06 February 2023

The Buddhism of Tōzenji

Keith Snyder
Resident Priest and Managing Director

Buddhism as a world religion has a long history, with numerous forms of expression depending on the time and the place in which it passed through various cultures and countries, and also on the people who interpreted the forms of the religion they inherited. There is no single generic type of Buddhism. While a common world view and spirituality underlie all Buddhist traditions, differences of time, place and people have always determined the form that the teachings take.

The Buddhism of Tozenji is of one of the Pure Land sects of Japan, specifically Seizan Jōdo-shū, and it has its origins as a sect in the teachings and in the life experience of Hōnen (1133-1212). Several centuries after the historical Buddha, a movement arose which was grounded in a rethinking of how Buddhists of the time were practicing and interpreting their religion. Rather than regarding the practitioner as a detached individual attempting to obliterated all personal karma and attain a state of “nirvana,” the new ideal was the bodhisattva, who works tirelessly to free not just him/herself but all other beings as well from the rounds of birth and death.

Here in North America people know the word karma. We understand it to mean that if I do something good, good will come to me; and if I do something bad, bad will come to me - tit for tat, very legalistic. But this is a narrow way of looking at our situation as humans. When we do something it affects not just ourselves, it affects others. In the Buddhist view, since we and all the elements which make up our existence are connected to all other elements of existence, whatever action is taken by anyone affects all others. This is how the bodhisattva can make the declaration to save all beings. His/her own personal enlightenment is linked to the spiritual liberation of everyone.

Every mystical religious tradition involves a leap of faith. We do not personally know the Buddha Shakyamuni who lived in India so many years ago. But we believe he had a type of spiritual awakening that was the catalyst for what became “Buddhism.” A declaration of putting our trust in Buddha – Dharma – Sangha (the Three Jewels) is part of every Buddhist service. In the Pure Land traditions of Japan, the Buddha Amitayus (Amida) is the ultimate symbol of where we put our trust. It is the bright shining radiance of enlightenment expressed as the Sambhogakaya, the body of bliss resulting from the perfection of all the bodhisattva practices. And it can only happen in relation to the benefit of all beings who connect to that buddha/bodhisattva through the obligatory vows, or resolutions, established in the practice stage of the bodhisattva path. Nembutsu (Buddha recollection) represents that connection. It is recognition that we don’t need to be anywhere or anything other than where we are and what we are at this moment, and that there is nothing left to be done. In the Seizan Pure Land tradition this is where our practice actually begins. But it is not practice to achieve a personal state of perfection; it is practice that contributes to the general good of all.

Normal thinking is that practice is undertaken to purify ourselves and to attain a higher state of consciousness. But the Pure Land traditions reverse this, as indicated in the phrase anjin kigyō 安心起行, which means “peace of mind/the arising of practice.” We jump headlong into the reassurance of “birth in the Pure Land,” with the understanding that the working of causes and conditioning factors operates, not just in a material sense, but on a spiritual level as well.

Although the “practice” part of the phrase originally referred to methods of worship regarding the “Buddha of Immeasurable Life,” in the Seizan tradition it takes on a wider meaning. This comes from the personal experience of Shōkū, one of Honen’s chief disciples and the founder of the Seizan sect of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism.

Unlike Hōnen’s other clerical disciples, who left Mt. Hiei and the Tendai traditions to devote themselves “solely to the nembtsu,” Shōku came to Hōnen as a fourteen-year-old with no previous experience of Buddhist practice. Whereas the others were essentially abandoning the old practices and entering into Honen’s nembutsu teachings, Shōkū entered first into the nembutsu, and then after fully absorbing its significance, went up to Mt. Hiei to learn the traditional teachings and practices of Tendai. In fact Hōnen sent him up the mountain to do this, which shows that, unlike the popular misconception, Hōnen never categorically denounced the traditional practices as useless or worthy of deletion from human endeavours.

Hōnen’s teaching, after his profound realization of the significance of the Amida-Pure Land-nembutsu construct, was simplicity itself. Just say the nembutsu without any attempt to analyse or find hidden meaning, or to attain a special state of consciousness. Just say it, knowing that it is an expression of the fact that you are already exactly where you need to be and that nothing further is required of you. This is Kamakura Buddhism. It is focused on the here and now.

Though the simplicity of this teaching was enough for Hōnen, however, some of his disciples could not resist the urge to interpret. Originally there were six distinct sects of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, with many subsects branching out from them. Today there are three, each based on the interpretations of disciples of Hōnen: Jōdo Shinshū from Shinran, Jōdoshū (Chinzei School) from Shōkō, and Seizan Jōdoshū from Shōkū.

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