Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Beauty of Practicing Faith

I went to the "Dharma Family Service" today (I admit, my third weekend here, and it took me this long) at the Buddhist temple across the street from my building. When I moved here, I saw the temple, and thought "Great! now I can really observe and practice my religion!" Then I looked closer at the announcements board and realized "shoot, it's a Japanese Buddhist temple." Specifically, Shin Buddhism. Whups.

So it's taken me a few weeks to go to temple, because 1) I've been busy settling in, and 2) I've been a bit reluctant to explore a different sect of Buddhism.

Being Vietnamese, I'm a Mahayana Buddhist:

[T]he primary focus of Mahayana is bodhicitta: the vow to strive for Buddhahood or Awakened Mind (bodhicitta) both for oneself and for the benefit of all other sentient beings. Being a high-level Bodhisattva involves possessing a mind of great compassion conjoined with insight into reality (prajna), realizing emptiness (shunyata), and/or the Tathagatagarbha (Buddhic Essence of all things). With this mind the practitioner will realize the final goal of full enlightenment, or Buddhahood: an omniscient, blissful mind completely free from suffering and its causes, that is able to work tirelessly for the benefit of all living beings. Six virtues or perfections (paramitas) are listed for the Bodhisattva: generosity, patience, meditation, morality, energy and wisdom.Many “philosophical” schools and sutras of Mahayana Buddhism have focused on the nature of enlightenment and Nirvana itself, from the Madhyamika and its rival, Yogacara, to the Tathagatagarbha teachings and Zen.

Compassion, or Karuna, is the other key concept of Mahayana, and considered the indispensable complement to enlightened wisdom. Compassion is important in all schools of Buddhism, but particularly emphasized in Mahayana. It relies on the idea that excess acquired merit can be transmitted to others. The Bodhisattvas are the main actors of compassion, Avalokitesvara being foremost among them. Although having reached enlightenment, Bodhisattvas usually make a vow to postpone entering into Nirvana until all other beings have also been saved. They then devote themselves to helping others reach enlightenment.

“Devotional Mahayana” developed a rich cosmography, with various supernatural Buddhas and Bodhisattvas residing in paradisiacal realms. The concept of Trinity, or trikaya, supports these constructions, making the Buddha himself into a transcendental god-like figure.Under various conditions, these lands could be attained by devotees after their death so that when reborn they could endeavour towards Buddhahood in the best possible conditions. Depending on the sect, this salvation to “paradise” can be obtained by faith, imaging, or sometimes even by the simple invocation of the Buddha’s name. This approach to salvation is at the origin of the mass appeal of devotional Buddhism, especially represented by the Pure Land.

Compare this to Shin Buddhism:

Due to his consciousness of human limitations, Shinran advocates reliance on tariki (他力) (Other Power) -- the power of Amida Buddha's limitless and infinite compassion made manifest in Amida Buddha's Primal Vow -- in order to attain liberation. Shin Buddhism can therefore be understood as a "practiceless practice," for there are no specific acts to be performed such as there are in the "Path of Sages" (the other Buddhist schools of the time that advocated 'jiriki' ('self-power').

Accordingly within Jōdo Shinshū the nembutsu (念仏): Namu Amida Butsu (南無阿弥陀仏) ("I take refuge in Amida Buddha") Pure Land chanting practice is seen in a new light. The nembutsu becomes understood as an act that expresses gratitude to Amida Buddha -- furthermore, it is evoked in the practitioner through the power of Amida's unobstructed compassion. Therefore in Shin Buddhism, the nembutsu is not considered a practice, nor does it generate karmic merit.

The goal of the Shin path, or at least the practicer's present life, is the attainment of shinjin (信心 True Entrusting) in the Other Power of Amida. To achieve shinjin is to unite one's mind with Amida through the total renunciation of self effort in attaining enlightenment; to take refuge entirely in Other Power. Shinjin arises from jinen (自然 naturalness, spontaneous working of the Vow) and cannot be achieved solely through conscious effort. Shinjin develops over time through "deep hearing" of Amida's call of the nembutsu. Jinen also describes the way of naturalness whereby Amida's infinite light illumines and transforms the deeply rooted karmic evil of countless rebirths into good karma. It is of note that such evil karma is not destroyed but rather transformed: Shin stays within the Mahayana tradition's understanding of sunyata, or non-duality / emptiness, and understands that samsara and Nirvana are not separate. Once the practicer's mind is united with Amida and Buddha Nature gifted to the practicer through shinjin, the practicer attains the state of non-retrogression, whereupon after his death he will achieve instantaneous and effortless enlightenment. He will then return to the world as a Bodhisattva, that he may work towards the salvation of all beings.

So going to a Shin Buddhist temple and practicing the nembutsu ("I take refuge in the Buddha" or "mindfulness of the Buddha" is not really so far from what I was raised with. I am more traditionaly Mahayana, in that I believe that the grace and compassion of Bodhisattvas delaying their entry to Nirvana (my favorite is Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy) is what will allow me to enter Nirvana myself one day. But Shin Buddhism is not so different in this respect, and I like the emphasis on compassion. It is a lot closer, being a subsect of Mahayana, to what I practice than Theravada Buddhism. True, it's a slightly different mantra: "namu amida butsu," and I grew up saying "Nam mo a di da Phat." And it's not like I'm not sensitive to the differences--my great-aunt is a Buddhist nun in Vietnam. But since the philosophies are very, very similar, I feel very comfortable at this temple. Even though it's not like any temple I've ever gone to--there are pews, there's a service book written by the Buddhist Churches of America, it's a major branch of BCA, it has a neighboring seminary and institute that awards graduate degrees and offers classes by the Institute of Buddhist Studies--I like it. It's not what I'm used to--walking barefoot into a tapestry lined large hall and kneeling and praying and chanting in Sanskrit. I don't get how there are no monks, but there is a "reverend." I just learned that there's such a thing as a Buddhist seminary school. A lot of the little details I found very strange. But I liked the service, and I liked worshipping with others.

For once in my life I can understand the service. It's not in Sanskrit. Or in Vietnamese. Or in Japanese. It's in English. True, there are Japanese kanji characters next to the romanji phonetic pronunciations next to the English translation in the service book--but service is conducted in English. True, we sing hymns--hymns?!--in English and Japanese. But I kind of like that. I like chanting together, singing together, praying together--it feels like a real fellowship of faith. The reverend (a term I have to get used to) is funny, warm, and avuncular. He gave a great sermon today about compassion, about how we must learn the dharma both by intellectually learning it and spiritually practicing it, and about how the path of the Buddha is also the path of life-long learning. I liked the service a lot.

This is very different from how I have "practiced" Buddhism all my life. Buddhism can be a very family-centric, private devotional faith. We have a family altar in my home, and three other places around our house and yard (kind of feng shui) where there are pots of incense. Every night my father lights a stick of incense and prays for our family at each place. When I was younger and we all lived at home, he made us pray together. Now, it's as if his prayer takes care of all of us, enveloping us in this bubble of protection. I admit, it is the lazy, secularist's way out of faith. But now I've moved too far away to be within that bubble of protection. I must take my own responsibility for my faith and my practice of it. So I have a very small statue of Buddha (not exactly the representation I worship though, it's from Thailand), I have a sandalwood "rosary" bead bracelet to count my mantras, and now I have a temple to go to every week for service. I'm far away from my family, but now I have more of a community-centered form of religion. I can pray at home and be in a fellowship of people practicing the same faith (and not all are Japanese, I saw a few white and Black people in the pews). And so for once I get the power and attraction that is going to church. To rise early every Sunday, get dressed nicely, and join a community. It's a lot less insular and private form of devotion--and that's a good thing. I believe I will learn a lot and grow as a person if I continue to go here. It will be good for my insular, introverted self to join others in fellowship.

And, quite the departure from my younger self. I was raised Buddhist, but during my teens (who does not go through this) I really questioned my faith--and all types of faith. I don't believe in a creator. I don't need to. So I don't really need the label "atheist" or "agnostic"--I'm a Buddhist. Buddhism does not require you to believe in a creator--this is a chief reason I am devoutly Buddhist--but still, there is enough cosmology and doctrine there to make a young teenage girl question it and reject all forms of religion. But in my late teens, that is my first years of college, I began to "explore" other religions rather than to commit to living in absence of any religion. I read the Genesis chapter of the Old Testament, some of the gospels of New Testament (favorite: Matthew), learned about Judaism (Aggadah, Shekinah, etc.), and even explored a bit of the Koran. Oh, and I read the Mahabharata and the Upanishads (Hinduism). I dont' think I seriously explored other faiths to try to "pick one"--I think I just wanted to learn about different types of faith from a scientific, analytical point of view. This is not the same as believing. It is learning without internalizing the lessons. And I found this path, while interesting and a vehicle for personal growth (not to mention helpful in making you conversationally versatile with people of all faiths), was also spiritually empty. So pretty much, by junior, senior year of college, I found my way back to Buddhism, realizing after exploring so many other religions that the one I was raised with was the one for me. And so for the past 5, 6 years, I've been very interested in deepeing my understanding and practice of my faith.

Growing up, there was a lot about my family's practice of Buddhism that I didn't understand or couldn't reconcile to my intellectual understanding of Buddhist scripture. Certain cultural practices--why are we eating vegetarian today? What "holiday" is this again that we're driving all the way from Orange County to the Hollywood Hills to a Thai theravada temple for? It's like being a Catholic and practicing all of the rituals without understanding any of the spiritual reasons behind the ritual. But for once I feel like I can do both--I can learn the philosophy and practice the faith, all the while being part of a religious community.


Nothing happened, just these realizations:

Shinran, the guy who developed Shin Buddhism, was like the Martin Luther of Buddhists. Believe it or not, monks can be corupt, which is why I'm not so fond of theravada Buddhism (which teaches that the path to Nirvana is by serving monks, which reminds me of the indulgence problem that led to Luther's Reformation). Dude, I used to see monks cruising around Orange County (a large population of Vietnamese and Asian = significant Buddhist population) driving Mercedes Benzes. The monk who gave "last rites" to my grandfather as he was dying was wearing a Rolex. I can understand the theological pull away from monk-led (which is kind of like asking God's representatives for a really, really BIG favor) salvation to personal-directed salvation. So while I was tripping out a bit today over the whole "Buddhist reverends who can marry" thing, maybe it's something I can get used to (even though my great-aunt is a celibate Buddhist nun who wears saffron and red robes).

Which leads me to my second thought: Shin Buddhism is like Episcopalianism (or Anglicanism, if you're in England) to traditional Mahayana Buddhism's Catholicism. Reverends can marry in both American Buddhist Church of America and the Episcopalian Church! (Man, we Americans are liberal) . It's going to take a while to not get used to the celibate monks in saffron robes thing--much like it would take a Catholic a while to get used to not having celibate priests in cassocks. And, like the Episcopalian Church, the BCA is more liberal in its dogma, emphasizing philosophy and good works rather than strict dogmatic beliefs. There's just enough traditional elements (when I went up to pray by myself at the temple, there was a pot of incense) but theres' a way for everyone to participate--the English/Japanese service book that is basically a distillation of the Dharma and other scriptures into crowd-friendly song and verse (with lovely melodies). So, it's almost exactly like the Episcopal church--just enough liturgy and reference to traditional figures to be familiar, but updated for the modern crowd with a universal liturgical text that's hard to dislike--The Book of Common Prayer.

Prior to today I didn't even know there was a Buddhist Churches of America, or much about Shin Buddhism (don't ask me about Shintoism, that's another thing I think). I think I knew more about Episcopalianism and the Protestant Reformation. What one learns in a day. Life is for learning.