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Archive for May 17th, 2010

Thus spake the Hermetic Hungarian…

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Guest Blogger Hermetic Hungarian returns today, to discuss a curious institution found on the upper west side of Manhattan

The New York Buddhist Church and its statue of Shinran Shonin

The New York Buddhist Church, 331 – 332  Riverside Drive, is a Japanese “True Pure Land” (Japanese Jodoshinshu) Buddhist temple, founded in 1938.

– photo by the Hermetic Hungarian

331 Riverside Drive, the main building, was formerly the Marion Davies House, built in 1902 in the Beaux Arts style by architects Janes & Leo. 332 Riverside Drive, the annex and social center, was built in 1963 in the then-popular International Style by architects Kelley & Gruzen.

Standing in front of the annex, looking out across the Hudson River, is a tall bronze statue of Shinran Shonin (1173 – 1262), the founder of the Japanese True Pure Land school.  Statues like this one grace the entrances of Pure Land Buddhist temples worldwide. However, this particular statue was originally in Hiroshima and survived the atomic bomb.

– photo by the Hermetic Hungarian

This statue originally stood about 8,000 feet from Hiroshima’s ground zero. It was one of the few cultural artifacts to survive the blast from that close distance.  The statue was brought to the United States and installed in its its current location in 1955. Besides being a symbol of the founder of the Pure Land School, it is a reminder of both the terrible devastation wrought by atomic weapons and of fervent hopes for world peace.

Every August 5th at 7:15pm – corresponding to 8:15am August 6th, Hiroshima time — the temple bell is sounded, and the Buddhist and local communities gather around the statue, silently commemorating the Hiroshima bombing.

Shinran  was born into a powerful Regent family in 1173. Shinran was inducted into the Imperial Court-sponsored Esoteric (Japanese Tendai ) Buddhist community. This esoteric school had been brought from China in the 8th century, and was a favorite among the nobility and educated classes. It was a complex, intellectual, esoteric, and demanding school which required difficult practices of its adherents. For 20 years Shinran tried without success to follow the practices. He became disillusioned, and wanted to leave the monastery to study a simpler Buddhism being taught in Kyoto.

– photo by the Hermetic Hungarian

Because of his abandonment of the Court-supported school, Shinran was exiled to the provinces to live as a commoner, with farmers, merchants, fishermen, and artisans. Living away from the heady atmosphere of the monastery, Shinran soon realized that if he himself was unable to perform the difficult practices required by the Buddhist schools of the nobility, surely people with little education who were busy eking out a living from day to night had little chance of achieving enlightenment through the then-accepted means. He felt strongly that there must be another way – after all the Buddha’s original teaching was one of universal enlightenment.

Having studied with earlier teachers of Pure Land,  Shinran was familiar with  the teachings which detailed the Buddha Amida’s (Sanskrit Amitabha) vows not to become a fully enlightened Buddha until everyone who had relied upon him had become enlightened.

– photo by the Hermetic Hungarian

The primary practice of Pure Land Buddhists, whether Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Korean, is chanting the name of Amida Buddha. In Japanese the chant is “Namu Amida Butsu”, translated as “I humbly bow to Amida Buddha”.

– photo by the Hermetic Hungarian

The external manifestation of this practice is that if one chants with sincerity and respect, asking for Amida Buddha’s help and guidance, then one will be reborn in the Pure Land in the West from which enlightenment is possible for ordinary people.

– photo by the Hermetic Hungarian

The corollary is that no matter how difficult and rigorous the practices undertaken in this life, it is almost impossible for ordinary people to transcend mundane existence.  Pure Land practitioners place not just their faith but their hopes for eventual enlightenment in the hands of Amida Buddha.

– photo by the Hermetic Hungarian

The internal manifestation of Pure Land practice is that chanting name of Amida Buddha helps practitioners realize that the Pure Land is here and now, within ourselves. Faith in Amida Buddha awakens a deep spirituality, gratitude, and humility in the practitioner. This in turn allows the practitioner to live in the Pure Land while living in the world. And the physical act of chanting slowly leads the practitioner to inner calmness and fosters insight into true reality.

– photo by the Hermetic Hungarian

Pure Land Buddhism has the largest number of adherents of any Buddhist school in the world. In Japan alone there are over 10,000 Pure Land temples. Throughout China and Vietnam there are an unknown number of Pure Land temples, due to historic governmental suppression of religion; however, Pure Land is the largest Buddhist school in both countries. Pure Land has also greatly influenced Korean and Tibetan Buddhist practices. Buddhist practice is heterogenous, and different schools adapt each others’ practices when appropriate.

The members of the New York Buddhist Church, and their leader Rev. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki, serve the Japanese community of Manhattan with Sunday services, Japanese dharma classes, and special events. They also warmly welcome welcome anyone seeking to understand more about Pure Land, offering services, classes, and discussions in English, hoping to embrace the wider community. They have been enthusiastically welcoming anyone interested for the last 72 years.

Amitabha Sutra

The Infinite Life Sutra, or Larger Pure Land Sutra


Shinran Shonin

New York Buddhist Church

Written by Mitch Waxman

May 17, 2010 at 1:38 am

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