From Practical Buddhism to Truth-Level Buddhism

In my mind, there are two levels of Buddhism. The first level is “practical Buddhism.” We all begin with this first level. In this first level, we ask questions like, “What can Buddhism do for me in my life? Will it make me happier? Will it make me more serene? Will it make me a better person?” We might even ask very practical questions like, “Will it lower my blood pressure? Will it ease my stress and anxiety? Will it help me to be more successful in my work?”

Especially here in the west, where people are very practically oriented, I think that those are the very natural questions that we all have at this level.

Buddhism, however, challenges us to go deeper, to realize the teachings not for its practicality, but for its truth-value. Someone at this level does not ask questions like, “What will Buddhism do for me in my life?” The person at the truth level already knows what Buddhism does for him in his life. For the person at the truth level, Buddhism is everything. The teachings are everything. The greatest meaning and value of life is found in the Dharma, for the person who arrives at the truth-level of Buddhism.

I think that one of the reasons why Shin Buddhism has not “caught on” in the west like other schools of Buddhism, is that we have yet to show this “practical” side, the practical level of Shin Buddhism. Other Buddhist writers like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, write directly to this practical level. Take for example, the best seller, “The Art of Happiness,” by the Dalai Lama. In that book he opens with the statement,

I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. (p. 13, “The Art of Happiness,” by the Dalai Lama.)

In that opening sentence, the Dalai Lama grabs each and every reader of his book. Who is there that doesn’t want to live a happy life? Truly, the Dalai Lama has connected with all people in his writings.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist Master, also writes beautifully and addresses this practical level of Buddhism in his books. For example, in his book, “Anger,” he discusses how to deal with this most powerful human emotion that can create so many problems in our life and in the world.

Embrace your anger with a lot of tenderness. Your anger is not your enemy, your anger is your baby. It’s like your stomach or your lungs. Every time you have some trouble in your lungs or your stomach, you don’t think of throwing them away. The same is true with your anger. You accept your anger because you know you can take care of it; you can transform it into positive energy. P. 30, “Anger,” by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Such contemporary writers are introducing Buddhism to the west much more effectively than we Shin writers and thinkers. They have embraced the practical level of Buddhism, and have made Buddhism accessible to the everyday person. It will be our challenge to present Shin Buddhism in a more palatable way here in the west.

Let me turn now to truth-level Buddhism. How do people at that level speak of Buddhism?
Shakyamuni Buddha left the final words to his followers in his dying moments:

My disciples, my last moment has come, but do not forget that death is only the end of the physical body. The body was born from parents and was nourished by food; just as inevitable are sickness and death.

But the true Buddha is not a human body: -- it is Enlightenment. A human body must die, but the Wisdom of Enlightenment will exist forever in the truth of the Dharma, and in the practice of the Dharma. He who sees merely my body does not truly see me. Only he who accepts my teaching truly sees me. P. 24-26, “The Teaching of Buddha.”


Here, the Buddha encourages, admonishes us to discover the true Buddha in life, the wisdom of enlightenment.

Shinran Shonin makes this kind of statement in his writings:
The light of wisdom exceeds all measure,
And every finite living being
Receives this illumination that is like the dawn,
So take refuge in Amida, the true and real light.
p. 325, Collected Works of Shinran


The wisdom of enlightenment that Shakyamuni Buddha spoke of in his final words, Shinran Shonin encounters, receives, as the light of Amida Buddha. These are statements from the truth-level of Buddhism. Shinran Shonin does not negate the practical benefits of Buddhism, but he expresses the greatest benefit, the greatest value of Buddhism as receiving the light of wisdom into our hearts and minds. His heart of ignorance and darkness was transformed by the light of the Buddha, the light of wisdom, the light of Namuamida-butsu. It is at that point where practical Buddhism and truth-level Buddhism converge into one.

Namuamidabutsu,
Rev. Marvin Harada