Living Dharma Seminar I
Shakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha


Dr. Nobuo Haneda of the Maida Center of Buddhism

On April 15, 2001, West Covina Buddhist Temple initiated its two-year "Living Dharma Seminar Series." The first seminar was entitled, "Shakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha," and featured speaker Dr. Nobuo Haneda. Dr. Haneda, one of the most in-demand Shinshu speakers today, is director of the Maida Center of Buddhism in Berkeley, California. WCBT was very fortunate to be able to have him for our first seminar. The title of this seminar refers, of course, to the historical (Shakyamuni) Buddha and the "symbolic" or "universal" (Amida) Buddha. The unanimous feeling of Rev. Ken and our Temple Communications Staff was that this topic and this speaker would make for a great first seminar.

Throughout his morning and afternoon presentations, Dr. Haneda was always dynamic, highly organized and easy to follow. One of the many highlights of his talk came near the beginning, when he related his famous "fish story," which parallels his encounter with his teacher, Shuichi Maida. While dining at a famous restaurant in Hawaii about 10 years ago that featured a large fish pond, Dr. Haneda witnessed an event in that pond that allowed him to understand his initial encounter with his teacher during his days as a college student. He saw an entire school of tiny fish sucked into the wake of a very large fish which was swimming close by. The tiny fish were all turned around 180 degrees. In watching these fish, Dr. Haneda realized that in same way, he had been "turned around" and taken in the direction of his teacher’s "tremendous power." "For the past 30 years, I’ve been investigating the source of this power…that is the only concern I have…it is very important to have one question and pursue it," he said. "In Buddhism, we don’t have to know many things, just one thing, one important experience—and we just keep deepening our understanding of it."

One of Dr. Haneda’s points of emphasis was to clarify the basic differences between Buddhism and Christianity. He did this to show that neither Shakyamuni Buddha nor Amida Buddha are divine beings, which is a common misunderstanding. Christianity talks about God, which is divine, unknowable and unseeable. Furthermore, Christianity never talks about humans becoming God or gods. However, instead of the basic duality which exists in Christianity between the divine and human, Buddhism only talks about two kinds of humans—deluded and awakened. And most importantly, that we all can and should—through deep insight and understanding of ourselves—become buddhas ourselves. However, Dr. Haneda cautioned us not to think that Buddhism is therefore the same thing as so-called "secular humanism." "Only Buddhism talks about the total negation of the self…[therefore,] Buddhism is not human-centered (secular humanism), nor is it God-centered (Christianity); Buddhism is Dharma-centered."

In moving on to discuss Shakyamuni Buddha, Dr. Haneda focused on what are known as the Three Dharma Marks. These three "marks" refer to the key characteristics or concepts of Buddhism. "When Shakyamuni was alive, non-Buddhists would approach him or his disciples and ask, ‘What is Buddhism?,’ and they would always answer, ‘Suffering (or difficulty), impermanence and selflessness,’" he said. Of course, most Buddhists are familiar with well-known statement that "life is suffering," Dr. Haneda however, explained its true meaning. "We all understand that aging, illness and death are difficult, but also, happiness is difficult—we like to maintain it forever, but we cannot…both happiness and unhappiness are difficult." The second "mark," the truth of impermanence in Buddhism—Dharma—is like "medicine" or the cure for the suffering and difficulty of life. It is this truth which can liberate us from suffering. Finally, the third Dharma mark, selflessness, represents the "cured condition" in Buddhism.

Perhaps most importantly for us today, these three marks or concepts actually come from Shakyamuni’s life experiences as symbolized in the famous story of the Four Gates. Through the first three gates, Shakyamuni witnessed for the first time, aging, illness and death. "But when Shakyamuni traveled through the fourth gate, he saw a mendicant, a traveling monk, a seeker…he saw a buddha," said Dr. Haneda. The key point is that, as opposed to the terrible negative truths of impermanence Shakyamuni experienced through the first three gates, the mendicant represented the same truth of impermanence, but this time, "it was manifested in a positive way," he said. "Seeing the monk awakened in young Shakyamuni his desire, his aspiration to be a buddha himself."

Another highlight came when Dr. Haneda focused on what he termed the "core of Buddhism," which is meditation. Meditation is what Shakamuni did under the Bodhi Tree. But, in contrast to other forms of meditation, such as Yogic meditation, or Transendental Meditation, "Buddhist meditation is nothing but self-examination; it is not a way of enjoying a trance, it is not a way of enjoying peace of mind," Dr. Haneda emphasized. "It is a serious way of understanding the self, or even of doubting the self." The essence of what the Buddha discovered in his meditation was that, not only was everything impermanent outside of himself—all life is of course constantly moving, flowing and changing—but also "Everything in me, body and mind, are impermanent—this was the content of his enlightenment," Dr. Haneda stated. "He became impermanence itself…he became one with the Dharma. The most important thing is that Buddha understood this reality as a basic component of himself."

Dr. Haneda went on to clarify that Shakyamuni’s awakening clearly includes two aspects, a negative or "endarkened" aspect—the total negation of his self, or emptiness—and a positive or "enlightened" aspect—the tremendously positive realization that everything is constantly new, dynamic, creative and fresh. Dr. Haneda pointed out that, "He was freed from all his hangups, assertions and attachments…he became a constant seeker and learner." Dr. Haneda added that the implication of this to us in our lives is that this one truth of impermanence could therefore either be "Our worst enemy or our best friend…it all depends on the direction we take. If we try to go against this truth, it is our worst enemy; impermanence will take away everything. But when we recognize the mistake and change our direction, it becomes our best friend, the source of our creative energy. Nothing is greater than this truth, than the newness and freshness of life…who wouldn’t aspire for this? This is the ultimate thing we want to embody. Don’t we want to become a creative person? Don’t we want to be able to appreciate the freshness of life every day, every moment?"

Importantly, later in the talk, Dr. Haneda also stated that Jodo Shinshu is undeniably a Buddhist tradition, and not simply a "Japanese tradition," because Shinran Shonin realized these same three concepts (difficulty, impermanence, selflessness). "Shinjin is nothing more than the same twofold insight that Shakyamuni received: deep understanding of the self (negative; understanding the sickness) and deep understanding of Dharma (positive; the medicine or cure). That’s why Jodo Shinshu is Buddhism," he said.


Seminar participants listen intently as Dr. Haneda eloquently and passionately clarifies the key points of Buddhism

After the lunch break, Dr. Haneda began his discussion of Amida Buddha, Dr. Haneda first shed light on the underlying reasons for the rise of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism which came into being around 300 years after Shakyamuni’s death. The Mahayana felt that the Buddha’s original disciples, or Theravada, had unknowingly—out of admiration for their teacher—actually "fossilized" or "dogmatized" his teachings. The Mahayana came into prominence because they felt the Theravada had lost the essence of what the Buddha really wanted to say. The Mahayana clarified what the Buddha really wanted to teach us, and thus revitalized Buddhism. To the Mahayana, the essence of the Buddha’s message was not his words and thought. "It was actually his spirit that we should identify with," Dr. Haneda said.

The key sutra of our Jodo Shinshu tradition (one of many Mahayana traditions), is the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, which contains the story of Dharmakara, who becomes Amida Buddha. Sukhavativyuha, a Sanskrit term, means "land of blissful happiness," or the "elimination of difficulty and suffering." And, what this sutra is really about is "that which created Shakyamuni," said Dr. Haneda. "Thus, the Mahayana shifted the emphasis from ‘that which Shakyamuni created’ to ‘that which created Shakyamuni.’" They identified the source of this inspiration as "Amida" or "Hongan." "Hon, "Dr. Haneda explained, "means early, old, ancient, former, original, basic. ‘Gan’ means desire, aspiration, vow. This is the most important concept in Jodo Shinshu. It means the deepest, most basic human desire to live in the most meaningful way."

Tying the concept of Hongan back to his "fish story," Dr. Haneda explained that the power his teacher, Shuichi Maida (the "big fish"), possessed, was in fact Hongan. "I encountered this power in my teacher," he said. Furthermore, this power is the same power that Shakyamuni experienced in the mendicant and that Shinran experienced in his teacher, Honen. What is the relation between Amida Buddha and Hongan? Dr. Haneda clarified that "Amida Buddha is an ideal Buddhist, and his spirit is Hongan."

Is Amida then basically a "symbol" of Shakyamuni? Dr. Haneda said that Amida certainly could be seen as such. However, "That is a rather shallow, narrow way of interpreting Amida," he said. "This is because the Mahayana, in creating the concept of Amida, really wanted to show the universal basis of Shakyamuni’s spirit, they wanted to clarify that which created Shakyamuni. Thus, another way of explaining Amida is that it ultimately represents the Dharma of impermanence itself, the powerful force that liberated Shakyamuni. Amida is thus symbolizing the basis of all historical buddhas, including Shakyamuni. These people became buddhas because they personified, or became one with, the Dharma."

His final topic was regarding the story of Dharmakara himself in the sutra. In the story, Dharmakara (who was a king), meets the Buddha Lokeshvararaja, who awakens his desire to become a buddha also. Thus the meeting with the teacher is so important, and is the same meeting described earlier in the discussion of the fish story, the Four Gates, etc. In essence, Dharmakara, through certain practices, becomes a buddha by the name of Namu Amida Butsu, or "Bowing Amida Buddha." Dr. Haneda emphasized here that, at a certain point in the story, Dharmakara’s focus shifts from praising his teacher to his expression of his own desire (gan) to become a buddha himself. "This aspiration and desire is so important in Buddhism," Dr. Haneda said. His aspiration is expressed in the 48 vows which are a part of the Larger Sutra, but to Dr. Haneda, they can all be summarized by one vow. In the sutra, Dharmakara essentially says, "If I liberate all sentient beings, then I will become a buddha."

The final, and perhaps greatest highlight of the seminar, came when Dr. Haneda clarified what this vow really means. He said, "What Dharmakara is really saying is, ‘If I come to see all sentient beings as buddhas, then I will become a buddha.’ He’s not talking about saving others. He’s talking about liberating them in his mind…If there is a change to be realized in Buddhism, it is a change only in ourself. This is Buddhism, this is self-examination. This is why Dharmakara’s name as a buddha is Namu Amida Butsu…bowing [namu] is part of his name," Dr. Haneda said. "This one expression, this one name, Namu Amida Butsu, contains everything important in Buddhism. If we truly understand the meaning contained in this one name, ‘Bowing Amida Buddha,’ which is the deep aspiration, or Hongan, and if we understand that the name has meaning, then that meaning—and our identification with it—is what liberates us."

After the seminar, the 30 participants were asked to fill out an evaluation form. In answer to the question, "What did you like most about this seminar?," here are some representative comments:

  • "Dr. Haneda’s knowledge of the topic as well as his ability with English."
  • "Wonderful subject; enlightening delivery."
  • I came especially for Dr. Haneda’s presentation. The speaker makes all the difference. His talk and English were just superb!"
  • "A good English speaker that can talk simply to those of us trying to learn and understand Buddhism."
  • "Dr. Haneda was a very dynamic and enthusiastic speaker. He was very understandable."
  • "Clarifying the upside of Buddhism."
  • "Dr. Haneda’s lectures were very enlightening."
  • "The speaker was enthusiastic and able to clearly communicate difficult concepts."
  • "Showing the difference between Christianity and Buddhism."
  • Dr. Haneda was a great speaker."
  • WCBT would like to thank Dr. Haneda for his great talk, Rev. Ken and the Temple Communications Staff for planning and hosting this remarkable event, and the members of our Sangha who participated in the seminar. Seminar II will be on November 11, 2001. Mark your calendars!

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