A Horse is Also a Frog

by Rev. Jon Turner.

I began practicing Buddhism on March 16, 1999 @ 11:54 am. That is when I pressed my mouse and purchased my first book on Buddhism from Amazon. It was Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das. My early encounters with Buddhism were solely through the books I read at night in my bedroom. These books were from the Tibetan, Theravadan and Zen Buddhism perspective, but at the time I didn’t know this or what that meant.

I remember reading a quote by Zen master Dogen that said it is better not to study Buddhism than it is to study Buddhism without a teacher. This is because without a teacher, Buddhist teachings can quickly become something that affirms the ego rather than challenging it. I mentioned this quote to my wife and that we needed to attend a Buddhist Temple in order to learn Buddhism from an actual teacher. She called the Orange County Buddhist Church. We attended that very Sunday – our first Shin Buddhist family service.

That day, I realized that Buddhism was like nothing I had ever experienced in the books I had read. Everyone was so friendly and inviting. I remember Rev Miyaji coming down off the altar to do a triple jump – starting outside the Hondo and running down the center aisle. He said that the world record was 60 feet and he was going to try and break it. He only jumped about 10 feet. I knew that his sermon was about accepting and embracing our limitations but I wasn’t sure how this was relevant to Buddhism.

I was also a bit surprised that there were no statues of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. He was on all my books but nowhere to be found at OCBC. I also thought we were praying and saying Amen when we put our hands together and bowed in unison. I had also never heard of Amida Buddha in any of the books I had read. So I began to read River of Fire, River of Fire by Taitestsu Unno. Unfortunately, I was listening to the teachings as a Christian from the West. I interpreted everything in that book literally. It sounded to me that when Shakyamuni died he was resurrected as a cosmic Buddha and was controlling the events in my life so that my karma would lead me to Buddhism. He was also calling to me by name. I was now more confused than ever.

Over the next year I began to realize that Amida was a mythic figure.  At first, I was convinced that the problem was that the ministers were explaining things incorrectly.  Later, I realized that this was not the case. It wasn’t how they were explaining Buddhism but rather it was how I was hearing it.

Amida as myth was a wonderful realization but now the problem was what is this myth pointing to. How was this Buddhism? I seemed to be back where I started. I still wanted to follow Shin Buddhism back to its first principles. I wanted to understand Shin Buddhism in terms of impermanence. This led to the study of Nagarjuna, the first patriarch of Shin Buddhism.

However, no matter how hard I tried, Shin Buddhism didn’t quite fit. Amida was not quite impermanence itself. I found that these teachings better explained Zen than they did Shin. Buddha nature is found in Zen while the foolish person is found in Shin. Zen sounded more like those original books I had read on Buddhism. Shin Buddhism has a very unique flavor and I still had not found its source.

One of my favorite Shin writers is Ryojin Soga who was an expert in Yogacara Buddhism. This is the school of Vasubandu, the second patriarch of Shin Buddhism. Later I found out that most Zen masters were followers of Madhayamika while Shin Buddhists scholars tend to be Yogacara scholars so I began studying Yogacara Buddhism.

After a year or so I came to realize that Zen focuses on one’s direct attainment of wisdom while Shin focuses on our inability to attain wisdom directly. The attainment of wisdom indirectly is called Compassion. Yogacara Buddhism sounded somewhat pessimistic to me which seemed to also resonate with what I had heard in Shin sermons.

So after five years, my search was over. I had found the philosophical underpinnings of Shin Buddhism. When I read Yogacara writings, I found the same descriptions and metaphors used in the Larger Sutra and in Shinran’s writings. In Zen, we overcome our delusions while in Shin we embrace them. We say that we want to see things as they are but this does not mean we remove our delusions. It means that we transcend them. Our delusions are our true reality. This is what we must see. This is True Reality accepting us as we are.

When one realizes that all our perceptions are colored by our feelings and thoughts then the boundary between self and other begins to fade. When I see a horse – it is never the true, absolute image but always my relative perception of it. In this way, I become one with the horse. In the very same way, you may see a frog. This realization leads to openness, understanding and a mind that is pliable.

For me, Shin Buddhism did not make logical sense until I discovered and studied Yogacara Buddhism. It is said that it is a mistake to try to understand Shin Buddhism solely through logic and reason. But I think it is a very good place to start – especially if you are a Doubting Thomas.

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner