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 the nembutsu, “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.
The Primal Vow is fundamental to Pure Land Buddhism, yet it is very hard for most Westerners to connect with it in a spiritually meaningful way. What makes the Primal Vow so compelling in Shin practice? In Shin Buddhism, one of our texts is the Larger Pure Land Sutra, in which there’s a story about Dharmakara Bodhisattva. He makes vows, as all bodhisattvas do, and he has to fulfill them in order to become a buddha. The most important one is the 18th vow, which we call the Primal Vow. In the story, Dharmakara refuses to become a buddha unless all other beings can be liberated along with him, no matter how evil or attached or ignorant they may be. He stakes his own freedom on our freedom. This is the central point of Shin Buddhism.
According to the sutra, Dharmakara became Amida Buddha, so his vow has been fulfilled and it operates for us. This is sutra language, symbolic language. The Primal Vow is really the innermost aspiration of all beings. Remember that this is a Mahayana tradition, and we hold to the bodhisattva ideal that all beings will become liberated together. The working of the Primal Vow means that all beings have this innermost aspiration for all other beings to find liberation and lasting peace of heart and mind. So when we talk about Amida Buddha, we’re really talking about the immeasurable wisdom and compassion of all life.
When I describe it that way, it sounds like a pretty complicated concept, but in Shin Buddhism we come into it from the back door of living our lives and doing our practice of self-awareness. We realize the nature of our true selves as we really are, with our imperfections and so on, and at the same time we understand that we are the recipients of this immeasurable wisdom and compassion of life that sustains us and embraces us at all times, regardless of the kind of people we are, regardless of the fact that no matter how hard you might try, you are never going to reach the state of ultimate purity. We can’t understand our innermost wish until we live our lives, experience our lives, see ourselves as we really are within this life—and also see the reality of ourselves within all life and enjoy the benefits of life that we receive. Then we can begin to understand this concept of an innermost wish or Primal Vow. Dharmakara Bodhisattva becoming Amida Buddha is something that only becomes true for each person when they themselves awaken to their karmic reality and are aware of their limitations within the larger scheme of reality.
This idea of being accepted just as we are relates to the idea of naturalness, which is a very prominent part of Shin practice. Can you say something more about the place of naturalness in Shin Buddhism? In Shin Buddhism, we contrast self-power or self-effort with the idea of focusing on the whole of life, the interdependence of all life. When something comes about, it’s not due to one’s own effort to attain something. The idea of naturalness is that no-working is true working. It’s the understanding that things don’t happen due to your own calculation and effort. You don’t sit there thinking, “All right now, if I’m able to follow the eightfold path and do everything the right way, then I will attain awakening.” That’s your own deluded, ego-based effort. I did this, I am able to do that—the moment you start thinking that way, your ego mind comes into play.
Yet when the karmic conditions are right, when your causes and conditions come together, you can progress along the path. It’s not “I” doing this or “I” saying the nembutsu. When I say “Namu Amida Butsu,” it’s not “I” saying it but what we call other-power—I like to call it Buddha-power. That other-power has come together in my causes and conditions and my karma to bring me to say, “Namu Amida Butsu.” It leads me to feel gratitude, joy, peace of heart, and peace of mind—qualities that Shin Buddhism values. So naturalness is the opposite of calculating, of making an ego-based effort to try to attain something on your own—supposedly independent—power. If you’re truly aware you’ll notice that you cannot achieve it with your own effort and your own calculation.
Is the Primal Vow for Shin Buddhists only, or does Amida embrace others as well? It has to extend to all beings. The Primal Vow talks about sincere mind, deep mind, and the mind that aspires. You have to be awakened to that aspiration first. That doesn’t mean that you have to be a Shin Buddhist in order to have that kind of aspiration. The moment the important questions arise in someone—Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the purpose of my life?—I think that’s the kind of aspiration with a sincere heart that really wants to understand how things are.
Has the Primal Vow had a particular significance to women in Shin Buddhism?Yes. Anytime someone has been excluded, has been told, “This isn’t really for you, it’s for some other, better kind of person,” that is the sort of person who is included in the Primal Vow. Historically, I think for women the Primal Vow was really a key to opening the door to an authentic, personal Buddhism—a major step for women.
What role did women play in founding Shin Buddhism? Women played a significant role in Shinran’s awakening to the reality of his own truth-reality as a man and as a human being. This awareness is pivotal in the development of Shinran’s thought. After spending 20 years seriously pursuing enlightenment through devout practices as a Tendai monk, he left the monastery at age 29 in frustration and despair. It is said that during a retreat at Rokkakudo [a temple in Kyoto], Shinran had a dream that completely changed his life. In it, Shinran received a verse that included a declaration from the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara that she would be his wife and guide him, so that he would lead an exemplary life and at death enter the Pure Land. Some time later, having been defrocked as a monk, Shinran married Eshinni, an educated and cultured woman of some means. A number of children were born to them, the youngest of whom was a daughter named Kakushinni. It was she who looked after Shinran until his death, and she was instrumental in establishing a memorial place to not only preserve his memory but also serve as a rallying point to maintain his teachings. Her grandson, Kakunyo, became the head of the Hongwanji lineage that grew from that chapel. Thus, this hereditary lineage of the largest Buddhist denomination in Japan is traced through Shinran’s daughter.
Shin Buddhism promises a spiritual liberation to women. Has the history of institutionalized Buddhism in Japan provided a similar secular equality? I think the key is that all beings are guaranteed equal spiritual liberation through the teaching of Jodo Shinshu. In my research, I found that there was never any doubt about this among either laymen and laywomen or clergy. People are very clear on the distinction between the teaching and the institution. Especially here in America, they are quick to point out that Japanese and Asian culture and social norms have had a lot to do with the way women are viewed by the institution.
On the spiritual side, there are actually accounts and records that go back over the centuries showing that female lay followers were able to be as active and accomplished as men in their spiritual development. This is one of the advantages of a school of Buddhism that is not monastic in nature. The clerical institution exists as a structure to continue the Jodo Shin teaching, but in essence everyone lives a secular life and practices in everyday life. So while religious institutions have a tendency to become calcified in their doctrinal interpretations and hierarchies, people in secular life get to test the dharma in fertile ground replete with variety and change. Today it’s exciting to be living in a place and time when epic change has been happening for women in society. What better conditions to experience the organic nature of spiritual development in Buddhism than when we are forced to examine our beliefs about ourselves and others against the backdrop of such rapid social transformation?
Converts and newcomers to Buddhism outside of Asia sometimes have a tendency to dismiss Asian-Americans as “ethnic Buddhists” or “baggage Buddhists”—as people who do not seriously practice Buddhism. However, we have much to learn from many of these women who still reflect a generations- long internalization of the buddhadharma through their thoughts, words, and deeds. They themselves are often the first to humbly profess that they know nothing about the dharma, and yet many of them display an innate understanding of such tenets as dana [the practice of cultivating generosity] and interdependence in all that they do—and many show, through their outlook, a profound grasp of the spirit of the nembutsu. They have often made huge sacrifices so that the temples will prosper, enabling others to experience the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And yet they have embraced change without stridency. We have to remember that through their life experiences—such as racial and religious discrimination and being put into internment camps during World War II—they understand suffering and impermanence, and they know the value of finding joy in whatever life dishes out. They keep moving forward, and their positive perspectives alone are a lesson to us all. Certainly, they know what it is to be marginalized by those with dualistic minds, but they know that the light of immeasurable wisdom and compassion shines on all without discrimination.
We have to remember that society affected the interpretation of Buddhism just as much as Buddhism affected society. The purveyors of Buddhism are, after all, people. Much of what we know from the past about women in Buddhism was written by monks—celibate monks who had left home, at that. They certainly had their own unique concept of the nature of women. All of this is learned. Actually, the first ordained Buddhists in Japan happened to be women, and for a time women were on an equal level with men in the temples. Buddhism was not available to the secular masses until Shinran’s era.
What about today? What about female clergy in the institution? My own experience has been very positive. Perhaps when you start from the understanding that the Primal Vow is meant for all people without discrimination, and that it works in your life regardless of distinctions that include such dichotomies as good and evil or priest and lay practitioner, then how could the question of gender possibly be a consideration? This should be empowering to anyone. As a consequence, when social stumbling blocks occur— and sometimes they do—it’s easier to realize that the institution is made up of human beings, and human beings are imperfect. That’s why an individual like Shinran or me or you cannot hope to realize the mind of nirvana through our self-power alone.
Sometimes change is resisted by some women, just as some men are the greatest proponents of inclusiveness. There are women, especially in Japan, who prefer their traditional roles and do not want to do the same thing as men, and this needs to be respected as well. The term bomori (literally “defender of the monk”) used to refer to the wife of the resident minister. A few years ago, the definition was officially changed to be any person appointed by the resident minister, in recognition that this function was not necessarily fulfilled by a wife. By the same token, the wife of the head abbot is called ourakata-sama. The word means “the person behind the scenes.” As you can see, these examples in no way detract from the importance of those roles, and many women must be happy to fulfill them, just as many of us are happy to be ministers. But these are just labels. I would be happiest if, at the end of the day, each of us were simply seen as we are.
Do you feel as though women in general may have had a particular spin on Shin Buddhism or a particular approach? Women seem to take a very practical and experiential approach to their practice. Men may do this as well, but I can only relate what I’ve observed about women. It may relate to the times, which provide plenty of fodder for confusion and reflection with regard to the question of self. Women look at the big picture reality of their lives, which include husbands, kids, parents, jobs, volunteer work, and so on. With all this juggling to try and keep the various elements happy and harmonious, they are constantly facing their own struggling ego. At the same time, though, they get to see so many instances of the compassion and joy that comes into their lives, often when they catch themselves at their worst. If they’re listening, they are buoyed up by the feeling of great gratitude for the Infinite Wisdom and Compassion that is always available to us. This is what propels us forward.
The questions women ask often have to do with issues in their everyday lives as members of our sometimes dysfunctional society. They want to know how we would approach all of this from a Buddhist point of view. The kind of dharma talks or seminars that they respond to are very much those that relate to their lives, as opposed to perhaps a more textbook- academic point of view. It’s a more organic approach, in which they start from what’s going on in their hearts and minds, and see how the dharma responds and guides them. So what they’re doing every day is also a way of coming to understand the teaching.
Could you say more about what you mean when you say that Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is something people practice in their daily lives? Being self-aware in the midst of our daily lives provides us with so much material with which to notice the reality of our imperfect selves but, at the same time, to be brought to realize how we are embraced by Ultimate Wisdom and Compassion at all times. There’s no practice a person can specifically do to attain perfect awakening, whether it’s meditation or trying to follow precepts. Of course these are good practices, but we can never totally free ourselves of our blind passions. If we believe we can do it this way, the calculation is a reflection of our ego-selves. Instead, we can be mindful of the dharma as we go about our lives. Then we notice our imperfections, but rather than becoming frustrated by our inability to rid ourselves of these shortcomings, we notice that our interdependence with all life also brings us kindness and joy, unconditionally. “Namu Amida Butsu”—I am one with Infinite Light and Life (Wisdom and Compassion) right here, right now. In our gratitude, we live the life of nembutsu and grow spiritually.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.