Patricia Kanaya Usuki was born in Toronto, Canada, to an Anglican father and a Buddhist mother. Her parents brought her up in the United Church of Canada, one of the few Canadian religious institutions that welcomed people of Asian heritage.
As an adult, Usuki began a process of reflection on her life. “I’ve had my ups and downs,” she thought, “but mostly I’ve had a wonderful life. Why am I able to enjoy such a life as this?” This question led her to explore the Buddhist tradition more closely. In the Jodo Shinshu (Shin) tradition of Pure Land Buddhism, founded by Shinran Shonin in 1224, she found her answers. Speaking of the Shin Buddhist perspective, she says, “I am the beneficiary of the wisdom and compassion of all life that has come together.” The immeasurable wisdom and compassion of all life is embodied by Amida Buddha, and Shin practitioners express their gratitude by saying thenembutsu, “Namu Amida Butsu.” The phrase literally translates as “I venerate Amida Buddha,” but its meaning declares the practitioner’s joy and heartfelt appreciation: “Thank you, Amida Buddha.”
In 2004, Usuki became head minister of the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, near Los Angeles, California. In 2007, her master’s thesis was published as a book, Currents of Change: American Buddhist Women Speak Out on Jodo Shinshu. Even though Jodo Shinshu was the first Buddhist organization to ordain American women back in the 1920s, Usuki’s study was the first systematic exploration of women’s experiences in America’s oldest Buddhist tradition (Jodo Shinshu was first established in Hawaii in the 1880s, and California in the 1890s), and she was invited to speak at temples across the continent. In the spring of 2009 we sat down together at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple to discuss her thoughts about the Shin teaching of the Primal Vow and the role of women in Shin Buddhism.
Do your fellow Western Buddhists sometimes misunderstand Shin Buddhism?If they’ve heard of it at all, they tend to think of it as “ethnic Buddhism” that isn’t suitable for them. Some newcomers that come to our temples think it’s interchangeable with Christianity. They equate Amida Buddha with God and the Pure Land with heaven. This is a misconception, as is the notion that shinjin [the awakened heart that has turned from self-centeredness toward power-beyond-self] equates to faith in the Christian sense. Amida is not a divine being that is separate from us—Amida represents immeasurable wisdom and compassion. The Pure Land isn’t like heaven, because it’s not a place that you go to—it’s more a state of mind, and it can be accessed in this life. Faith in the Western sense often means blind belief, but shinjin in the Shin Buddhist understanding is closer to experiencing Amida’s great compassion and knowing that one is liberated.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.