Following the path in a northern town
By Bonnie H. Tittaferrante
Gold, red, mahogany and marble Buddhas from various sects fill my home.
But a single statue of my Buddha, Amida, graces the home shrine (butsudan), his fit physical features a mixture of many races. He stands with one hand upward and one reaching down to me.
After chanting and readings of the Dharma (Teachings), the welcoming smell of sandalwood incense permeates my home, as it does Jodo Shinshu temples and homes worldwide.
Once a predominately ethnic Japanese-based sect, Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (also called Shin) is slowly growing among those of non-Japanese descent.
Faith for daily life
We are searching for a peaceful path that encourages self-development, awareness of the interdependence of all life, compassion, wisdom and sanity in the midst of a chaotic and violent world.
Ordinary working people with families, unable to attend mountain retreats or sit in Zazen meditation for hours, are drawn to our sect's unique qualities.
Its founder, Shinran Shonin, married and raised children. He faced the realities of daily life and personal tragedy, including the death of a daughter. Before breaking away from the monastic life, he had despaired of ever achieving enlightenment following traditional methods.
Even though he lived 800 years ago in a foreign culture, I connect with this man.
I also connect with the Buddhist writings of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn and incorporate them into my personal studies. The Dharma is the Dharma, just as a warm blanket protects and comforts whether it is made of wool or stuffed cotton.
Reviving the Sangha
Being part of the mid-sized northern Ontario community of Thunder Bay, keeping this path alive has been a challenge. Over the decades, the Sangha (congregation) has gone from being totally ethnic to having almost no members of Japanese descent.
Without the cultural connection and the sense of familial obligation, support has dwindled.
When the elderly Japanese leader moved away a few years ago, the group collapsed. Although I continued to study and practise on my own, a huge void opened in my life.
My choice seemed obvious. I continued training as a lay-leader and opened my home to revive the Sangha. Once a year, a Sensei from Winnipeg comes to visit and I avail myself of training when possible.
Whenever I feel isolated or frustrated in my inability to spread the Dharma to large numbers of people, I remember our founder. Exiled to the freezing wilderness, Shinran Shonin shared the Teachings with a few curious seekers, then growing numbers of followers.
There are other Buddhist groups in Thunder Bay. It would be easier to refer queries to one of them than to take on this challenge.
So, why do I set up chairs in my family room, purchase fresh flowers for the shrine, prepare tea, plan the chants and readings, and update my website for just a handful of interested people?
The Dharma, like the lotus, is a slow-growing seed. But it is so brilliant when it blooms. How could I not nurture it?
Pervasive and eternal Dharma
Few friends, co-workers, or even extended family, have a real understanding of what Buddhism is, much less how it determines my interaction with them and the world. Shin Buddhism is even more obscure.
I became interested in Buddhism in university and studied on my own for several years. In my 30s, I joined the local Shin group.
Occasionally someone will ask a few questions, but most still behave as though I am Christian, e-mailing me well-meaning blessings and slideshows praising the gifts of God.
I accept their good wishes with gratitude, even the subtle attempts at conversion. It comes from a place of love.
Because the Dharma is so pervasive and eternal, it covers all situations. There is nothing on the news, in society, or in science that could ever bring doubt to my beliefs.
In fact, we embrace new theories and knowledge as ways to peel back the veils of ignorance and make the universe clearer. Shakyamuni Buddha told us to question everything and everyone. There is no guilt or punishment involved in the struggle to enlightenment.
Bonnie's Bhudda, Amida
No one is left behind
Buddhism permeates all aspects of my life. It provides the tools and strength to deal with all types of people, and to forgive intentional and unintentional cruelties.
Most importantly, it helps me to forgive my own mistakes, dust myself off and continue up the path. The 18 vows that we take on our spiritual journey promise that no one who seeks Enlightenment will be left behind. Amida causes Buddhahood to arise in all beings, without prejudice or discrimination, eliminating spiritual death. His spiritual powers radiate such light that darkness vanishes from our world. No one is ever lost or forsaken ever again.
No matter what, whenever I stumble, Amida's left hand reaches down to lift me up.
Bonnie H. Tittaferrante is a public school teacher in Thunder Bay. She also leads a small Dharma study group, the Jodo Shinshu Buddhists of Thunder Bay.
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