Q: I would like to learn more about Buddhism. Who was the first person to preach the teachings of Buddhism?
A: Sakyamuni, 2,500 years ago in India.
Q: What can you tell us about Sakyamuni?
A: He was the founder of Buddhism. “Sakya” was his family’s clan name and “muni” means saint, so Sakyamuni means “saint of the Sakyas.” His given name was Siddhartha Gautama. He was born in the Nepalese state of Kapilavastu, the son of King Suddhodana. At the age of twenty-nine he left home in search of absolute happiness. Following six years of spiritual discipline, he achieved supreme enlightenment at the age of thirty-five and became a Buddha. From then until his death at the age of eighty, he taught throughout India the supremacy and compassion of Amida.
Q: Who or what is Buddha?
A: One who has attained the highest level of enlightenment in the cosmos. Buddhism teaches that there are fifty-two levels of enlightenment, the highest of which is called the “enlightenment of a buddha.” The only human being on this earth ever to achieve supreme enlightenment was Sakyamuni. Buddhism further teaches that the cosmos contains innumerable worlds similar to ours, with countless number of Buddhas.
Q: Who then is Amida Buddha?
A: The Japanese pronunciation of the name of the buddha Amitabha [Infinite Light] or Amitayus [Infinite Life]. Amida is supreme among the innumerable buddhas in the cosmos, all of whom achieved buddhahood through his power.
Q. So Amida Buddha is the Supreme Buddha. What other differences are there between Amida Buddha and the other Buddhas?
A: It is taught that Amida Buddha is the teacher of all Buddhas. This means that all Buddhas in the universe are disciples of Amida. Sakyamuni Buddha, the most eminent one on earth, is also one of the Buddhas of the three worlds and ten directions. Therefore, the relationship between Amida Buddha and Sakyamuni Buddha is that of a master and disciple. Amida is the teacher, and Sakyamuni his student.
Q: What is a Sutra, or the Sutras?
A: Sermons delivered by Sakyamuni during the forty-five years between his attainment of Buddhist enlightenment at thirty-five and his death at eighty, as recorded by his disciples.
Q: What is the Pure Land Buddhism?
A: In contrast to Shodo Buddhism, where enlightenment is achieved through the practitioner’s own efforts, Pure Land Buddhism teaches salvation by Amida Buddha: anyone who believes in Amida’s Vow will be reborn in the Pure Land and become a buddha.
Sakyamuni’s teaching about Amida’s Vow was accurately disseminated by seven priests in India, China, and Japan. First, two renowned priests from India, Nagarjuna (ca. 150-250) and Vasubandhu (ca. 320-400), systematized the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism. Later, Buddhism spread to China, where the great priests T’an-luan (476-542), Tao-ch’o (562-645), and Shan-tao expanded the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism and clarified the nature of Amida’s salvation. No independent sect of Pure Land Buddhism was established in China.
In Japan, the Tendai master Genshin (942-1017) sparked an explosive spread of the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism through his book Ojo yoshu (Essentials of Rebirth), which also had great impact on Chinese Buddhism. Later, Honen founded the Pure Land School, and people all across Japan sought Amida’s salvation. Feeling threatened, members of rival sects colluded with those in power to clamp down on the Pure Land School. Four of Honen’s disciples were sentenced to death, while Honen and Shinran were banished to remote areas.
After Honen’s death, divisions among his disciples caused the Pure Land School to split into five sects, among them the Seizan branch of Zen’ebo and the Chinzei branch of Shokobo. In order to transmit Honen’s teachings accurately, Shinran founded the True Pure Land School. Shinran stressed that this was no new sect, but only a means of spreading accurately the teachings of the seven renowned priests before him. The True Pure Land School stands as the greatest sect of Buddhism in Japan to this day.
Q: Who was Shinran?
A: Also known as Shinran Shonin(1173-1263) or “Saint Shinran.” Founder of Shin Buddhism or the True Pure Land School (Jodo Shinshu).
Q: Nembutsu is a popular word in Pure Land Buddhism. What is Nembutsu?
A: An expression of gratitude for the salvation granted by Amida. Recitation of the words “Namu Amida Butsu.”