In Shinnyo-en one of our important sources of teaching is woman known post-humously as Shojushinin (a dharma name meaning “heart or mind of embracement or shoju”). She was the wife of Master Shinjo Ito, one of the founders of Shinnyo-en, and the administrative head of our sangha. Noted for finding ways to apply the Buddhist teachings in her daily life, she would often relate Buddhist themes to her daily chores. She taught those who lent a hand with her in the kitchen in such a down-to-earth, accessible way that people began considering her their Dharma Mother. Those informal teachings came to be called her “kitchen sermons,” which later became known as the “Seventeen Teachings.”
Shojushinin led the Shinnyo-en community with humility and grace, and imbued all her actions with the principles and ideas taught by Master Shinjo. She once remarked: “When we say, ‘I should have done this or that,’ it is usually too late. I hope we can take all reactions and indications manifested in this world as a reply from the spiritual world about our own actions , and ponder and learn from each one with careful deliberation. Let’s endeavor wholeheartedly so as not to have any regrets later that we could have done a little better.”
The Shinnyo Teaching provides a path for each of us to engage our buddha nature and develop it fully through our conduct and actions in the world around us. Shojushinin maintained a deep trust in this innate buddhahood throughout her life, and held an unshakable belief that everyone has the capacity to cultivate the same behavioral buddha-like manners for themselves. Shojushinin’s example provided inspiration and guidance to those pursuing the path of buddhahood throughout her lifetime, and continues to do so today.
Buddhist teachings provide a path for each of us to engage our buddha nature and develop it fully through our conduct and actions everyday in the world. In particular, the roots of Shinnyo-en buddhism were grafted from a merging of the practices found in both the smaller vehicle, or hinayana exoteric teachings, such as Tendai buddhism, and those of the larger vehicle, or mahayana esoteric teachings, like Shingon and Zen. These are the same principles found in the last and final teaching by Shakyamuni, also known as the Nirvana Sutra. As mentioned, the principles of buddhism are meant to be passed from person-to-person directly, and not simply published and randomly absorbed by whomever happens to read a sutra, or listen to a lesson. This is because the purity and truthfulness of what is being taught should not be left up to random interpretation by the listener or reader.
Think about the old children’s game of Telephone, where children line up and at one end someone says something to the person next to them, who then relays what they heard to the next, and so on. By the time the end of the line is reached, the message is often transformed into something that doesn’t at all resemble the original words spoken. This is human nature at work – we hear what we want to hear, and not always what is actually being said. So whenever we train ourselves in buddhism we always strive to listen with pure hearts and minds and not allow our egos to change the meaning to something we want to hear.
In a practical example, if someone says, “This candy is sweet like maple syrup.” And we haven’t ever tasted maple ourselves, we would be best not to try to make up similarities like, “Oh you mean it’s like apple juice?” in order to allow our prior learning and habits to interfere with the new experience. Try to keep your mind open to imagining what “maple” tastes like and hopefully experience that kind of sweetness yourself through further exploration, so you get a true meaning of what the person was describing, rather than a rationalization of what you thought they meant.