What is Buddhism?

The West Covina Buddhist Temple belongs to the Jodo Shinshu (joh-doh-sheen-shoo, or "Shin" for short) sect of Buddhism, which was brought to America originally by the first generation of Japanese immigrants around 100 years ago. However, the basic teachings of Buddhism go all the way back to the Buddha himself, who was born around 2500 years ago in the area now known as Nepal. One of the most basic teachings of the Buddha is impermanence. This is the fundamental truth that all life is always moving, flowing and changing. Buddhists call this truth the Dharma.

Buddha awakened to the Dharma of impermanence while meditating under a Bodhi tree. The Dharma, or truth, humbled him; he saw that his own life was fleeting. But he also realized that not just he himself, but that all living things - his loved ones, the bird, the tree - would someday also be destroyed by impermanence, and he felt great compassion for every living thing, and saw that all life is interdependent. He also saw that we suffer because we tend to consider our "self" (our ego or identity) as something that is fixed and permanent, but that this puts us in conflict with the truth of impermanence. When the inevitable changes occur to us or to our loved ones - such as aging, illness or death - we may find ourselves asking "What did I do to deserve this?," or "Why me?" Upon awakening to the Dharma, he devoted his entire life to helping all people also awaken to the truth and end their suffering.

All Buddhists join their hands together and bow their heads in deference to the Dharma. Shin Buddhists call this act gassho. In addition, as we bow, we say "Namu Amida Butsu" (naw-moo-ah-mee-dah-boot-soo). "Namu" indicates the attitude of the humble student or seeker of the truth; "Amida Butsu" means the Dharma of impermanence (truth). Thus, "Namu Amida Butsu" essentially means "Bow to the Dharma." If we imagine our head as a "cup" which is currently full of our self-centeredness, the act of bowing "empties our cup" so that it can then be filled with the Dharma (truth). This is the essence of the Buddhist awakening.

How Can Buddhism Help You?

Buddhism is not a teaching to change others; it is a teaching to change ourselves. This change occurs when we are "filled with" or awaken to the Dharma, and can deeply and positively transform the way we view our life and all life around us. Ultimately, as the life of the Buddha himself demonstrated, we find that the true gift of Buddhism is really compassion. Awakening to the Dharma - and the corresponding awakening of compassion - leads to the discovery of a wonderful and dynamic life full of energy and creativity.

What is Shin Buddhism?

Shin Buddhism was the creation of Shinran Shonin, who lived in Japan around 800 years ago. He saw, as did Buddha, that what stands in the way of our awakening to the Dharma is really only us. Specifically, it is our ego, or that illusion we have that we are a fixed and separate entity apart from everything else. Thus, Shin Buddhism starts by getting us to see our egocentric, arrogant and self-centered nature. Shin Buddhism "attacks" our ego-self. When we awaken to the fallacy of our "self," we are literally "saved from ourselves," and become free.

But Shin Buddhism does not lead to any kind of negative self-hate or cynicism. This is because it says with deep compassion that, "Even as selfish as I am, I am still allowed to live...I am 'OK' because of the infinite compassion of the Dharma." It is to see deeply into the true meaning of what it means to be a human being.

The meaning of the Meditation Sutra, one of the key sutras of our branch of Shin Buddhism, is, "Don't try to 'get rid of' the pain of life, or your shortcomings - that is impossible; instead, live with it all, but turn your focus inward and honestly evaluate yourself. This leads to a kind of rebirth. "Kill" your ignorance and be reborn in the truth, then live with the truth.

An important concept in Shin Buddhism is Tariki (Other Power, or Power Beyond the Self), which tells us that we cannot enlighten ourselves only through our self-power (Jiriki). Our ego-self cannot deny or challenge itself. Thus, we all need a "teacher." This can take the form of a sensei (minister, priest, etc.) and/or the events in our lives, especially those that cause us difficulty, i.e., those events that illustrate the impermanence of life. In this sense, the Dharma is both our teaching and our teacher.

Finally, Shin Buddhism cautions us to always remember that, even if we do awaken to the Dharma and to our true, egocentric nature, we don't become "better people." We're still egotistical, judgmental, impatient, fallible and arrogant. In that sense, Buddhism is really beyond ethics, beyond "right and wrong," because it accepts, with compassion, that to be human is to be flawed. However, though we don't become "better" (more moral) people, we do gain insight. As mentioned above, what can change is the way we look at our lives and our relationship to others. We can come to see that our lives and, indeed, all life, is both interdependent and precious. This insight can have a profound and transforming effect on how we live our lives.

Shinjin (sheen-jean) is the most important term in Shin Buddhism. "Shin" means to understand or trust. This is a twofold understanding. We must understand not only the ignorance and smallness of the self, but also, the greatness of the Dharma ("Amida Buddha," infinite compassion, truth/impermanence). Thus, because of the futility of our self-efforts, we have no choice but to simply and humbly trust in the Dharma.

Namu Amida Butsu is, in essence, a verbal expression of this experience of Shinjin. Namu expresses our recognition of the futility of our self (humility). Amida Butsu (Amida Buddha) expresses the recognition that our futility is embraced and liberated by the Dharma. In other words, "bow to" (seek the truth) and be saved by the Dharma.

To Shinran Shonin, these two terms, Shinjin and Namu Amida Butsu, are all we need to live as Buddhists.

Bibliographic Note: The above explanation is derived in part from articles that have run in The Gateway newsletter, most of which are found in our Library (specifically the talks of our ministers), and in part from books by Dr. Nobuo Haneda; in particular, December Fan (translated essays of Rev. Kiyozawa), The Evil Person (translated essays of Shuichi Maida) and Heard by Me (also essays of Shuichi Maida).
About Our Sect: There are two main branches of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, which are the Nishi or Hompa Honganji, and the Shinshu Otani-ha (commonly known as Higashi Honganji) sect. West Covina Buddhist Temple belongs to the Shinshu Otani-ha sect, which is headquartered in Kyoto, Japan.
For more info: view A Brief History of Shin Buddhism From Shakyamuni to Today, an 18-minute movie that traces the development of Shin Buddhism.
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