the transcendent elements of our mundane lives and begin to awaken to new, less self-centered ways of being. The life story of Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, is particularly important, but there are many others as well.
These sacred stories are a mixture of actual events and myth. It can be hard to tell these two elements apart—but fortunately telling them apart isn’t the point. Our stories aren’t important because they did or didn’t happen exactly the way we tell them, but because they reveal aspects of how things are and how we can learn to live in accord with the Dharma, the reality that the Buddha uncovered. Lessons come in many forms and sometimes one story fits the occasion, sometimes another does. The truth of a story lies in the degree to which it points the hearer on toward deeper humility, awakening, and thankfulness. In fact, perhaps it would be helpful to think of Shin as a kind of artistic endeavor, an art of living with wonder, humility, and gratitude through the heart that has been opened and the mind that has been filled with sacred stories passed down, elaborated, and re-energized generation after generation.
In the Shin view, awakening isn’t something we strive desperately for and obtain through our own efforts at study or meditation—it is something we settle into and receive. And it is through the stories and metaphors of the tradition and how they move us beyond the petty ego that we come closer to the entrusting heart, the heart that is rooted in gratitude and considerate awareness of others. When that entrusting heart glows within us we express our feelings by saying “Namu Amida Butsu,” a joyful phrase called, in Japanese, the nembutsu. But don’t mistake me here, please: the nembutsu is our response to awakening, not a method whereby we seek to awaken. Namu Amida Butsu is itself the final destination.
And before it comes the heart of trust and thankfulness. And before that, at the very beginning and at every step of the way, is the story.
How to cite this document:
© Jeff Wilson, Buddhism of the Heart (Wisdom Publications, 2009)
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