Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sangha as spiritual friendship


It is recorded in the Samyutta Nikaya that one day, Ananda said to the Buddha:

“Venerable One, I thought a great deal and reached the conclusion that spiritual friendship is half of the spiritual life!”
The Buddha answered: “Don’t talk this way, Ananda. Spiritual friendship is everything in the spiritual life!”

Starting from the above passage, which produced a deep impression on me, I made a personal search into the classical texts of our school for the meaning of sangha.

Any group is founded on a common interest of its members, which in the case of sangha is a spiritual one. Rennyo Shonin made this very clear in many of his letters and drastically criticized the behaviour of his contemporaries when they turned their meetings into worldly gatherings:


„Although there have been “meetings” everywhere each month, from the past up until now, there has never been anything at all that might be called a discussion of faith. In recent years in particular, when there have been meetings (wherever they have been), everyone has dispersed after nothing more than sake, rice, and tea. This is indeed contrary to the fundamental intent of the Buddha-Dharma.

Although each of those lacking faith  should by all means raise their doubts and discuss what it is to have faith or be without it, they take their leave without coming to any conclusions. This is not as it should be. You must carefully reflect on this matter. In brief, it is essential that each of those lacking faith  have discussions of faith with one another from now on.[1]

So nembutsu meetings between spiritual friends should be held for Dharma reasons only, for clearing our doubts and misunderstandings and for receiving shinjin.

It is said that among the three kinds of offering[2] or dana, the offering of Dharma is supreme, even more important than the saving of life, because through the Dharma one becomes free of birth and death. Thus, to help each other understand the Dharma is the best thing we can do for one another. It is an act of compassion even if we remain unenlightened people with ego centered personalities for the rest of our lives.

Shinran Shonin quotes the following passage in his Kyogyoshinsho, from The Sutra of Great Compassion[3]:

“What is 'great compassion'? Those who continue solely in the nembutsu without any interruption will thereby be born without fail in the land of happiness at the end of life.  If these people encourage each other and bring others to say the Name, they are all called "people who practice great compassion."

Why is the encouragement of saying the Name in faith an act of compassion? Shinran says - because „the nembutsu alone is true and real[4],” because nembutsu is the only escape from repeated births and deaths in which we have been caught since the beginingless time; because nembutsu is not the creation of our unenlightened minds, but the ship Amida manifested to carry us from samsara to Nirvana. It is true and real, because the effect of nembutsu is the uncreated reality of Buddhahood that we’ll experience upon birth in the Pure Land.

To help one another entrust in the nembutsu is the only true help we can receive and give to others. This is indeed the meaning of genuine spiritual friendship.

Also nembutsu friendship is deeply rooted in equality:

„To come together, sit around, and talk to each other regardless of different rank and social status is consistent with (Shinran) Shonin’s remark, within the four seas, those who share the same Faith are all brothers.’ My sole wish is that if we are sitting together, those who have questions may ask us about the teaching and aquire Faith.”[5]

This equality is not related to status or rank only, but also to wisdom or learning, as we clearly see from the Postcript of Tannisho when Shinran Shonin says that between him and his Master Honen, there is no difference in shinjin, although Honen posseses greater knowledge and learning.

Unlike other Buddhist schools, in Jodo Shinshu there are no gurus nor superior lamas and teachers, but only friends on the path. This is because everything we receive - shinjin and nembutsu - comes from Amida Buddha. Here the teachers are only good friends and guides, and everybody can be the teacher of others if he or she has already received shinjin from Amida.

We become spiritual friends in the sangha because the matter of birth and death is important to us, because we share the same interest in learning the Dharma and the same faith in Amida Buddha. Nobody is enlightened among us, nobody is even near to Enlightement, so nobody is superior to one another. This is why, for example, in our dojo there are no special Dharma chairs for teachers and we sit on the same level when chanting or listening the Dharma.

Spiritual friendship means that we go hand in hand, heart in heart, with the same mind and aspiration, having the Buddha and the Dharma as guides. Our meeting in this life might be the fruition of many lives of helping one another and practicing the Dharma together, as Seikaku said it so beautifully in his Essentials of Faith Alone:

„Becoming true friends through many lives, we bring each other to the practice of the Buddha-way, and as true teachers in each life, we will together sunder all delusion and attachment.”

And the best part of this friendship is that it never ends, but continues even after death and birth in Sukhavati:

 If I am behind, I will be guided by others; If I go first, I will guide others.”[6]

Our nembutsu friends accompany us in this life and watch over us from beyond until we all meet again as Buddhas in Sukhavati.

Namo Amida Butsu



[1] Letter 12 On Semimonthly  Meetings, fascicle IV from Rennyo Shonin Ofumi.
[2] The three kinds of offering are: the offering of material gifts like food, drink, clothes, the offering of life and the offering of Dharma (Dharma dana).
[3] KGSS, chapter 3, section on the true disciple of the Buddha.

[4] Shinran is quoted as saying, in the Postscript of Tannisho:
„I know nothing at all of good or evil. For if I could know thoroughly, as Amida Tathagata knows, that an act was good, then I would know good. If I could know thoroughly, as the Tathagata knows, that an act was evil, then I would know evil. But with a foolish being full of blind passions, in this fleeting world- this burning house- all matters without exception are empty and false, totally without truth and sincerity. The nembutsu alone is true and real.”
[5] Thus I Have Heard from Rennyo Shonin, translated by Zuio Hisao Inagaki; printed by Dharma Lion Publications, 2008.
[6] Seikaku in the same Essentials of Faith Alone.

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