As Buddhism is a minority religion in Utah, we often find people who have questions about our beliefs. We are fortunate that many groups from high schools, colleges, seminaries and other organizations visit the temple and ask questions about Buddhism and about being Buddhists. Here are a few common questions and corresponding answers. Each of you should also study and find the answers for yourself.
Q: What is Buddha?
A: Buddha is a title meaning "Enlightened one." It is a person who has reached perfect enlightenment. Stated in more modern terms, a Buddha is a completely self-actualized person. A Buddha sees reality without any ego attachment. There are countless Buddhas. The Buddha we hear about most often is Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni means leader of the Shakya Clan, Shakya being the clan into which Siddartha Gautama was born into. He is a historical personage who began speaking about what he came to understand through his enlightenment.
Q: What do Buddhists believe about the afterlife?
A: Each individual has come to their interpretation. The historical Buddha gave no answer concerning the afterlife. This is known as the thunderous silence. After the Buddha's silence he spoke of the Poisoned arrow parable.
In this parable a man is shot by a poisoned arrow. Rather than allow his servants to pull out the arrow, he wanted them to find out who shot it, why they shot it, what type of poison was on the arrow, what type of arrow it was etc. In the meantime, he died. This tells us that rather than worry so much about the afterlife, we must focus on how we should act in the present life. Each of us will die. It is how we live that is important. The idea of interdependence teaches us the golden rule, do unto others as you would have they do unto you.
In Jodo Shinshu we believe that Amida Buddha will take care of us after we die. We will be embraced in Amida's infinite love and compassion. Since the worries of the afterlife will be taken care of, we should focus on the present and how to live a good and honorable life.
Q: What about reincarnation?
A: Some sects of Buddhism have a very intricate philosophy concerning reincarnation. Much of this comes from the fact that in India where the Historical Buddha was born, most people simply accepted reincarnation as a part of natural law. So there were no questions. As Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, reincarnation is not a very important or emphasized idea. As science can attest, all living things are constantly being remade. The cells of our bodies continuously die and are replaced. From moment to moment we are being reborn. Our psychological states are the same. For example, there is what we call the six realms Rokudo: Jigoku (Hell), Gaki (Hungry Ghosts), Chikusho (Beasts), Ashura (Fighting demons), Ningen (Human Being), Tenjin (Heavenly Being). We constantly move through and are reborn in these realms. We may create a hellish condition for ourselves through greed and desire. At these times we are reborn in Hell and Hungry Ghost realms. It is only in the realm of Human Being where we can appreciate what we have, between the extremes of hell and heavenly beings. As for the afterlife, we believe that in trusting in Amida Buddha, we do not have to worry about the life to come. Within Amida's ultimate wisdom and compassion we do not have to worry.
Q: What is the view of women and men in your religion?
A: There is no difference. Both men and women are equal. Women can become priests just as the men. It is training that determines if a person can be a priest, not sex.
Q: How do you view other religions?
A: As we stated, Buddhism holds that there are 84,000 paths to enlightenment. We believe that individuals must choose for themselves. As for Christianity, it is a great religion and Jesus was a great teacher. However, we do not accept the idea of him being the only Son of God, dying on the cross and then coming back to life. Otherwise, many of the Christian teachings are very similar to what Buddhism teaches. Our major teaching of interdependence is called "The Golden Rule" in Christianity.
Q: Do you believe in God?
A: This actually depends on how one defines "God." If one defines "God" as an anthropomorphic being who intervenes and answers prayers and as the creator, etc., Buddhists do not believe in God. However, Buddhists do believe in a "God" that is pure love, compassion, and wisdom that permeates the universe for the benefit of all sentient beings. In essence, Truth with a capital "T." We call this Amida Buddha.
Q: Who created the world?
A: We believe that we cannot answer that. It is beyond our ability to know that at this time. For if there was a creator, with the concept of cause and effect, we must ask who created the creator. It is not important for us to know that. One of the basic concepts within Buddhism is interdependence. With this teaching, we realize that all of us are interconnected and depend upon one another for our existence. Asking questions such as who created this or that is a way the mind distracts our attention to the more important matter of how I am living this moment. I am grateful to receive and have the life I have now. How do I repay that debt of gratitude? These are the questions we ask.
Q: How do you become a Buddhist?
A: Traditionally all that is necessary to become a Buddhist is to believe and recite what we call The Three Treasures. These three are 1) Taking refuge in Buddha. 2) Taking refuge in Dharma (The Teaching) and 3) Taking refuge in the Sangha ( fellow followers). Read the Three Treasures in the Service Book.
Q: What is the difference between laity and priests?
A: Our founder Shinran Shonin had a unique interpretation he called "Ondogyo, Ondobo," meaning fellow travelers, fellow brothers and sisters. Within this interpretation he expressed the equality of all followers in the face of Universal Truth and Compassion. The priests are ordained after years of training. Their main purpose is that of teacher. Their robes show that they have gone through the proper training to understand the rituals and ceremonies within our tradition.
Q: How does one become a priest?
A: The Buddhist Churches of America and Nishi Honganji of Kyoto have set up certain requirements that are administered and determined by a body of priests (Kaikyoshiyosei committee). The current and most commonly followed criteria are
1. An undergraduate degree
2. A graduate degree in Buddhist Studies from our Graduate School, the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Mt. View, CA.
3. Approval by the committee for further study in Japan. This is usually three to four years of post graduate or seminary study.
4. Two ordinations: Tokudo and Kyoshi
5. Assignment by the Home Temple in Kyoto to the Buddhist Churches of America.
Q: What does the laity do?
A: Our main purpose is to live a life of gratitude. We should express appreciation for all the causes and conditions in our lives, even those that we may feel are negative. For example, we eventually learn from the death of a loved one, no matter how painful, the experience. Therefore, all things should move us towards a better understanding of who we are. As members of this temple, we try to support and encourage the Buddha's teachings.