Making Shin Buddhism Relevant for Today

By Rev. Marvin Harada

For this month’s article, I would like to go way out on a limb and offer what I feel are new ways to interpret Shin Buddhism for our life today. Shin Buddhism has a long and rich history. When we look at the entire history of Buddhism, at various phases of its history, new interpretation, new meaning was given to the teachings. In most cases, when new meaning, new interpretation is presented, it is regarded as “heretical,” or “unorthodox” to say the least. But new interpretation is what gives life to the teachings. It makes our teachings a “living tradition,” instead of a static teaching that has no room for new thought or interpretation. That is what I am offering in this article today. I would like to begin to address some of our key Shin Buddhist concepts and terms, and explain or interpret them in a more meaningful way for those of us who live in the world today.

Amida Buddha – Amida Buddha is the “timeless Buddha.” We can all understand Shakyamuni Buddha, as the historical Buddha who attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. What Shakyamuni Buddha awakened to, the truth of enlightenment, is a timeless truth. Amida Buddha is that timeless truth of enlightenment, which is wisdom and compassion, but in a personified form of a Buddha. Amida Buddha did not exist as a person in time, but Amida Buddha exists as the truth of enlightenment, wisdom and compassion.

Pure Land – The Pure Land is a symbol of that world of truth or enlightenment. When a person becomes enlightened, their world is transformed. We all live in our own “world.” A stock broker lives in the stock market world, thinking about the rise and fall of stocks constantly. The drug addict lives in the drug world, thinking only about their next fix. The athlete lives in their sports world, how to improve as an athlete. How to run faster, jump higher, or break a record. In the same way, the world of Buddha is created by the enlightenment of the Buddha. The Buddha is trying to bring all of us sentient beings into that world of enlightenment, into the Pure Land. The Buddha is trying to break into our self-centered world that we are preoccupied with, whether our world is one of a mother, a student, a businessman, or teenager. How to break into our world and bring us to the world of truth, the Pure Land, is the mission of the Buddha. The Pure Land is offered to us as a symbol for how our life and our world can be. Our world doesn’t have to be a world of darkness and despair. Our world doesn’t have to be a world of suffering and sorrow. Our world can be bright with light. Our life can be full of meaning. Our world can be the Pure Land.

Birth in the Pure Land – If the Pure Land is a symbol of the world of enlightenment, then birth in the Pure Land represents what our life could be, and should be. If we want to live a deeply meaningful life, then we aspire for a life of the Pure Land. If we want to live a peaceful and harmonious life, then we aspire for a life of the Pure Land. Wanting to “be born in the Pure Land,” means that we want to live the most meaningful and fulfilling life. We want to find that meaning in the here and now, not after we die. If we live a meaningful and fulfilling life now, then our death someday will be the culmination of our life.

Primal vow, original vow – We have read about Amida Buddha’s primal vow, or the original vow, depending on what translation we read in Shin Buddhism. Traditionally, we have been taught that Amida Buddha vows to save all sentient beings, and that is the primal vow or original vow of the Buddha. We entrust ourselves in that vow of the Buddha and that is how we are “saved” in Shin Buddhism. However, as Dr. Nobuo Haneda points out, that is only half of the meaning of hongan 本願, or the primal vow. The other half of the meaning of hongan, is “innermost aspiration.” Innermost aspiration is something deep, deep within us. While the Buddha wishes or vows for our awakening, that wish is at the very core of our being. It is also our deepest, innermost aspiration or wish. Deep within us, we all want to awaken to our true self. We all want to live our true, sincere life. We all want to live with depth and meaning. To come to realize that, is to discover the hongan, the innermost aspiration within us.

 Salvation in Shin Buddhism – When that innermost aspiration is stirred within us, when the world of Buddha breaks through our own world of ignorance and delusion, then we are “saved,” if we are to use such a word. It means that instead of living in a self-centered world of darkness, we live in a bright world of light, the world of Buddha. Instead of being lost in the world of delusion, we find direction in life. The focus, the direction of our life is now headed towards truth, towards the Dharma. We have not saved ourselves from the world of samsara, but the Dharma has liberated us from the world of samsara. That is what it means “to be saved.”


Rev. Marvin Harada