What is the essence of the Dharma?


The Question:

I am frequently asked what I consider to be the ultimate essence of the Dharma. Recently, this question was asked within a specific context: after a visit to a Jodo Shishu Temple where the questioner was constantly told about Japanese customs and never the Dharma (for instance she was told she couldn’t wear her Tibetan-style mala but must instead wear a Japanese-style Nenju in the temple – and was made to remove it).

The Situation:

After her visit, she confessed that she had gone to the temple to learn the Dharma and express gratitude for the opportunity to go for refuge to Amida Buddha, and that it was doubtful she would ever return because she was made to feel very out-of-place, foreign and unwelcome. Sadly, I have heard similar stories before … all too often, really.

I am also very aware of a particular type of American ‘Buddhist’ who, being very ethnocentric, will loudly and rudely express lack of appreciation for other traditions and cultures. The individual in question, however, was not of that sort (and had even been a Nipponophile when in her teens). Be that as it may, she was not interested in becoming an imitation Japanese Buddhist. She simply wanted to be what she was: a person touched by the Dharma, and grasped by Amida through the Primal Vow.

The Response:

After expressing sympathy for the discomfort she experienced, and after reminding her of similar ethnocentric rudeness which individuals in that congregation may have experienced at the hand of American spiritual dilettantes, I reminded her that people respond to stimuli based upon karmic seeds stored in the alaya vijnana (or ‘Storehouse Consciousness’), and so they were responding the way they must and she should not take it personally.

I also explained that, as I experienced it, the essence of Jodo Shinshu Dharma was recognition of the incompleteness of human capacity (even as regards knowledge of our own motivations); acceptance of the fact of our own very human frailty (and that of others); recognition of the existence and availability of Absolute Compassion which grasps all, forsaking none; willingness to accept the compassion extended to us and to give heartfelt thanks for it; and the desire to conform our lives to the Dharma for the benefit of all sentient beings to the degree we are able to do so in gratitude for the fact that our failure to do so completely and perfectly is not held against us. Anything else, I said, was superfluous.

Final Thoughts:

I realize that there are many Shin Buddhists who would add that saying the nembutsu (i.e. “Namu Amida Butsu“) from one to ten times (and periodically as one feels the inner desire to do so) is in fact a requirement that I failed to mention. However, when I humbly examine the matter in the light of Amida, I am forced to allow for the fact that the Absolute Compassion of Amida is inconceivable and utterly independent of such human contrivances as language or ritual. It seems to me, after humble reflection on (or, perhaps more correctly, in) Amida’s Light, that any religion that cannot be practiced by a child abandoned far from any place where any religion has ever been taught, and where no known human language is spoken, is not a religion worthy of the name. A religion that is utterly dependent upon context is not a true and real religion. A religion that cannot adapt to context is also not a true and real religion.

To loosely paraphrase Shinran Shonin:

I do not profess to know whether my faith in the universal existence and availability of Absolute Compassion will really work as the seed that allows me to be born in the Pure Land, or whether it may prove to be the karmic act that will sow the seed for which I will be condemned to hell. If it should be the case that this faith should condemn me to hell, I would have no regrets.

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