Welcoming a Dharma Friend to the Sangha

Explaining the Three Pillars of True Shin Buddhism as we welcome someone to our Online Sangha
by Paul Roberts

Hello Dharma Friend - 

You wrote:  I'm 61 years old and have tried everything else.  


Yes, I too have been on the path in some form or another for all of my adult life.  While I can't say I tried EVERYTHING else, I certainly tried a number of things over the course of the past 40 years (I'm 62).   All of the paths and paths/works I tried - Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike - provided SOME help.  But the help was temporary and transitory.  There was never anything even remotely resembling the end of suffering.


You wrote:  I cannot abide the suffering in the world.  


There is no doubt that this particular world we live in, with our particular sort of consciousness, is marked by suffering.  In Buddhism, this world is called samsara (which you might know already).  Samsaric life is bittersweet, at best.  

There is much in samsara that is good and beautiful.  There is love and truth and wisdom and compassion. We can find many good things here - in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us.

But there is also much in samsara that is tragic and painful.  As Gotama found out at age 26, when he found himself in the streets of India for the very first time, there is old age, sickness, suffering and death.

And beyond physical suffering, there is all the suffering that arises in the human mind and heart.  There are blind passions like anger, fear, and greed.  There are delusions which drive people to all sorts of madness in their individual and corporate behavior, as we hear daily in the news.  There is the terrible problem of our vast ignorance - where we live our lives driven by the forces of our own unconsciousness, often not even knowing why we think and act the way we do.  And then there is the all too human problem of our common egotism - the persistence of a certain sort of consciousness that prizes me and mine above all else, and cannot help but thinking and acting perversely to get what it wants in life.

This is the difficult world we live in  - the world "out there" and the world "in here", inside our own minds. When we begin to see it clearly, it can be very hard to live with that vision, unless we are Buddhas or very advanced Bodhisattvas.

And of course, most of us are no such thing.  Most of us are just plain people, stumbling along day by day, weighed down and sometimes overwhelmed by our own personal set of problems.

But there's a flip side to this story - a back story, if you will.

Because we are living in this particular sort of realm - which is thought of as a FAVORABLE realm in Buddhist thought - we are getting exposed to both the "carrot" and the "stick".

The carrot is everything that is good and beautiful and true, that pulls us forward and causes us to DESIRE enlightenment for ourselves and for everyone else.  That desire for enlightenment, also known as BODHI mind, is the most noble sentiment possible for us to feel as human beings.

This brings me to what we call The First Pillar of True Shin Buddhism:  "Awaken your aspiration for enlightenment".  

In other words, allow yourself to become conscious that deep down inside, more than anything else you desire to be a free being, free from all darkness, and full of all light.  More than anything else, you desire to become a BUDDHA.

But the truth is, most of us are not going to do whatever it is we need to do just because someone dangles a carrot in front of our noses. Most of us aren't wired like that.  And that's where the stick comes in.

Our suffering - the suffering we experience personally, and the suffering we experience empathically and vicariously - is a big stick that drives us forward, and causes us to be serious about finding a way to come to the end of suffering.

It was that way for Gotama, as well.  It was the stick - the sight of terrible suffering on the dusty streets of ancient India - that got him to renounce his life as a Prince, and take up the search for truth seriously.


You write:  I cannot save me no matter what I do.  


Yes, this is a major AHA! - a real epiphany about your condition (and mine, too).  In fact, this idea is so important that we call it The Second Pillar of True Shin Buddhism:  "You cannot achieve your aspiration for enlightenment, no matter what you do, nor for how long you do it".

Or as you succinctly put it:  We cannot save ourselves, no matter what we do.

This is where TRUE Shin Buddhism diverges from all other schools of the Buddha-Dharma, whether from the Hinayana (Theravada), the Mahayana (Zen, Tendai, Pure Land, etc. etc.) or Vajrayana (Tibetan, Shingon) varieties.

All of these other schools have, as their fundamental a priori axiom, the idea that we can actually bootstrap ourselves into a state of advanced spirituality from which we will not regress.  As a Shin Buddhist teacher, I (along with Master Shinran) say that idea simply is wrong.  We just can't do that these days.  Because of the age in which we live, we simply cannot save ourselves.  As many times as we climb the mountain of enlightenment, we will fall down again.

That's not merely a PERSONAL failure.  It's the very nature of the times in which we live.


You wrote:  And all sentient beings must be saved, no matter what they do.


That is absolutely correct!

The ultimate destination of ALL sentient beings (not just human beings) is the unveiling of their full potential - the actualization of their full Buddha nature.  Ultimately, NO ONE is left behind.  Ultimately, EVERYONE becomes a true Buddha.

So how does this happen, if we cannot save ourselves?

That question brings us to the Third Pillar of True Shin Buddhism:  "Entrust yourself and your karmic destiny entirely to Amida and His Primal Vow".

What does it mean to entrust myself and my karmic destiny entirely to Amida Buddha, and what happens when I do?

To understand Master Shinran's Dharma context here, we have to start with his prior two BIG IDEAS.

First, the idea that the whole purpose and point of Buddhism is to become a Buddha!  Now, if you think that's obvious to everybody who studies Buddhism, or even calls himself (or herself) a Buddhist, you'd be wrong.  I can tell you that it wasn't really obvious to me for many years.

Second, the idea that we cannot become Buddhas by our own efforts, even if we want to with all our heart. We just can't do it.  We can't get there from here.  No amount of practice, no amount of disciplines, no amount of study, no amount of dedication, no amount of creating merit is enough. 

Our karmic burden, created over countless lifetimes in the past, is just too great.  Our blind passions are just too great.  Our individual and corporate delusions are just too great.  Our ignorance is just too great.  And beneath and beyond all that, our intractable egotism is too great.

This is a hard truth to accept; but ultimately accept it we must.

When we finally do accept this truth - about the limitations of our own self-power, inevitably our gaze turns outward, away from ourselves.  We realize, sooner or later, that if we are going to attain Buddhahood, some power that is greater than ourselves must be the enabling agent of our transformation.

There are many, many people who know this who are not even Buddhists.  And, paradoxically, most people who ARE Buddhists are blind to this fundamental spiritual reality.

But - at some point, in some life, karmic conditions ripen and mature.  A person comes to know that Shakyamuni Buddha really is the great World Turner and teacher of this world AND also come to know that the many and various versions of self-power Buddhism are not going to work for him (or her).

This finally happened to me, in this lifetime, back in 2002.  I had self-identified as a Buddhist for a number of years already, having come to the recognition that Shakyamuni Buddha was the uniquely FULLY enlightened teacher in our recorded world history - the one who had reached the very pinnacle on the mountain of enlightenment.  I had come to recognize Him as qualitatively DIFFERENT in terms of His pristine consciousness, compared to all the other teachers I had listened to or heard about before.

But then, because of personal and family tragedy that left me entirely bereft of any spiritual power or ability of my own whatsoever, I also came to realize that all of the various self-power methods taught by the Buddha were simply NOT SUITABLE for me.  I saw something I had seen, and forgotten, much earlier in this life:  namely, that I simply could not save myself, no matter what I did, no matter how long I did it for.

I saw that as long as I invested time and energy in practicing self-power Buddhism, I was going to remain vulnerable to what Buddhism calls RETROGRESSION.  I was always going to remain vulnerable to falling all the way down the mountain of enlightenment, losing (again and again) any progress I had made, or thought I had made, on the long and winding road up the mountain to Buddhahood.

And so, Master Shinran's Dharma message of depending upon some OTHER-POWER rather than my own self-power made sense to me as the only kind of Buddhism that was actually going to help me become a Buddha.

I had to understand the SIMPLE Dharma propositions Master Shinran was sharing.  That was the first step in responding to Amida's call in my life.  And - I say over and over again - these Dharma propositions ARE simple.  They were deliberately constructed that way, so that no one would be excluded from this Dharma path simply because they lacked education or intellectual capacity.   This Dharma message can literally be understood by ANYBODY.

So...what is this Dharma message?

It is a PROMISE...a VOW...made by Amida Buddha - a transcendental Buddha who rules over a Buddha-land we call The Pure Land.  This Buddha promised that if anyone - and I mean ANYONE - would entrust his (or her) karmic destiny to this Buddha, taking full and final refuge in Him - that He, Amida, would see to it that at the end of this life, the person would take birth in His Pure Land and immediately experience the transformation to Buddhahood.

How can this possibly happen?

What happens is that in the moment that a person finally entrusts himself fully, he receives an infusion of Amida's own consciousness - the faith-mind consciousness known as SHINJIN.  This faith-mind consciousness, this Shinjin, is marked by a CERTAIN and UNAMBIGUOUS KNOWING.

What does a person of this Shinjin know?

- He knows that He is grasped by Amida Buddha Himself, and will never be abandoned by Him.

- He knows that Amida has given to him the FULL STORE of His infinite karmic merit - so his problem of karmic debt has been solved once and for all.

- He knows that this is now his last lifetime living as a non-Buddha stuck in samsaric existence. The endless journey, strapped to the wheel of birth and death, is now OVER.

- He knows that at the end of this lifetime, when he closes his eyes and takes his last breath, he will be born in Amida's own Pure Land, and will experience immediate transformation to Buddhahood.

The person had HEARD all this before...but now it is different.  Now he KNOWS that what he heard before is, in fact, TRUE.  He KNOWS that it is true because the faith-mind of Shinjin he has received TELLS him so.

The reaction to this knowing is a visceral GRATITUDE that springs up naturally deep within.  There is nothing forced, nothing artificial, nothing rehearsed about this gratitude.  The person was sincerely looking for a path to Buddhahood, and now a path has been given.  The person was looking to come to the end of suffering - and now the end of suffering has come to him.

The person is like a man who was clinging desperately onto a raft in the middle of the ocean - and then a great ship appears, and hands reach down and drag this person onto the great ship, and he is saved from what otherwise would be certain death.

What does the person feel, think and say?  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

That is exactly what we say - spontaneously and with immeasurable gratitude - when we finally REALIZE that Amida has saved us.

Amida made this promise to save us during His pre-Buddha life as the monk Dharmakara. Dharmakara aspired to become a Buddha.  More than that, he aspired to be a transformative Buddha, saving people (like me) who otherwise had no chance of being saved at all.

To fulfill that promise, in the 18th of the 48 Bodhisattva Vows Dharmakara made, also called THE PRIMAL VOW, he perfected his own practice over countless long ages, through many different incarnational experiences.  His heart full of compassion, he reached out to the multitudes again and again, helping them in many ways.  And as his transcendental powers grew, he began the monumental task of building his own Buddha-land, a Pure Land where there was not going to be any evil - or even a WORD for evil.

And when he was done, and his Pure Land was ready to be "open for business", He Himself completed His journey and became the transcendental Buddha Amida - and began to rule over His Pure Land.  People who heard this Dharma message - and accepted it in Shinjin too - were able to be born there, and experience the transformation to Buddhahood, in accordance with His vow.

And what's most amazing - and for many most difficult to believe - is that this was all done by Amida SPECIFICALLY for the person who lacks any capacity to "do" Buddhism at all.

As Master Shinran says, this Dharma message and Dharma path is for the EVIL PERSON first...and than also for the good person.

For the DISTRACTED PERSON first...and then also for the attentive person.

For the LAZY PERSON first...and then also for the diligent person.

For the INTELLECTUALLY IGNORANT PERSON first...and then also for the educated person.

The Primal Vow of Amida Buddha includes ALL and excludes NONE.  It is, by by its very definition and design, the UNIVERSAL Dharma gate, the ONE VEHICLE that leads directly to Buddhahood in the shortest and most direct way possible.

And, once again, make no mistake:  Buddhahood is what we want.  Buddhahood is what we're after.  Buddhahood is what we yearn for.

All of us - each and every one - have experienced the confounding problems of being human here in samsara.  All of us have dealt with our frail and fragile human bodies.  All of us have dealt with the wild and out of control thoughts and feelings of our egoic monkey minds.  All of us know what it is to live in the gap between what we wish we were and what we really are.

And all of us have - finally - responded to the failures and fragility of the human condition by awakening our aspiration for Buddhahood.

Now, at last, with THIS Dharma message, on THIS Dharma path, we have found a way to achieve our aspiration.

That's what the Third Pillar of True Shin Buddhism is all about.  It is an invitation - the ULTIMATE invitation - to stop trying and start trusting.  It is the invitation to "Let go...and let Amida".  

Let Amida?  Let Amida WHAT?

Let Amida simply lead and guide you, step by step, through this final journey through samsaric existence as a non-Buddha. Let His transformative LIGHT shine into your own personal darkness.  Let His infinite LIFE enliven you.  And let Him carry you along, even across the threshhold of DEATH, to the experience of Buddha-LIFE you will surely have once you awaken in His Pure Land.

Just let go...and let Amida...once and for all.

That's the invitation of The Third Pillar.


These are the basics our Dharma masters taught again and again.  And so, these are the basics we teach here as well.  In our teaching, and in our hearing, we come back to them over and over again.  They never grow old, and there is never any reason to stop teaching these basics.

You may have to hear them 100 times, or 1000, before they really sink in and have their full transformative effect in your own life.  That's normative.  It is very uncommon for someone to "get" Shin Buddhism in a full way the first time he (or she) hears this Dharma message.

And then, after a person does receive Amida's gift of Shinjin, these three Pillars are still the most important teachings we can hear.  Even AFTER Shinjin, it's always good to hear the encouragement to awaken our aspiration for Buddhahood.  Even AFTER Shinjin, it's always good to recognize, once again, how impossible it is for us to transcend our own egotism.  Even AFTER Shinjin, it is always so valuable to respond to Amida's call by entrusting ourselves and our karmic destiny to Him afresh - opening our hearts and minds to His light and life.

Before Shinjin...listen deeply.

After Shinjin...listen deeply.

It's not about listening to a lot of things.  Most of us simply can't do that.  We're not sages, we're not scholars, and we don't have the time, energy or inclination to listen to a lot of things.

But we can all listen to a few things, and ponder them deeply in our hearts and in our minds, until their meaning becomes transformative in our lives.

So...with that I bring this explanation to a close.  As always, I invite anyone and everyone to ask any questions you might have, or share any doubts you might have.  We will do our best to share with you the same answers you would hear if you were asking Master Shinran or Master Rennyo.