Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path - Selections

A Life of Awakening


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CHAPTER 1: The Fundamental Principles of Buddhism

The Teachings of Gautama Buddha

Shin Buddhism is a path for our attainment of buddhahood. It is a path taught by Shinran (1173–1262 c.e.), but it actually originated with the teaching of Gautama Buddha (463–383 b.c.e.), also known as Śākyamuni Buddha, of ancient India. Even though Shinran lived over fifteen hundred years after the death of Gautama Buddha, his teaching of Shin Buddhism clearly inherited and revealed the essence of the Buddha’s teaching, especially as it was directed to lay householders living at the lowest levels of society. For that reason, I would first like to present an outline of the Buddhist path as it developed from the teaching of Gautama Buddha to that of Shinran.

Buddha’s Final Words

As he lay dying, Gautama Buddha offered in his final words to his followers a straightforward explanation of the fundamental principles of the Buddhist teachings. These words are preserved in a Pāli text, the Dīgha Nikāya, and have also been transmitted in a Chinese scripture, known as the Last Teaching Sutra, which appears in the Long Āgama Sutras. Briefly summarized, they state:

Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself; do not depend upon anyone else. Make my teachings your light. Rely upon them; do not depend upon any other teaching.

This, we are told, is the final teaching of Gautama Buddha. I believe that these words reveal the fundamental principles of Buddhism.

Here Gautama Buddha instructs each human being to live by relying upon himself or herself. None of us has chosen on our own to live this human life. We have each been born into this world—into a life that utterly transcends our own wills, a life that has been given to us. We have each appeared in this world, bearing our own sets of problems, yet in a manner not determined by our own wills. This is the real beginning of our human lives: they harbor much contradiction and are filled with suffering. Nevertheless, Gautama Buddha teaches us that, no matter how much or what kind of contradiction or suffering we may have, we must each take full responsibility to stand up and bear the burden of our own lives, as if we had in fact chosen or even requested those lives. This is the meaning of the words, “Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself.”

He then turns to his own teachings. The Dharma, he says, is the universal principle that pervades the world, all humanity, and, more broadly, the universe itself. In this world, at all times and in all places, there exists a universal principle that holds true for all humans and can be understood by anyone. The Buddha teaches us to live our lives in reliance on this universal principle, making it our light. This was the final teaching of Gautama Buddha.

Let us discuss this in a way that may be a little easier to understand, by viewing it in terms of vertical and horizontal axes. The instruction to take responsibility for our own lives may be said to represent a vertical axis. The Dharma—the universal principle that pervades the world and all humanity—would then be a horizontal axis. Gautama Buddha instructs us to live at the point at which the vertical axis and the horizontal axis intersect.

That is to say, we humans all have our own egos, and as a result, we always make judgments and act according to whatever is most convenient to ourselves; yet it is only because there is a universal principle that permeates our lives that we become able to live truly as human beings. We must take responsibility for our own lives and bear the responsibility for our lives resolutely, and yet, at the same time, we must be in accord with the universal principle that pervades everything in our lives. The truth is, however, that our lives are always far removed from this point of intersection. For that reason, Gautama Buddha teaches us that we must constantly strive to live at that point.

According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama was the first person to stand at this point of intersection. Therefore, he was called the “Buddha.”

What Is the Buddha?

What then does “buddha” mean? The word is derived from the Sanskrit word budh, which means “to awaken.” The verb budh, “to awaken,” is converted into the noun buddha, “awakened person” or “awakened one.”

Next, let me briefly discuss the meaning of “awakening.” In Buddhism, a person’s intellectual or mental activity is referred to as either “knowledge” (chishiki in Japanese) or as “wisdom” (chie). The original Sanskrit word for chishiki is vijñāna, while the original word for chie is prajñā. In Buddhism, human “knowing” can be generally divided into these two functions.

Knowledge refers to our normal mental activity. For example, take the case in which we see a flower. Intellectually, the “I” that sees and the flower that is seen arise in a relationship in which each stands in opposition to, and separate from, one another. In addition, when we usually see something in the ordinary sense, we have some kind of subjective reaction to it. For instance, we may feel, “I don’t like tulips!” or “I love carnations!” Our own subjective feelings come up to the surface. For the most part, when we human beings see something, we look at it in that way.

There is another way that people see things, which is more purely objective. It differs from the subjective way of looking at things. For instance, the scientific method is supposed to eliminate our feelings of liking or disliking the things that we observe. We may wonder about what flower family the tulip belongs to or where its habitat may be located. With this method of observation, we seek to analyze, synthesize, and comprehend things from many different angles in an objective, scientific way.

The first way of “knowing” encompasses both our ordinary, everyday way of seeing things and the scientific manner of observing objects. In both cases, it is based on a relationship between the subject, which sees, and the object, which is seen. In Buddhism, this way of looking at things is called knowledge. In contrast, in wisdom, the object that is seen and the subject that sees become one: I become the tulip and the tulip becomes me. That which sees and that which is seen become completely one. This second way of perceiving an object, such as our tulip, is called wisdom. It is also referred to as “awakening” or “realization,” and it represents another structure of knowing by human beings.

What does it mean that the object that is seen by the subject and the subject that sees the object become one? When we deeply look into a thing, the “I” that sees becomes—in and of itself—the thing that is seen. As we see the tulip, we enter into the life of that flower. Becoming one with the life of the tulip, we come to know the tulip and see the tulip. Conversely stated, the life of the tulip reaches into our lives and into the deepest part of our hearts and minds. There, we ourselves come to know that tulip’s heart, as well as its life and the meaning of its existence. This way of seeing is called “awakening.”

For instance, at the front of a flower shop we may see scores of tulips bundled for sale and observe that each flower has been marked with the same price. This is how we look at the tulips using our ordinary way of thinking. Certainly, whether they are white, red, or yellow, tulips of the same variety and size would be priced the same. However, from the standpoint of the life of the tulip itself, the existence and value of each tulip would be utterly unique.

Each and every tulip flower has an irreplaceable life; existing this one time only, it has survived the long winter and is now blooming with all its might. Each and every tulip is blooming at the risk of its own life, so to say that all the flowers are the same would mean that we do not truly see the unique life of the individual tulip. That tulip is blossoming with irreplaceable life. When we are able to see the tulip at the place where the life of the tulip and our own life become one, then for the first time we will be able to see the world of that life, in which each and every tulip is blooming with all of its might. That is the way of seeing that I am talking about now.

According to the Buddhist teaching, when we consume a living thing—such as when we eat the meat of animals such as fish, chicken, or cattle, or when we eat eggs—we are committing the terrible offense of taking life. As a result, special customs have been passed down among Buddhist followers whereby they either never eat such things or they occasionally refrain from eating them. This teaching that the taking of the life of a living thing is a great evil offense is based on the perspective of that living thing. It takes the standpoint of awakening or wisdom (prajñā) in which we see that the life of that living thing and our own lives are one. It is born out of a reexamining of our own lives, based on that standpoint. In this way, Buddhism teaches us that all living beings alike live precious, invaluable lives. Thus, all varieties of living things—fish, birds, and humans—have lives of infinite value.

The Buddhist teachings include the notion of sattva, a Sanskrit word that is generally applied to all living beings and animals, including human beings. In China it was translated as shujō, which refers to the multitude of living beings, or as ujō, which indicates things having any kind of feelings. All of these words point to the nondifferentiation of all living beings. Again, this kind of thinking arose from the way of seeing that is grounded in the standpoint of awakening in which one sees an object when the subject and the object have become one, and the seer has entered into the object.

This way of seeing things eventually made its way into China, where it was expanded to include not just animals but also all plant life. That is to say, daikon, potatoes, carrots, and so on all contain the same life as that of human beings. This gave rise to a way of thinking which held that our own lives, the life of a daikon, or the life of a carrot should all be understood as sharing common value. Broadening that understanding somewhat more, in the lives of all living beings one discovers the fundamental, common nature of all life. In Japanese Buddhism, this way of thinking eventually joined together with traditional Japanese thought. Life came to be viewed very broadly, extending beyond plants and animals even to minerals, so that life could be perceived even in a small pebble. Even there we can find a life that is in common with our own. This was the result of the gradual development of the notion of wisdom (awakening and realization) in Indian Buddhism.

One could say that this way of looking at things, based in Buddhist wisdom, whereby we see an object by becoming that object and transcend the opposition between subject and object, is an example of Eastern thought. In a certain sense, it might be regarded as the complete opposite of scientific thinking as it has arisen in the West. I believe, moreover, that, as the destruction of the environment worsens and we reach a point of crisis in which the very future of our planet is at stake, this way of seeing things based on Buddhist wisdom can be very important, for it can make possible a new kind of human life in the twenty-first century. This unique kind of human knowing arises in the sphere of an exceedingly profound mind, that is, in the world of spirituality. This is the significance of wisdom and awakening today.

We must seek to stand at the point of intersection of the vertical axis of self-responsibility and the horizontal axis of the universal principle of the Dharma. If we do so our lives will become focused on seeing things with the eyes of wisdom and awakening. Buddhism teaches us that a life of awakening is the ideal way to live as a person of the world and a member of the human race.

Aim of Buddhist Teaching

Buddhist teaching is intended to enable us to cultivate this kind of awakening within ourselves. When we are able to cultivate even just a small amount of wisdom, we become human beings in the truest sense. That is to say, in awakening we subjectively engage in true human growth. We personally cast off our old human skin and become the kinds of persons that we are capable of being.

Normally, we lead self-centered lives, wearing the skin of ego-attachment. Typically we think, “I like her; I hate him. She is my friend; he is my enemy.” In a variety of ways we reject some persons, while accepting others. And yet, as we do away with this kind of life and way of looking at things, even little by little, or as we come to grasp objects directly, without making them into objectified or scientific abstractions, then we will come to see objects by becoming one with them.

In this sense, the Buddhist path indicates an ongoing process in which our own self-centered ways of living are constantly being examined and the old skin of those lives is being cast off. Further, casting off the old skin means, at the same time, that we are growing into and becoming our new selves.

As we cast off, we become; as we become, we cast off. The process of casting off our old selves and becoming our new selves, becoming and casting off, continues on and on without end. This idea helps us to understand whether we can indeed come close to standing at the point of intersection of the vertical and horizontal axes, which we saw earlier. In our actual state, we learn, it is impossible for us to reach that point. We are not able to cast off our old skin and realize growth, as we might like. However, we can aim for that, and as we earnestly learn the Dharma, our selves will be constantly brought under severe scrutiny for as long as we live. This, I believe, is the basic aim of the Buddhist teachings.

Buddhism calls the current state of our existence into question and teaches us the true way to live as human beings. As a result, each of us undergoes a change, for we are made to realize personal, subjective growth. Let me say this in a different way: as we learn the Buddha-dharma, we who are not so become so, little by little. As we question our selves, we nurture our selves, little by little.

In this way, Buddhism is different from theistic religions which begin by affirming the existence of God as an absolute being. They then teach that people must live in relationship with that absolute God. Buddhism, however, is not founded on any dualistic conception of human beings and an absolute being. What Buddhism teaches is that, as we learn the Dharma— the universal principle that pervades the world and the universe—we come to question, through the Dharma, the state of our own existence and exhaustively search for our own ideal way of being. This is the teaching of Gautama Buddha.

The Development of Buddhism

Buddhism after the Death of Gautama Buddha

Soon after the death of Gautama Buddha, Buddhism divided into two main streams. The first stream was renunciant monastic-centered Buddhism. This type of Buddhism was centered on persons who wished to emulate Gautama. By renouncing their homes and leaving the secular world, they sought to walk the same path that Gautama had followed during his life. The other main stream was centered on lay householders, who devoted themselves to supporting the lifestyles of Gautama and his disciples.

Stated simply, renunciant Buddhists worked to compile Gautama Buddha’s teachings precisely as he had left them in order to construct the Buddhist scriptures with them. They then concentrated on learning those teachings correctly so that they might be passed on accurately to succeeding generations. Renunciant Buddhism focused on the teachings of Gautama and its development took place around those scriptures.

Among other activities, after the death of Gautama Buddha, lay supporters endeavored to cremate his remains, in accordance with his dying wishes. Those cremated remains (shari) were divided into eight portions, and believers brought them back to their respective homes. There they constructed stūpa in which the remains could be enshrined. It might be said, therefore, that stūpa—portions of which still exist in India today— were originally gravesites built to enshrine Gautama Buddha’s remains. Many Buddhist householders learned the teachings of the Buddha by focusing on the stūpa in this way.

Renunciant Buddhism

The Buddhist teaching also refers to an awakened person or buddha as a tathāgata. The word tathāgata is a combination of two Sanskrit words, tathā and gata, and also tathā and agata. Tathā has the meaning of “truth” or “suchness.” It refers to the ultimate value that human beings should aim to realize. In other words, tathā has the same meaning as enlightenment or awakening. The meaning of the word gata is “went” or “departed.”

It follows that tathāgata (tathā + gata) means that one has gone to or departed toward truth and suchness. In China this word was translated as nyoko (“thus gone”; “gone to thusness”). This is how Gautama Buddha was understood by Buddhist renunciants. To them, Gautama was “thus gone”; he had gone forward to and departed toward truth, suchness, and ultimate value. Hence, it was thought, one also must try to embody without error the path that Gautama Buddha established and follow in his footsteps. This was the teaching of renunciants.

Naturally, this kind of approach to Buddhism would involve a life of extremely difficult religious practice. Renunciants all made diligent efforts to perform practices, cultivate their minds, and earnestly engage the path for the attainment of buddhahood. Such Buddhist teachings maintained that such practitioners would be able to attain buddhahood, realizing wisdom, awakening, or enlightenment in the midst of this life and in this present body.

This kind of renunciant-centered approach became one stream of Buddhism in India, China, and Japan. It would later come to be called the teaching of the “Path of Sages.”

Householder Buddhism

However, another, distinct understanding regarding Gautama Buddha also arose. In this stream of thought, the word tathāgata was taken to be a combination of the words tathā and agata. In the word agata, the prefix “a” signifies negation. Since it negates the word gata (“has gone”), it means, on the contrary, “has come.” It follows that tathāgata (tathā + agata) signifies that truth or suchness has come here. In China, this word was translated as nyorai (“thus come”; “comes from thusness”). Here, then, Gautama Buddha is understood to be “thus come.” It is not that he has gone off to the truth. On the contrary, he has come to us from truth in order to teach us to become buddhas.

This kind of understanding was gleaned by people who focused solely on the stūpa, which enshrined the remains of Gautama Buddha, for it allowed them to continuously call to mind his virtues and extol his character. This understanding then became widespread among lay householders—people who continued to dwell in worldly life, who humbly engaged in farming and trade, and who worked diligently in everyday life, while enmeshed in all sorts of ego-attachments.

To those living a lay householder’s life, it never occurred to them that they should be able to look upon Gautama Buddha as their own predecessor or to follow in his footsteps. Instead, they came to see Gautama as truth or suchness itself, which came from beyond and appeared over here in order to teach them. They came to think of Gautama Buddha as their savior, who actively approached this world in order to save them.

This stream of householder Buddhism later came to be called the “Pure Land teachings”—and the idea of Amida Buddha was born from this kind of householder Buddhism. As we will see, Amida Buddha came to represent infinite wisdom and compassion, which supports all beings throughout all places and times.

According to Pure Land Buddhism, although it was deemed possible to realize awakening in the midst of the current state of human life, it was completely unthinkable that lay householders, who were mired in the secular world, could attain buddhahood in this life. Instead it was taught that, no matter how deep one’s karmic sins might be, one who followed Gautama’s teachings, aimed toward truth or suchness, and lived one’s life with singleness of purpose would upon death be able to attain birth in the Pure Land without fail. There for the first time one would attain buddhahood.

Here was the unique character of the Buddhist teachings for lay householders, the Pure Land teachings of Amida Buddha.

Formation of the Pure Land Teaching

It is believed that this approach to the Buddhist teachings—that is, the idea of Amida Buddha—arose around the first century C.E. approximately four to five hundred years after the death of Gautama Buddha. Today, there are many questions regarding the circumstances of its formation. However, on the whole, it is believed that the formation of this new Buddhism for the sake of the lay householder masses was influenced by the Roman and Greek cultures of the West. The base of its development is thought to have been in the area of Gandhāra, an important post along the trade routes between Rome and China, located in the Indus River basin of Northwest India (present-day Pakistan).

These two streams of Indian Buddhism—the Path of Sages centered on renunciants and the Pure Land teachings centered on lay householders— eventually flowed into China and Japan. Of the two, the teachings of the Path of Sages was considered to be a superior form of Buddhism, since it taught practitioners to adopt the renunciant lifestyle of Gautama Buddha, leave their homes, seriously perform practices, attain awakening, and become buddhas in this life. In contrast, the Pure Land teachings focused on lay householders, and even among them, it was intended for persons who were socially and economically destitute. It could be learned by foolish beings who were incapable of storing up roots of good or even by those whose karmic sins were heavy and profound. Thus, the Pure Land teaching was considered to be an extremely low-level and inferior form of Buddhism. This opinion was long held within the various streams of Japanese Buddhism.

However, this kind of thinking was completely turned upside down by Hōnen, a practitioner of Buddhism during the Kamakura period of Japan.

Hōnen and the Pure Land Teaching

The center of Tendai Buddhism has been located on Mt. Hiei for centuries. When he was a priest on the mountain, Hōnen was deeply engaged in the study of the teachings of the Path of Sages. However, he came to realize how difficult it actually was to realize awakening and attain buddhahood during one’s life. In the midst of despair, however, he was able to open his eyes to a completely new way of thinking. That is to say, he came to realize that the teachings of the Path of Sages in fact taught that only persons of special character and abilities would be able to attain buddhahood. And even such persons could do so only after continuously performing religious practices in the depths of the mountains, a lifestyle that actually required the support of many others. Under those conditions, only a limited number of persons would be able to access that path.

Hōnen became conscious of the fact that such a path could not have been the focus of the teaching of Gautama Buddha. Did the Buddha not aspire that all living things, and not just human beings but even all animals, would attain buddhahood? The Pure Land teaching, Hōnen learned, taught of a path upon which all lay believers, and even those who committed all sorts of karmic evil in the midst of the harshness of everyday life, could equally attain buddhahood. As such, it was a path accessible to all persons, and it enabled all persons to grow into true human beings.

Again, the prevailing opinion at the time was that the teaching of the Path of Sages, which described an extremely difficult path and taught that only a few skilled renunciants would be able to master it successfully, was the most superior, highest-grade Buddhist teaching. Such a path, it was held, constituted the central import of Gautama Buddha’s teaching. In contrast, Hōnen took the position that it was the Pure Land teaching, which revealed a path upon which all persons—no matter how foolish one might be or what kind of karmic offenses one might commit—can attain buddhahood, which transmitted the true heart and mind of Gautama Buddha. His stance represented a complete reversal of the prevailing understanding of the Buddhist teaching, for he held that the Pure Land teaching was the most superior, true Buddhist teaching. That was Hōnen’s understanding of the Pure Land teaching.

When Shinran met Hōnen, he was able to come in contact with the heart of Gautama Buddha, with the true Buddhist teaching, for the first time. That is why he was willing to commit himself totally to learn from his teacher. Under Hōnen’s guidance, Shinran pored over the Pure Land Buddhist scriptures that spoke of Amida Buddha and studied the many texts of the Pure Land masters of India, China, and Japan. In addition, he discovered that numerous other Mahayana scriptures, especially the Nirvana Sutra, and commentaries also explained the significance of the Pure Land teaching. In that way, he was able to comprehend the fundamental purport of the Pure Land teachings and the idea of Amida Buddha.

This completes our brief look at the fundamental principles of the Buddhist teachings that were expounded by Gautama Buddha, as well as the way in which those Buddhist teachings reached Shinran in Japan.


How to cite this document:
© Takamaro Shigaraki; English translation © David Matsumoto, Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path (Wisdom Publications, 2013)

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