Just Listen
Shinran grew up in a country where Buddhism was already predominate. In 21st Century North America, Jodo Shinshu is attempting to grow in a Christian environment.

This is, historically speaking, a new experience for Jodo Shinshu. This unique situation presents us with unique problems. Our experiences here in North America, however, may be of help to those in modern Japan as Christian propagation intensifies there. North America is the fertile ground where we can develop our reaction to that propagation before it becomes a crucial problem in Japan. In that context, the answer to the question, “Why did you convert?” may be of help for both those in Japan and for those in North America. I don’t believe it is possible to convert to Buddhism. This may sound like a shocking realization.

The first followers of Shakyamuni were called ‘shravaka,’ listeners. They did not call themselves ‘Buddhists,’ that term was invented later by Western scholars. The first followers were part of the Buddha Dharma or Buddha Sasana. It may be possible to convert to a ‘Buddhism’, but one does not convert to Dharma. One realizes Dharma by ‘listening’, both with the physical ear and the inner ear, as it were. This listening starts in the ‘shravaka’ stage and continues to develop as nembutsu. I became a shravaka in 1964 after a 5 year spiritual struggle. Studies of Christian theology at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado led me to a crisis situation, for there were other traditions nesting in my heart, traditions not generally accepted.

My family has its roots in the German Quaker movement. Many scholars contend that Shinran is the Luther of Asia. Be that as it may, there is also much of George Fox in the Tannisho and Mattosho. There is also much of Albert Schweitzer’s reverence for life too. In fact the nembutsu could be translated as ‘reverence for life and light.’ Albert Schweitzer has been a hero of my family for 100 years. My Iroquois/Sioux grandmother followed his philosophy because it was in accord with her ‘old ways.’ My grandmother was Oneida and Winnibego Sioux, to be more exact. My father’s grandmother was Cherokee. They were personal friends with Neihardt of Black Elk Speaks and followed his teachings privately while attending Christian worship services.

Albert Schweitzer was a popular hero in 1964, but few read his works. They preferred to worship the man, rather than listen closely to his message. I helped the library at Illiff catalogue his entire works in German. His philosophy is still so moving that I can only read a few pages at a time. I also knew that First Nation’s spirituality was considered degenerate at the time. Many who practiced it were denigrated. Furthermore, it was impossible for me to accept that my First Nations relatives were to burn in everlasting hell, a common teaching of the time, one still taught in many Sunday Schools. I was resolved to bring all these teachings into some kind of harmony within myself.

A major vision quest was planned on the old Iroquois model. It was to last nine days. The location was Boulder Canyon, near Boulder, Colorado. I have been on two major and two minor vision quests. The one in Boulder Canyon was the second major one. There is not space to relate all I learned during those nine days. Mother Earth did speak to me. Our responsibility here on Earth as living beings with consciousness, is to help nurture and preserve life here on this lonely planet drifting through space. I listened deeply to her lessons, often I heard her moaning in pain. It would take pages to explain everything that happened, but on the 8th day Amida Buddha, the Lord of Life and Light, emerged out of the landscape, just like a raigo. I had never read a Buddhist sutra, or even seen a Buddhist statue before. But there was Amida, shining across the whole landscape. Even today a few pebbles from this site sit on my shrine at home.

After the ninth day I left Boulder Canyon and returned to Denver. There the Jodo Shinshu community opened their hearts to me. The first day I met Tsunoda Sensei. He gave me my first Dharma talk. We chanted Junirai. It described my vision in the Rocky Mountains clearly As the congregation chanted ‘namo amida buddha’, I turned to one of the ladies and asked, “What does that mean?” She replied, “O many things like ‘Refuge in the Infinite Buddha’, ‘ Reverence for Life and Light’, or literally ‘Now Mind Infinite Awake.’ It is a gift of compassion to us.” Tsunoda Sensei became the Socho of Canada many years later. He helped train me for tokudo and, along with Ikuta sensei, sponsored me for ordination. I’ve forgotten, however, the name of the woman who explained the nembutsu to me that Sunday morning, but I still bear a special gratitude in my heart for the work of the women in our Jodo Shinshu communities. My immediate response to her explanation was, “I’ve come home.”

Many Westerners who have become shravaka have related the same feeling of realizing that they had been Buddhists all along. They merely discovered who they really were. This feeling was re-enforced by a second raigo experience near Medicine Hat, Alberta. This raigo experience took place nearly 20 years after the first. My family was visiting Writing on Stone provincial Park where there are 3,000 year old pictures on the cliff walls. The First Nations people have been doing visions quests there for even longer. Early one morning I got up at 4am, the sun comes up there early and stays up until 10:30 PM. during the summer months. I wanted to do morning prayers so I climbed the cliffs and reached the mesa to assume seiza posture. The prairies are a massive area in North America that stretch from northern Alberta in a triangular shape clear down to the Gulf of Mexico. This is an area more than 20 times larger than Japan. From where I sat I could see 35 kilometers out onto the vast landscape. In the cool morning air, as I finished meditation on the four directions and loving kindness, the raigo appeared a second time.

Thus I discovered Amida in the Rocky Mountains and on the Great Prairies, not in a temple and surely not in a little black box called a shrine. Amida runs wild across the landscape, free and joyous. The shinjin faith experience Amida offers is available to all, free, liberating, inclusive, and joyous. Becoming a shravaka of the Dharma and the nembutsu did not negate my past spiritual insights. The Dharma is the spiritual practice of reality. It builds on the past rather than negating it. Thus all my past experiences were integrated into the nembutsu. It gives a great sense of richness and fullness to life, a sense of wholeness and healing. This has been also discovered by members of my family such as my mother, my nephews, cousins, sister have all become Jodo Shinshu, as are my wife and two children. They too are shravaka, as were my mentors Kusada Sensei, Tsunoda Sensei, Ikuta Sensei, Nagatomi Sensei and many other compassionate beings, too numerous to mention.

Now when someone asks me why I converted, I reply, “I didn’t. I don’t think the term ‘convert’ is adequate to describe awakening to the Dharma and to the nembutsu. We don’t convert away from something towards something else. We simply experience the opening of our being in the light of our listening. Won’t you listen with me?”

Sensei Ulrich

September 22, 2001