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Becoming True Followers of the Buddha

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 A Report on the Higashi Honganji North American District Religious Committee Joint Retreat

On the weekend of February 27~28, 1999, Rev. Junsho Tamamitsu of Japan presented a very deep and thought-provoking talk to the combined religious committees of our North American District. In his talk, Rev. Tamamitsu focused on two themes: 1) Becoming true followers of the Buddha and 2) gaining an understanding of Rennyo Shonin's teaching.

Becoming True Followers: The Two Aspects of Nembutsu
Rev. Tamamitsu began by focusing on the theme of becoming a true Buddhist follower. "It is a matter of living a lifestyle based on the teaching of Namu Amida Butsu," he said. He pointed out that there are two aspects of Nembutsu. These two aspects, which are discussed by Shinran Shonin in his Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, are 1) going to the Pure Land and 2) returning to this world. "These aspects, also known as ojo and jodo, contain the entire Nembutsu teaching," he said. Ojo means, "to yearn to go." Rev. Tamamitsu explained that "It means to become free...but it is not to 'find' liberation, but to be in the process of liberating, constantly." On the other hand, Jodo means, "being able to bring together myself and everyone else," in other words, the realization of oneness. Regarding these two aspects of Jodo Shinshu, "going" and "returning," Rev. Tamamitsu clarified that the "going" expresses me or myself; the "returning" expresses society. "Thus Jodo Shinshu is a teaching that seeks to bring us together, that defines and deals with is the way to live completely in this world and to accept its challenges" he said.

Shinshu is thus not a teaching of dealing with the awakening of just me, just one person. Rev. Tamamitsu explained that, while religions in general are concerned with one person's "salvation," the Dharma, or teaching of Buddhism, is not; "it reflects the everyday living of all life." Furthermore, Jodo Shinshu is not to bring comfort to our lives, but to challenge us." Referring again to the "two aspects" of going and coming, Rev. Tamamitsu said that "they happen simultaneously; the individual and society are changed at the same time...Jodo Shinshu gives us tools to deal with our lives and energy to live."

The Ten Benefits
At this point, Rev. Tamamitsu discussed the "faith" chapter of Shinran's Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, which lists ten "benefits" of receiving Shinjin, or the Buddhist awakening. These benefits are 1) being protected by unseen powers, 2) being possessed of supreme virtue, 3) having our karmic evil transformed into good, 4) being protected by all the Buddhas, 5) being praised by all the Buddhas, 6) being protected by the light of the Buddha's heart, 7) having great joy in our heart, 8) being aware of Amida's benevolence, 9) practicing great compassion, and 10) of entering the stage of the truly settled. However, Rev. Tamamitsu quickly clarified that the true meaning of these "benefits" is that they are not "prizes" for us to gain for our own benefit. Rather, they are challenges which we gratefully accept. For example, the meaning of the first benefit, "being protected by unseen powers," does not imply ancestor worship, or supernatural powers. Instead, it really means to look at our deceased ancestors as "teachers" from which we can learn; "it is to reflect on the meaning of the lives of our ancestors," he said. And, rather than reinforcing our ego's illusion of independence, this kind of reflection ultimately challenges our ego and makes us realize how much we actually owe to the efforts of others. And once again, Rev. Tamamitsu reminded us that, in Jodo Shinshu, there are always the "two aspects," which translate to twin goals: "Liberate oneself; liberate society."

Regarding our relationships with others in society, Rev. Tamamitsu explained somewhat paradoxically that, though we are all unique individuals, we are also all the same. "The only difference between us and, say a homeless person, is our karmic condition. Thus, Jodo Shinshu asks us to refrain from judgments about others. This is difficult for us to accept...yet there is no other way to live our lives. The idea in Jodo Shinshu," he said, "is to figuratively 'discard the clothes one wears,' that is, to take off, one at a time, the layers of 'knowledge' we've accumulated and see the real self."

Rev. Tamamitsu gave an example from his own experience. He had always thought of himself as someone very much willing to share his understanding of Buddhism with anyone, anywhere. But there was a time in his life when he had become involved with helping some patients suffering from leprosy. "Faced with the plight of the lepers, I realized 'my Buddhism' had nothing to say.

"But the positive aspect," he explained, "is that I was challenged to grow as a human being. It opened my eyes to people I acknowledged for the first time. I found myself growing as a human being and losing the discriminatory attitudes I had before. This is a concrete example of Shinshu's 'benefits.'"

Rennyo's Contributions
In the Saturday afternoon lecture, Rev. Tamamitsu concentrated on two main contributions of Rennyo Shonin: 1) his ofumi or letters, and 2) the ko, or small Dharma gatherings he initiated. "The ofumi," explained Rev. Tamamitsu, "can be thought of as teaching or communicating through words. They were letters written on various Buddhist topics and distributed to the townspeople of feudal Japan. The ko represent teaching through networking," he said. These were small Dharma gatherings that were open to anyone, even the so-called "dregs" of society in those days. Yet, though the ko brought together a great variety of people, they were unified around a strong spiritual focus. These groups studied and learned the Dharma together and were united in their common struggle. Interestingly, the ofumi helped establish the ko because "the ofumi were a kind of newsletter, urging action, and because of Rennyo's skill in communicating to his Sangha with easily understandable words," he said.

Moreover, Rev. Tamamitsu pointed out that the ko were self-governing, grassroots groups designed to empower people. "Of course, there were some problems due to the overwhelming vitality of the group; there were some excesses of enthusiasm, examples of going overboard, etc. Still, that positive energy has been lost in today's society."

Sadly, Rev. Tamamitsu pointed out that our modern-day Sanghas lack these strong aspects. "Most people today say that religion plays only a small part in their lives. In contrast, for those that studied with Rennyo, religion entered into all aspects of their life. Rennyo was a person who lived Shinran's teachings," Rev. Tamamitsu said. "But to the general public, our Modern-day Honganji is not communicating what it is advocating...our religious organization is invisible," he stated. At this point, Rev. Tamamitsu put forth 'a call to action' and encouraged all Buddhists to "express to the world what we've learned about Jodo Shinshu...Each one of us must develop the kind of energy and vitality Rennyo had on an individual basis. Like Rennyo, our active participation will allow us to better understand our environment. Also, we must accept these 'challenges' on a continual basis." In so doing, Rev. Tamamitsu argued, we can establish our own "ko," our own "grassroots movement."

The Buddhism of Transformation
Rev. Tamamitsu returned to the "two aspects" of Jodo Shinshu, of "going to the Pure Land" and of "returning to this world, this society." He clarified that "These twin aspects illustrate the dynamic process of Shinshu. And that there is a deep relation between our society and our own shinjin, or awakening. Unfortunately, most people think that shinjin has very little to do with society, which shows that our tradition has become 'religion' and not true Dharma. And so, this is why I'm talking to you today."

At the core of this relationship between one's personal awakening and the larger society is the Buddhist concept of "transformation," one of the key points of Rev. Tamamitsu's two-day lecture. "The meaning of the 'benefit' of transforming evil into good actually refers to the educational process of the true Shinshu Buddhist; Jodo Shinshu is, in fact, the Buddhism of Transformation," he said. "Jodo Shinshu believes the human being is capable of change. At the base of the word 'education' is the implicit capacity of a human to change.

Delving deeper into this theme of transformation, Rev. Tamamitsu related the Jodo Shinshu teaching to his feelings about capital punishment. "Within the context of Jodo Shinshu," Rev. Tamamitsu said, "I personally wish for the end of the death penalty. This is because to say 'I would never kill,' is ultimately judgmental, dishonest and hypocritical. If we all are 100% honest, none of us can claim to be 'good.' And though criminals may be criminals, they are not evil. They can be 'transformed.' Jodo Shinshu is a teaching for evil persons; yet none of us thinks we ourselves are evil." Rev. Tamamitsu cited a passage from the Tannisho, the work of Shinran's disciple Yuienbo:

    "People commonly say, 'If even an evil person attains birth in the Pure Land, so it goes without saying that a good person will.' This statement may seem well founded at first, but it runs counter to the intent of the Primal Vow, which is Other Power. This is because people who rely on doing good through their self-power fail to entrust themselves wholeheartedly to Other Power and therefore are not in accord with Amida's Primal Vow. But when they overturn the mind of self-power and entrust themselves to Other Power, they will attain birth in the true and real fulfilled land. It is impossible for us, who are possessed of blind passions, to free ourselves from birth-and-death through any practice whatsoever. Sorrowing at this, Amida made the Vow, the essential intent of which is the evil person's attainment of Buddhahood. Hence, evil persons who entrust themselves to Other Power are precisely the ones who possess the true cause of birth. Accordingly, Shinran said, 'If even the good person is born in the Pure Land, so without question is the person who is evil."

"When you see an 'evil act,'" said Rev. Tamamitsu, "don't make the mistake of distancing yourself and judging that act. Look at yourself honestly as a manifestation of the same 'evil' you see in criminals. This is why Jodo Shinshu is a teaching that has the potential to change us. Our evil can be transformed into good through our reflection on societal problems; the key is whether or not there is openness within us to the concept of change. It is to look at the evil that lies within and to acknowledge 'I am capable of transforming that evil.'"

Developing a Fresh Self
On Sunday morning, Rev. Tamamitsu reminded us that Jodo Shinshu is "totally tied to our everyday life, to all our relationships. And that the 'ten benefits' mentioned earlier are really challenges to be received. These challenges come in the form of our interactions with all the people we meet in our daily lives. What does "awakening" or "going to the Pure Land" really mean? It means, "being able to see all life as Buddhas, including plants and animals." Rev. Tamamitsu pointed out that in a very real sense, "it is through these encounters that our life is supported and enriched. This includes our families and friends."

"We are bombu; we are filled with anger and jealousy, and we don't understand this. We are capable of anything, yet we only admit to maybe 1/20 of our evils and failings. But a Buddha is a fulfilled or complete person; he or she is able to see their complete being, including its flaws. In contrast, we are unfulfilled; we don't see our evil."

"To 'listen to the Dharma' also means to listen to those people we don't want to hear or to face. This requires the self to change in order to truly 'hear'; transformation must accompany listening." Rev. Tamamitsu emphasized that "True listening changes us. If we don't change from listening to Shinran's teachings, then we haven't really listened...a person who listens to Shinran's teachings is a person who endeavors to constantly change. And the idea is not to become someone who 'understands everything'; rather, it is to be a person who has more questions. The further along we get in our studies, the more we learn, but we also realize how much more there is to learn."

"Thus, to live is to learn, and to learn is to change," he said. This in turn refers to another of the 'ten benefits' mentioned, that of 'having great joy in our hearts.' This really means that, to study Buddhism is to constantly develop a fresh self and a renewed curiosity...this 'joy 'or 'fresh self' is in fact shinjin," he said.

Rev. Tamamitsu stated that in today's temples, there is a tendency to use difficult Buddhist words, and this unfortunately perpetuates a "closed and exclusive" impression upon the general public. "Among most Japanese, the Buddhist terms are misunderstood," he said. Rev. Tamamitsu encouraged the ministers and religious committee members present to "take Buddhism's teachings and put them into everyday language."

"Remember that ultimately," he said, "the twin aspects of 'going to the Pure Land'-which represents me or myself-and 'returning to this world'-which represents Amida Buddha or Dharma-are really one and the same. The goal in Buddhism is to bring together myself and that greater life that supports me."