We often talk about Buddhism in terms of a teaching, doctrine, religion, and tradition. I would like to consider in this article, looking at Shin Buddhism as a way of life.
Sometimes when I am interviewed by college students and visitors to OCBC, they often ask the question, “Is Buddhism a philosophy, a religion, or a way of life?” I think that we could answer this question by saying yes to all three. Buddhism has a deep and profound philosophy. It is a religion, in that it has a teaching, rituals, and traditions that other religions have. However, we could also describe Buddhism as a way of life, a way to live this precious thing that we call life.
A life of listening to the Dharma
The Shin Buddhist way of life is one of listening to the Dharma, from our earliest years to the end of our life. Listening to the Dharma can take different forms. As a child or adult, it can mean attending service and Dharma school or adult classes on Buddhism. Listening can mean attending a discussion class and hearing the comments or questions of others.
“Listening” also means to read books on Buddhism. We read, but as we read, we are “hearing” the words of that teacher expressed through words. In that sense, it is not just “study” to increase our knowledge of Buddhism, but it is “listening to the words of teachers.” In listening to the words of teachers, we come to receive the teachings from them.
As our “spiritual ear” is cultivated to listen, we begin to ear and encounter the teachings in a myriad of places and from all kinds of teachers. We might learn a profound spiritual “teaching” from a bartender or a cab driver or from a stranger that we are sitting next to on the airplane. Our teachers could be our pet cat or dog, or even someone that we have hated and despised in our life, but through “listening,” come to regard as teachers.
A life of self-reflection
Buddhism can be described as a life of self-reflection. Shakyamuni Buddha and all of the great teachers in the Buddhist tradition reflected deeply into themselves. Shakyamuni Buddha’s insight and enlightenment as he meditated under the bodhi tree were the culmination of six years of seeking and self-reflection. The great Zen Master Dogen said, “To study Buddhism is to study the self.” Self-reflection was the first and last step for him as a Buddhist. Shinran Shonin’s writings, while not always easy to read, must be looked at as an expression of his own deep introspection. In his writings he describes his own mind as being like “snakes and scorpions,” that is, deceiving, and sneaky to put it mildly.
A life of insight and realization
Based on a life of self-reflection, great insight and realization emerges for the life of a Buddhist. Our insights might vary from little insights, to other times, great realizations. You might notice for the first time, a radiant flower blooming as you walk to work, or you might realize what an arrogant and stubborn fool you have been for the past 50 years. Such insights and realizations do not come forth without first listening to the Dharma and reflecting on oneself, in light of the teachings.
This is why the metaphor of light and darkness is used so extensively in Buddhism. It is no wonder that the creators of Star Wars used this wonderful metaphor of the dark side and the force to make the Star Wars movies so captivating. It resonates with us because we have all sometimes lived in darkness and sometimes have lived in radiant light.
The unfolding of insight and realization in Shin Buddhism means that the light of the Dharma is breaking through the darkness of our ignorance, of our delusion. How could I have not seen this before, we ask ourselves? It was right in front of our eyes.
A life of deep meaning and fulfillment
The result of a life of listening, reflecting, and realizing, is a life that always has meaning, is always fulfilling, no matter what happens in one’s life.
We all want to have meaningful and fulfilling lives, and we might find this at various stages of our life, but to our great disappointment, as life changes, sometimes our meaning and fulfillment of life disappear.
We might love our work and career. For thirty or more years, we go to work and find our life meaningful and fulfilling. But then we retire, and suddenly the meaning and fulfillment in life are gone. What am I living for now? What am I getting up in the morning for now? Just to play a round of golf or have lunch with fellow retirees? Where has my meaning of life gone?
When our children are young, we put everything into raising and caring for them. We take them to piano lessons, to baseball practice, to school, to birthday parties, and on and on. Then one day our little boy or girl grows up and goes off to college. After our last child has “left the nest” we might find that our meaning in life is now gone.
The Buddhist way of life based on listening, reflecting, and realization, never lacks meaning or fulfillment in life. It is the epitome of living a meaningful and fulfilling life, even if one were to become a quadraplegic. (to be continued.)
Rev. Marvin Harada