What is Buddhism?
Buddhism comprises the Teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha, which teaches us the state of Enlightenment attained by the Buddha and the methods by which we can be emancipated from the world of birth and death and attain the same state of Enlightenment as the Buddha himself.
The Teachings of Buddhism include many phases - the philosophical, the ethical, etc. - but in the final analysis, its fundamental objective is the emancipation (Tenmei Kaigo) of all sentient beings from the world of illusion and sorrow.
Therefore, when we are asked, What is Buddhism?
We can answer: Buddhism is a religion of emancipation with the ultimate object of Buddhahood.
The motive for Sakyamuni Buddha's leaving home and family and seeking the Truth was His desire to find a world that was permanent and tranquil because he deeply felt the sorrow and transience of this present existence. Under the Bodhi tree He discovered that all our suffering and sorrow spring from our own ignorance (Waku) and from our own Karma (Go). Ignorance is the illusory thoughts, which are in opposition to the Truth; while Karma is the act based on this ignorance.
Our thoughts (Ignorance) and acts (Karma) are the cause which brings about the result of suffering; this cause and effect continue on indefinitely through the past, present, and future; thus it is called the Principle of Cause and Effect of the Three Worlds. Therefore, the only method of emancipation from this world of suffering lies in the severing of the fundamental cause, ignorance. The Buddha under the Bodhi tree severed the fetters of ignorance and attained the highest and most complete Wisdom.
The discourses of the Buddha following His enlightenment taught of the state of Nirvana, which he had attained, and the way by which others could attain to this same state. His discourses were rather difficult and were expressed at times in complicated forms, but it can be said that His Teachings were expressed and most succinctly as the four Noble Truths and as the Three Vehicles of Learning. Because the Three Vehicles of Learning can be said to be a part of the Four Noble Truths, the latter is the fundamental teaching of the Buddha.
Main Branches of Buddhism
In general, Buddhism has been divided into two branches, the Mahayana and the Hinayana. Yana in Sanskrit means "vehicle." The teaching of the Buddha is compared to a vehicle that will transport one from the shores of birth and death to the other shore of Nirvana. Maha means large and Mahayana means large vehicle. Because Hina means small, Hinayana then is a small vehicle.
The fundamental basis for this classification of Buddhism lies in the practical application of the Teachings in order to attain Enlightenment. The Hinayana has as its ideal the attainment of Enlightenment for just the individual and makes the state of an Arha (Arakan) its highest objective. On the other hand, the Mahayana while recognizing self-emancipation (Jiri) stresses deliverance from the benefit of others and makes the attainment of Buddhahood its highest objective.
Hinayana Buddhism gradually became too complicated for the understanding of the common people and became a religion for only those who renounced the world and practiced rituals that were passive and individualistic in nature; it became an exclusive ay of life for the priestly class alone. Under these circumstances a revolutionary movement arose which sought the return to the original spirit of Buddhism, which stressed altruism and strove for the uplifting of the moral character and the welfare of all mankind in a true democratic spirit. This movement was Mahayana Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhism owes its growth to the great Indian sage Nagarjuna (Ryuju - 700 years after the Buddha). During his time many volumes of Mahayana Sutras existed in Northern India. It was he who first discovered the true significance of these texts. Among his many writings is the Dai-Chido-Ron, a commentary on the Greater Prajna Paramita Sutra that includes the philosophy, religion and science of his days, attesting to the breadth and depth of the learning of Nagarjuna.
Although he left behind countless writings, his innermost faith is expressed in the Book of Easy Practice, which is a chapter of the Dacabhumivibhasa-sastra, which, in turn, is a commentary on one chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra. In this Book of Easy Practice he stressed faith in Amida Buddha and laid the foundation for the Pure Land School. The Founder of Jodo Shinshu (the Shin sect of the Pure Land school), Shonin Shinran, chose this book as one of the sacred writing of the Shin Sect.
Path of the Holy and the Path of the Pure Land Buddhism can be divided into the Mahayana and the Hinayana according to the degree of deepness of its teaching. However, Mahayana Buddhism itself can be divided into two divisions according to the methods of practice - the Path of the Holy and the Path of the Pure Land.
The Path of the Holy is a teaching that declares that one is able to attain Buddhahood and Nirvana in this present existence by the extinguishments of all ignorance and the gaining of knowledge of Universal Truth. The Path of the Pure Land is a teaching that declares that one can attain Buddhahood and Nirvana by being reborn in Amida's Pure Land through His Power. For example, the Shingon, the Zen and Nichiren Sects belong to the Path of the Holy while the Jodo Shin Sect and the Jodo Sect and the Ji Sect belong to the path of the Pure Land.
When Buddhism is thus classified, Hinayana Buddhism comes in the category of the Path of the Holy.
Path of Difficult Practice and Path of Easy Practice
The above category was made by Doshaku (Tao-Ch'ao) in his commentary called the Anraku-Shu. This classification by Doshaku had its origin in Nagarjuna's Book of the Easy Path. In the commentary Nagarjuna classifies Buddhism into two divisions, namely the path of Difficult Practice and the Path of Easy Practice and advises all men to follow the Path of Easy Practice instead of the Path of Difficult Practice. The reason for is that the Path of Difficult Practice requires infinite time and various austerities in order to reach the objective. It is as if one climbs laboriously by foot on a steep path. A person following this course requires a strong will, but those who are weak of will fall by the wayside. In comparison to this in the Path of Easy Practice one is required only to have Shinjin the Original Vow of Amida Buddha and repeat the Nembutsu. He will attain the objective very easily; this is like boarding a ship and reaching the other shore without any difficulty or hardship.
Though Nagarjuna was a person of strong will and could and did practice the various austerities, yet he considered himself but a frail mortal and believed wholeheartedly in the Power of Amida for Salvation and encouraged other to follow the Path of the Nembutsu. Shonin Shinran in his Psalm praising Nagarjuna said: The great Master Nagarjuna wrote the commentaries of the Prajna Paramita Sutra and the Daca-Sastra. In these commentaries he praised the Western Land and encouraged all to have faith in Amida.
Self-Power and Other Power
The one who further elaborated on the two Paths was Donran (T'an-luan) of China, who wrote a commentary on Amatayur-sutro-padeca. He declared that by following the Path of the Difficult Practice that was enunciated by Nagarjuna it would be difficult to attain the objective because many years had elapsed since the decease of Shakyamuni Buddha. Having to rely upon one's own strength and not having the assistance of the Buddha's personal influence it was impossible to attain Enlightenment. In opposition to this, the path of the Easy Practice teaches that those who entrust themselves in Amida Buddha will receive rebirth in His Pure Land through His Mercy.
Donran showed that this path of Easy Practice was a road of the Other Power (Tariki) primarily for the benefit of ordinary mortals. This interpretation by Donran further clarified the meaning of the Path of Difficult Practice and the Path of Easy Practice. Based on this idea Doshaku gave his classification of the Path of the Holy and the Path of the Pure Land. Thus, the Path of the Holy, the Path of Difficult Practice and Self-Power (Jiriki) came to be associated as having the same meaning; while Path of the Pure Land, Path of Easy Practice and Other-Power also came to be associated in like manner.
Gate to the Essential and Gate to the Universal Law
Thus, the Pure Land School teaches of the Other-Power (Tariki) but upon further investigation there is found to be a division that believes in the Other-Power yet cannot escape altogether from Self-Power (Jiriki) and a division that believes entirely on the Other-Power. Therefore, Zendo (Shantao 613-681 A.D.) of China in his commentary on the Amitayur-Dhyana Sutra divided the Pure Land School into two - the Gate to the Essential (Yomon) and the Gate to eh Universal Vow (Gugan-mon). The Gate to the Essential is the teaching which makes the practice of good with a settled mind (Jozen) and the practice of good with an unsettled mind (Sanzen); both with the desire for rebirth in the Pure Land.
The practice of good with the settled mind (Jozen) is a method of meditation by which one makes the easily distracted mind calm and turns his thoughts to the beauty of the Pure Land. The practice of good with an unsettled mind (Sanzen) is the doing of good in the so-called ethical and religious sense.
Both the practices primarily belong to the Path of the Holy and are not true practices of the Path of the Pure Land. However, the fact that the practices are done with the idea of being born in the Pure Land by partly relying on the Mercy of Amida places them in the category of the path of the Pure Land and can be said to belong to the school of thought which believe in Other Power. But because the motive for these practices is one of self-power they are classed as partly self-power and partly other-power and are not considered pure other-power.
The Gate to the Universal Vow and Nembutsu
The Gate to the Universal Vow means the Original Vow of Amida Buddha as a means of salvation for all sentient beings throughout the universe. The Original Vow of Amida is the Eighteenth Vow of the Forty-Eight Vows as taught in the Larger Sukkavati Vyuka Sutra. This eighteenth vow is as follows:
Upon my attainment of Buddhahood, if sentient beings in the ten quarters, who have sincerity of heart, hold faith and wish to be born in my land, repeating My Name perhaps up to ten times, would not be born therein, then may I not obtain the Great Enlightenment. Only those are excepted who have committed the five sins, and who have abused the Right Law.
In concrete expression is the Nembutsu, the repeating of the Name, Namu Amida Butsu. In the Nembutsu there should not be any thought of relying on self-power; instead there should be only single-minded faith in the Power of the Buddha. If we have faith in His Mercy and repeat His Name it will be in accordance with His Will. Therefore, this Nembutsu is called the Universal Vow and is the essence of the absolute other-power, the power of the Buddha.
Then can it be said that all Nembutsu belong to the Gate to the Universal Vow, that is, is all Nembutsu of the other power? No, not necessarily. Among Nembutsu there is the Nembutsu of self-power and the Nembutsu of the other-power. The Nembutsu of self-power means that in the repetition itself one acknowledges the individual merits and accumulates them in order to make them the seed for rebirth in the Pure Land. The repetition of the Nembutsu with such an impure heart is partly self-power and partly other-power and is considered impure.
The teaching of the Jodo Shin Sect, in which we believe, emphasizes the Nembutsu of the absolute other-power. Our Nembutsu is the expression of the mercy of the Buddha. We repeat the Nembutsu without recognizing any merit whatsoever on our own part but have faith in the fact that the name itself, which we repeat possesses absolute value. Therefore, even though we repeat the Holy Name throughout the whole day that act is one of thanksgiving and rejoicing. Thus, this is called the true teaching of the Universal Vow.
Growth & Culmination
Buddhism has been classified into various schools according to differences of viewpoint, but this has not been done with the idea of just listing the different branches but has been done in order to show that the true will of the Buddha is in advancing from the Hinayana to the Mahayana, form the Path of the Holy to the Path of the Pure Land, and from the Gate to the Essential to the Gate to the Universal Law and from the Nembutsu of self-power to the Nembutsu of the other-power.
In accordance with the will of the Buddha, this great teaching of Buddhism has grown and has been systematized; therefore, it must be said that the Nembutsu, which is the essence of the teachings and belief of our Jodo Shin Sect, is the culmination of the development of Buddhist thought and philosophy. In other words, the development of Buddhism is nothing more than the development from absolute self power to absolute other power.