Welcome to the Western Quarter!

This blog is devoted to the propagation of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, a 750-year-old Buddhist tradition.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Words of the Pure Land

I'm sorry I haven't updated this blog in quite awhile! Due to work and other activities I haven't had time to write; however, I'd still like to keep updating this blog, on a semi-regular basis. So I will be updating quotes from various writers and thinkers related to the Jodo Shinshu and Pure Land traditions. I hope you may benefit from some of these words.

"The depth of the Buddha's benevolence is such that even with birth in the realm of indolence and pride, the borderland, the city of doubt or the womb palace, which is brought about only through the compassion revealed in Amida's 19th and 20th Vows, we meet with a happiness that surpasses understanding. Thus the depth of the Buddha's benevolence is without bound. But how much more should we realize the benevolence of the Buddha with birth into the true and real fulfilled land and attainment of the enlightenment of the supreme nirvana. This is not a matter that Shoshin-bo or I have decided ourselves. Not in any way at all."

Gutoku Shinran, Kencho 7 [1255], 10th Month, 3rd Day
from Collected Works of Shinran, Vol.1, p. 527.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Jodo Shinshu Ritual: Makuragyo

Like other forms of traditional Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu practice has many rituals that its clergy and lay-members perform. "Ritual" can be a word with many definitions - while some may believe that ritual connotates an empty meaning, or rote and unthinking behavior, in the Shinshu tradition it can provide the context in which ordinary Shin followers understand the Buddha-Dharma teachings and implement the Buddha-Dharma in life-affirmations. The most commonly performed rituals involve the memorial service for the deceased, which can come in several forms.

The initial memorial ritual for the deceased is called the makuragyo, or "pillow service." Traditionally, this is conducted at the bedside of the dying individual, although in the modern context it is now usually conducted soon after a person's passing. In Japan, the Shoshinge is used as the liturgical text for chanting; in the United States, it is the Juseige, again primarily for its brevity. Makuragyo may be conducted by the priest or minister, or by an ordained layperson, such as a minister's assistant.

The location of makuragyo depends on the Shin family of the deceased's preferences : it is one of the few Shin rituals not to be usually performed at the temple. It may be at the hospital or hospice (very typical in the U.S.) or if the person has passed at home, it may be conducted at the home, with the family present. Makuragyo is essentially the "last rites" ritual of Shin Buddhism. As with other rites of Shin Buddhism, the Makuragyo does not "ensure" the person in born in the Pure Land, or help with rebirth, but to affirm the Shin Buddhist identity of the individual, and to give the surviving family members the peace-of-mind that memorial services, of any religious tradition, can provide. Buddhist last rites can be performed for any individual, regardless of faith affiliation, if the individual or his/her family or friends so requests. The most recent makuragyo I performed was here in Afghanistan, for a fallen Marine. The rituals of Buddha-dharma help affirm for us the lasting teachings of the Buddha, which apply to any human situation. As death and dying is something that every human and sentient being encounters, so the importance of Dharma is applied, in the form of such ritual, to help us understand this cause and condition.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

How to Read the Pure Land Sutras (Part 2)

In the Contemplation Sutra, which tells the story of Queen Vaidehi's acceptance of the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, she is visited by the Buddha and his disciples Ananda and Maudgalyayana. They do not simply get a prison pass and walk in the prison, but they appear to her seemingly out of thin air. The Buddha shows her a vision of the Pure Land, and Vaidehi decides to be born there. In many other sutras, the Buddha manifests supernatural powers and accomplishes deeds which could be described as "miracles" or, activities which defy scientific laws.

Much of this can disturb readers who are expecting a more "rational" form of teaching (the idea of Buddhism as only philosophy comes to mind), and who could be uncomfortable with concepts like "miracles," which we assume to belong solely to the Christian tradition (yet even some Christians, like Thomas Jefferson, was uncomfortable with this)! However, these can be present in many other religions, including Islam.

How can we understand the sutras with their descriptions of incredible beings, and abilities manifested by the Buddha and his disciples? Should we just accept them "literally" that these beings and powers existed in history, or just dismiss them as elaborate yet impossible depictions created later by imaginative scribes? Should we accept one explanation without question, and then deny absolutely the opposite opinion? If the sutras contain "impossible" depictions, how can it be reliable? Where is the truth in its pages? Can it speak to us in today's worlds, with 21st-century issues?

I believe that the answer may lie in between these explanations. The Pure Land sutras were not written to be a only a dry, historical account of the Buddha and his teachings, they were also written to convey the idea of the Buddha's uniqueness, to encourage devotion and adherence to the Pure Land teachings, and the wider Mahayana tradition. In the Lotus Sutra, it is encouraged to follow this particular book, while other sutras say that this sutra is best. Is one false and the other true? Yes, some Buddhists have argued one is true and the others all heretical (as the Japanese monk Nichiren did in favor of the Lotus teachings).

The sutra is not only a primer of "philosophy" but a text that is, perhaps pardoxically, irrational. It is meant to take us to a separate level of understanding, perhaps similar to the purpose of the Zen koan. When we read the Pure Land sutras, we read with the mind of faith. This mind of faith is not the mind of "blind faith" (of which many people criticize religion for) but rather the mind of opening the mind to the realm of the Pure Land. We may compare Vaidehi's example, of receiving the manifestation of the Pure Land in her mind.

However, we have to combine our reason with our devotion TOGETHER, to read the Pure Land sutras. Simply stating that everything in the sutras is "literally" true or that everything in the sutra is merely smoke and mirrors for another meaning is falling to an extreme, which we should always try to avoid. Many Christians struggle also with reading the Bible, and take great care how they approach it; as the Pure Land sutras are our "holy text" we should take an approach of equal respect and critical reading towards the sutras (which exist in several different versions). Not to do this can lead us to error and the calamities of doubt, or perhaps worse, to what we see afflicting the religions today. Most people only see this played out on our TV screens. Seeing it in person, in Afghanistan for example, leads me to understand that how we read the sutras is crucial to our own understanding of why it is so important to read the sutras, with always the goal of the Buddha in mind - to achieve peace and compassion, beginning with oneself.

Friday, July 16, 2010

How to Read the Pure Land Sutras: Reading (Part 1)

Reading the Pure Land sutras, or any Buddhist sutra, can be an eye-opener! Historically, probably not many Buddhists read the sutras, especially if they were from the lower strata of society; typically portions of it would be read to them, or created as part of a shomyo (chanting liturgy). Typically only monastics engaged in the study and exigesis of sutras may have bothered to read the sutras, and write commentaries on them. We have few instances of lay Buddhists doing the same.

Today, we have many sutras available, including the three Pure Land sutras regarded as primary in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, including editions available in English-language (see earlier posts). Unlike other sutras, like the Heart Sutra or the Lotus Sutra, they're not readily available at the bookstore, even independent bookstores specializing in "New Age" or "metaphysical" titles. Even in our American Shin temples, the sutras are not exactly the preferred reading choice for many members. One possible reason for this is the lack of easy availability of the titles (even with Amazon), and also that the Pure Land tradition in general has not really gained the popularity that sutras more familiar to Zen or other forms of Buddhism use. But also, if you take a look at the "Eastern Religions" section in your local Borders or Barnes & Noble, the majority of titles available tend to be mostly popular books written about Buddhism and meditation, rather than ready translations of Buddhist sutras.

I've often been asked for copies of the "Buddhist scripture" as a chaplain by people interested in Buddhism. They've read books about Buddhism, so they want to see what the "scripture" itself says. This is a natural result of our Western culture, and a very good thing - we are encouraged to study religions on our own, and one way to do that is to read what their scriptures, or the teachings themselves, say, whether it is the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. When they read these sacred texts, it may be in the context as a "believer" or member of a specific faith, which will also inform them how to read them, whether as "infallible" or in some degree open to interpretation. Of course they may also come to it as a nonbeliever, or "undecided" meaning that they will read it skeptically, or in some other context which will allow them to decide for themselves what to believe. For those coming to the Buddhist sutras, it is also not different from these forms of readings.

For Buddhists, we have a multiplicity of "scripture!" But even reading one, takes some dedication - a willingness to open one's mind, and to have patience with a translated text, and also, together with an open mind, not have it be too open. We should acknowledge: 1) That the Buddha, nor his immediate disciples (Ananda, Sariputra, Maudgalyayana, et al.) did not write down their teachings; 2) That we only have sutras passed down from an oral tradition; 3) That these oral teachings were only committed to writing several generations, at earliest, after the Buddha's Parinirvana, or at least the ones extant today. Therefore, we can never say we have the Buddha's exact words, either in his own language, or correctly translated by later scribes. At most, we can accept we have the Buddha's intent, passed down through his disciples via the oral tradition, and also via samadhi, by later monks gifted in that ability. If you are skeptical about the latter, then accepting the Pure Land tradition can certainly be awkward! Like other sacred books, to read it as a believer takes faith, in that the Buddha's intent was passed down correctly. Unless we obtain a time-machine and tape-recorder, we cannot say we have the Buddha's exact words.

You may also see that the sutras may not seem interconnected, in the way the book of the Bible can be. Buddhists may read one particular sutra, or as a group. In Shin Buddhism, we can read the Three Pure Land Sutras as a group.

Let's look at the Larger Pure Land Sutra. As a sutra, it opens with the traditional statement "Thus have I heard" (Evam me sutam), signifying that the author has heard the teaching. In the ancient Indian tradition, the oral tradition was considered more "pure" than the written text, or less corruptible. The sutra is therefore this anonymous author's faithful account of events he heard and witnessed .
(to be cont'd)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

How to Read the Pure Land Sutras: Translation (Part 2)

Shinran Shonin recognized three specific sutras on the Pure Land as primary: these are The Larger Pure Land Sutra, the Contemplation Sutra, and the Smaller Sutra (or Amida Sutra). Several different English translations exist of these sutras. These sutras are physically placed within the Shinshu onaijin, or alter space, in the form of scrolls with text in the classical Japanese format. They become part of the ritual element during a Shin service, although these are rarely chanted in American temples (with exception of the Amida Sutra for memorial services, and the others only for certain services in Japan.

These three sutras have also been translated by both Japanese and American Shin ministers and priests. Other translations may be authored by scholars unaffiliated with the Jodo Shinshu. The early Buddhist scholar Max Mueller made a translation which was published in the "Sacred Books of the East" series and is available in reprint. Dr. Luis O. Gomez also made a translation of the Sanskrit and Chinese Larger Sutra, published as The Land of Bliss. There are also other translations by scholars affiliated with other Buddhist or Pure Land traditions like the Buddha's Light Publishing Amitabha Sutra Chinese/English edition, which is affiliated with the Fo Guang Shan school and available at their temples at no cost.

For those wishing to study these sutras, I would recommend that the student study all the sutras one can to further their understanding of Buddhist sacred texts, although with an eye to understanding how the translations may differ due to the author's intent. Not all of these translations will necessarily translate the meaning of the sutra as we would understand in the Shin tradition. A translation made by Shinshu scholars, such as Hisao Inagaki or others, will use the accepted Chinese text (translated by Samghavarman) as contained in the Taisho Tripitaka, and the translation will be directed at the Shinshu audience with the objective of making the sutra understandable to Shin followers or those interested in Shin Buddhism.

Other translators, like Mueller and Gomez, aimed to make their translations available to a wider audience, not necessarily only for the Shinshu, or Buddhist, follower, but also for other scholars. Therefore the translators may place different emphasis on some passages, or use different English words for certain concepts, such as saying the Name of Amida. For a Shin follower, reading a text that is translated with the intent of making the Vow of Amida clear and comprehensible is the primary importance. This is not to claim other translations are incorrect, but only that the intent of translation is not directed at the Shinshu Sangha audience. As with any translation of a religious text, it is also left to the individual reader to accept that translation as his or her one for devotional use, similar to how a Christian may prefer a KJV over an NIV translated Bible.

Next, will be a post on how one should read a sutra with the goal of understanding the overall meaning for the Shin follower.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

How to Read the Pure Land Sutras: Translation (Part 1)

Reading a Buddhist sutra can be very different from what might be expected, especially if you were raised with the Christian Bible, or it may be your only experience with reading a religious text. The Bible is laid out as a narrative story (Creation to Revelations and End Times), except for several books that are about ancient Jewish ritual laws. A Buddhist sutra does not necessarily tell a "story" and many passages appear repetitive, or simply bizarre to the new reader. In some sutras, the Buddha manifests what we would describe as "supernatural" powers, and there are lots of otherworldly beings hanging about: devas, nagas, spirits, etc., who don't necessarily participate in a narrative "story." This can seem very confusing especially for someone who is curious about what the Buddhist "scriptures" say, to pick up and read and try to make sense of it. Even many Buddhists who do not read the sutras may find them hard to read! A person can open the Bible and read the story of Joshua and his wars or Moses and the wanderings of the Jews, or read in the New Testament and read about Jesus' life and ministry. In contrast, a person who picks up, for example, the Lotus Sutra or the Larger Pure Land Sutra may have no idea what is happening, and not know when or why such events are taking place. Therefore, some guidance is necessary if a person wants to seriously engage in reading the sutras, and importantly, to make sense of them and acquire wisdom from them.

First, let us look at the physical text itself. Only a few sutras and commentaries (shastras) exist in English translations, and as with any translations into one language from another language (in our case Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese to English) they can vary in style and quality. A translated sutra reflect the times they were written in and the author’s attempt to use English to translate some very difficult and different concepts. It’s not unusual to still find Buddhist sutras (especially early editions) translated such as “The Lord Buddha thus spake to his disciples…” This is not the translator’s trying to be obtuse, it is a reflection of what he thought would be the proper English usage. Until recently, only “King James” English was thought proper to use in Bibles and for “religious” language. Now there are dozens of Bible translations, most using contemporary English, but there are still people who belive only the King James translation is the accurate version. Unfortunately we do not have the luxury of having dozens of sutra translations to choose which is the most "readable", and unless we know the original language of the sutra, we cannot know ourselves how accurate or good it may be. We trust to the translator or translation committee that they are doing their best. However, we also have to be mindful that the translation, in an well-meaning attempt to be readable, does not sacrifice the meaning for the sake of "readability." We trust a sutra's translation usually in context of our own tradition.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pure Land Quote of the Week: Truth Dispels Our Evil Karma

"The evildoer in question has committed evils in a false and perverted frame of mind, whereas the ten repetitions of the Name arise when he hears the teaching of Truth from a good friend who consoles him by various skilful means. One is truthful and the other false. How can they be compared with each other? Suppose there is a room which has been dark for a thousand years. If light is cast into the room even for a short while, the room will instantly become bright. How could the darkness refuse to leave because it has been there for a thousand years?"

The above quote is from the Ojoronchu, or T'an-luan's Commentary on Vasubandhu's Discourse on the Pure Land. Vasubandhu and T'an-luan are two Masters of the Jodo Shinshu Pure Land lineage. The "teaching of Truth" is the teaching of the Nembutsu. When we are settled in Faith, or shinjin, we thoroughly understand Amida Buddha's salvific power, and regardless of our past karma, can be brought to Birth in the Pure Land and thus liberation. Different Pure Land Schools have debated on the number of repetitions one should make of the Nembutsu: ten times or just one time, or any combination. This was quite a vigorous and contentious debate back in the day! However, in Jodo Shinshu teaching, how many times we repeat Nembutsu is not important, as compared to the importance of awakening Faith (shinjin). Saying the Name without shinjin is just our own voice; saying the Nembutsu with shinjin is Amida's Voice and our voice as one.

The metaphor of the darkened room is ourselves as beings of evil karma who are "dark" because of the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance/stupidity. All human beings are like a darkened room! T'an-luan explains that the Name of Amida can be for us a way to bring light into the room. Once we embrace the Name, our inherent darkness has no choice but to dissipate. No matter our past negative karma, Amida Buddha is the light that can transform us - thus a meaning of the name of Amida (or Amitabha) is "Limitless Light." I truly appreciate this passage as it clearly and simply helps us to understand the working of Amida's Name, and provides hope for beings like ourselves who otherwise have no abilities, in these times, to comprehend the profundity of Buddha-Dharma.

The Ojoronchu exists in two English translations. One is the 1998 Inagaki translation, published by Nagata Bunshodo. The other is an unpublished dissertation by the late Buddhist scholar Roger Corless. I met Dr. Corless as a graduate student, and have a copy of this dissertation (I am not sure if it is available through dissertation Web sites or through interlibrary loan). The Corless translation differs slightly from Inagaki's as Dr. Inagaki is a Shinshu scholar, and Dr. Corless approached the text from a different perspective. Once I return from deployment, if anyone would like a copy, you can contact me.
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