Establishing the Pure Land in the U.K.
Report on the 147th London Eza, 13th October 2019
For the 147th London Eza, Dharma friends welcomed the world-renowned Buddhist scholar Professor Masahiro Shimoda of Tokyo University to join the annual Hoonko Otorikoshi ceremony, and were very much encouraged by his observation that the spiritual atmosphere at Three Wheels appears to be of entirely the same character as that of its parent temple Shogyoji on the other side of the world.
Following the service to the Buddha, Shimoda-sensei presented a carefully and meticulously prepared talk entitled The Establishment of the Pure Land which set out to help those gathered become “further acquainted with the essential characteristics of Buddhist and Pure Land thought.” The talk, which was both erudite and practical, cannot be easily summarised. However, in essence, Prof. Shimoda sought to explicate the dynamic relationship, or “constant flow of interaction”, between this dualistic world, “including ourselves”, and the world of “the uncreated”. Buddhism, he said, teaches us how to become awakened to the latter world and become liberated from the former. It does this initially by ‘naming’ the former ‘Realm A’ with certain fictitious names. This has the effect of drawing the ‘realm of the uncreated’ Realm A into our everyday dualistic world B. At the same time, however, at this moment there is the danger that Realm A ends up merely as another differentiated element of Realm B. In order to overcome this problem the power of negation is applied to the fictitious name: as for instance in the title of Amida Buddha where the negative ‘a’ qualifies the Buddha’s Light and Life-span (mita) which are thus entirely beyond measure. As Shimoda-sensei explained, “Because Amida Buddha has a name that can be interpreted as ‘name of no name,’ he is not a being of the world of Realm B but continues to endlessly open up the world of Realm A.”
The second part of Prof. Shimoda’s talk applied his previous remarks to the practical question of attaining faith-awakening; as outlined in Rennyo-shonin’s teaching of the ‘five-elements’. In particular he discussed the importance of the ‘good teacher’, stating that “moving from B to A, presupposes the existence of Dharma friends and good teachers […] in whom we see the world of A unfold within their being.” This “discovery means that A is awakened within our own selves.” Later on in the meeting, this aspect of Shimoda-sensei’s talk was illustrated in a remark from Rev. Ishii who described an encounter he had witnessed between a Dharma friend, Mr Chris Dodd, and the late Mrs Hiroko Sato. On her death bed Mrs Sato said to Chris, “I will see you again in the Pure Land.” After hearing this Mr Dodd said that for the first time he experienced the desire to be born in the Pure Land. Rev. Ishii explained, “This shows us how, just as Shimoda-sensei described, Chris’s good teacher, Hiroko-san, saw Realm A in his heart and was able to bring it forth in the moment of the negation of her own life.” As Prof. Shimoda himself said in his talk, “Now that Hiroko-san has literally attained birth in the Pure Land, Realm A has unfolded even further to beyond the borders of both this and the other shore […]”.
At the conclusion of Shimoda-sensei’s wonderful presentation, Prof. White praised him for summarising the essentials of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching in such a precise and succinct manner. However he also gave a caution to all assembled about the dangers of falling into dualistic ways of thinking, and reminded us that Mahayana Buddhist philosophy speaks of the ultimate as “neither is, or is not”. These comments were welcomed by Prof. Shimoda as very helpful in reflecting on the most appropriate ways to express Buddhist teaching in the English language.
A guest asked Prof. Shimoda to clarify why Buddhism insists on positing an uncreated realm or locus (which Shimoda-sensei called ‘Realm A’) apart from the dualistic, everyday world of differentiation and discrimination (‘Realm B’). “Why can’t we simply be satisfied with the plurality of existence? Why do we need to seek harmony by positing another realm or locus?” he added. Prof. Shimoda said that the reason for this is due to the fact that we live with others and that, within Realm B, their otherness is absolute and cannot be overcome – even by coercion or control. Only through self-negation can harmony be achieved.
Another participant of the meeting spoke of the ‘insolubility’ of the bond forming the master-disciple relationship, and his delight at finding Prof. Shimoda’s explanation of this in his words, “To a good teacher, the seeker’s world of B is not an object of negation. Instead it is accepted and elevated (sublimed) together with the teacher him or herself into the Realm of A.”
Reverend Kemmyo Sato concluded the discussion by thanking Professor Shimoda and praising him as “a rare and precious practitioner-scholar, whose studies and exposition of Buddhism are deeply rooted in spiritual experience”. After becoming momentarily lost for words to express his feeling, Kemmyo-sensei said, “Shimoda-sensei is beyond me. I can’t describe him. But his presence here is unfathomably important for this sangha. If you should encounter any serious problems with the translation of Buddhist texts that can’t be solved within the Sangha when I am gone, please ask for his help” Kemmyo-sensei, also thanked Professor Shimoda for providing a foreword to his book 5-7-5 The Haiku of Basho, recently translated and published with his friend and collaborator Professor John White. “Shimoda-sensei loves haiku and in his foreword helps us to see that haiku also point us to Realm A, the Uncreated.”
Concluding the meeting, the assembled gathering heard from Mr Shimpei Hashimoto, visiting along with his daughter Yoko, who said appreciatively, “Since I lived at Three Wheels nearly two decades ago the chanting has become much stronger.”