Shinran Studied Meditation
During 2010, there has been intense discussion about the role of meditation in Jodo Shinshu. This was carried on due to the extra attention meditation in general had received in the press.

Everyone expects Buddhists to meditate, why not Jodo Shinshu? This caused intense discussion in the Shin community. Sometimes the discussion became quite contentious.

As you know I have led groups in Loving-Kindness meditation for years to many and varied groups. I have led groups in meditation in nature to experience the vibrancy of nature and a sense of oneness.

Presently I have been working with my sister, who has a Doctorate in music therapy, to use music as a way for everyone to meditate together without the traditional hours of sitting, sitting, sitting. Presently I am also in discussion with a Dharma friend from the University of Manitoba who is an expert in what today is called Cognitive Sciences. I have also done some work in nature using advice from traditional elders. None of this was easy and some of it was dangerous. This was especially true of the dream meditations done in my forties. It is in the light of these experiences the following remarks emerge relative to the intense discussions in the Jodo Shinshu world regarding meditation.

Buddha mentions about 40 meditations in the Theravada canon. One of the most intense is the meditations connected with the dhyanas. These are levels of meditation, sometimes four levels, but this expanded to as many as seven or more. But it is clear that these meditations do not necessarily lead to awakening or nirvana! This is clearly stated in the Brahma-Jala Sutta. They are mental strengthening experiences, but not required to become an Arahant (an advanced stage of realization), a Buddha or a nirvanic being.

Furthermore, there are people who became Arahant by just exchanging few words with the Buddha. One monk even attained this "lofty‟ state after sweeping a courtyard. There is one instance when the Buddha whispered in a man‟s ear and he became an Arahant. What was said was never recorded, but of course there has been much speculation down the centuries. Also, the dhyanas are very capricious, that is to say, they could crop up at any time with no obvious cause. People who meditated for years have had no success. People who have meditated just a few hours have had tremendous success.

Now there is a great body of scientific studies regarding Buddhism and meditation. I am collecting these with the help of my friend in the Cognitive Sciences. To mention one of interest here: the nembutsu evokes deep empathetic responses in the brain. There is no doubt that much that we do in Buddhism is of great benefit. This has been witnessed by its followers over the centuries, and now by scientific investigation. But we must not forget the point made by the Brahama-Jala Sutta, and even by Shinran himself.

Both Shinran and the Buddha practiced meditation, but there is no sense that doing meditation itself is a guarantee of moral excellence. It should not be used for status mongering. Neither does it make us perfect. In fact deep meditation, in my experience, makes us more intensely aware of the suffering inherent in the experience of just being alive. This is what the popularizers of meditation are not telling their followers.

Also, under the Bodhi Tree Shakyamuni tried the traditional ways of meditation to the point that he became a living skeleton. He gave this up, bathed and ate. Refreshed, he started another more life-affirming way to Buddhahood. This part of the story of Bodhi Day is often forgotten. It should be an important reminder to us. Shinran left Mt. Hiei to practice the nembutsu. This also should be an important reminder to us.

Of great help is a statement in Shinran‟s letters that the nembutsu is beyond both thought and non-thought. There are also at least three Wasan where he makes a similar statement (59, 66, and 142 in the recent Hawaii edition).
The nembutsu is neither a religious practice nor a good act. It is beyond self-working, beyond description, beyond explanation. -Tannisho

So, the nembutsu is beyond both meditation and non-meditation!

What is bothering us these days is the fear that the best side of our humanity is slipping away from us. We are swamped by irrationality and bureaucracies. We seem to have lost a sense of fair-mindedness and the common sense that goes with it. The Amida Sutra, near the end, states that people in that situation experience loss of how to care for children, loss if general well-being, loss of community. They also have lost the capacity to understand Dharma. This creates a deep sense of panic.

Shinran‟s teachings talk directly to this situation. He presents this on two levels. The first is the level of present relationships:
Signs of long years of saying the nembutsu and aspiring for birth can be seen in the change in the heart which had been bad and in the deep warmth for friends and fellow practisers; this is the sign of rejecting the world. You should understand this fully.

The second level is directed to future relationships:
My wish is that those who have attained birth may lead those who come after them and those who aspire for birth may follow their predecessors. Thus they follow endlessly and uninterruptedly until the boundless sea of birth-suffering-death is exhausted.

These are my reflections about meditation in Jodo Shinshu. If you simply can't meditate, why worry? If meditation helps you, why avoid it? Whatever you do, keep in mind the two quotes above from Shinran. They tell us that the best part of ourselves is other people, and the best part of awakening is Other Power.

Sensei Ulrich
December 19, 2010