I’ve been reading a small book written by D. T. Suzuki titled, Shin Buddhism. Dr. Suzuki, well known in the West as the man who introduced Zen Buddhism to America, is less known for the work he did concerning Shin Buddhism. According to the biographical page of the book mentioned above, his first publication on Shin was in 1911. It was titled, Self-Power and Other-Power. What I like best about Dr. Suzuki’s writings on Shin are that he is not bound to any particular tradition, meaning that he is not worried about following the “traditional” doctrine of Nishi or Higashi Hongwanji. His interpretations draw many analogies and comparisons with Western philosophers and even Christian religious thinkers. His own background of study in America allowed him to do this with ease and yet great energy and enthusiasm.
One aspect of practicing Buddhism in this country is not found in any Japanese tradition because a general awareness about Buddhism exists for people in Japan. I’ve heard many times from non-Buddhists here questions about wanting to know “What is it like to be Buddhist?” “Why do you feel it is better than our religion (meaning Christianity)?”
Dr. Suzuki addresses this unique mind-set in his book. He writes:
“Somebody asked a Buddhist teacher, “A bird who has broken through the net—what does he eat?” . . . We usually find ourselves bound up with all kinds of nets, most of them made by ourselves. the nets may not really exist, but we imagine we are trapped in them. Now this bird—that is, one of us who has been spiritually enlightened,—is the one who has broken through the nets. The bird is, by the way of analogy, the spiritually free man. When the Buddhist teacher was asked, “What would be the food that this bird eats?” he meant: What kind of life would a really free, spiritually enlightened man need? One who has full belief in the myogo, one who is possessed by Amida, what sort of life would he lead? What kind of man would he be?
“That’s the kind of question we often ask, in fact most of us or all of us ask the question, though it does not concern us at all. What’s the use of trying to know such things instead of being those things ourselves? Because we are so curiously made, we always try to ask questions which do not really concern us. That is the frailty of human nature, but at the same time it points up how significantly our human life is distinct from animal life. Animals don’t ask such questions.
“The master said to his questioner, “You come through the net yourself. Then I will tell you.” When one has “come through the net” he needs no telling. He knows himself. So instead of asking the idle question, “What would be the life of one who is really spiritually free?” why don’t you free yourself spiritually, and see what kind of life it is? In the same way a person asks, “What will be the life of a Shin devotee?” Or nowadays Americans often ask me. “What significance does the message of Buddhism have for our modern life?” Instead of being informed about all the advantages that accrue from the objective—for instance, in Shinshu’s case, myogo—we may explain all kinds of benefits, all kinds of advantages, material or otherwise, which come from the belief in myogo. Rather, you should just accept myogo and try to live it. Or instead of trying, just live it. Then you will know what it means.
This is what distinguishes religious life from worldly life, or relative life. In relative life we want to know beforehand all that may come after we have done this or that. Then we expect a certain outcome. But in religious life we accept and know, at the same time living that which is beyond knowledge and knowing becomes living. This kind of difference sharply divides religious life from worldly life. In fact, there is no such thing as spiritual life distinguished from worldly life. Worldly life is spiritual life, and spiritual life is worldly life.”
Dr. Suzuki’s ability to provide the unique view of a Buddhist follower in the midst of a Western world has the wonderful effect of providing an open door into some of the seemingly mystical aspects of Shin Buddhism. Like Zen, I believe that the more knowledgeable Shinshu teachers become about understanding Western philosophy and psychology, the better we will be able to open Shinshu to the west.
In any case, we must address the tendency for western minds to take for granted the absolute validity of the dichotomy of a scientific viewpoint which artificially divides the world into subject (the observer) and object (that which is observed). To know the benefit of a spiritual life one must experience it for oneself.