The Great Compassion

An interview with Reverend Patricia Kanaya Usuki

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Patricia Kanaya Usuki was born in Toronto, Canada, to an Anglican father and a Buddhist mother. Her parents brought her up in the United Church of Canada, one of the few Canadian religious institutions that welcomed people of Asian heritage.

As an adult, Usuki began a process of reflection on her life. “I’ve had my ups and downs,” she thought, “but mostly I’ve had a wonderful life. Why am I able to enjoy such a life as this?” This question led her to explore the Buddhist tradition more closely. In the Jodo Shinshu (Shin) tradition of Pure Land Buddhism, founded by Shinran Shonin in 1224, she found her answers. Speaking of the Shin Buddhist perspective, she says, “I am the beneficiary of the wisdom and compassion of all life that has come together.” The immeasurable wisdom and compassion of all life is embodied by Amida Buddha, and Shin practitioners express their gratitude by saying the nembutsu, “Namu Amida Butsu.” The phrase literally translates as “I venerate Amida Buddha,” but its meaning declares the practitioner’s joy and heartfelt appreciation: “Thank you, Amida Buddha.”

In 2004, Usuki became head minister of the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, near Los Angeles, California. In 2007, her master’s thesis was published as a book, Currents of Change: American Buddhist Women Speak Out on Jodo Shinshu. Even though Jodo Shinshu was the first Buddhist organization to ordain American women back in the 1920s, Usuki’s study was the first systematic exploration of women’s experiences in America’s oldest Buddhist tradition (Jodo Shinshu was first established in Hawaii in the 1880s, and California in the 1890s), and she was invited to speak at temples across the continent. In the spring of 2009 we sat down together at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple to discuss her thoughts about the Shin teaching of the Primal Vow and the role of women in Shin Buddhism.

—Jeff Wilson

Do your fellow Western Buddhists sometimes misunderstand Shin Buddhism? If they’ve heard of it at all, they tend to think of it as “ethnic Buddhism” that isn’t suitable for them. Some newcomers that come to our temples think it’s interchangeable with Christianity. They equate Amida Buddha with God and the Pure Land with heaven. This is a misconception, as is the notion that shinjin [the awakened heart that has turned from self-centeredness toward power-beyond-self] equates to faith in the Christian sense. Amida is not a divine being that is separate from us—Amida represents immeasurable wisdom and compassion. The Pure Land isn’t like heaven, because it’s not a place that you go to—it’s more a state of mind, and it can be accessed in this life. Faith in the Western sense often means blind belief, but shinjin in the Shin Buddhist understanding is closer to experiencing Amida’s great compassion and knowing that one is liberated.

The Primal Vow is fundamental to Pure Land Buddhism, yet it is very hard for most Westerners to connect with it in a spiritually meaningful way. What makes the Primal Vow so compelling in Shin practice? In Shin Buddhism, one of our texts is the Larger Pure Land Sutra, in which there’s a story about Dharmakara Bodhisattva. He makes vows, as all bodhisattvas do, and he has to fulfill them in order to become a buddha. The most important one is the 18th vow, which we call the Primal Vow. In the story, Dharmakara refuses to become a buddha unless all other beings can be liberated along with him, no matter how evil or attached or ignorant they may be. He stakes his own freedom on our freedom. This is the central point of Shin Buddhism.

According to the sutra, Dharmakara became Amida Buddha, so his vow has been fulfilled and it operates for us. This is sutra language, symbolic language. The Primal Vow is really the innermost aspiration of all beings. Remember that this is a Mahayana tradition, and we hold to the bodhisattva ideal that all beings will become liberated together. The working of the Primal Vow means that all beings have this innermost aspiration for all other beings to find liberation and lasting peace of heart and mind. So when we talk about Amida Buddha, we’re really talking about the immeasurable wisdom and compassion of all life.

When I describe it that way, it sounds like a pretty complicated concept, but in Shin Buddhism we come into it from the back door of living our lives and doing our practice of self-awareness. We realize the nature of our true selves as we really are, with our imperfections and so on, and at the same time we understand that we are the recipients of this immeasurable wisdom and compassion of life that sustains us and embraces us at all times, regardless of the kind of people we are, regardless of the fact that no matter how hard you might try, you are never going to reach the state of ultimate purity. We can’t understand our innermost wish until we live our lives, experience our lives, see ourselves as we really are within this life—and also see the reality of ourselves within all life and enjoy the benefits of life that we receive. Then we can begin to understand this concept of an innermost wish or Primal Vow. Dharmakara Bodhisattva becoming Amida Buddha is something that only becomes true for each person when they themselves awaken to their karmic reality and are aware of their limitations within the larger scheme of reality.

This idea of being accepted just as we are relates to the idea of naturalness, which is a very prominent part of Shin practice. Can you say something more about the place of naturalness in Shin Buddhism? In Shin Buddhism, we contrast self-power or self-effort with the idea of focusing on the whole of life, the interdependence of all life. When something comes about, it’s not due to one’s own effort to attain something. The idea of naturalness is that no-working is true working. It’s the understanding that things don’t happen due to your own calculation and effort. You don’t sit there thinking, “All right now, if I’m able to follow the eightfold path and do everything the right way, then I will attain awakening.” That’s your own deluded, ego-based effort. I did this, I am able to do that—the moment you start thinking that way, your ego mind comes into play.

Yet when the karmic conditions are right, when your causes and conditions come together, you can progress along the path. It’s not “I” doing this or “I” saying the nembutsu. When I say “Namu Amida Butsu,” it’s not “I” saying it but what we call other-power—I like to call it Buddha-power. That other-power has come together in my causes and conditions and my karma to bring me to say, “Namu Amida Butsu.” It leads me to feel gratitude, joy, peace of heart, and peace of mind—qualities that Shin Buddhism values. So naturalness is the opposite of calculating, of making an ego-based effort to try to attain something on your own—supposedly independent—power. If you’re truly aware you’ll notice that you cannot achieve it with your own effort and your own calculation.

Is the Primal Vow for Shin Buddhists only, or does Amida embrace others as well? It has to extend to all beings. The Primal Vow talks about sincere mind, deep mind, and the mind that aspires. You have to be awakened to that aspiration first. That doesn’t mean that you have to be a Shin Buddhist in order to have that kind of aspiration. The moment the important questions arise in someone—Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the purpose of my life?—I think that’s the kind of aspiration with a sincere heart that really wants to understand how things are.

Has the Primal Vow had a particular significance to women in Shin Buddhism? Yes. Anytime someone has been excluded, has been told, “This isn’t really for you, it’s for some other, better kind of person,” that is the sort of person who is included in the Primal Vow. Historically, I think for women the Primal Vow was really a key to opening the door to an authentic, personal Buddhism—a major step for women.

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beatrice's picture

Thank you. I want to use the affirmation often. Definitely agree enlightenment is done to us and not by our rigourous efforts.

jimgoldsworthy's picture

I have been to a Shin Buddhist service in Reno and I felt this philosophy is as close to the basic cause and effect view of our lives as we can get.

tina_mccoy's picture

Rev. Usuki. Thank You for this article, which clarifies many of the misconceptions and misunderstanding I have about the Primal Vow, Self-power and Other-power. In small steps, I've learned and have become more aware of my imperfections and my interdependence with all life. Your last paragraph is a reminder for me to be mindful of the dharma as I go about my life and to notice that "our interdependence with all life also brings us kindness and joy, unconditionally." Thank You for the affirmation, “Namu Amida Butsu”—I am one with Infinite Light and Life (Wisdom and Compassion) right here, right now." Gassho, Tina McCoy

saramiot's picture

Thank you. It helps so much to remember that we are blessed with life and that we are not perfect. It leaves so much room for living in a good way. Thank you. Sara