The heart of Shin Buddhist practice is, I believe, to live your life. To live your life mindfully, purposefully, and with compassion, to recognize that each and every person is embraced by the wisdom and the compassion of the Buddha, and, as such, you should treat them accordingly.
This is no easy task.
Nagarjuna famously claimed that there are two paths of practice: the difficult path, and the easy path. Shin Buddhism, as a Pure Land school, is on the easy path, and to the extent that “practice” is simply to “live you life,” I suppose there’s something easy about that. But to live your life each and every day, moment by moment, recognizing the inherent Buddha-nature in everyone I meet? Including everyone from my wife and daughter to random strangers? The morally bankrupt? Violent criminals?
Our lives are finite; we are fortunate to have been given this time. And we don’t have a lot of it. We ought to recognize this gift and, as Nagarjuna said, practice like our hair is on fire.
Shin practice is not easy. It forces us to reevaluate our assumptions about the spiritual life. Being spiritual is not something you do occasionally, at a retreat or in a temple or a zendo. If practice is to live your life, then it really is “off the cushion.” In fact, Shin Buddhists don’t even have cushions. There are no meditation retreats. There’s no time to practice practice. You’re always practicing. I am practicing right now, as I write this. You are practicing as you read it.
Someday, you’re going to get stuck in traffic, or in some tedious meeting at work. Or maybe you’ll have to call your bank or your cable company, negotiate a confusing phone tree, and then talk to an incompetent customer service representative. You’ll find yourself growing impatient, maybe even angry. Guess what? You’re practicing. And you’ve got to find a way to meet each of those moments with humility and compassion. Those other drivers? The boring meeting? That customer service rep? They’re all Buddhas. Treat them like it.
Also, you don’t have any special abilities that anyone else doesn’t have. You’re exactly the same as everyone else. You have just as many as faults and imperfections as the customer service rep you’re losing patience with; and he probably thinks you’re an idiot. And he might be right. You need to come to terms with that, with the bald fact that our ideas about ourselves are largely a product of our own minds and have no basis in reality. Everything is a matter is of perspective. Judging others as “good” or “bad” is a pointless waste of time.
Shinran Shonin, once said that the Buddha Amitabha’s vow to save all beings was for him and him alone, which seems to suggest that the Shin path is open only to him, not to everyone. Rev. Bridge, though, believes that this attitude represents a radical subjectivity. Shinran is not saying that the Buddhist path is only for him; rather, Shinran can only speak for Shinran. He cannot know the complex workings of karma that have affected others’ lives; all he knows is his own life, his own mind. This is a model for how we live our lives. With humility and compassion.
Shin Buddhism is rooted in the story of the Buddha of Infinite Light, Amitabha. As a bodhisattva, Amitabha made a series of vows promising to lead all sentient beings to awakening, without distinction. Let me repeat that. The Buddha Amitabha promises to lead all sentient beings to awakening, without distinction. It does not matter your karmic burdens or conditions. You are embraced by the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. Now, I know what you’re thinking. What does that mean? Does that mean that there’s some transcendental, cosmic, Santa-Claus-esque being out there, watching over me? Overlooking my transgressions? I don’t know. I don’t think it matters, really. I think the important lesson to take from this story is not its literal truth but its deeper meaning. I’ll say it again. The Buddha leads all sentient beings to awakening, without distinction. This is how you live your life. If all sentient beings are good enough for the Buddha, they’re good enough for you. Treat them accordingly. Treat them with the respect and courtesy you’d give any Buddha. Without distinction.
What is Shin Buddhist practice? Live your life. Every moment of every day, live your life with compassion and mindfulness, treating all people you meet like Buddhas. And do it now. Time’s a-wasting. And your hair is on fire.