Ryokyu Endo, Head Priest of Wada Ji Sangha Temple, answered some questions following the October 2018 Nembutsu Retreat in Matsumoto, Japan.
Q: Is Buddhism a religion or a spiritual practice?
A: What is the definition of religion? Basically it’s traditional dogma, right?
If we recognize religion based on this definition, then the teachings of Jesus and Buddha are not religion. Both Jesus and Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings were totally different from their religions tradition. They realized that real spirituality is not in the dogma described by words.
This means that religion or spiritual practice depends on how you do it. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. If you take it as dogma, that something described in words is the truth, then whatever you practice will not be a spiritual path, but just boring religion. But if you realize that the truth only exists in the moment when your heart shines in your practice, then it can be called a spiritual practice or path.
Q: Does what you do at Tao Sangha go against God?
A: Do you mean “Is Buddha against God?”
Let’s say, your friend Tom is called “Dad,“ by his daughter, “Darling” by his wife, and ”Boss” at his office, but it’s all the same person. If God and Buddha are different in name, but the same in existence, the way Tom (Dada, Darling, Boss) is, who is against who? The same explanation applies to Buddha and God.
Q: Is Buddha God?
A: If we are talking about “God” based on Christian dogma, God has three aspects: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When we talk about “Buddha” based on Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha also has three aspects.
Christianity and Buddhism have some similarities and differences in their three respective aspects, so please let me explain about the three aspects of Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism. The three aspects of Buddha are called Dharma-kaya, Sambhoga-kaya and Nirmana-kaya (“kaya” means Body).
Sorry that it’s so complicated, but there are also differences in the interpretation of these three bodies between traditional Mahayana Buddhism and in Tao Sangha, which is based on Yamazaki Bennei’s (1859-1920) teachings.
The interpretation of the three Kayas in traditional Mahayana Buddhism
Dharma-kaya is emptiness, beyond existence and non-existence, or the body of the absolute. Sambhoga-kaya is Buddha in Pure Land (a kind of Heaven in Buddhism), and is like the Father in Christianity. And Nirmana-kaya is an earthly body that lives and dies, like the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha (similar to Jesus being the son of God, born as a human being).
The interpretation of the three Kayas in Tao Sangha
Tao Sangha follows an additional interpretation of the three kayas based on the above:
- Dharma-kaya is not only emptiness, which can take any form, but is also the Great Spirit of the Universe (the Universe itself is the Great Spirit and it can take any form, including emptiness).
- Sambhoga-kaya is not only Buddha in Pure Land but also all other Buddhas and the epicenter of the Pureland universe.
- Nirmana-kaya are not only Buddhas born as human beings, but also the Buddha that a practitioner experiences as the living Buddha in front of him or her.
A practitioner will not be able to experience the Great Spirit or Buddha in Pure Land directly, but will be able to experience feeling embraced by, and even see the image of Buddha existing in front of him or her. This could be likened to the Holy Spirit in Christianity. And as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one, the three kayas (bodies) are one in Buddhism as well.
If one can accept God as the Great Spirit of the Universe and God can take any form and be called by any name based on different cultural backgrounds, then God and Buddha are the same, different only in what they are being called.
Q: Do I have to convert?
A: Most people have the wrong idea about conversion. They think that to change their religion is conversion because this is what happened throughout human history, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and especially in Roman Catholicism, where the aim was to destroy all indigenous faiths and cultures.
But Buddhism usually unified with indigenous faiths. For example, in China, Buddhism and Taoism unified to create Zen. In Japan, Buddhism unified with Shinto. How? They created, in the same sacred space, a front gate that was a Shinto Shrine, and a back gate through which a Buddhist Temple could be entered. The priests built a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple on the same land and made lists stating which Buddha was equal to which Deva (Shinto god). So whether you call upon a Buddha or Deva, it is the same, just with a different name, since Buddhas and Devas are considered to be from the same holy body.
In Japan, there was no concept of “religion,” there was only the word “way.“ Shinto means Shin, which means heart or Deva, and To (Tao) which means way. Butsudo means Butsu, which is Buddha, and Do (Tao) means way, as in Judo, Aikido, Sado (tea ceremony) etc. Therefore, I ask all Tao Sangha practitioners whether Western or Japanese, to keep their respect for their traditional “religion” (if they have one), and not to leave it. We can find a way to unify, as Buddhism unified with Taoism, with Confucianism, and Shinto, or any indigenous faith.
And about the real meaning of conversion, it is not such a shallow a topic as just “changing religions.” There is a process in Zen Buddhism, called “great death” – casting off the body-mind of ‘self and other than self.” When your ego dies, you will feel as though you are reborn, and awakened to the holy spirit, which is called Rei-ojin (Spiritual appearance of Buddha Body) in Buddhism. As the apostle Paul wrote in the Bible, “Now I am not living any more, Jesus is living in me“. In Christianity, the death of Jesus on the cross and his rebirth after three days symbolically explains this. And in Buddhism, chanting Nembutsu with the aim of helping others and ridding oneself of ego, can result in the practitioner experiencing Amida Buddha and rebirth in Pure Land, which is the source of the universe and all creatures.
Q: Why do you chant?
A: The first thing you find in the Bible is “The word is God,” isn’t it?
In any traditional religion, either in the Old Testament or in the New Testament, calling Jesus or Mother Mary in Christianity, “mantras” are effective spiritual words that help to awaken your spirit so you can reach a state of enlightenment. You can often find in Jesus’s words in the new Testament, that “Praising the name of God” is an important practice.
And in traditional Mahayana Buddhism (which started in India), chanting a mantra – “calling the name of Buddha” – is important. These teachings can be found in the Lotus Sutra, and in other texts. In traditional Pure Land teachings, which are based on the Amitayus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha said, “Call the name of Amida Buddha, and you will be reborn into Pure Land through the merit of calling his name.” We chant “Namu Amida,” which is a mantra meant to unify us with Amida Buddha, the Great Love, the Great Spirit of the Universe. It means, “I accept unification with Amida Buddha.” This is why we chant; this is what we chant for.
If your traditional religious concept clashes with what is being chanted, you can chant with us in the same melody, but you can say “Namu Jesus,” or Namu Adonai” (God in Judaism), or “Namu Allah,” or whatever makes you comfortable and gives you the feeling of not going against your religion. We are open to any religion, and all faiths are welcome.
Q: Why the image of Amida Buddha?
A: When King Alexander colonized India, it was the same time that Mahayana Buddhism started in Gandhara. As a result of this colonization, many Greek Buddhists were born, and they made statues of Buddha, in a form with 32 particular features. The Mahayana Buddhists started to visualize a Buddha image that held these 32 features while chanting the name of Buddha. They found that their Buddha Nature was awakened and this could lead to enlightenment. Since then, it has been a tradition in Mahayana Buddhism to visualize this form of Buddha. You will not be able to visualize Buddha as the Great Spirit of the Universe, because the consciousness of human beings is based on duality and/or relativity. But through visualizing the 32 features, we will be awakened to non-duality, a state of non-relativity (beyond relativity), and receive unification with Buddha as the Great Spirit of the Universe.
Q: What is ego?
A: It is the tendency or habit of negativities in your subconsciousness, and usually it comes from experiencing fear.
People become selfish, because of fear, people get angry because of fear, and people try not to see own negativities, because of fear. No one becomes happy if they become selfish, because no one will like a selfish person. But fear whispers to their heart to follow their ego and tries to not let them see their own ego, which is controlling their behaviour.
Actually wisdom is how much you can see your ego and be able to control it (the opposite of being controlled by ego). Without wisdom you will not be able to overcome ego or its corresponding negative karma. Therefore, to create a happy life, one needs wisdom to confront their ego and create relief from fear. Tao Sangha is the place to develop wisdom by practising to control (to hold, or encase) ego, and be able to create a happy life.
Q: How is Tao Sangha different from what I experienced from before?
A: I’m sorry, but without knowing what previous experience you have, I can’t answer this question.
Q: Is Tao Sangha a cult?
A: First, let’s look at the definition of a cult.
In Tao Sangha’s definition, a cult is the worship of one particular person instead of worshipping something abstract such as God, Allah, or Dharma. A cult usually has a guru (an exalted teacher) who behaves like a supernatural being and his or her followers treat him or her like God or a god. All the followers feel good about it because they are told that they are special and will receive priority in getting to heaven or attaining enlightenment, or some other spiritual treasure or power. I believe and hope that no one in Tao Sangha is like that. It’s frightening.
If we purely follow Buddhist philosophy, we should not worship one particular person or treat anybody like God. It is because one of the main Buddhist philosophies is “nothing is individual.” If nothing is individual, how can we think of somebody as being as “special as God?” Therefore, because we (Tao Sangha) are operating and practicing based on this Buddhist philosophy, that nothing is individual, it is not possible for us to create a cult.
Q: What will I get (from practicing in Tao Sangha)?
A: Developing a heart that wishes the best for others, a positive image of the future, and awakening the heart you had as a child, so loving and joyful. What else do you want?
Q: What is unique about your practice?
A: Tao Sangha Wada Ji is the most unique temple not only in Japan, but in the world. I believe only the most unique people are able to practice with us!
Are you a most unique person?