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I have always been fascinated with the Eastern religions.

Growing up, I was raised non-religious. My paternal grandmother who was into her church, sent me a children’s bible which I dug. It was illustrated and I remember connecting with the story of King Solomon and the baby-being-cut-in-half story, but don’t remember much else. I once attended bible summer camp with my friend because they were giving out free cookies and juice. We would walk down there every day for a week and do… something. I just remember they had the good sandwich cookies. My mother held Quakers in high regard and Mormons in low regard (this was due to a story of two missionaries, one of which would teach her Mormon things while the other diddled her babysitter). My dad never stated his opinion at all. So I was free to explore and never felt compelled to think one way or another.

I loved researching Taoism but only ever skirted Buddhism, finding it a pretty thing but much too vast to delve into. The Dalai Lama was rad and I dug his words, but I can’t meditate so I couldn’t possibly be a Buddhist. I came to the opinion that only if you lived in a monastery away from the rest of the world could you ever possibly be a Buddhist.

After a couple of jumps into the Wiccan pool and putting a toe in the Druid pond, I looked at Buddhism again. There is a temple about an hour away that we celebrated Obon one year and I kept up with them on Facebook. It piqued my curiosity enough that I decided to really try to learn. After all, the Buddhists who attend that temple all live in Pasadena, which is not exactly a remote location. I read a book by a popular Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, and dug around in several websites. The Pasadena temple also had informational links and one of them was that it was part of the Jodo Shinshu tradition. And I fell in love.

Shin Buddhism is the biggest branch of Buddhism in Japan. Other traditions of Buddhism traveled and colonized, but Shin stayed home. Not until the late 19th century did it decide it wanted to know what the rest of the world had going on and hopped a steamer to the West. Because of that, it is a tradition that is still very Japanese with mostly Japanese sangha or congregations. The temple nearish to me has a Japanese service as well as an English one.

One of the important things to understand about Shin is that for nearly 800 years it has been solely devoted to providing laypeople with a way in which to experience awakening and joy in their own everyday lives.*

See, the guy who is credited with inventing the tradition, and his teacher, got fed up with the elitism of the dominant Buddhism at the time. As I understand it, it felt to him as it had to me, like only for those removed from society, like high class people and monks. So he and his teacher, even after censure from the government, spread this style of Buddhism about. There is a lot more to the story, of course, but at its heart, Jodo Shinshu is about finding awakening in compassion and gratitude and helping others. And I dig that a lot. It fits with what I understand, with my Humanist core.

I’ve always appreciated Buddhism for it being a path, almost a psychology, about living a good life. It doesn’t have to be a Religion, but a way of living that is good and not dragged down by dogma. As the Buddha said himself, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” That is some confidence. The Buddha just mic dropped and walked away with that one. Go with it or not, it’s cool either way. The Buddha isn’t going to chase you down and scare you into following his teachings. He’s chill. He’s cool. He is, like any teacher, only offering something you are free to have.

So I continue my education in Shin Buddhism. I am currently reading a very cool book called Buddhism of the Heart by Jeff Wilson. I was previously reading River of Fire, River of Water by Taitetsu Unno, but it was a little more academic than I was ready for. Wilson’s book is made up of short stories and essays that are meant to give you understanding of Shin in a more natural environment. He did it this way because much of the tradition of Shin is passed down through stories in the community.

These sacred stories are a mixture of actual events and myth. It can be hard to tell these two elements apart– but fortunately telling them apart isn’t the point. Our stories aren’t important because they did or didn’t happen exactly the way we tell them, but because they reveal aspects of how things are and how we can learn to live in accord with the Dharma, the reality that the Buddha uncovered.*

I’ll probably write more of my thoughts here as I continue to explore and learn. I sometimes don’t know what I think until I have written it down. If you are at all interested in the subject, let’s talk. I love discussing religion. It is a fascinating subject for me.

*Both quotes were taken from the book Buddhism of the Heart.

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