I would like to thank the members of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple for allowing me the opportunity to go to the Institute of Buddhist Studies during September 7 – 14 to attend the lectures given by Professor Takamaro Shigaraki who was also one of my main professors while I studied at the Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan. I would like to try to re-create his lecture for all of you in The Myokyo. Dr. Shigaraki is a very innovative thinker and has a unique and refreshingly contemporary approach to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism which I believe will benefit all of us attempting to understand the essence of Nembutsu here in our modern American society.

The Essence of Shin Buddhism

Dr. Takamaro Shigaraki

Professor Emeritus, Ryukoku University

“Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself; do not depend upon anyone else.

Make my teachings your light. Rely upon them; do not depend upon any other teaching.”

Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, the Teaching of the Buddha, p. 18.



1. Teachings of Gautama Buddha (463-383 BCE)

Shinran Shonin’s Teachings are firmly based upon the teachings of Gautama (Sakyamuni) Buddha. Although Shinran lived some 1400 -1500 years after the death of the Buddha, it was his clear intent to teach the essence of the Buddha’s teachings to all people. Let us first discuss briefly the teachings of Buddhism from the time of Sakyamuni Buddha up to Shinran.

The Buddha’s Final Words:

The Buddha lived to the age of 80. On his death bed, he called his disciples around him and gave his last sermon. This is recorded in a sutra called the Yugyo-kyo The following are considered to be the words of his last teaching:

“Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself; do not depend upon anyone else.

Make my teachings your light. Rely upon them; do not depend upon any other teaching.”

Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, the Teaching of the Buddha, p. 18.

These words clearly establish the fundamental principles of Buddhism. Basically there are two major principles brought out in the Buddha’s final words.

The first is the emphasis on the self reflected in the words, “Make of yourself a light.” We are not living lives that have been selected or chosen for us by some other being or power. Another way of saying it is that we have been born into this world endowed by life. Each individual person is living a life which has been given to us. Although there may be many forms of suffering, anxiety, confusion and contradictions in our life, areas where we may have no control or determination, fundamentally each one of us bears the self-responsibility to live a life of choice and to make this self-responsibility as our “Light.”

In addition the other light that the Buddha encourages us to rely upon is the Dharma, the universal principle that pervades all humanity, world and universe. It penetrates all places and at all times so that it can be understood by all. Thus the Buddha in his final words, encourages us to live our lives by taking this Dharma also as our light.

In order to make this easier to understand, let us use the following diagram.

The vertical axis represents the self, our own lives and the sense of responsibility to live our lives. Yet within our human lives, our ego asserts itself and thus we make decisions and judgments based upon what is favorable to ourselves. What is important according to the Buddha is that we allow the horizontal axis representing the Dharma or the Universal Principle to become established and take root in our lives. How this occurs is the fundamental teaching of the Buddha. Although it is extremely difficult to attain, through learning and effort of practicing the Buddha’s teachings we can come to allow this universal principle to come into our lives.

The Buddha was able to attain the realization where the horizontal Universal principle (Dharma) crosses into his vertical egoistic life. This is his attainment of enlightenment. He left for us a teaching which allows us to realize this point of crossing. In other words the point of crossing is where one becomes a Buddha. This brings us to the next point then:

What is the Buddha?

The word Buddha comes from the sanskrit verb, buddh meaning to awaken. The noun form is Buddha thus means one who has awakened. In other words the Buddha is one who has awakened to truth (universal principle) that pervades the world and all humanity. It has thus come to mean the most ideal “person” in the world and humanity. What is the meaning of this awakening then?

In order to examine this problem we need to deal with a very distinct feature of Eastern thought. In terms of human mental functioning of knowing, there are two kinds.

1. chishiki, vijnana – Consciousness, general thinking

This is the general way of knowing that we encounter. We classify things in terms of one who sees and the object that is seen. The vijnana mental consciousness operates in the realm of “normal thinking.” It is based upon the fundamental distinction that is made between the seer and the seen or the object. This discrimination occurs at either a subjective or objective level.

In our normal everyday lives when we see something like a flower or a tulip, ordinarily we are moved from the standpoint of our own thoughts and feelings. For instance, at the subjective level, I may view a tulip and say that I dislike tulip but like carnations. The mental function is based upon this discriminative consciousness. The action may be only seeing a flower, but our ego-self also comes to the surface. This occurs in a variety of instances every day of our lives. Ultimately in a very concrete sense there are two completely distinct entities. Although this may appear to be limited to a subjective case, this type of discriminative consciousness operates in a more objective level as in science. Science also operates from the distinction of the subject-object, seer and seen level of discrimination. Even though science may view or analyze a flower in ways other that liking it or disliking it, or of taking a third person perspective, still it is based upon this fundamental discriminative consciousness. For example when science tries to answer the question of “what is a tulip?”, the answer can be approached from a variety of ways. It can be approached from the perspective of a bulb originating in Holland, later being planted in the fall, and in the spring the flower blooms. But the classification and perspectives of analysis is still clearly defined and the separation of the seer and object is distinct.

This kind of discriminative thinking or knowledge is what Buddhism calls vijnana.

In contrast to vijnana, the second kind of “knowing” is:

2. chie, prajna – Wisdom

In this case, the mental functioning works where the seer and object become absolutely one entity. “When I see the tulip, I become the tulip and the tulip becomes me.” This is the sense of awakening that is being discussed in terms of the word Buddh. It involves the sense of becoming.

Again, this idea of the seer and the seen becoming one is difficult to understand. Normally we look at it in terms of a simple relationship, but it is more than that. To deeply see means that, for instance, if I deeply see a flower, the life of the flower becomes my life and my life becomes the life of the flower. Coming to know and realize the meaning of this existence is the meaning of awakening.

For example if we were to go to a flower shop and see many tulips, we would know in a common sense way that each tulip has a price. This is operating in the mental function of vijnana. If one tulip cost a certain amount, than all tulips cost the same amount. But this is not the true functioning of wisdom, prajna. We are not seeing the true meaning of the existence of that tulip. Rather to deeply see, means to become aware of the unique un-repeatable and valuable existence of the tulip becoming myself. And I see the un-repeatable invaluable nature of the tulip not being the same as all other tulips but rather in it own infinite uniqueness.

In Primitive Buddhism, it was taught that eating meat, fish, or eggs or killing other living things is a grave sin. Therefore it was taught to refrain from eating all kinds of living things. This custom still is observed in some parts of India. But in the true experience of awakening, it is not simply to know that all living things have a unique value and life, but more importantly, it is to take the standpoint of that living being, become that living being. And in realizing that I have been committing terrible acts against these living beings is the awakening involved in the act of killing living things.

Thus during the time of Gautama Buddha in India, the term sattva – beings or having life, came to embrace all animals including human beings, cows, fish, birds. All animals were regarded as having a life identical as one’s own. In China, this was expanded to include plants like daikon, carrot, potato etc. The life of a carrot is no different that my life. In Japan this sense of being included all things, even rocks and pebbles. All things have a life in common with one’s self.

As we approach the 21st Century with the development of science and technology, with the growing destruction of the environment, this Buddhist sense of awakening, seeing that all things have life that is of identical value as one’s own, is extremely important to have and nurture.

In conclusion, in terms of the mental functioning, at a very deep level, where the vertical axis of the ego crosses into the horizontal level of the Dharma is the most profound sense of awakening. Living within this sense of awakening is the most ideal person in the world and humanity which is the Buddha, the awakened one.

The Buddhist Teaching of Awakening

The Buddha taught us about Awakening. This awakening means that each person is able to realize the true sense of becoming a human being. This involves one’s maturing in a progressive form. This involves on one hand a Personal self-renewal that is a casting off of one’s old self just as a snake sheds its own skin. It is to discard one’s self centered way of thinking and living, of abandoning one’s objective way of looking at the world and coming to see others within the sense of awakening of becoming one with all things. At the same this abandoning is becoming and the becoming is abandoning. Becoming then means a personal growth or maturing, becoming a true human being. It is this sense that Buddhism directs us to attain this crossing of the vertical axis and horizontal axis which is a life of becoming, a life of awakening.

Buddhism teaches us to question the very foundation of our human life and the way we live. Through the Dharma, he teaches us of the possibility of change, that each of us can realize change and it allows us to mature and grow. Through learning the Dharma, little by little, we become a true being. Religions generally begin with a presumption of the existence of an absolute god or being. We are taught to follow the teachings and heart of that absolute being, and to live in a relationship with that absolute being. In a sense then we take on an identity solely dependent on the absolute being or god. Buddhism is completely in contrast to this way of thinking. Rather, the Buddha teaches us to question ourselves, and thereby become ourselves.

This concludes the discussion of the Fundamental Principles of Buddhism in a very limited sense.