'The Self-Corrective Way'- A Buddhist
by Robert Hironaka
There are many schools of Buddhism. They all follow fundamental teachings that the historical Buddha of India taught about 2500 years ago. As Buddhism spread from India to neighbouring countries, the teachings branched into different paths, with different traditions. It is like climbing a mountain. There are different paths, but the summit - enlightenment, is the same. Jodo Shin Shu is one of these paths. It is often referred to as 'the easy path' because it does not demand difficult practices. This discussion of 'Self-corrective way' is from the Jodo Shin Shu perspective.
Prince Siddhartha, later known as Shakamuni Buddha, sought a way to relieve human suffering. His concern was to relieve suffering for himself and for mankind. During his several years of diligent study and practice to search for an answer he learned many things. He undoubtedly formed many opinions. After years of study with the best teachers in the land, and austere practices right to the point of death, he had not found the answer to his burning question: why do people suffer? He realized that if he was to find the answer he could only depend upon himself. This is when he sat in deep meditation. As the prince sat under the Bodhi tree and meditated, he had the greatest change in his thinking of his life. This self-correction was a 'landmark' in his understanding. He understood the cause of suffering and more. He understood the oneness of all life. He had gained complete wisdom and compassion of life. He was enlightened, he had become a Buddha.
After he realized the cause of suffering, he had to think on how to eliminate it. He realized that the focus had to be internal and not depend upon an outside teacher or power. Prince Siddhartha had come to a realization of the Truth about suffering, and once he knew the root cause, he formulated methods for all people to follow to eliminate suffering. We call what the Prince had realized as 'The Four Noble Truths'. The Fourth Truth is the Eight Fold Path, guide posts for all to follow. These are not commands. They form the foundation of all Buddhist Teachings. Over his many years of teaching, Prince Siddhartha, who was now a Buddha, expounded on these Truths. There was no magical formula or divine teaching. He had realized that it was always within himself. He had corrected his thinking to look inward for answers rather than look outward. The Prince taught people to investigate for themselves. Even on his death bed, he counselled his followers to ponder on the problem themselves. They should let the truth, the Dharma, be their guide. They should not accept on authority.
Today, as we examine our lives, we have the Buddha's experience and the experience of many others who have followed in his footsteps to guide us. We do not have to follow in the exact footsteps of Prince Siddhartha, the Seven Patriarchs, Shinran or many others who found enlightenment in their life. They passed on the knowledge gained by their experiences. We might liken their experience to the knowledge that a scientist passes on from years of research. We do not have to repeat the experiments. The principles elucidated by the scientists are available for all to use. Often the end user is not even aware of the scientist's work. Our task is to learn about and to utilize the information that Prince Siddhartha learned and enunciated. Many scholars followed to preserve and interpret the laws to the environment of the day. Our task is to learn about these laws so that we can make more use of them. We might liken it to gravity that constantly pulls on us whether we are aware of it or not. Amida Buddha, the Truth, pulls on us all the time whether we are aware of it or not. As we become aware of Amida Buddha pulling on us, we express our gratitude by reciting the Buddha's name, Namu Amida Butsu. As we learn more from what we hear, read and our experiences, we need to accept that some of our pet ideas need correction. These changes in our thinking are not dictated from some authority. We need to take responsibility to make these corrections our selves. This 'self-correction' is a legacy in Buddhism from the time of Prince Siddhartha some 2500 years ago.
We have all said, "I learned something today". We do this self-correcting as a group as we change our laws and attitudes. Sometimes we make changes without fully understanding the problem and the cause of the problem. We make changes individually and as a group but the changes do not necessarily lead to a more enlightened life. In fact, in some instances, the change may lead to a less enlightened life.
Scientists find the principle of self-correction very acceptable and second nature. The ideas and so called laws of yesterday have been scrutinized and there has been a steady progression of new ideas and new understanding that have resulted in new laws, only to be corrected as we learn. Scientists of the past are studied and held in high esteem because it is their thinking that has lead us to where we are in our understanding. Science and Buddhism are similar in self-correction. However, they differ in that science looks outward. There is the observer scientist and the observed. In Buddhism, at least part of the looking is inward. The observer and the observed are one. We observe ourselves to understand ourselves.
Initially, Prince Siddhartha looked for answers to suffering outside of himself. As he studied with the greatest scholars of the day, he excelled to the point that he was asked to be the co-leader of one group and even the leader of another group. But he declined because he had not found the answer to his problem. When he was with the hermits who taught him to torture his body, he expected some outside force to suddenly give him enlightenment. He practised so well that his fellow hermits expected great things to happen to the prince. He practised right to the brink of death. At this point the hermits left him saying that 'now the prince will die'. But the prince had not reached enlightenment. The prince was nursed back to health by a lady. He realized that he had to find a new way to his thinking.
When the prince sat under a Bodhi tree and meditated he realized the cause of suffering. Prince Siddhartha enunciated his self-corrected thinking from his momentous meditation in the Four Noble Truths:
The First Noble Truth is recognition that we suffer because we cling to attachment out of ignorance, our lack of understanding, our misguided values.
The Second Noble Truth enunciates the clinging within our own minds. We cling to four great attachments:
" our sense pleasures. An endless seeking of pleasures that are momentary and fragmentary.
" our views and opinions. We have preconceptions that keep us from seeing things as they really are. We cherish our opinions, even though they may be illogical.
" We have attachment to pleasurable things that excite our senses. From a religious point of view, we have attachments to rites and rituals, practices such as burning incense, reciting of mantras and prayers thinking that if we follow them, all will be well. Some practices become self righteous. Even though they may be conducted within a Buddhist tradition, they may be a great bondage.
" The fourth attachment is the most subtle
and most deeply conditioned. It is attachment to the belief in self, in 'I',
in 'me', in 'mine'. This attachment is so strong that we revolve around it.
We get involved in many unwholesome actions, in delusions for the gratification
of self that tie the bonds even tighter to this mass of pain.
The Third Noble Truth is that suffering can be ended by removing the clinging that causes the suffering. Nirvana or Enlightenment is the state of mind when all suffering is removed. It is a state of freedom, peace, calm and release, it is a putting down of the burden.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the 'Eight fold Path' that leads to Nirvana. It is a path that each individual must follow them self. It is a positive path composed of eight elements.
The first path is 'Right Views'. As we learn through our experiences and study, we come to a more complete understanding of what the Buddha taught. We must be willing to self-correct our views. The Buddha's enlightenment solved his problems, but it did not solve ours except to point the way for us to follow.
The Buddha had understood life. In so doing, he had great insights into all facets of life that he shared in his many talks and discussions over the rest of his long life. He explained the natural laws of human existence and how to use the laws to enrich the listener's lives and how to reach a state of enlightenment. He did not issue any edicts about behaviour. There is no dogma to follow. When Shakamuni Buddha gave his first sermon to his former fellow hermits in the Deer park in Benares, he encouraged them to abandon their ideas on austere practices to reach enlightenment. He encouraged them to correct their thinking. There was no command. The hermits listened and self-corrected. This was the beginning of the turning of the wheel of the Dharma. The corrective-way does not dictate, it does not require that a person abandon everything that they have believed or practices that they have followed. A person reflects on what they have learned through their study and experiences. It is a personal way, a way for each individual to follow to correct their thinking without any guilt feeling that they are not following a long tradition or a commandment.
To reach freedom is the goal of Buddhists. We need to self-correct what we think is important. Theodore Roszak said 'We have a need to live deeply, to take life in our hands, to weigh and feel it, to give it deliberate shape-- our own shape, the shape of our peculiar experience'.
Modern science is a community that follows the corrective-way. Most theories today flatly contradict the theories held in 1760 when the industrial revolution began or even those held 100 years ago, in 1900. Yet the society of scientists honour the scientists who blazed the unknown that has lead to our understanding of today. The process of enquiry grows stronger rather than weaker as we build on the thought and experience of scientists of yesterday. Tomorrow's scientists will correct on what is held as true today. The truth does not change but our understanding of it may. Buddhism like science uses new found ways of communicating to increase our awareness. We have access to the thought and religious experiences of people from around the world who have a multitude of insights that they are willing to share. It is my responsibility to read about and study these insights to help me self-correct on my path of life.
Buddhism contributed to and received from cultures to enrich people's lives as it was transported from place to place. People's understanding changed as they studied, observed and became more aware of their environment and themselves. In some instances, a feature of a culture was thought important and incorporated into the Buddhist tradition and was accepted as part of Buddhism. The secular realm to obey superiors and maintain order was largely from Confucian ethics but incorporated into Buddhism in China and transported to Japan. This ethics shaped the basic social understanding of the teaching among members, even though it was not part of the religious truth that the Buddha taught. (Bloom 1998. p44).
Gaining merit to appease some external power is NOT a part of Buddhism. We are encouraged to examine our own life critically, and to 'self-correct' our attitudes and our understanding based on the new knowledge that we have gained through study and experience. It is the way of modern science, philosophy, and thought that have made a positive impact on the world. It is the way of the future. Modern educators encourage their students to gain a broad base of knowledge and to life long learning. Buddhist scholars encourage people to examine the traditions and even the heart of Buddhism to find new ways that may help them reach a state of enlightenment. Collectively, we might interpret something from our society that would be beneficial to all and add it as part of the norm for Jodo Shin Shu. We have adopted such things as weekly church services. Buddhism might reach out to all people to bring people of different faiths and beliefs, cultures and races into a peaceful world community.
The examination of what the Buddha taught is not casting doubt on it. In fact the opposite is more to the point. By examining what the Buddha taught deepens our understanding of the traditions that it fostered. It increases our awareness and confidence in accepting those things that he taught that we cannot test or have the capacity to understand. The Buddha made no demands of blind faith. The invitation to question and investigate was always present. This is as true today as it was 2500 years ago in the days that the Buddha walked this earth.
Buddhism is a study and understanding of the Dharma that permits us to reflect on, and self-correct, elements that are essential in our path to enlightenment. The compassion that we develop is a part of Jodo Shin Shu Buddhist tradition, that brings us to share our concerns and insights so that we develop sanghas for collective-self correction.
Initially after the Buddha died, the followers tried to emulate the steps of the Buddha. People spent their lives as monks. In a conversation with a student from Thailand, I learned that in the early history of Buddhism in Thailand, most people were involved in farming. During the monsoon season, there was little work that could be done in the fields. This lead to the practice of young boys going to the monasteries during the monsoon season to practice the way of the Buddha. This continued into relatively modern times. Following the Buddha's way of practice is continued today and this branch of Buddhism is called Theravada.
Early scholars realized that it was not always the literal meaning of the Buddha's Teachings that was important. It was the intent or the message of what was said that was important. Thus, some 600 years after the Buddha died, scholars taught an interpretation of what the Buddha said that emphasized the intent of his sermons. This branch of Buddhism became known as the Mahayana. While Mahayana thought originated with Prince Siddhartha as a Buddha in India, it was 'rediscovered by Nagarujuna in India then developed in China and extended in Korea and Japan. The Mahayana branch is a self-corrective development in Buddhism. The new Buddhist thoughts were meant for ordinary people.
Mahayana Buddhism encountered many religions and traditions as it spread across Eastern Asia. In many instances, native religions and traditions were incorporated into the Buddhist traditions. When Buddhism was introduced into Japan, it was Chinese Buddhism. It became a religion for the elite and nobility. The services were in Chinese. Temples were built in tranquil areas. Buddhism had little contact with the masses. It was in this kind of environment that Shinran studied in a Tendai temple on Mt Hie outside of Kyoto for 20 years. Out of frustration that his studies were not leading to the 'peace of mind', a freedom that he sought, he came down from the mountain where he met Honen, himself a man who was disillusioned with the way that the temple people interpreted what the Buddha taught. Shinran studied and worked with Honen. Together they were successful in taking their ideas of Buddhism to the masses, maybe too successful for their own good. Jealous monks working with the military of the day had Shinran and Honen exiled from Kyoto. In exile Shinran drew on his religious training and experience and laid down the doctrinal foundations of what we now call Jodo Shin Shu (Bloom 1998. p 37). This was a major self-correction for Shinran. Jodo Shin Shu has become the largest Buddhist group in Japan and was transported to Hawaii and North America around 1900.
In North America, most of the Jodo Shin Shu traditions such as the shrine, incense, the chanting, meditation, etc. were adopted as they were practised in Japan. Some American traditions were adopted. The churches belong to the congregation, not to the clergy. Regular services were held on Sundays. Music was added to services.... often pseudo Buddhist words to a Christian hymn. Gradually services were conducted mostly in English. One problem that we have been struggling with is 'Americanization / Canadianization of Jodo Shin Shu. There is still a strong element of Japanese Jodo Shin Shu present. The debate is not in doctrinal matters but mostly in tradition. The question that seems to worry some people is that if we change the tradition, are we still being authentic Jodo Shin Shu? There seems to be the idea that clinging to the tradition is authentic Jodo Shin Shu.
My thought on Canadianization / Americanization is that we need to collectively-correct our thinking. I would like to use an analogy to explain. David Slawson, a well known landscape designer, discussed authenticity in Japanese gardens (Unno 1998). Slawson, proposes two kinds of authenticity: the lower path of authenticity and the higher path of authenticity. The "lower path" follows a literal, precedent-driven tradition. Creativity is rigidly constrained by external norms that favours the status quo. In contrast, the "higher path" follows the basic ideals of Japanese garden design that responds to the reality of the landscape and the culture of the day. It follows a principle- and situation-driven interpretation of the tradition. Here, the authority comes from within - from the desires and culture of those who will use the garden, from the site and surroundings, and from locally available materials. The now famous dry landscape garden and tea gardens of Japan, which recreated the deep nature ambiance of a rustic cottage, were unprecedented and revolutionary designs for its day. Both broke with tradition to follow the calling of the higher path. But now they are considered authentic. The changes in garden design used a deep knowledge and appreciation of the basics of Japanese garden design.
Similarly, those who make changes in the traditions and presentation of what the Buddha taught, must first study and experience life to develop a deep knowledge and appreciation of the Buddha Dharma. Shinran taught the Path that Jodo Shin Shu Buddhists follow after he had experienced the path himself. He realized that the path set out by Shakamuni Buddha was a valid one. But he also realized that the path needed interpretation in the new environment in order to flourish and to be useful to those who followed it.. He was grateful to his teachers and those who had preceded him for preserving and showing him the path. But above all his teachers, he was grateful that the path was there.
All living things are in constant change. This is a fundamental precept in Buddhism. Jodo Shin Shu started as a major correction of application of the Buddha's Teachings. It encompasses the unique study and religious experience of Shinran's interpretation of the Buddha's teachings. Collectively, as followers of Shinran, we must continue to interpret Shinran's experiences and teachings to help us self-correct to meet our changing needs. There is a great challenge ahead, but we can change with a clear conscience of being true to the Buddha Dharma because there is no dogma or commandment in the Buddhist legacy.
Bloom, A. 1998. Shin Buddhism in America. A Social Perspetive. Pp 12-47. In The Faces of Buddhism in America. C.S. Prebish and K.K. Tanaka (eds). University of California Press. Berkley, Los Angeles, London.
Unno, T. 1998. Shin Buddhism in the West: The question of Authenticity. From Engaged Pure LandLand Buddhism ed. Kenneth Tanaka and Eisho Nasu. Wisdom Ocean Pub.Berkley CA.