Visitors to our Shin temple often voice surprise when they see that the atmosphere is somewhat casual and not as exotic as anticipated. The members of the sangha are friendly and welcoming—they don’t seem to display the reserved and meditative posture one might expect at a Buddhist temple. This may be because of the expectation of the visitors and not so much because of the conduct of the sangha, or temple members.
As the Zen roshi Shunryu Suzuki observed, the truth of the dharma could be expressed in just two words: “Not always so.” Zen has a way of slapping us awake in a moment. Shin Buddhism originated and developed as a path of Buddhism for nonmonastics, people in common life, and the methods, practices, and conduct of Shin followers may seem incongruous to what many assume to be Buddhist traits. There is a rich treasure beneath the veneer of ordinary life. Some background can provide a context for realizing the integrity and depth that Shin (more fully Jodo Shinshu) provides in ordinary life.
Since the life of an ordinary layperson is quite different from that of a monastic, the practice, or awakening process, of a Shin practitioner is different from that of a monk. Shinran, the Tendai monk in 13th-century Japan who founded the tradition that is now the largest Buddhist sect in Japan, interpreted the sutras in a way that resonated profoundly with the laity, and his teachings already benefit many Americans who seek a spiritual path in everyday life.
Following a lineage of Pure Land masters, Shinran emphasizes reliance on being mindful of the truth that our lives are the result of the effort of others. This mindfulness is maintained by the continual voicing of the refrain “Namo Amida Butsu,” which is called the nembutsu. It literally means to be mindful of Amida Buddha.
For some, Amida Buddha may be envisioned in human form. However, for most contemporary American Shin practitioners, the name Amida literally means “light and life,” which comprises all known elements of this earth and universe. We can relate to this more intimately by the “effort of others,” which includes parents, teachers, ancestors, society, and plants, animals, and minerals that sustain us. Astronomers, geologists, biologists, anthropologists, and other scientists trace our origination to causes and conditions beyond our comprehension. We have inherited the results of 14 billion years of evolution, and the Buddha reflects this process in mythical form. As contemporary people, limited in knowledge and true wisdom, we seek a meaning of Amida Buddha that is relatable. Shinran provides a way.
Solely saying the Tathagata’s [Buddha’s] Name constantly,
One should respond with gratitude to the universal Vow of great compassion.
Speaking the nembutsu, “Namo Amida Butsu,” acknowledges our awakening to our inclusion in this incredible life process. The practice of Shin is to develop the heart and mind to align with the truth that we have received this life by no effort of our own. This practice is based on a life of gratitude, something so deeply ingrained in one’s life that it may appear imperceptible to others, although there is a refreshing spirituality that is displayed in ordinary life activities. When I’m enjoying the company of family or fellow sangha members, my thoughts are not about being spiritual. I am being very human in the enjoyment of the food at the potluck, the discussion in our dharma session, or even in the business of a committee meeting. The essence of a Shin Buddhist life is to appreciate the “now.” Of course, the atmosphere of the religious service in our hondo (“main hall,” or sanctuary) is one of religiosity. However, I’ve often stated that Shin is lived in the social hall when we take refreshments with others after the service.
Another important feature of Shin in America is the inclusion of family life in the temple, where dharma classes for children are offered along with youth groups and sports and other activities. The values of Shin are incorporated in all activities; as with every skill we master as humans, we begin with a conscious, mindful practice until it becomes a natural part of our lives.
A toddler stands, then walks, and eventually runs, skips, and dances. From childhood to adulthood, we learn letters that become words that become sentences that become conversations. We may have forgotten how universal is the process of a long-term conscious practice that leads to an effortless naturalness. Driving a car, playing an instrument, cooking a meal, or working on a computer all began with a conscious determination to master the activity. Therefore, a conscious daily practice of expressing “Thank you” can lead to a natural life of gratitude.
For those who are new to Shin, I suggest adopting the practice of saying “Thank you” to all the conveniences we enjoy daily. This is a shift from our usual mindset of “Please,” the request that life accommodate our every desire. We can start each day with thoughts of gratitude as we recite the words “Namo Amida Butsu.” This mindful meditation is continued during the day as we say “Thank you” as we flip on a light or turn on a faucet. Saying “Thank you” at a stop light demonstrates our awareness that other cars have a green light and that our relationship with others is in harmony.
To a Shin Buddhist, spirituality is experienced in the flow of everyday life. Monks and scholars may analyze, discuss, and argue the merits of various levels of the Buddha’s teachings. For us common lay followers, the practice of gratitude brings us directly to the heart of the Buddha’s teachings. It is the attitude that in each moment being human itself is a spiritual experience.
The concept of a Pure Land is central to the mythology of our sect. This holy place, this pure realm, is a state of consciousness rather than a geographical place. We know this realm when we experience gratitude. To be a buddha means to be an awakened being, and being a Buddhist is a constant cycle of waking up to the unique experience of human life. There is no practice that we can undertake to achieve the condition of human life. Everything has been received. There is nowhere else to go, no practice to fulfill, no petition for a better future. Our inconceivable birth has occurred on this improbable planet in this impossible universe, at this precise time in galactic history. Evolution has developed the human mind and heart in order to awaken to this spiritual realm. In this realm, all life is spiritual. The voicing of “Namo Amida Butsu” is both a stimulus to and a response to our waking to the reality of being included as an integral part of this vast universe.
The realm of gratitude transcends the duality of good or bad, right or wrong. The burden of guilt or righteousness is lifted; with this perspective I can accept the harsh realities of the human condition. Even when my intellect and emotions complain about an apparent disaster, my spiritual center cushions the pain. My inconceivable human birth has entered the game of life. The gratitude of “Namo Amida Butsu” alerts me to the awareness that the joys of love and compassion are available. My practice is to appreciate what I have been given, to balance the desire for things that I lack. All my worldly activities and concerns are the gifts of an unseen spiritual source. Every aspect of my ordinary life is a reflection of the spiritual.
“Namo Amida Butsu” affirms that even with the inadequacies of my ego, so much in life benefits me. A sense of humility inspires me to join the effort of others for the betterment of life for all. The gate of gratitude is the threshold of a spirit-ual life. Being liberated from the need to achieve goodness, we flow naturally toward harmony. Gratitude brings us to a simple awakening to the fact that our mundane life is supported by the pillars of wisdom and compassion. How else could my inadequate ego receive so much benefit? To learn about and experience more of these profound yet accessible teachings, visit a Shin temple—you can find one at buddhistchurchesofamerica.org.
Though the appearance and conduct at a Shin temple may appear ordinary, appreciation of the ordinary lifts one’s heart and mind to a true and natural state of spirit. Namo Amida Butsu.
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