Q: How is Amida-Shu different from typical Western Buddhism?
A: In many ways. The emphasis on other power, on the bombu paradigm, and on the Pure Land all come immediately to mind. Our perception of Buddhism as religion and willingness to deal with questions of faith, grace, salvation and prayer also marks a difference of style.
Q: How do you regard Buddhism in relation to other faiths?
A: Different religions are all catering for the fundamentally spiritual nature of humankind. None are perfect. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. We like to find common ground but also to learn from one another. Religions, like people, are bombu. We all have room to go on learning. Conflict between people on religious grounds is a nonsense. What is one fighting over - that one form of love is better than another? Amida-Shu provides a generic form of spirituality that is quite inclusive.
Q: Does this mean that it is easier for Amida-Shu to make common cause with other faiths than with other Buddhists?
A: I would not go that far, but there is a grain of truth in it. I think we probably find it easier to operate in inter-faith settings than many Western Buddhists. People who come to Amida-Shu and like it are more likely to be people who have a broadly spiritual outlook than people who have been immersed in Western Buddhism. However, people who have been immersed in Western Buddhism for many years and are now wondering why they are not yet enlightened might well find coming to Amida-Shu a great relief and liberation.
Q: Is Amida-Shu more like Chinese or Japanese Pureland?
A: Somewhere between the two. As a broad generalisation, one could say that Japanese Pureland opposes itself to Zen. We do not oppose ourselves to Zen. Chinese Pureland, on the other hand, has, to an extent, become subsummed into Zen. We are not Pureland within Zen, though in some respects, we have some Zen subsummed within our Pureland.
Q: So is Amida-Shu more or less “other-power” than Japanese Pureland?
A: We are more fundamentally so. We regard the original message of Shakyamuni and of all Buddhas as being other power. That is the meaning of refuge. Zen, when properly understood, is other power.
Q: Amida-Shu has precepts. Some Japanese Schools do not have precepts. Why is this?
A: If people find it helpful to take precepts, then as Buddhist priests we should be willing to give them. Some schools say that they do not have the authority to give precepts, but giving precepts has nothing to do with authority, it is an act of compassion.
Q: What about ordination vows?
A: Our vows define a way of life which provides coherence and purpose to our community. They are agreed by the community for the community. All communities need norms. In addition, the vows help individuals to get insight into their own faith and to see when it is strong or weak. Through trying to keep precepts one learns how bombu one is. Ultimately vows and precepts are descriptions of Buddha and so are objects of worship. It is a mistake to see them as a strait jacket. By working with them one becomes aware of the gap between the nature of oneself and the nature of Buddha.
Q: What is Amida-Shu’s attitude to teacher-disciple relations? I have heard that Shinran had no disciples.
A: We regard the teacher-disciple relationship as immensely valuable. In this respect we are in agreement with nearly every other school of Buddhism. The idea that Shinran had no disciples is incorrect. It is based upon a single remark of his recorded in a book called Tannisho, but this book was written by one of his disciples, Yuien. It was a rhetorical remark meaning that his disciples are really disciples of Amida. In the same book, Shinran says “I believe only what my venerable teacher taught.”
Q: Why are there two ordination “tracks” in Amida-Shu?
A: It evolved that way. Really there are three tracks at least - mitras, ministers and amitaryas. The multi-track system does cater for people with different needs. Shakyamuni seems to have established a system with groups of followers in particular locations, both the faithful and those who ministered to them, and also renunciants who went between. It was a good arrangement for a community that was scattered over a large area. Our system mimics this arrangement, but adapted to modern circumstance.
Q: What is the Amida-Shu attitude to the current fashion for mindfulness?
A: Contemporary utilitarin mindfulness is not the same thing as Buddhist mindfulness. The latter is about keeping the Dharma in mind as a basis both for faith and for investigation of one's life. It is good that through this fashion a large number of people have been touched by something distantly related to Buddhism, but there is a lot more to the original.
Q: Why is investigation of one's life important?
A: It is the basis of compassion. If we know our own weakness and folly we are much more appreciative of and understanding toward others. Amida-Shu is a bodhisattva sangha. By the grace of Amida we shall all be Buddhas one day and in the meantime we have faith that our lives reflect the Dharma Light for the benefit of all beings. We do not expect to arrive at perfection - we expect to arrive at greater familiarity with the human condition.