Dharma Friend to the Sangha
Explaining the Three Pillars of True
Shin Buddhism as we welcome someone to our Online
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
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
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
This brings me to what we call The First
Pillar of True Shin Buddhism: "Awaken your aspiration for
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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.