“Thank god, I’m a Buddhist!”
It may not be surprising for anyone growing up in the United States to hear someone blurt out an expression like “thank god.” Religion in America is often understood with the template of Christianity as the default framework, and this common phrase reflects that. But this default framework poses a challenge to introducing Shin Buddhism, which offers a different model of spirituality. The essential practice of Shin Buddhism is to voice the Buddha’s Name, “Namo Amida Butsu,” with a sense of gratitude. Viewed from a superficial point of view, this may appear to be a prayer voiced to a god, but that’s not entirely accurate. Unfortunately, using unfamiliar traditional terminology to explain its meaning may add another layer of confusion. (Terms such as “bodhisattva,” “vow,” “Amida,” and “Other Power” would each take a chapter to explain.)
Rather than relying on definitions of traditional terminology, modern Shin Buddhists move directly toward an experience or a practice. However, the practice is not motivated by achieving a future goal, but instead by appreciating what has been received. The practice is to cultivate our minds to shift from focusing on what is discomforting to a mind that is blissful. It focuses on the experience of the present moment and not on a desired future, and in doing so, Shin Buddhism provides a method of awakening for ordinary, working people who are not monks and nuns.
To experience a Shin view of life, we use “please” to denote a prayer, and “thank you” to express that we acknowledge receiving a gift. With these phrases in mind, the Shin practice of voicing the Buddha’s name is to shift our minds from a desired outcome, “please,” to the reality of receiving the present moment, “thank you.” This sense of gratitude is traditionally aimed toward the compassion of Amida Buddha. Amida is the Japanese term that combines two Sanskrit words: Amitabha (light) and Amitayus (life). Thus, Amida Buddha represents immeasurable light and infinite life. Light and life are two phenomena that comprise all that we know on this earth and this universe.
We might relate more easily to the experience of Amida Buddha by using the familiar terms “efforts of others.” A Shin life of gratitude is to constantly realize that our present moment is the result of the efforts of others. The “efforts of others” goes beyond the contributions of humans. It represents all life forms and history. For example, consider what is involved in presenting a meal: raising vegetables or animals by farmers, preparing them for market, transporting them to suppliers, selling them to customers, and preparing the meals for consumption. All phases of this process have involved evolution, science, innovation, sacrifice, and labor. Interdependence reminds us that everything is intricately connected to sustain us. Thus, “thank you” is an effective introduction to the experience of voicing “Namo Amida Butsu.”
The perspective and quality of life shifts as one acknowledges the benefits of human life in this way. The joy revealed by saying “thank you” puts the desires of the ego, “please,” in perspective. Receiving a gift affirms that we are included with others. We begin to see ourselves in terms of “we,” not just “me.” The natural result is our participation as part of the “effort of others” for the betterment of all others. As we acknowledge that we have received much in life, our natural response is to serve others.
Constantly expressing gratitude for things such as the common conveniences of modern life helps us develop a broader and deeper insight into the unique and wondrous gift of life itself. The mindfulness of gratitude brings the attitude achieved on the meditation cushion to the hectic circus of ordinary life. This refreshing active mindset has made Shin Buddhism the largest Buddhist sect in Japan. And this non-dual practice may help Americans heal the current social divide, too.
Expressing gratitude is just the opening gate of a deep spiritual experience of “Namo Amida Butsu.” As the sentiment of “thank you” permeates our ordinary life, we begin to replace it with “Namo Amida Butsu” or the shorter chant, “Na Man Da Bu.” The beauty of Shin Buddhism is that this practice in ordinary life leads to deeper insights. We realize that the difference between ordinary and spiritual is determined solely by our own minds. What may have been considered spiritual a century ago is now considered ordinary. But everything that has benefitted us is a result of the “efforts of others” or the “compassion of Amida Buddha.” Our human birth or the care and feeding of an infant and child could be considered ordinary. But with the perspective of 14 billion years of light and five billion years of life, we can qualify this process as spiritual. The Buddha reminds us of this reality as we voice the Name, “Na Man Da Bu.”
For those who have not renounced the ordinary life of work and family, the Buddha provided an awakening process in the practice of Shin Buddhism. Awakening to the rare opportunity of human birth balances the dread of suffering and death. However, this truth must be practiced in order to become real.
Holding the quality of gratitude opens us up to many of the deeper lessons of Shin. The three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance still exist, but do not dominate our lives. Our individual ego is merged with others and the qualities of humility, kindness, acceptance, and wholeness emerge. The compassion of Amida Buddha remains primary as we continue to experience the “efforts of others” for our benefit. Namo Amida Butsu.
For more on gratitude in Shin Buddhism, read “Finding Spirit in the Ordinary”