Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, lived in Japan from 1173 to 1263. Like ourselves, he lived in a time of war, anxiety and great human suffering. In order to bring the freedom and emotional release of the Buddhist message to the ordinary lay people of his day, he greatly simplified the Buddhist teaching.

Following the lead of his honourable teacher, Honen Shonin, Shinran taught that Buddhist “Enlightenment” could be attained through the “Easy Path” of reciting the Name of Amida Buddha, “Namo Amida Butsu”, with a sincere mind aspiring for birth. The “birth” he spoke of was “Birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, at the time of our human death. Shinran taught that conditions in the human world has become so corrupt that it was no longer possible for ordinary people to achieve enlightenment through their own efforts. Monks and holy sages might be able to carry out sufficient religious practices to attain Enlightenment in the “Dark Age of Mappo” (the Age of Decline); but most of us, including Shinran himself, could not. We must rely on the “Transferred Merit” coming to us across aeons of time from the “Great Practice” of Amida Buddha.

Thus the religious stories of Shin Buddhism all emphasize that there is no “self effort” practice necessary for us to be born into the Pure Land at our human death, or to experience the Pure Land Mind during our human life. All that is required is the recitation of Namo Amida Butsu, entrusting oneself to the Power of the Primal Vow.

Contemporary life in North America, at the beginning of the Second Millenium, is becoming more and more stressful. We realize that if we blindly follow the cultural expectations of our consumer society, our lives will be endlessly frantic, uptight, harried, and superficial. North Americans are increasingly looking to Asian methods of meditation to calm their minds and harmonize their lives.

Traditionally, Shin Buddhism has limited its meditation practices to sutra chanting and recitation of the “Nembutsu”; Namo Amida Butsu. Today, however there is an increasing demand from within our temples and from those wishing to join us, for “quiet sitting” meditation instruction in addition to chanting meditation.

One of the main teachings of Buddhism is that we have two levels of mind - our everyday rational mind and our underlying “Wisdom Mind”. The Wisdom Mind is the deeper intuitive part of ourselves that can be experienced during meditation. This mind is not part of ourselves, but belongs to Amida Buddha. If we compare our mind to a deep lake, the ordinary mind is the surface water subject to waves and storms. Our “Bodhi Mind” ; Pure Mind of Buddha, however, is like the calm water at the bottom of the lake.

Ordinary mind is compared to monkey chatter, endlessly filled with compulsive thoughts and insatiable cravings. Living solely within our ordinary common sense mind is like living as a hamster, endlessly spinning around on his exercise wheel in his cage never getting anywhere. This everyday mind is useful for analysis, problem solving and managing our day-to-day affairs; however, everyday mind can never give us a deeply fulfilling human life. If we give in to its endless craving, our lives become very unsatisfactory, and we pass away at our death with a deep sense of regret.

The ancient meditation methods, originally coming to us from India, represent different methods of distracting our everyday analytical mind so that we can experience the Bodhi Mind that lies underneath. Meditation practice allows us to touch our inner consciousness of “pure awareness”, from which springs tranquility, wisdom, compassion and a sense of the Oneness of all things.

Meditation also teaches us perseverance and patience. If we imagine an untrained mind as being like a tightly filled balloon, it explodes apart easily and loudly when hit. A daily meditation practice acts to soften our emotional reaction time, just like a soft balloon does not break when hit. A soft balloon accepts an outside blow, as a temporary indentation, and then responds slowly. Similarly, a person who meditates regularly does not react angrily and rashly toward outside influences. He receives his challenges thoughtfully and with careful self reflection; then responds from his Higher Self.
Into our hands will be put the exact results of our thoughts.
Meditation also teaches us how to control our lives. Before beginning a regular meditation practice, a person simply reacts thoughtlessly to tragic events and personal challenges. After practicing meditation daily, a person under stress is able to reflect carefully on the cause behind the cause behind the cause of her suffering, and can let her innate Wisdom Mind lead her to the best course of action. We can then access our "Buddha Nature" deep within, and can behave in balanced and non-violent ways.

Meditation also allows us to detach from the endless cravings and dissatisfaction that is built into us all, as human beings. If we can find even a glimpse of our inner Buddha Mind, meditation every day acts to amplify and strengthen this Higher Awareness, making it easier to find it, as an anchor, in times of stress.

Different Kinds of Meditation Methods
There are many techniques that have been developed over the centuries in different parts of the world to calm and clarify the mind. These methods can be grouped into several categories.

1. The Use of a Mandala - Tibetan Buddhists use very elaborate sacred pictures of transcendent Buddhas to overpower their everyday mind and thus encourage the Pure Mind to reveal itself in meditation. Yoga meditation often uses a lighted candle to focus the mind and achieve the same result. A mandala is any sacred image used to invoke the calm deep mind of the practitioner.

2. The Use of a Mantra - Transcendental meditation is based on giving individuals an ancient sacred sound to penetrate through their analytical mind into the Buddha Mind underneath. Mantras are also used in Tibetan Buddhism and yoga as meditation tools.

3. The Use of a Koan - Certain kinds of Zen Buddhism use a paradoxical riddle as a focus for meditation. This koan is an aid to setting aside the logical mind in favour of the deeper intuitive mind that can understand the riddle spontaneously.

4. The Use of Positive Affirmation - Insight Meditation of the Theravadan School of Buddhism uses the repetition of affirmative statements to lull the every day mind to sleep, thus allowing the deep mind to take over consciousness.

5. Watching the breath - A well known type of Zen meditation instructs the person to simply pay attention to their bodily sensation of inhaling and exhaling. By giving the conscious everyday mind such a focus, the underlying Deep Mind of Buddha is experienced.

So far in Shin Buddhism, there has been no chosen method of "sitting meditation". True entrusting to the reality of Amida Buddha's Great Practice on our behalf, has been sufficient for our religious progress toward human fulfillment. In recommending, then, a Shin Buddhist method of quiet-sitting meditation, we will be drawing on several of the techniques outlined above, from other schools.

How to Meditate
1. Make a commitment to begin "sitting" twenty minutes every day. It is important to realize that it takes at least a year to establish the habit of setting aside this much time for meditation on a daily basis. Just as soon as a person decides to begin this new routine, their ordinary mind will begin creating excuses and rationalizations to discontinue. This is our continual inner conflict as human beings: "Shall I choose the path of improving my life, or shall I find any change in lifestyle too difficult for me to accomplish?"

2. Create a meditation shrine of some kind in your home. This shrine can be a traditional Shin Buddhist "obutsudan" or you may create a personal shrine that you find spiritually inspiring. Choose a photograph or statue of Shakyamuni Buddha or Amida Buddha that appeals to you. You can also choose a scroll of "Namo Amida. Add a candle, a vase of flowers, and an incense burner. Japanese incense can be purchased at Japanese grocery stores.

3. Choose the same time every day to meditate. Some people like to meditate first thing in the morning. Others prefer to sit just before going to bed. Others find another time that fits into their daily routine.

4. Sit with your back straight. The most common meditation posture is the Lotus position or half-Lotus position. Imitate, if you can, the posture of Shakyamuni Buddha seen in statues of the seated Buddha. If you cannot feel comfortable in this posture, another sitting posture, which is commonly used in Jodo Shinshu is the Seiza position, Seiza is a formal way of sitting in Japan, with both feet tucked under your body and the hands placed gently folded on the lap. If you find that none of the above postures are comfortable, you may sit in a straight backed chair with your feet flat on the floor.

Your hands are held with the left hand placed softly on top of the right hand. The most important part of meditation posture is a straight back with relaxed shoulders. The head is bowed slightly, and the eyes are looking down, about a metre ahead. You may also choose to close your eyes, but be careful not to fall asleep if you do so.

5. Begin your meditation with the aspiration to experience the part of your mind that is calm, so that you can awaken to the True Wisdom of Amida Buddha.

6. Light the incense and recognize that the fragrant smell helps you to focus on the Dharma.

7. Realize that you are sitting in front of the Buddha, a position that helps you to experience your Buddha Mind.

8. Begin listening to your thoughts. "The mind is like a monkey, living in a house with six windows, continually jumping from window to window.”

9. Begin watching your body breathe in and out. By listening to your thoughts, and paying attention to your breathing, you are beginning to meditate. When you pay attention to your thoughts, you are unaware of your breathing. When you pay attention to your breath, you are unaware of your thoughts. Your thoughts come from your everyday mind. Your awareness of your body breathing in and out, comes from Amida's Mind - the Mind of Bodhi. Try to place your attention on your breathing, rather than on your thoughts.

10. As you become more comfortable, begin to recite "Namandabu", on your exhalations. Say it silently to yourself.

11. Sit in this way for fifteen minutes. Breath in and out, reciting "Namandabu" on your exhalations. After a moment or two you will discover that you have forgotten to watch your breath and say "Namandabu", because the mind naturally wanders. Gently return to watching your breath and reciting "Namandabu" on your exhalations. Then after awhile, you will notice again, "I'm thinking!" Gently return to watching your breath and reciting "Namandabu."

12. At the end of twenty minutes, put you hands together in "gassho", bow to your shrine, and say "Thank you" silently to Amida Buddha's All-Compassionate Wisdom, continually bringing you ever closer to Enlightenment.

13. Extinguish your candle.

What is Inside our Mind?
Part of the difficulty of beginning a regular meditation practice is that once seated and silent, we are able to objectively listen to the round and round of ego thoughts in our mind. It is our task to listen carefully and then detach from our thinking mind. The ego mind is filled with dissatisfactions, anger, sadness, hurts, fantasies, escapist desires, rationalizations, expectations from our parents, fears, doubts, and greed.

Beginning to listen to all this content will be disturbing at first. That is why many people keep themselves endlessly busy and seek relief from their thoughts, through addictions to television, shopping, working, gambling, intoxicants, and or other distractions. However, persistence pays. Every moment that you spend aware of your True Buddha Mind will empower you gradually to discover peace of mind as a normal state.  

Our experience, as Shin Buddhists, is that when we truly aspire to eventual Buddhahood, and when we awaken to the Pure Mind of Amida Buddha (Shinjin), we are transformed into human beings who are established on a spiritual journey. The Sacred Name of Amida Buddha, "Namo Amida Butsu", becomes the physical (external) manifestation of the Awakened Mind enabling us to transcend and master the personal and global challenges that we face every day in our lives.

Namo Amida Butsu,
Sensei Doreen Hamilton