Jodo Shinshu Buddhism: A Definition


As part of my ordination (tokudo 得度) training I am reading the book Jodo Shinshu: A Guide. In the book I found this interesting passage:

True liberation must be that which gives us the strength to continue, even if things do not go as we wish, fully recognizing that all problems are transient in nature. In this way, we can transcend any obstacle and live life to the utmost.

The Jodo Shinshu teaching explains that such strength comes from Amida [Amitabha] Buddha’s ceaseless work to bring about our liberation, and to have us experience the benevolence of his Vow Power, which will ultimately bring about our birth in the Pure Land. It is what sustains us spiritually and gives us life-long fortitude. Choosing to proceed along this path will lead us to attain the same awakening as the Buddha. Although all of Mahayana Buddhism recognizes the assistance provided by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, Jodo Shinshu particularly values the working of Amida’s Compassionate Vow. (Pg 65)

I think this is a good, clear summary of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. It also reminds me of a passage from the Immeasurable Life Sutra:

“If, sentient beings encounter his light, their three defilements are removed; they feel tenderness, joy and pleasure; and good thoughts arise. If sentient beings in the three realms of suffering see his light, they will all be relieved and freed from affliction. At the end of their lives, they all reach emancipation.

“The light of Amitayus shines brilliantly, illuminating all the Buddha-lands of the ten quarters. There is no place where it is not perceived….”

The Light of Amida Buddha can mean many different things to different people, but it serves to guide us and sustain us in good times and bad.

Namu Amida Butsu

Getting Started in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

Recently I was perusing1 the BCA Bookstore, which provides Buddhist supplies for people and temples across the US and internationally, and I found this interesting item: The Jodo Shinshu Starter Kit.

The Buddhist Chirches of America is a Jodo Shinshu or “Shin” Buddhist organization that has been in the US for 100+ years so naturally they have abundant supplies for Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, but I think the idea of a starter kit for only $5 is particularly clever.

For $5 you get:

  • An image of Amitabha Buddha: the Buddha of Infinite Light.
  • A basic rosary.
  • A chant containing the Juseige Buddhist chant, which is a popular liturgy in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.

That’s quite a deal in my opinion. Often when people are new to Buddhism and not sure where to start, they might feel compelled to buy expensive meditation cushions, imported rosaries and try to learn long, complicated chants, or pay exorbitant fees for seminars. I personally believe this makes Buddhism less accessible and more intimidating for some people. I would rather see people start at home, build up confidence and then reach out to communities when they are ready to learn more.

I hope to see more things like the Starter Kit in the future. :)

1 Disclaimer, I am a certified minister’s assistant with the BCA, with an intention of getting ordained someday.

For The Sake of Even One

One of my favorite Buddhist sutras to read is the Mahayana sutra called the Golden Light Sutra. It was very popular in early-medieval Asian culture, but is less well known now outside of maybe Tibetan Buddhism. In particular my favorite chapter is chapter four, where the Bodhisattva Ruchiraketu speaks a long, long litany expressing his desire to help all beings, expressing regret for his past misdeeds, and finally expressing praise of all the Buddhas. In particular, I was reading again recently when this passage jumped out at me:

“Until I am capable of freeing them all
From countless oceans of suffering,
For ten million eons I shall strive
For the sake of even one sentient being.”

A very simple, but beautiful exposition of the Bodhisattva path to assist all beings, to not abandon them. If you get a chance, definitely read the first four chapters of the Golden Light Sutra, or at least chapters 3 (very short) and 4. They are very inspirational.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. Not sure what a Bodhisattva is? Start here. :)

Seriously, what is a Bodhisattva? Part One

One Buddhist concept that has often frustrated me, especially in my early years was the bodhisattva. Mahayana Buddhism, that is Buddhism from Tibet to Japan (and now overseas), talks about bodhisattvas a lot, but it seems everyone have a different idea what a bodhisattva is. Bodhisattvas are revered in Mahayana Buddhism but people often struggle to explain what they are.

So, I decided to research this and hopefully provide a more comprehensive answer. This is still one man’s explanation, so take it with a grain of salt, but I did use the following sources:

  • Edward Conze – Buddhist Thought in India (ISBN 0472061291)
  • Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr. – Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (ISBN: 0691157863)
  • Access to Insight – one of the best sources on Theravada Buddhism, and a great Buddhist resource in general.
  • Tagawa Shun’ei, translation by Charles Muller – Living Yogacara (ISBN: 0861715896)
  • Asvaghosha, translation by Yoshito S. Hakeda – The Awakening of Faith (ISBN: 0231030258)

And the following sutras (or collections of sutras) were used:

  • The Flower Ornament Scripture (Flower Garland Sutra) – translation by Thomas Cleary (ISBN: 9780877739401)
  • The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha – Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (ISBN: 086171072X)
  • The Three Pure Land Sutras – translation by Hisao Ingaki and the Numata Center for Translation and Research (ISBN: 1886439184)
  • Sutra of the Medicina Buddha – translation by Minh Thanh and P.D. Leigh, and the Sutra Translation Committee of United States and Canada
  • The Sutra of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vows – translation by Upasaka Tao-tsi Shih, and the Sutra Translation Committee of United States and Canada
  • The Threefold Lotus Sutra – translation by Bunno Kato, Yoshiro Tamura and Kojiro Miyasaka (ISBN: 4333002087)

The Early Teachings

In simplest terms a bodhisattva in Sanskrit, or bodhisatta in Pāli, means a “seeker of enlightnment”.

In the earliest scriptures, the Buddha would talk to his disciples about his past lives as a bodhisattva, such as this sutra in the Pali Canon (MN26 – Ariyapariyesanā, “Noble Search”):

“Bhikkhus [monks], before my enlightenment, when I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, I too, being myself subject to birth, sought what was also subject to birth; being myself subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, I sought what was also subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement….”

And in another sutra in the Pali Canon (MN123 – Acchariya-abbhūta Sutta, “Wonderful and Marvelous”):

Ananda: “I heard and learned this from the Blessed One’s own lips ‘For the whole of his life-span the Bodhisatta remained in the Tusita heaven.’….”

In this context, the term bodhisattva mainly referred to the past lives of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. In his past lives, when he dwelt in the Tusita heaven and then was born as a prince in India, he was on the cusp of Enlightenment, and only needed that final push. Further, early texts such as the Jatakas Tales, also imply that this Enlightenment was actually the culmination of many previous lifetimes of searching, effort, and noble deeds. Thus the path of the Bodhisatta who became the historical Buddha was thought to imply an extraordinary, lengthy journey across many lives culminating in final enlightenment.

Later Teachings

In later generations, the role of the Bodhisattva expanded beyond the historical Buddha, and appears more and more often in Buddhist literature. However, it is not the case though that Bodhisattvas are found in Mahayana Buddhism only though. For an excellent treatment of the subject, I highly recommend reading this article by Bhikkhu Bodhi.1 It was just that the path seemed too remote and arduous for most disciples, especially since the presence of a living Buddha allowed them to reach enlightenment much more quickly as Śrāvaka or “hearer-disciple”.

Anyway, in the classic Buddhist model, the historical Buddha was something like a “first among equals”, in that the quality of enlightenment experienced by Arhats (e.g. “noble ones”) was the same as the Buddha. However, Buddhas were distinguished from Arhats by additional qualities that made them almost suprahuman. A Buddha is one who, among other things, gains insight into the truth at a time when the Dharma is unknown (i.e. no Buddha to teach them), which requires extraordinary spiritual insights and qualities, not to mention their capacity to teach others in such a way that they become enlightened too, and can carry the Dharma onward for generations. This was the contrast between a Buddha and a Śrāvaka.

Over time, the Buddhist community began to explore more and more the notion of becoming a Buddha too (e.g. Buddhahood), and thus the role of the Bodhisattva became increasingly important. As a result, the status of a bodhisattva was elevated over arhats, such that arhats were considered noble, but somewhat inferior to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

How Do Arhats, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas relate?

There were a number of models to explain how the relationship. As we saw earlier, the original model really only included arhats and buddhas, but for example in the influential Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism (of which the Hossō school in Japan is one of the few independent remnants) taught that different beings had different inherent natures that would incline them toward the Buddhist path of an arhat, bodhisattva (and thus a Buddha), indeterminate or even those whom enlightenment was impossible.

However, the most popular model in Mahayana Buddhism became the Ekayāna or “One-Vehicle” model. This was popularized by the Lotus Sutra which taught that all disciples would inevitably follow the same path, even if they appeared different at first. Each path (arhat, bodhisattva, etc) were part of the same natural progression. In the famous parable in Chapter Three where the father says to his children in the burning house:

“Such a variety of goat carts, deer carts, and bullock carts is now outside the gate to play with. All of you must come quickly out of this burning house, and I will give you whatever you want.”

and when they come outside:

Then the elder gives to each of his children equally a great cart, lofty and spacious, adorned with all the precious things…

This parable, the Buddha explains, is meant to show that all followers seem to be following different trajectories, ultimately they all converge on the (Mahayana) Buddhist path and become bodhisattvas and then Buddhas.

Later, starting in the sixth chapter, the Buddha than predicts that his senior monks and nuns, all presumed to be arhats, will eventually become Buddhas. This again emphasizes that the arhat stage is not separate, but a kind of prepartory stage before the “real” Buddhist path begins. Again though, we see that arhat is considered a noble but somewhat inferior status to the bodhisattva, and that their enlightenment is somehow incomplete when compared to the enlightenment of a Buddha.

Nevertheless, the arhat is still revered and respected in Mahayana Buddhism. For example, in the Amitabha Sutra, the historical Buddha describes the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha like so:

Moreover, Śāriputra, he [the Buddha Amitabha] has an innumerable and unlimited number of śrāvaka disciples, all of them arhats, whose number cannot be reckoned by any means. His assembly of bodhisattvas is similarly vast …. Śāriputra, those sentient beings who hear of that land should aspire to be born there. Why? Because they will be able to meet such sages of supreme virtue.

Anyhow, we have talked quite a bit about the history of the bodhisattva, but in part two we’ll discuss how the sutras describe and define a bodhisattva, and how they relate to the buddhas. In part three, we’ll talk about how this applies to contemporary Buddhism. Stay tuned!

1 Please repeat after me: Bodhisattvas are not found in Mahayana Buddhism only. Many elements of the bodhisattva that we do see in Mahayana Buddhism have their roots in the earlier Mahāsāṃghika school of early Buddhism, which Mahayana drew many ideas and inspirations from. However, the Mahayana also drew from other schools such as Sarvastivada and Dharmagupta among others.

Appreciating Who You Are


Recently, my wife taught me a fun little Japanese proverb that I wanted to share:

Ten wa nibutsu wo ataezu

This means “Heaven does not grant two things”. Here the notion of Heaven is not the Judaeo-Christian notion, but rather the Confucian principle of order, creation and goodness in the Universe.

The meaning of this proverb though is that a person usually doesn’t have two talents, two virtues, etc. Everyone has something they are good at, or some good quality about them. The point here, though, isn’t to judge others but rather to appreciate what talents and virtues one does have, and to also be patient with the faults of others.1 There are many skills that one can learn in their lifetime, but it’s pretty unusual to meet someone who has two genuine talents, virtues, etc.

Anyhow, something cool to share. :-)

1 Better to focus on one’s own faults anyway. As the Analects of Confucius says:

[19:21] Zi Gong said: “The faults of the noble man are like the eclipses of the sun and moon— everyone sees them. But when he corrects them, everyone looks up to him.”

What’s Old Is New Again


Recently I’ve been reading a fascinating book titled “Why I Am A Five Precenter“, by Michael Muhammad Knight. The book is an exploration of a little known American religion called the Five Percenters,1 which began as an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, but grew into a movement in its own right even after the founder, “Allah” was assassinated. Quite a few hip-hop artists and songs have hidden Five-Percenter messages in them,2 for example, so while it’s not well-known, it’s surprisingly influential in Black-American culture and increasingly in American culture as a whole.

Anyhow, I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t comment on the content though I will say it’s been very enlightening. You can read a summary by the author here. What I did want to share though was this quotation from the book:

It’s a common religions prejudice. We often assume that all of the genuine wisdom and useful stories rest in the old scriptures, while the new scriptures contain only made-up nonsense. When old scriptures seem unreasonable, we search for the deeper meaning, the buried esoteric truth; when new scriptures give us trouble, we dismiss them as the gibberish of lunatics and charlatans. When I mentioned the Nation of Islam to a Sunni [Muslim] friend, he mocked their bizarre myths such as the Mothership, an advanced spacecraft that would someday release drone ships to bomb the white devil’s kingdom off the map. His tone surprised and disappointed me; this Sunni kid’s religion, after all, had its own share of the strange.

“But you believe that the Prophet flew into heaven on the Buraq,” I answered. The Buraq was a creature commonly depicted as a flying horse with a peacock tail and a woman’s head. “Isn’t that counterintuitive?”

“It’s allegory,” he said. “It was the Prophet’s soul that ascended into paradise, not his body.”

“So why can’t the Mothership be allegory?”

For some reason, this rarely occurs to people.

This passage really struck me because I see that same religious prejudice in myself. For me, the older the Buddhist teaching, the more authentic it is, and therefore has heavier weight, but many of the early Buddhist sutras contains fantastical stories or non-sensical explanations of cosmology, etc. So, when newer generations of Buddhists composed things like the Mahayana sutras and such, I wonder if they were trying to rehash or repackage earlier teachings in a more palatable way. Perhaps they struggled with the same contradictions a modern 21st century Buddhist has, and solved it in their own way, just as we’re doing now.

Anyhow, something to think about for any religious person, not just Buddhists. ;)

P.S. There is no official homepage for the Five Percenters that I could find, but I did find some interesting pages on line if you would like to learn more.

1 The name derives from the notion that:

  • 85% of the people are blind to the truth.
  • 10% know the truth but teach lies for personal gain.
  • 5% are the humble teachers who preach the truth to save the masses.

2 A couple examples: the term “peace” used by hip-hop artists often refers to the standard greeting that Five Percenters give one another (essentially an English translation for the Arabic-Islamic greeting). Also, the term “G” originally did not mean “gangster”, but instead meant “god”, in keeping with the Five Percenter doctrine that all Black Men are gods and masters of their own Universe.

The Poetry of Li He

Hi Guys,

Lately, I’ve been reading a book on Chinese poetry from the late Tang Dynasty, which is one of the high points of Chinese history and culture.1 I wanted to share some poetry by a man named Li He (李賀, 790–816) which is written as “Li Ho” in some old sources.2 Li He was a short-lived poet who did at the age of 27, and having failed the Imperial Examinations. Nevertheless, he was a an influential poet who was then forgotten for centuries until the 1800’s when his poetry received a kind of revival.

One of my favorite poems is “On the Frontier”, translated by A.C. Graham:

A Tartar horn tugs at the north wind,
Thistle Gate shines whiter than the stream.
The sky swallows the road to Kokonor.
On the Great Wall, a thousand miles of moonlight.

The dew comes down, the banners drizzle,
Cold bronze rings the watches of the night.
The nomads’ armour meshes serpents’ scales.
Horses neigh, Evergreen Mound’s champed white.

In the still of autumn see the Pleiades.
Far out on the sands, danger in the furze.
North of their tents is surely the sky’s end
Where the sound of the river streams beyond the border.

According to Chinese tradition, when the Pleiades flickered, this was an omen of a barbarian invasion. Also according to the book, the Evergreen Mound was the grave site of a Chinese imperial concubine named Wang Zhao-jun who was betrothed to a Xiongnu (Tartar) warlord. It is said that grass always grows there on account of her tremendous beauty.

I’ll post more poetry soon. Enjoy!

1 It is almost a fascinating period to me because of the strong Buddhist influence, and its effect on other Asian countries at the time. Subsequent dynasties were also culturally brilliant, but had more influence from Neo-Confucianism, as did neighboring countries.

2 His name is pronounced like “Lee Huh”.

Big Updates!


Hi folks,

It’s been a busy, busy month, but I have a couple updates!

First, as you can see above, I finally got certified as a minister’s assistant with the Buddhist Churches of America. This doesn’t mean I am an ordained priest, but it does mean I do get some ecclesiastical responsibilities. I can help with ceremonies, teach classes at the temple,1 and am on step closer to real ordination. :) The first level of ordination, or tokudo (得度) will be at least another 3-5 years though, so I have a long ways to go.

By the way, I am holding my son in this photo. He turned 2 years old that same day! Because the ceremony above took place that on his birthday, we decided to celebrate one day early with family, and one week later with good friends.2 Little Guy is very outgoing and social, and really enjoyed having so many friends and family over. Since he likes sports so much, he got baseballs, soccer balls, footballs, mitts, etc. He also got a nice Japanese train-set from his relatives in Japan. He was a very happy little boy.

My wife and I are also very happy to see him grow up into a sweet, young boy. He is very devoted to his older sister, and she loves and cares for him too. Someday, my wife and I won’t be around anymore, so I am glad to see that they have each other. :)

Anyhow, I am sorry I haven’t written in a while, but I simply didn’t have the time. But there are a lot of fun things to share in the coming weeks, so I hope to post again soon.

Until then, take care!

1 I have been asked to start a new class, Buddhism 101, for our temple parents in late November. I am excited to get started on this.

2 Our friends have a little boy who also turned 2, so it was a double birthday. ;)

Happy Otsukimi Moon-Viewing 2015

Hi Everyone,

Otsukimi moon viewing children's art

This weekend there are a lot of Autumn-festivals going on across places like China, Korea and Japan. I’ve talked about Korean Chuseok before, so today I wanted to post about the Japanese festival of O-tsukimi (お月見). Compared to Chuseok or Chinese Autumn Festival, Otsukimi is a little more low-key, but fun for the family.

All three holidays occur traditionally on the full moon (the 15th day) of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. In Japanese this is known as chūshū no meigetsu (中秋の名月, “harvest moon”) and people traditionally have a night of moon-viewing, eating dango snacks and drinking saké.1 It’s a nice family event. The word otsukimi literally just means “moon-viewing”.

To celebrate Otsukimi this year, I wanted to share a poem from the ancient poetry anthology, the Kokin Wakashū:

秋の月 Aki no tsuki
山辺さやかに yamabe sayaka ni
照らせるは teraseru wa
落つるもみぢの otsuru momiji no
数を見よとか kazu wo miyo to ka

Which is translated as:

The autumn moon shines
brilliantly upon the
mountain range to show
us the very number of
the fallen colored leaves.

Happy Moon-Viewing/Autumn Festival Everyone!

P.S. My son, now almost 2 years old, helped decorate this picture above. According to Japanese legend, a rabbit lived on the moon, and pounded mochi until the moon was full. Then, the rabbit would eat it, until the new moon, and repeat the cycle. Little Guy helped decorate the white “dango”. :)

P.P.S. This page has helpful schedules for Otsukimi up through 2020.

1 Apparently there is also a lesser-known tradition, unique to Japan only that is celebrated on the 13th day of the 9th month of the lunar calendar. During this day, roasted chestnuts and edamame are offered along with dango. This is variably called nochi no tsuki 後の月, jūsanya (十三夜) and/or kuri meigestu (栗名月).