There are hundreds of sects and denominations of Buddhism in the world. One common thread that ties them together is the Three Treasures (also called the Threefold Refuge): Buddha (the Awakened One), Dharma (the Law or Truth, i.e., the Buddha’s teachings) and Sangha (the Buddhist order). A Buddhist is one who takes refuge in these Three Treasures.
There have been countless numbers of Buddhas, individuals who have awakened to the Truth. That which distinguishes the Sakyamuni Buddha (the Buddha of the Sakya Clan), the “founder” of Buddhism, can be seen in examining the next two treasures, Dharma and Sangha
Within the Dharma and Sangha we find the personal significance to the path of freedom, discovered or rediscovered by Siddhartha Gautama. After his enlightenment, Sakyamuni Buddha personally stated that what he discovered was nothing new. The Truth had always been in existence. He had merely rediscovered it. Through the Dharma and the acceptance of this Truth as a result of personal introspection, the Dharma came to life.
After his enlightenment, Sakyamuni Buddha was not sure that this path to freedom could be understood by all mankind. He felt that mans attachment to the ego was so strong that it would be virtually impossible to break from the bonds of self-centeredness and to realize, true compassion.
The legends state that as he was contemplating whether or not to share the fruits of his enlightenment, two merchants, Tappussa and Bhallika, came and expressed their reverence towards him. Standing to one side they said, “Oh, Bhagavat (wise one), we request you accept this offering of wheat cake and honey cake on our behalf and help us attain peace and lasting benefit.” The two merchants then prostrated themselves at his feet by touching their foreheads to the ground and stated, “Here we pledge our homage to the venerable master and Dharma. Oh, venerable one, please receive us as lay followers. From this day hence until the time of our death, we shall pay homage.” This was the first identification of the Buddha and Dharma, the first two of the Three Treasures. With this incident as proof of humanity’s potential to learn and benefit from his teaching, Sakyamuni Buddha traveled to Deer Park to share his discovery with the five fellow seekers who were still practicing the ascetic rituals that he had given up.
The content of this first sermon given by the Sakyamuni Buddha to his five companions is known as “shiten borin” setting the wheel of Dharma in motion. The contents of this sermon can be summarized as the Four Noble Truths. (1) There is suffering in our lives, as expressed in his first concerns of the eight suffering, which had lead him to begin his search. (2) This suffering is caused by our attachment to ego. The desire that the changing will become unchanging causes suffering. (3) It is possible to gain freedom from this suffering. If we can understand the true nature of ourselves and see the cause of our attachment to ego, we can find liberation from this cycle of suffering. (4) The Eightfold Noble Path is the process to transcend this cycle of suffering. The path is composed of Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Meditation.
After hearing the Sakyamuni Buddha extol this teaching, each of his companions came to realize enlightenment. They took vows to follow the Sakyamuni Buddha and to share their understanding with others. This is traditionally viewed as the beginning of the Sangha, the Buddhist order.
For the next forty-five years, the Sakyamuni Buddha continued to teach the Truth that he awakened to under the Bodhi Tree. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, it is written that at the time of the Buddha’s death, he told those gathered, after my death, the Dharma will be your teacher. Throughout his life the Buddha stressed the flow of wisdom and compassion as a dynamic activity reaching out to embrace each of us. Without the Dharma, and Sangha, at the time of the Sakyamuni Buddha’s death, this compassionate flow of the Truth may have stopped. However, with the Dharma as our teacher, this compassionate flow continues to reach out and embrace each and every one of us.
Over those forty-five years of teaching, the Sakyamuni Buddha spoke of the Truth to which he had awakened under the Bodhi Tree. His method was to teach the Truth in such a manner that each individual would understand the Truth according to their individual capacity. After his death, these teachings were compiled, interpreted, and eventually became the foundation stones upon which each of the various denominations and sects of Buddhism developed their various practices. This compilation is known as the Tripitaka (Three Baskets). Although each particular denomination or sect may emphasize a certain aspect or interpretation of the Dharma, the first sermon by the Sakyamuni Buddha becomes the starting point of each.
Our Jodo Shinshu tradition bases its teachings upon the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, the Meditation Sutra and Amida Sutra. These three sutras are collectively referred to as the Three Pure Land Sutras.
As mentioned in the account of the Sakyamuni Buddha’s meeting with the two merchants, Tappussa and Bhallika, they encouraged the Buddha to share his teaching with all of us.
However, traditionally, Tappussa and Bhallika would not be considered to be a part of the Sangha. The Sangha was limited to the fellowship of Buddhist monks and nuns. Therefore, Tappussa and Bhallika, householders and merchants, would have been excluded. From a very orthodox view of the Sangha, it is only with the Sakyamuni’s preaching to his five friends and their acceptance and decision to join Sakyamuni Buddha, that the Sangha was established.
It was a prerequisite to give up home and family and adhere to the precepts as a monk or nun to be counted amongst the Sangha. Up to the time of Honen Shonin in 1100s in Japan and even today, in some schools of Buddhism, enlightenment is only possible for those who had renounced their life in society and become monks or nuns.
However, with Honen Shonin and Shinran Shonin’s break from the monastic tradition of Mt. Hiei, a new view of the Sangha developed. Through the development of the Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu doctrine, enlightenment was made accessible to the lay follower. Tappussa and Bhallika had venerated the Sakyamuni Buddha many centuries earlier, but lay followers were not considered to be a part of the Sangha. It was a result of the Nembutsu teaching, that Enlightenment for everyone became a reality. Shinran has written, Amida Buddha (Buddha of Infinite Life & Light)’s Primal Vow does not discriminate between the young and old, good and evil; true entrusting alone is essential.
From a Jodo Shinshu standpoint, the Sangha would encompass all the followers of the Nembutsu path. In one of Shinrans letters, he wrote, All those who listen to the Nembutsu teachings are equal, we are all fellow travelers, reverently following the path, the hearts of those who believe in Jodo Shinshu are the same. With this view, the Sangha of our Betsuin encompasses all who walk this path, blazed by Sakyamuni Buddha over 2600 years ago.
Shinran Shonin, the founder of our sect of Buddhism wrote in one of his poems, The true intention of the Tathagata (Sakyamuni Buddha) in coming to this world is to present the truth of the Original Vow. Shinran Shonin struggled for 20 years at the Tendai Monastery located on Mt. Hiei as a monk in that tradition. During his lifetime and for many years before and after, Mt. Hiei was the central institution of Buddhism in Japan. Almost all major sects of Japanese Buddhism can be traced to Mt. Hiei. While on Mt. Hiei, Shinran studied and practiced the prescribed Buddhist rituals which he believed would lead the follower to enlightenment. However, over those twenty years of practice and study, Shinran did not find his way to spiritual freedom.
In his quest for a path to spiritual emancipation, Shinran came to hear about his future teacher, Honen. Honen, also known as Genku, had studied on Mt. Hiei and had abandoned the monastic life style to spread the teaching of the Nembutsu. Honen saw the Nembutsu as being the way for common people to find spiritual emancipation. Up until this time, the Buddhist teachings were reserved for those who left their families and took precepts to become monks or nuns. In Honen Shonin, Shinran found a teacher (Zenchishiki), who would guide him on the path to his religious liberation.
After years of study and reflection, Honen Shonin selected the 18th vow among the 48 vows in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra established by Amida Buddha when still the Bodhisattva Dharmacara as the path for spiritual liberation and eventual enlightenment for the common person. The 18th vow stated, When upon obtaining Buddhahood, all the beings in the ten quarters who, with sincerity of heart, hold faith and wish to be born in my country, repeating my name up to ten times, are not so born, I will not attain the Highest Enlightenment. Excluded only are those who committed the five deadly sins and those who have abused the true Dharma. Through Honen Shonins guidance, Shinran understood that the way to his own spiritual freedom was not through his calculated efforts but through the working of Amida Buddhas vow power (ganriki). He constantly worked to lead all sentient beings to enlightenment.
At the instant of this realization, which Shinran called shinjin, he knew that the self-powered practices (jiriki) towards enlightenment were not paths that were effaceable for him. It was through the working of Amida Buddhas vow that his salivation was established and possible. As a common foolish being (bombu) in the age of the Decadent Dharma (mappo) his basic nature, characterized by greed, anger and ignorance (bonno) was such that his ability to attain enlightenment was severely limited. Yet, through the wondrous working of True Compassion and True Wisdom, directed to him by Amida Buddha as promised in the 18th vow, (other power, tariki), he was assured of attaining enlightenment. Through entrusting oneself to Amida Buddha and the recitation of Amidas name, which comes to sentient beings as the Nembutsu, Namo Amida Butsu (entrust oneself to Amida Buddha), any and all beings could attain enlightenment just as Sakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha before him. This realization is called shinjin and is the central focus of the Jodo Shinshu Teaching.
To live a life of gratitude is often said to be the Jodo Shinshu way of life. This expresses our gratitude to the countless causes and conditions that have come together to enable us to hear the teachings of Jodo Shinshu. The practice of Jodo Shinshu is to hear the teachings (Monpo). This life of gratitude is based upon the power of Amida Buddhas vow, extended to all sentient beings, whether high or low born, monk or laymen. This expresses the Universality of the Jodo Shinshu way of life. This view leads us into the Jodo Shinshu view of the third of the three treasures, the Sangha.