Guidelines for talking to non-Buddhists

by Dr. Ken Tanaka*

What is Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism?

It is a religion of awareness.


What does one become aware of?

That 1) Life is a 'bumpy' road, 2) Life is impermanent, 3) Life is interdependent, and 4) life can be joyful. These are the basic truths of life understood by all schools of Buddhism. But Shinshu teaching also stresses the need to become aware of one's own nature which is a) incomplete, b) foolish, and c) powerless when striving to realize Buddhahood by one's own power.


Isn't Shinshu teaching a little pessimistic then?

No, it's realistic, and it provides assurance of enlightenment. You must remember, the the goal of all Buddhists is to become a Buddha (One who has become completely aware), and from the perspective of this extremely high standard, our human nature is, surely, far from perfect. Without acknowledging this fact, to some degree, a person will not fully appreciate the Dharma (Teaching) or any true religion for that matter.

Name, Title


What happens when you become more aware?

We try to live each moment fully with deep appreciation for all beings and things that sustain and nurture our lives. We come to realize that life is a privilege and not a right. When such awareness deepens, we naturally work for the betterment of all beings, not just humans, as an expression of our concern and appreciation. When this awareness leads to a fundamental transformation within, it is called Shinjin (awareness, faith, or entrusting).


What does the statue in the shrine represent?

It represents Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Boundless Life and Boundless Light, a personification (in human characteristics) of universal compassion and wisdom.


Is Amida some kind of God?

What do you mean by God? (Note: We should not simply assume that the questioner is confident in his own understanding of what he means by God; many questioners are often not as certain or knowledgeable as we expect. Discussions have proven more lively and meaningful when I began asking the questioner about what he or she means by God. After the questioner responds, we can speak about Amida.)

Amida Buddha is pure selfless compassion and wisdom qualities also attributed to God in Christianity. But Amida is not considered a supreme being who created the universe and now resides in heaven to watch over me, judging my thoughts and actions in this life according to some divine standard.

Instead, Amida is the dynamic spiritual power manifesting as wisdom and compassion that I am made aware of in the ordinary experience of my daily life. Wisdom helps me to see myself and life as they really are, not just as I wish them to be. Compassion enhances my appreciation for things and assures me that I am embraced by a wider community and not forsaken as an isolated individual.

Name, Title


So Amida has nothing to do with the creation of the universe?

That's right. Though knowledge is important in our lives. Our knowing how the world/universe began (even if it could be known for sure) does not help us to attain the main Shinshu goal of true awareness or enlightenment. To be overly concerned about creation reminds us of the famous Poison Arrow parable in which a dying man shot with a poison arrow would not allow the physician to pull out the arrow until he got answers to such questions as the type of arrow and the background of the man who shot him.


So, your understanding is not one of worshiping an idol?

That's right. The statue is a symbol or representation of wisdom and compassion; it does not possess magical or supernatural power. However, the statue can help to evoke in us deeply religious feelings. Amida's facial expression conveys warmth and reassurance. The statue leans slightly forward, reminding us of the cosmic compassion that is constantly at work to embrace and awaken us.

Name, Title


What happens after you die?

People of Shinjin-awareness no longer worry seriously about life after death because they are at peace within themselves. According to our founder, Shinran Shonin (1173-1263), we are assured of realizing Oneness (nirvana) immediately upon death in becoming one with the cosmic wisdom and compassion. Then, as part of the dynamic benefit of Oneness, we help liberate all beings. Oneness is the dynamic cycle of compassion, like the river water that flows into the ocean only to eventually return as rain water to nourish the plants and all other living beings.


How does your idea of Pure Land fit in with all this?

The Pure Land is the same as Oneness or nirvana. It's a more concrete and aesthetically appealing way of speaking about the same truth.


Do Shinshu followers believe in reincarnation?

Some do and some don't. Some take it literally, while others see it symbolically.

The idea of reincarnation goes back to India but it is also esteemed by many Western thinkers, past ad present. Belief in reincarnation is not part of the core teaching in Shinsu and thus is not a requirement for the realization of the most important goal, Shinjin-awareness.

In my view. The idea of reincarnation (we prefer transformation) is an attempt to explain two fundamental aspect of our existence. First, the essence of an individual's life is far greater than just the years we live in this present life. Each person is the product of myriad causes and conditions that have interacted from the beginning of time with all other living things in the universe in a wondrous interrelationship that defies rational understanding. Second, it attempts to show us that our self-centered ways have been deeply ingrained in us that it has taken countless previous lives for the right conditions to mature. By that I mean we are finally fortunate to meet up with the Dharma in this life and find ourselves on the verge of enlightenment.


What kind of practice do you do?

Our teaching does not prescribe any one particular form of practice as many other Buddhist schools do, such as sitting meditation, since it is not our action that directly causes our enlightenment. However. It does not mean we do nothing. In our daily affairs we strive for awareness of our self-centered imperfections and our indebtedness to our family and friends, the community, and the world.

Name, Title


What is Karma?

It does not mean fate as is so often misunderstood. There are numerous ways to explain karma, but basically it means our mental and spiritual well-being is determined by our own actions (karma) and not by fate, chance, miracles, or a divine being. By cultivating correct awareness about life, we gain a balance within the ups and downs of life and remain generally at peace within ourselves.

Karma works somewhat like a computer database. By entering and storing more correct information in the database, we expand our capability to meet new challenges that may arise. For example, by entering the concept of impermanence into the database, one is better able to cope with changes in one's life (e.g. aging, illness, or divorce) and thus grow from these very experiences inspired by the conviction that karma is full of possibilities.


Are there monks and nuns in Shinshu?

No, Shinshu is essentially a layperson's movement. Shinran Shonin was a monk until the age of 29 years, but he found the monastic life spiritually unfulfilling. He left the order after he found a Buddhist path that could be traversed by everyone. Later he married and raised a family. As a layman-priest, he worked tirelessly to spread the teaching to all, regardless of whether they were monks or laypersons. The Shinshu priesthood has from the beginning allowed married clergy, because what is ultimately important is not one's deeds (following precepts or practicing meditation) but attitude (Shinjin-awareness).


Going back to Amida, what does he do if he did not create the world or judge our actions like the Christian God?

The essence of Amida is boundless compassion and wisdom, as the name indicates, (Note: The name Amida is a combination of Amitayus (Boundless Life or Infinite Compassion) and Amitabha (Boundless Light or Infinite Wisdom)). The statue of Amida, therefore, is not a anthropomorphic (human-like) representation of a deity to be worshipped. The importance of the form is the deeper meaning it represents: boundless compassion for all living beings.

Name, Title


What does that mean?

For me, personally, it means that when I say I have faith in Amida Buddha I mean that I have faith in the boundless compassionate reality that embraces my life now as well as after death.


What other meanings do you see in Amida?

I find Amida in my daily experience of awe and appreciation for the life-giving realities that, whether we are aware of then or not, produce, nurture, and sustain life: the DNA molecules, the sunshine, the rain, the oxygen in the air we breathe, just to name a few.

Also, I can't forget to mention the beauty and grandeur of nature that enhances the aesthetic quality of my life; and last but not least, the inextricable bond I have with my family members and true friends, which is so painfully precious.

I also find Amida in the negatives of life, such as the funeral of a cherish friend, who died at a young age. In my anger, sorrow and eventual acceptance, I am gently led to see life as it really is and not just as I would like to see it. The funeral experience is another reminder for me to cherish the present and contribute, in my own small way, to alleviating suffering in its various forms.

From the Shinshu view these ideals are difficult, if not impossible, for any Buddhist to fully actualize, but they serve to point the way. And in the process of trying to live up to the ideals of seeing reality and alleviating suffering, one surely is humbled in the realization that my very existence is indebted to the myriad conditions that pervade the universe.

Even this very realization, in the final analysis, originated from beyond the self; it was endowed through the insights and knowledge imparted to me by my parents, teachers, books I've read, and all other legacies of the community to which I belong.

This boundless and ever-expanding everyday compassion reflects what Amida means to me. Amida is not a transcendent (far, yonder) supreme being, but the immanent (here and now) fundamental reality that was there all along, of which I am a part, like a wave is to the ocean waters. I was just too wise and too busy to notice.

When these meanings are felt deeply within, I find myself reciting the Nembutsu, Namo Amida Butsu (Buddha and I are one), as a spontaneous expression of my appreciation and amazement for all that is!

Name, Title

Note on source:

All questions and answers were taken from Rev. Kenneth K. Tanaka, PhD's Guidelines for Talking With Non-Buddhists published in 1992 by the Buddhist Churches of America. If you would like further explanation or have additional questions, please feel free to contact the our Temple office ((808) 622-4320) or...

To order copies of this pamphlet, contact:

The Department of Buddhist Education       1710 Octavia St.

San Francisco, CA 94109 or

call: 415.776.5600

*Dr. Kenneth Tanaka

Mr. Tanaka is a scholar, author, translator and ordained Shin Buddhist priest. He is author and editor of many articles and books on modern Buddhism.