The Buddha’s teachings, or “Dharma,” exist to help people deal with the afflictions of life—feelings of sorrow, loneliness, emptiness and frustration. Indeed, birth, sickness, old age and death in our lives cause great suffering. Since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical teacher who lived 2,500 years ago, Buddhism has survived, thrived and has been passed on to us.
The life of Sakyamuni Buddha
The Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama, a prince in a kingdom in northern India. Chosen to be the future king, his father gave him all that he desired in education, training, and luxuries of the palace. His father also sheltered him from the unpleasant experiences of life.
Wandering outside the palace gates one day, Siddhartha discovered that people were subject to sickness, old age and death. He wondered, “Why are we born into human life only to suffer from one painful experience to the next?”
One day, he encountered a monk searching for life’s answers. Siddhartha felt he too must follow a similar path. At age 29, he set out on his search, leaving behind a wife, a son, his parents, and all the comforts of royalty.
He entered a forest and began following severe spiritual disciplines, including long periods of meditation and fasting. After six years of grueling practices that left him emaciated and weak, he felt on the verge of death.
Reflecting on his life, he realized the virtue of the middle path, rather than the extremes of self-renunciation or luxury. With firm determination, he sat under a tree and entered a deep meditation, vowing not to move until he came to a great understanding about life and himself.
Under that tree, Siddhartha Gautama attained supreme Enlightenment. Thereafter he became known as the Buddha, the Awakened One. He is referred to also by the names Sakyamuni Buddha and Gautama Buddha.
In his first sermon, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths: 1.) Life is suffering 2.) Suffering is caused by ignorance 3.) Overcoming ignorance transcends suffering 4.) The life that transcends suffering reflects the Eightfold Noble Path: correct views, thoughts, conduct, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and meditation.
He realized that life’s great events are its greatest suffering: birth, sickness, old age and death. Suffering also takes other forms: not getting what one wants, separation from loved ones, anger, delusion, greed and the incessant craving for wealth, status, possessions and love.
The Buddha taught that life is transitory and impermanent. No matter how hard we try to hold on to our health, we become ill, no matter how hard we try to hold on to our youth, we grow old, and no matter how hard we try to hold on to people we love, death brings separation and ultimately our own demise.
The Buddha saw that we suffer because we don’t see life clearly. Rather, we live in a world clouded by our passions and ignorance, driven by a desire to please this “self” of ours. We divide the world into yours and mine, good and bad, happiness and sadness, life and death, with this self at center. We fail to see the Oneness of life.
The Truth is that all life is interdependent and interconnected. Everything exists because they are inter-dependent and caused by other things. All things spring forth from innumerable causes and conditions, which in turn, are inter-dependent with innumerable causes and conditions. Nothing exists by itself, nor arises by itself with a fixed, permanent existence. Thus, the Buddha spoke of “no-self” and the inherent emptiness of things we crave but which ultimately never bring us happiness.
The Buddha shared this wisdom with other people for the next 45 years. Over that period of time, he gave many sermons and instructed many people using various words, means, practices and actions.
Sakyamuni Buddha passed away at the age of 80. After his death, his followers compiled a record of his life and sermons, which became the Buddhist sutras, or scriptures. From those sutras over the proceeding several centuries, various schools and sects of Buddhism emerged. Out of that stream came a path which opened the way for anyone, anywhere, to encounter the light of the Buddha’s teachings. That path is called Jodo Shinshu.
A thousand years after Sakyamuni Buddha passed away, Buddhism had traveled from India, through China to Japan, where it began to flourish. Over the next several hundred years, Buddhism evolved in different ways, focused on specific practices and sutras. By the 13th Century, Buddhism had become a state-sponsored religion and its temples had become powerful and wealthy.
The life of Shinran Shonin
Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) was born during those times. Separated from his parents, he entered a Buddhist monastery at age nine. He spent twenty years as a Tendai priest on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto immersed in studies and strict practices, but felt restless and unfulfilled. In frustration, he left the temple in search of solace. He eventually met a teacher, Honen Shonin, who encouraged him to find meaning in his life through the story of Amida Buddha, which symbolizes infinite wisdom and compassion.
Long-established temples that saw such teachings as heretical and a political threat, pushed the government to separately exile Honen and Shinran, forcing them to live a harsh existence in the countryside.
In seeing the miseries of the common people and in confronting his own suffering, Shinran looked deeply within himself and saw his true self. As human beings, he saw that we are filled with passions and delusions. Traditional practices of trying to tame the ego and overcome this “self” were fruitless.
Truth lay in seeing that we are such people, and in accepting ourselves as imperfect, ego-filled beings full of shortcomings. In coming to such acceptance, we come to realize that the light of Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion always shines on us, wherever we go and in whatever we do. Thus, there is no “practice” to follow. Living is enough.
The words in Jodo Shinshu that express a profound gratitude for this Truth are: “Namu Amida Butsu.” These words are referred to as the Nembutsu.
Jodo Shinshu liberated Buddhism from the idea that it is a path limited only to people who can meditate, follow precepts, fast, or follow a particular discipline. By listening to the Dharma and living our lives as best we can, we may walk on the path opened to us by Sakyamuni Buddha long ago.