November is the month for observing Ho-on-ko, the memorial of Shinran (our temple follows the Higashi Honganji calendar), but I wondered how I would talk about Shinran on Sunday when several students from various colleges and the Naperville Central High School would be visiting for their assignments in world religions classes.
I started with something they would all be familiar with – the scandal at Penn State. The alleged perpetrator, the former assistant football coach, used his position as an authority figure to coerce children into having sex. But the long-time head coach and the whole football program wanted to suppress information that would threaten the power they enjoyed over the university community. The scandal illustrates that dark urge in our human nature to conquer and control other beings and things.
In the time of the historical Buddha, humankind was organizing into kingdoms with armies to attack other kingdoms and massacre whole towns. The Buddha, among others of that time, sought a way to overcome that urge for power. Although he started out thinking there was some pure “soul” inside himself, he was confronted by the greed and anger in his mind. In calling it out “Avidya!” (Darkness!) he was released from the barriers that separated him from other beings. In awakening to the interconnectednes and equality of all lives, he realized there is no justification for exerting power over anyone or anything else.
However, people will use religion to justify power-grabbing. After the Buddha’s passing, some monastics used the strict observance of rules and rituals to assert their superiority over others. A movement called Mahayana (“large vehicle”) then arose to recognize the essence of the Buddha’s teachings is to encompass all beings as equals.
Among the various strands of the Mahayana movement, the Pure Land group opened up access to the Buddhist teachings for laymen and women of various strata of society in central Asia, China and Korea. Unfortunately when Buddhism was imported by Japan, it became the domain of the aristocrats. At the dominant monastery on Mt. Hiei near the capital of Kyoto, monks were exposed to the Pure Land teachings but they classified them in the category of “meditation” – a code word for “practices only we refined intelligent men can do, not for the dumb, klutzy peasants and women.”
Honen saw through that sham definition of “meditation” and found in the Pure Land teachings, he could hear the Buddha speaking for the equality of all beings. He left the monastery and brought Buddhism to the men and women of the city and he was joined by other drop-out monks such as Shinran.
But after Honen’s passing, some of his followers felt pressured by authorities to downplay the message of non-discrimination. Shinran, in his writing and sayings, kept Honen’s mission alive and spread the Pure Land teachings throughout Japan. And because of him, today our temple can offer access to the Buddha’s teachings to the diverse population of Chicago.
In “Namu Amida Butsu” we hear the calling to awaken to the Oneness of life. It is the reminder to let go of the urge to have power over others and at the same time, know that no person has the right to conquer us because we are all equal. That is the true way to peace.
I told the students to learn more about the Pure Land teachings from the bulletins and books at our temple since much of the information in textbooks and on the internet is “way off base.”