Monday, May 4, 2009

Shin Buddhism, by Jeff Wilson

As a Shin Buddhist, my primary practice is not meditation, Sutra study, ritual, or precepts. All of these can be valuable of course, but in our school of Buddhism our main focus is the practice of gratitude.

About 800 years ago, a Japanese monk named Shinran founded a new Buddhist school with his wife, Eshinni. After twenty years spent at the center of Buddhist studies in Japan, Shinran’s insight was that meditation, precepts, and other rigorous practices have a tendency to subtly reinforce our egos. As we become better at sitting still for long periods of time, we may start thinking “man, I’m a great meditator, too bad all the other poor slobs out there don’t have my capacity.” A glimpse of emptiness leads us to believe we are more enlightened than normal people. And when we manage to adhere to strict precepts, we tend to slip into thinking “I’m a good person, and those people who don’t stick to the precepts are bad, they’re a bunch of weak-minded, self-indulgent losers.” Indeed, Shinran found these sorts of attitudes in himself, and in his fellow monks. I’m guilty of this too. Meanwhile, despite a lifetime of efforts, it seemed as if there were few if any monks that Shinran could look to who were reaching genuine levels of attainment akin to those described in the Sutras.

The solution that Shinran hit upon was to flunk out. If traditional Buddhist practice so often reinforced self-attachment and created divisions between people (even as practitioners believed that they were making spiritual progress), then the way out of the trap was to stop practicing. Or rather, to stop striving egoistically. Instead, Shinran turned away from self-power (since the self is a delusion anyway) to power-beyond-self, using a Buddhist theory with a long history in India, China, and Japan.

For Shinran, Amida Buddha (the name means Infinite) was the embodiment of power-beyond-self. Hundreds of Sutras attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha describe Amida and his Pure Land, as well as his helpers Avalokiteshvara and Mahastamaprapta. Pure Land motifs and practices are part of virtually all Mahayana schools of Buddhism, whether in Japan, China, Tibet, or elsewhere. Amida is described as infinite light and life, symbols for unlimited wisdom and compassion. Tibetan monks visualize Amida Buddha, Zen monks chant his name during funerals, and Foguangshan nuns seek to create the Pure Land here in this life.

Shinran taught that Amida is actually reality in its true, liberated nature, and the Pure Land is a poetic description for nirvana. Putting the insights of Mahayana Buddhism into narrative format, he talked about how Amida embraces all beings no matter how bad or good, and liberates them from their greed and delusion. In fact, this liberation is something that has been accomplished in the primal past (i.e. it is always naturally present), and so we should stop endlessly chasing after attainment. Instead, when we give up attachment to our ego-laden efforts to become enlightened, and relax back into the embrace of inconceivable wisdom and never-abandoning compassion, we are freed from our anxieties and pettiness. Our practice, then, stops being about getting Buddhahood for ourselves, and instead is refocused to be about expressing gratitude for all that we have received, spiritually and materially.


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