First of all, thank you to ULC for offering such an interesting course and to Tricia Stirling for writing it. I have taken many courses over the years, but few have had any life-changing effect. This course has not only drawn me to Western Pure Land Buddhism but has also been responsible for me taking the vows and precepts. I have been living in Japan for the past twenty-five years, married to a Japanese woman and have two grown up daughters. Living in such an environment, I have naturally gone to many temples and shrines for such rites as funerals, celebrations, child blessings and so on. Although I can perform the actions, I have done so without giving much thought to what I have been doing. This may also be said of a lot of young people, as many do not know the difference between Shinto, the traditional religion, and Buddhism. All they know is to equate festivals and happy times with Shinto, and death and sadness with Buddhism. In Japan, Shinto and Buddhism co-exist to the point where they have almost meshed, at times sharing the same ground and complex. Although separate religions, it is not uncommon for the two to actually blend. Many people say that you are born into Shinto and die into Buddhism. Unfortunately Japan has a reputation for funeral Buddhism, but fortunately Shin Buddhism, or True Pure Land Buddhism has recently been trying to change this image through education and community events. Shin Buddhism has the most followers of any Buddhist sects in Japan, including Zen.
Why has it taken me almost twenty-five years to realize the importance of Buddhism in my life? I grew up in Australia, and although my family were not practising Christians, there was always a Christian presence in schools, neighbourhoods, and so on. Unfortunately young impressions are lasting. We were exposed to zealots who kept telling my brother and I that we were condemned to hell. We thought this rather severe for just skipping school to ride our bicycles to the river. So, we just gave up on being good as we were constantly being condemned to hell. Basically, we just gave religion a wide berth and went on with our lives. The past twenty-five years in Japan has not really deeply exposed me to religion here. It was not until last year that within the space of six months, I had a stroke, my brother died suddenly, and then followed my mother. I don`t know why, but around this time I was drawn to the ULC web site, and saw the Buddhism course. I wondered if I may find something to make sense of the last six months.
Well, it certainly motivated me to delve deeper into Buddhism. Although there were no ready fixes, I did realize a lot of things about myself, and how to better relate to my universe. I ended up reading around thirty books concerning Buddhism, particularly Pure Land Buddhism. From being pointed in the right direction, by this Course, I believe I have found solace and answers to many of my questions. I firmly believe in Pure Land and can now get on with the business of living, enjoying what is left of this life, and comforted in the knowledge of birth into the Pure Land. Through my reading I became indebted to Master Honen, the founder of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, and to his disciple, Master Shinran. Pure Land is the most popular sect in Japan due to several reasons. The first is that it is a religion of the common people. Anyone who recites homage to Amida Buddha can attain birth into heaven unconditionally. All sins are absolved, along with Karma. There are no further reincarnations or re-births, and one does not need to live through Samsara repeatedly. There is only this life, now, and after death one remains in heaven for eternity, choosing between Buddha-hood or Bosatsu.
There are no forms of meditation or any other rituals to follow, just sincerely call the name of Amida Buddha at least ten times to be unconditionally accepted into heaven. Of course there are additional ways of obtaining credit, but as Honen says, ` these are auxillary and not necessary for birth into heaven. Only the nembutsu, the calling of the name of Amida Buddha, is necessary`. How satisfying to learn this, to know that you are already accepted into heaven, instead of waiting for a Judgement Day to find out if you are going upstairs or downstairs. Having already been consigned to a place downstairs since I was young, it was a huge relief to know I now have a reserved ticket upstairs in a beautiful heaven. Honen realized that most people are too busy to perform daily rituals of meditation, and too poor to donate money. By relying on the 18th. vow of Amida, everyone who recites the Nembutsu is heaven-bound. The description of heaven certainly is a place of bliss.. As described in the Sutra on Amida Buddha, it is a paradise of wildlife, weather, food, music and all the nice things in life, even to the promise of a casual stroll around a beautiful lake after breakfast. One can also visit anyone in any universe.
This is exactly what I have been hoping for, a beautiful place to retire and a chance to meet old friends and family. Pure Land Buddhism is often referred to as the easy way, due to its limited requirements to acheive salvation and stop rebirth into this world. It has no practice of meditation nor chanting rituals. Shouldn`t religion be easy and accesible? Shouldn`t all have hope? I leave this to the individual to judge the merits. Maybe all religions can espouse this. I became a firm believer and follower, and am so thankful to be a Pure Land Buddhist. It may be the easy, or lazy way, but all I needed was to find comfort and relief in the knowledge that my future is accepted and determined. No more need to worry or speculate, or to accrue further credit; just get on with enjoying this life and continuing into an even better life. There is no death in Pure Land Buddhism, only birth.
Master Honen was one of the most outstanding monks of the Tendai Sect during the Kamakura Period. His main concern was how to make region more accessible for the common man. It wasn`t until he studied the commentaries on Pure Land Buddhism by the Chinese Master Zendo, or Shan Tao, that he discovered the perfect religion for the Japanese common man. Honen left the Tendai Sect and later founded the Japanese Pure Land Sect. Although other sects were opposed to this new sect, it quickly became ensconsed in the heart of the commoner, who was previously denied grass-roots access to the monastery and unconditional salvation. Honen even explained that people working in the meat industry, prostitues, in fact anyone can be saved by reciting the Nembutsu. This curried great favour with almost everyone. Previously, abbatoir workers were told they could not gain salvation because they were taking life. Pure Land granted them salvation if they would recite the Nembutsu. From that time, the stigma of meat-eating was diminished, a break-away concept for a Buddhist sect. That is why meat-eating is so regular in Japan, with not a second thought given. After the death of Honen many disciples carried on the teachings, but not until Master Shinran did the teachings reach maximum poularity.
Shinran was the first monk to marry and have children. All other sects, including the Master Honen, practised celibacy. Shinran wanted to prove that all humans are the same, that all have desires and do foolish things. He believed a monk to be no different, and should find a middle way between sainthood and that of a completely depraved person. His interpretation of the 18th. Vow was that we are already saved, that we now just need to offer sincere thanks to Amida Buddha for our salvation by reciting His name. All of our past sins and those of the future are forgiven. We only need to live this life and show compassion to others. Because we are foolish beings, we will commit sins, but Amida will absolve us and cancel our Karma, or take it over, upon our birth into the Pure Land. This is why there is no re-birth or reincarnation, only heaven for those who believe.
The appealing aspect for me is that I need not follow rituals, meditate, nor do anything more from now on to assure my passage to heaven. It is already decided, leaving me with the pleasure of concentrating on the here and now. Although open to debate, another appealing aspect is that Buddhism has never caused bloodshed in any wars invoked in its name. It must be remembered that Japan used the Emperor, and the religion of Shinto, to promulgate their war effort. Buddhism was not involved. The ministry at that time conveniently separated Shinto and Buddhism to create a rallying effect around the personage of the Emperor, the traditional symbol of the native religion, Shinto. Fortunately, Shinto has been able to recover its image of a religion of peace and nature. It is sad when people can use the good nature of a religion to justify their less than honest deeds and intents. Shinto and Buddhism now reside peacefully entwined.
I know I have changed for the better after studying this course. I enjoyed the suggested readings, particularly the book on Siddartha, which I purchased. I was glad to learn the overview of Buddhism, which gave me the chance to delve into my specific area of interest. I believe this course has allowed me to reflect on my shortcomings, and to find ways to be a better person; to make more use of my time; to be more thankful and patient. I sincerely thank Rev. Amy and ULC for such a wonderful, life-changing course. I thoroughly recommend this course, and will be doing more through ULC.