Chapter One
The Heart of Buddhism: Trunk of the Tree

Please tell me something about Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism.

Jodo-Shinshu is one of the many schools of Buddhism, just as Lutheranism is one of the schools within Christianity. So, I shall first explain the basic teachings of Buddhism, and then of Jodo-Shinshu (from Chapter 4).

How would you, then, describe Buddhism?

Buddhism is a religion of awareness.

What do you become aware of?

We become aware of the principles of existence. These principles are the Dharma or teachings, the truths by which we try to think and live.

What are these principles?

There are many principles in Buddhism, for example the Four Noble Truths, the Dependent Co-arising, and the Four Marks of Existence. Among them, I select the Four Marks of Existence for beginners in Buddhism. Buddhist teachings can seem complicated, but I have an easy way to remember the Four Marks of Existence:

    1) Life is a Bumpy road,

    2) Life is Impermanent,

    3) Life is Interdependent,

    4) Life is Fundamentally Good.2

So, to remember the four, “Think BIIG!”

What is meant by “Life is a Bumpy road?”

We all experience disappointments, fear and sadness. Some of us hit more bumps than others, and we can’t avoid them. These bumps are a natural part of our human existence. Sometimes we forget this or do not want to accept it, and we expect our road to be smooth. Buddhism describes these bumps (duhkha) as: 1) birth, 2) aging, 3) illness, 4) death, 5) being separated from loved ones, 6) having to associate with those we dislike, 7) not getting what we desire, and 8) being attached to the five components (skandha)3; that we call “I” or “self.” The five components are 1) physical elements and the senses, 2) feelings or sensations, 3) perception or conception, 4) mental formations or volition, and 5) consciousness.

We shouldn’t turn away from these bumps. The bumps in our lives are not there to punish us for being evil or because we are failures. The bumps are there not to teach us lessons, though we can certainly use them in that way. If we face them we can learn from them and grow. These bumps are the stepping stones toward the ultimate Buddhist goal, which is to become Buddhas or be enlightened; in a more common language, to come to spiritual resolution.

What do you mean by “Life is Impermanent?”

Nothing stays the same from one moment to the next. This is true from the atoms that make up our physical world to the movements in the far off galaxies. Our social and political institutions are always changing as well. For Example, who would have guessed, even a few years ago, that the mighty Soviet Union would crumble? Often the changes go unnoticed, but when we take stock, the many changes in our society have been enormous. Allow me to share an excerpt from a piece “For All Those Born Before 1945.” What it shares is amusing but true!

We are survivors! Consider the changes we have witnessed! We were born before television, before penicillin, before polio shots, frozen foods, Xerox, plastic contact lenses, Frisbees and the PILL. We were before radar, credit cards, laser beams, and ballpoint pens. Also, we were before pantyhose, dishwashers, clothes dryers, electric blankets, air conditioners, drip-dry clothes, and before man walked on the moon.

We got married before and then lived together. How quaint can you be? In our time, closets were for clothes, not for “Coming out of.” …We thought fast food was what you ate during Lent… For us, time-sharing meant togetherness…not computers and condominiums. A chip meant a piece of wood. Hardware meant hardware, and software wasn’t even a word… Back then, “Made in Japan” meant “junk” and the term “Making Out” referred to how you did on your exam. In our day, grass was mowed, COKE was a cold drink and POT was something you cooked in… But WE SURVIVED! What better reason to celebrate!4

When we scan a past recalled by these provocative passages, we realize how significant and profound the changes have been. Impermanence is a fact of our societal live.

We experience impermanence most deeply on the personal level. We see changes in our relationships and in our bodies. This truth is apparent when we are forced to separate from our first love, or when we can no longer make that quick drive toward the basket on the basketball court. We really wake up when we see our first gray hair in the mirror and murmur to ourselves, “Wow, it’s true! I, too, am subject to impermanence.”

So are we to feel sad and helpless because everything is impermanent?

No, to the contrary, we become more fully alive by understanding the truth of impermanence! We shouldn’t fight change with our desire to keep things the same. Our ego needs to allow life to flow forward. Every moment is the unfolding of life and different from the moment before. Every encounter in our life is special. Dr. Yutang Lin, a Buddhist teacher living in California, captures this Buddhist insight in a poem:

Suddenly I see that life could end at any moment!

Once I realize that I am so close to death I am instantly free in life.

Why bother to criticize or fight with others?

Let me just be pure in mind and enjoy living!5

The key line is “I am instantly free in life,” which offers us a glimpse into the liberating benefits of becoming fully aware of the truth of impermanence. This awareness helps us to savor life even in the fact of unwanted changes. For one thing, if things are going badly now, we can find hope in knowing that nothing stays the same and something new will enliven our hearts. A poem by Ms. Ok-koo Kang Grosjean, a friend and a Buddhist, captures this insight:

January 2nd.

My heart lonely

after my son leaves for school (college)

I go out to the backyard.

In the garden, deserted

during last month’s cold,

red azaleas

have boomed.

In that raging gale

that blew off all the leaves

how is it these tender flowers

are safe?

The heart,


a little while ago,

has eased

and in his quiet garden

peace of mind

blooms as azaleas.6

A mother’s sadness on losing a son to college is soothed by the flower in her backyard. It’s a good thing she had cultivated the awareness to be open to the next moment—the blooming azaleas!

How about the principle that “Life is Interdependent?”

We are a product of many influences that create who we are and how we feel. As waves are part of the ocean, we are part of the rest of the universe. Today, the principle of interdependence offers a rallying point for the environmental movement. Modern scientists are showing how the systems of nature are all linked together. Each system in nature needs all the others to stay alive. In human relations, the end of the cold war and the birth of a different world order are showing us that nations need one another to survive, too. We can see this in the economic area where even “made-in-America” cars have parts from many corners of the “global village.”

Our failure to appreciate this truth fosters greater egotism and social isolation. We really do need others for our well-being. Our insistence on raw individuality at all times leads to neglect of our communities and loss of the sense of belonging. Without connection to our communities, we find ourselves stripped of the valued that give meaning to our lives.

I am using “interdependence” as a synonym for “non-self”, which is a word that appears in many Buddhist books. The two words (“non-self” and “interdependence”) point to the same truth. The Sanskrit (an ancient language of India) word for this principle is anatman. This is a difficult concept to accurately translate into English. That is why I translated “non-self” as “interdependence,” which I feel is easier to understand and yet does not lose the original spiritual intent. Anatman is normally translated “non-self”, “non-soul”, “selfless,” or “ego-less.”7

Does that mean we sacrifice our individual selves?

Our individuality is retained without sacrificing or denying the self of the everyday world.8 Buddhist can speak out confidently against violence, hatred, discrimination and excessive greed. Shakyamuni Buddha is well known for having opposed the caste system for its inherent abuses. So, the oppressed people of the world are not forced to accept their plight but are revitalized to speak out confidently to improve their conditions. Individuality shines within the interdependent network of existence like Indra’s Net of Jewels. Each jewel becomes brighter, illuminated by other jewels. All the jewels are mutually made brighter. A net extends throughout the whole universe in all ten directions. At each “eye” of the net is a jewel. Each jewel is unique in its shape, color, and luster. At the same time, each jewel is related to all the other jewels on the net. Each jewel reflects the rays of all the other jewels of the net reciprocally.

How do we live less self-centered lives?

Well, that is what the Buddhist path is leading toward! If people are interested, they must walk the path with dedication. There is no magic wand, but I firmly believe that dedicated effort will enable us to live in ways that are far less self-centered.

Why? How does it help me if I lead a less self-center­ed life? Who else would take care of me if I do not?

I hear the same kind of question quite often. It’s a good question. Buddhism is concerned primarily with the sufferings of an existential rather than a social or economic nature. The focus is on a vertical rather than a horizontal dimension. From this perspective, Buddhism encourages “a less self-centered life” in order to overcome the existential bumps (anxiety, suffering or pain) of aging, illness, death, not getting what we desire, etc. (See page 10). This less self-centered life reduces greed, hatred and ignorance, which in turn reduces our existential suffering. So, just as in the case of the Buddha, a less self-centered life helps us deal better with the existential questions of our lives.

However, this focus on existential suffering should not encourage us to ignore our socioeconomic needs, for we live at the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal. As laypersons, we must secure a livelihood for ourselves and for our families. We must take care of ourselves. This requires us to be quite self-centered and even be self-assertive at times. However, if our actions are influenced by Buddhist ideals, we will naturally become less self-centered even on this socio-economic level. We will, for example, devote more of our earnings to help others; or will engage in occupations that do not add to violence to others (manufacturing or handling of weapons of destruction).

What does the fourth principle, “Life is fundamentally Good” mean?9

With the right attitude or view, and despite the bumps, I can find much joy and meaning in my life. At times, though life seems bleak, I can make things brighter by remembering the Buddhist teachings. The Buddha tells us, “With our minds we make the world.”10

He is saying that life is very much what you choose to make it. In a well known Buddhist metaphor, water appears differently according to the perceiver. To the hungry ghosts (those with meager awareness, beset by never-satisfied desires), the water is phlegm and pus; for a fish it is an abode and for a human something to drink. However, for a Bodhisattva who has realized deep awareness and compassion for others, the water is a bed of shimmering jewels! There is only one object, but there are four levels of awareness. The more we foster Bodhisattva awareness, the more we experience our lives as “fundamentally good!”

What about people who live in poverty? What about social/political injustice in our world? Are we supposed to think these sufferings are due to “wrong views” or “negative attitudes”?

These concerns you cite are certainly not to be ignored. They must be addressed. (See page 207) Their difficulties are not simply due to their unwholesome, or as you say, “wrong” spiritual views but are the product of numerous objective conditions. (See Chapt. 11 on Karma) However, from a Buddhist position these concerns cannot be effectively dealt with separate from our own spiritual cultivation.

How do the Four Marks of Existence work?

Our awareness of the Four Marks works like good shock absorbers on a car. How different is the ride of a car whose shocks are broken compared to a car with the best possible chocks? Good shocks help to soften the blow from the bumps. They keep our car from being damaged so we can keep moving along.

Experientially, they help us to flow with the events of life, and to lessen our natural urge to control life. We are then able to determine what can be changed and what we must let go into the flow of life. With unwholesome views, however, we cling rather than let go.

What are the unwholesome views?

People who expect life to be 1) smooth, 2) “mine” 3) always the same, and 4) lousy, have unwholesome views. They are going against the Four Marks of Existence. To help us remember this, I say “Think BIIG!” but “Don’t Think SMAL!” (smooth, mine, always and lousy).

What is the connection between the Four Marks and the well-known Buddhist teaching of Four Noble Truths?

The Four Marks of Existence are included within the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are:

    1) We all experience suffering;

    2) Suffering is caused by the Three Poisons of greed, hatred and delusion;

    3) The end of suffering is nirvana;

    4) The path to nirvana or enlightenment is the Eightfold Path.

Where in the Four Noble Truths are the Four Marks included?

Remember that the Fourth Noble Truth refers to the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is made up of:

    1) Wholesome view

    2) Wholesome thought

    3) Wholesome speech

    4) Wholesome conduct

    5) Wholesome livelihood

    6) Wholesome effort

    7) Wholesome mindfulness

    8) Wholesome meditation.

The Four Marks of Existence are in the first truth, “wholesome view.” To have “wholesome view” means to have the correct view of the world or the correct attitude toward life. You have the wholesome view if you are thinking BIIG. In review, the main principles are the Four Marks of Existence, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Four Noble Truths    
1. Suffering    
2. Cause (reason)    
3. Nirvana    
4. Path  ←―――――→ Eight-Fold Path  
  1. Wholesome View  ←―――→ Four Marks of Existence
  2. Wholesome Thought 1. Bumpy Road
  3. Wholesome Speech 2. Impermanence
  4. Wholesome Conduct 3. Interdependence
  5. Wholesome Livelihood 4. Fundamentally Good
  6. Wholesome Effort  
  7. Wholesome Mindfulness  
  8. Wholesome Meditation  

Isn’t Buddhism pessimistic because the First Truth is “suffering”?

No. Please note that “suffering” is the starting point, but the goal is the state of nirvana. When we realize nirvana, our suffering ends and true joy emerges within. The main focus of Buddhist teachings and practices is the elimination of all suffering. The Buddha taught precisely in order to help others overcome suffering.

His teaching of Dependent Co-arising explains how suffering arises as well as how we can eliminate suffering. The twelve preconditions are 1) ignorance, 2) dispositions or karma-formation, 3) consciousness, 4) name-and-form or conditioned mental and physical phenomena, 5) the six sense faculties, 6) contact, 7) feeling or sensation, 8) desire, 9) clinging, 10) process of becoming, 11) rebirth, and the 12) sufferings of aging, dying, lamentation, pain, etc.  Ignorance is the source of suffering. On the other hand, if ignorance is eliminated, suffering will cease to arise.

How can this explanation apply to my life today?

Let us take the example of seeing the first gray hair in the mirror, a sign that I, too, am growing old! It is a concrete example of my aging, the twelfth precondition and also one of the eight kinds of suffering (or bumps) specifically mentioned by the Buddha (See page 10). For some people, a gray hair is not a problem, but for me it was. This unpleasant feeling has its roots in ignorance, the first precondition. I lacked full wisdom about the truth of impermanence (See page 12). Surely, I have heard and read about this truth numerous times, but I knew it only with my head and not with my total being. Plus, I may wishfully on an unconscious level have thought, “No, it can’t happen to me.”

Based on this deep-seated ignorance, my gray hair triggered a chain of rapid psychological reactions (preconditions #2-6). I then experienced a clear unpleasant feeling (#7), followed by a desire for no gray hair (#8) (or hatred of gray hair, for desire and hatred are two sides of the same sheet). I further clung (#9) to the idea of not having a gray hair, that is, to continue to stay young. This clinging to a wishful, fixed image clashed with my reality, causing me to experience suffering, lamentation and pain (#10-12). The same process would apply to other examples of suffering, such as separation from our loved ones or meeting up with people we do not like.

However, through cultivation of the Buddhist path, ignorance can be replaced with wisdom. By eliminating ignorance, the rest of the chain reaction would not occur, and we do not experience suffering. Wisdom makes us realize that gray hair is a natural process of physical change, nothing less and nothing more. It is I who create suffering that really does not exist in reality. It is my delusion as well as my illusion!

The Buddha’s disciples found this teaching extremely liberating and optimistic. They gained a fresh way of understanding the source of their suffering. Suffering was not brought about by gods, chance or fate. They were now in control of their destiny, for they found a path for overcoming suffering through their effort.

So, suffering in Buddhism does not refer so much to the suffering that is brought on by others. It appears much more psychological.

Yes, I believe that is a fair description. When I speak to non-Buddhist groups, someone in the audience often reminds me that we do not create our suffering. The sufferings of the poor and the victims of violence are not their creation! So, they understand suffering in mostly socioeconomic terms. I, therefore, explain that because suffering in Buddhism is existential in nature (e.g., aging, death, and relationships), the solution takes on a much more psychological rather than a sociological tone.

Going back to our first topic of awareness as the aim of Buddhism, what happens when we become more aware?

We become truly human when we are fully aware! This means we feel a deeper appreciation for that which sustains our lives. We see the need to make life better for all the living, not just humans. Because we know we are imperfect, we try to be mindful of how we act. We are aware that our actions have consequences.

When our awareness deepens so much that we go through a complete change for the good, it is called an “awakening,” “enlightenment” or “nirvana.” “Buddha” means “one who has become awakened.” The goal of all Buddhists is to become a Buddha.

Does that mean humans can become a Buddha?

Yes. Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born as a prince of a kingdom in the Himalayan foothills of Northeastern India around 560 B.C.E. (or B.C.) He realized enlightenment, became a Buddha, at the age of thirty-five. After that, he ministered and taught through Northeastern India for the next forty-five years. He remained actively engaged until his death around 480 B.C.E. So he actually lived on earth. He is neither a deity nor God.

Is he the fat, laughing Buddha? And do I get my wish by rubbing his tummy?

No, not quite. That laughing Buddha statue was created in China at least a thousand years after Buddha’s death for the common people. It was modeled after a non-Buddhist god of prosperity. In India, Buddha was not shown in statue form until four hundred years after his death. Then, these statues showed the Buddha as a man of serenity, discipline, understanding and wisdom. They were not idols to be worshipped but examples of what Buddhists aspired to be and still aspire to be. In contrast, the laughing Buddha served to make the Buddha more human, accessible and relatable to the general public that included non-Buddhists.

So, Buddha and God are different?

Yes. Buddha is human, while God in the Western religious traditions is not human.

Do Buddhists believe in God?

Before I can answer that question, I must ask, what is meant by “God”? People have many ideas about who or what God is. Until I understand this, it is hard for me to answer. If God is defined primarily as cosmic compassion and wisdom, then some Buddhists (particularly Mahayana Buddhists—see page 47) may be inclined to say they believe in “God.” But that will be personal decision of a modern Buddhist. As for me, I would exercise a great deal of caution, making sure that “God” is clearly defined and acceptable to me as a Buddhist. On the other hand, if God is a supreme personal being who created the universe, lives in heaven, watches over me, and knows my thoughts and actions, then Buddhists clearly do not believe in God.

Then, Buddhists do not believe in anything supernatural?

No, that is not exactly what I meant to say. Instead of a personal divine creator, Buddhists have always spoken of an enlightened reality called “Dharma.”

This Dharma as “reality” is the source for the Dharma as the “teaching” we talked about before (see page 9). The English translation of this Dharma (dharmakaya, dharmata, dharmadhatu, etc.) includes Law, Logos, Suchness, Truth, and Reality. In modern everyday language, this Dharma can be described as Life, Universe, Cosmic Compassion, Life-giving Force, or Energy. I like the word “Oneness” because it reminds us that the enlightened reality (Dharma) is not separate from us. We are actually one with Dharma. It’s right under our feet, but we don’t know it.

Please say a little more about this Oneness.

Just imagine that each of us is a jewel on Indra’s net as talked about earlier (see page 17). We are part of the Oneness, which is not just an idea in our heads. We can all experience dimensions of Oneness in the many examples of caring we receive from our family and friends in our daily lives. Oneness is not separate from our experiences. Oneness is seen, touched, smelled, heard and tasted. Oneness expresses itself most directly and fully as the liberating spiritual light and energy to the most fervent and sensitive of spiritual seekers. For others, Oneness (as Compassion or Amida) can be experienced as the caring love of their family members or their friends, or as the beauty and wonder of nature (see pages 140, 159).

Does this mean that we are all Buddha, since we are all a part of the Indra’s Net?

We are not all Buddhas right now, but we are all potential Buddhas. The Mahayana Buddhists expressed this in the teaching, “all sentient beings possess Buddha nature.” Simply being part of Indra’s Net of Jewels does not make us Buddhas; we must, instead, fully awaken to the spiritual caring and understanding that derive from others on the net.

What is the relationship between Oneness and awareness?

The more we become aware, the more we realize Oneness. This relationship is like that of the drowning swimmer who discovered (awareness) the caring Ocean (Oneness) when he let go of his striving. In actual Buddhist life, we engage in some kind of practice to help us realize this awareness.

How do Buddhists practice?

According to the Dharma, practice fosters wisdom which in turn eliminates and replaces ignorance, the cause of our suffering. Wisdom helps us to live life as it really is, not how we wish it were. Buddhist tradition talks about 84,000 ways to practice. All practices cultivate: 1) precepts, 2) meditation, and/or 3) wisdom.

The precepts are the rules of conduct, speech, and thought. They give us a framework to focus our lives so we can live the teaching. Practicing meditation helps us to clear our minds and allows us to see the obstructions of unwholesome views. Cultivating wisdom replaces unwholesome views with insight, which frees us from worry, pain, and negative thinking.

Does Buddhism have a holy book like the Bible or the Koran?

There is no one book in Buddhism that serves the same function as the Bible in Christianity or Qur’an (Koran) in Islam. There is, however, a large encyclopedic set of scriptures called the Tripitaka (Three Baskets). The Tripitaka is a collection of Sutras (talks or sermons usually given by Shakyamuni Buddha), Vinaya (rules of behavior initially established by the Buddha), and Abhidharma (scholastic writings by disciples of later generations). The collection is about ten times the length of the Bible. Each school of Buddhism today uses a different section as its important scripture.

Then what commonalities are there among the different Buddhist schools?

All the different schools agree on the Three Treasures or Jewels (in Sanskrit, one of the ancient languages these texts were written in, it is called Tri-ratna). The Three Treasures are the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (Community of monks and nuns).11


2  Traditionally the four are expressed: 1) anitya/anicca (impermanence), 2) duhkha/dukkha (suffering; bumpy road), 3) anatman/anatta (egolessness), and 4) nirvana/nibbana (enlightenment). Here, I have reversed the order of the first two. Further, anatman is rendered “interdependence” rather than the more literal “egolessness,” since “interdependence” makes more sense for our readers while still retaining its religious intent of urging seekers to become aware and to let go of their attachments.

3  The skandhas in Sanskrit (also translated “aggregates” or “heaps”) refer to the five experiential and ever-changing components that make up “one’s” reality at any given time. Suffering results when we falsely grasp at the components as the “self.” For explanation see What the Buddha Taught, pp. 20-23.

4  June, 1995 issue of the Gardena Buddhist Church newsletter.

5  Yutang Lin. Two Practices of Impermanence (El Cerrito, California: Yutan Lin, 1992), p. 8.

6  Ok-koo Kang Grosjean. A Hummingbird’s Dance (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1994), p. 5

7  This means that there is no unchanging, independent substance or entity (atman) associated with what we consider the “self.” According to the Buddha, the “self” at any given moment is comprised of the five experiential and ever-changing components (See page 11). And no atoman is to be found over and beyond the five components.

8  Robert Bellah and his coauthors speak of two kinds of individualism in their study of contemporary American ethos, utilitarian and aesthetic. The former refers to the self-centered mode, but here we take the latter meaning, which speaks to the sacredness of the individual. See their book, Habits of the Heart.

9  This is not deny injustices, cruelties and suffering that exist in our world. For this reason I have qualified this statement with “fundamentally.” Buddhism is primarily concerned with how a person relates to the world and not to the objective world divorced from a person’s subjective experience of it.

10  This is part of a longer well-known passage from one of the earliest sutras (collection of sermons or discourses usually given by the Buddha), the Dhammapada:

With our minds, we make the world.

Speak or act with meanness,

and unhappiness will follow you as surely

as a cart follows the ox that pulls it.

With our minds, we make the world.

Speak or act with kindness,

and happiness will follow you as surely

as a shadow follows the person who casts it.

11  Today, particularly in the West, “Sangha” has come to include the lay Buddhists.