A Life of Naturalness: Another Buddhist Model

In the West the heroic model of Buddhism predominates. This is well exemplified in the life story of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the well-known legendary biography, he forsakes his throne and family, rides off into the forest on a white horse, endures the life of an ascetic for six years, conquers temptations to become the Awakened One, and then roams throughout the region for the next forty-five years with his throng of disciples to spread the Dharma. Other models from East Asia include the “antics” of enlightened masters who shout and beat their disciples to awakening, and admonish “When you meet the Buddha, kill him!” Thus, the heroic model is characterized by tye assertive, ascetic, serious, non-familial, individualistic, and extraordinary.

The heroic exemplars do, indeed, attract our attention and even our fervent loyalty. Their attraction stems, in part, from their accomplishments which we know we can only mimic but never fully emulate. There are, however, many who cannot be satisfied with that. They seek a model that they themselves can reach within the everyday and the mundane for ordinary people. They cannot and do not want to forsake the world, their family and work. Surely, there is room for other Buddhist models for North Americans to adopt.

I believe we have witnessed in the previous chapters of this book an emergence of another image, one that is more receptive than assertive, more sensitive than ascetic, more humorous than serious, more family-oriented, more community-centered than individualistic and more ordinary than extraordinary. Perhaps, this alternative model can lend another perspective to helping us to arrive at our personal spiritual resolution. The insights and values of the Jodo-Shinshu model can similarly contribute to the development of a new ethos for relating to the challenges of a world that is becoming increasingly pluralistic and interdependent.

I wish to share a story that illustrates this model. This story was told to us by the late Rev. Chijun Yakumo, who in my estimation represented the best qualities of the approximately one thousand Jodo-Shinshu priests and their spouses who crossed the Pacific Ocean during the past one hundred years. With a deep sense of appreciation for their dedication and struggles to transmit the Jodo-Shinshu teachings to these North American shores, I shall conclude with that wonderful story from Japan.


Once upon a time in a small village in the southern part of the island of Honshu, there were two Buddhist temples, one of the major monastic schools and the other Jodo-Shinshu. The tiny village of some sixty families could no longer afford to support both temples. The villagers had to choose one and abandon the other. They decided to hold a contest to see which of the two (the monk or the priest) was more fit to be their spiritual leader.

When the day of the contest came, a large group of villagers gathered in the village plaza where they had set up a large vat of boiling water. They asked the two, “What will you do with this?”

The monk stood up first. He was tall and well-built. His frame had been made impressive by the long, hard training required by his school. He stepped up to the vat with confidence and slowly lowered himself into the boiling pot. The head-shaven monk recited the mantras (sacred words), performed mudras (sacred gestures of the hands and fingers) and focused his mind. It was an impressive sight. The boiling water did not seem to bother the monk at all as he calmly dipped all the way in until his shoulders were completely immersed. The villagers looked on in awe and were extremely impressed by the monk. The monk stepped out of the cauldron in mindfulness without any visible signs of a burn.

Now it was the Jodo-Shinshu priest’s turn. He turned to the villagers and asked them to bring some large wooden tubs filled halfway with cold water. The villagers thought it was a strange request, but they did as he asked. As the tubs arrived, the Shinshu priest poured hot water from the vat into the tubs to make them lukewarm. He then said, “This is perfect for a hot-tub dip! But it’s a waste for me to enjoy this by myself. Won’t you all join me and enjoy this tub?” Many of the villagers did join the Shinshu priest. In time, the villagers began to appreciate the warm water and the camaraderie. Some even began to sing! They had a great time!

The villagers were impressed with the monk’s extraordinary abilities, but wondered what would happen after he died. His personal accomplishments and training would be of little use once he was gone. On the other hand, the Jodo-Shinshu priest showed no special abilities. He seemed like one of them, yet he lived by the ideals of sharing, humility, and finding joy in doing ordinary things. This teaching could be practiced by every villager and would live on beyond the priest’s lifetime. So the villagers decided in favor of the Jodo-Shinshu priest and his temple!

This story shows how the teachings of the ordinary can be more compelling and lasting than those of the extraordinary. The “ordinary” Shinshu priest remained true to the Buddhist truth of non-attachment to one’s ego. By showing his unselfish side, he was teaching the villagers that it is good to share joy together and that we depend on one another.

Lastly, I am reminded of one of my favorite utterances by Shinran Shonin’s statement, “Now, whether you accept the Nembutsu, entrusting yourself to it, or reject it, that is your own decision” (Tannisho, p. 7). I do hope, however, that you do not reject it and that you seek to deepen your understanding. I invite you to explore the resources listed below. My best wishes to you as we walk the paths together.