21 December 2007

Great introduction to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

Buddha of Infinite Light
Daisetz T. Suzuki
Shambhala Publications, 1998

Ever since the first Englishman translated the final words of the Buddha as "work out your own salvations with diligence," the English-speaking West has associated Buddhism almost exclusively with the cool, detached path of self-power and the attainment of enlightenment through the individual cultivation of wisdom, ethics, and meditation. Perhaps it is due to this limited understanding of the Buddhadharma, perhaps it is because so many Westerners have come to Buddhism in order to escape from a theistically oriented religion; whatever the reason, out of the millions of Westerners who now find themselves attracted to the Buddhadharma, few are familiar with the Buddhist path of Other-power, a path which finds its clearest expression in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhism of Japan.

Thankfully the folks at Shambhala Publications have decided to fill this gap in knowledge by updating and republishing a classic work by D.T. Suzuki, perhaps most well known in the West for his work on the Zen traditions of Japanese Buddhism. The result is this short, clearly written work which attempts to explain the essential teachings of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (aka Shin Buddhism) in a way that situates them squarely within a more familiar Buddhist worldview.

Suzuki admits up front that his presentation of Shin Buddhism, stripped of what he calls "accretions," will go directly against more traditional interpretations, and so obviously this book is not an exhaustive treatment of its subject. Instead the book sketches the basic premise of Shin Buddhism (i.e., Amida Buddha has vowed that anyone who calls out to him with sincere faith will be reborn in the Pure Land, a stainless realm whence anyone can attain enlightenment) and discusses its essential practice of reciting the nembutsu ("Namu-Amida-Butsu") in the context of standard Buddhist philosophical concepts (e.g., selflessness, emptiness, compassion, etc.).

So for Suzuki, the practice of reciting the nembutsu is not about calling out to a god for salvation, although that is certainly how it first appears. Instead "Namu" symbolizes self-power, "Amida Butsu" Other-power, and the conjunction of the two in the nembutsu is emblematic of the essential nonduality of oneself and the enlightened mind of the Buddha. Likewise, Suzuki explains that we cannot practice the sincerity necessary to call out to Amida because sincerity is the "perfect forgetting of oneself." In other words, what initially seems "too easy" is seen on closer analysis to be nigh impossible. This is why Shinran's modification of existing Pure Land Buddhist doctrines was, and is, so radical; for him, the nembutsu isn't a prayer or mantra to be put into practice (after all, what good would such practice be given our hopeless self-centeredness?) but an expression of gratitude for having already been swept up into the Pure Land through the absolute grace of Amida's compassion. For Shinran, the Pure Land itself is not merely understood as a post-mortem destination but is a radical re-envisioning and sanctification of the present moment. The strict separation between what is self and what is not-self, between what is samsara and what is nirvana, blurs; "When sincerity and insincerity are transcended, then Amida comes into our inner self and identifies himself with this inner self. Or, we can say, this self find itself in Amida. And when we find this self in Amida, we are in the Pure Land" (p. 41).

This is a great introduction to an often-overlooked school of Buddhist thought and practice.

(This review was originally written on October 26, 2007.)

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