The Issue of Deviation in the History of the Honganji

By Rev. Peter Hata

The famous Shin Buddhist classic, Tannisho (“Lamenting the Deviations”), was written by Yuien, a close disciple of Shinran Shonin, approximately 30 years after Shinran’s death in 1262. In the opening, Yuien states (Taitetsu Unno trans.), “In reflecting upon my foolish thoughts and thinking of the past and present, I deeply regret that there are views deviating from the true entrusting (shinjin) which was taught orally by our late master, and I fear that doubts and confusions may arise among the followers who come after us. Unless we rely upon a good teacher with whom our karmic destinies are fortunately bound, how can we possibly enter the gate of effortless practice?”

Yuien’s motivation for writing the Tannisho was his sadness at noting the deviations or misunderstandings amongst Shinran Shonin’s followers that had begun to surface after Shinran passed away. Because Yuien was one of Shinran’s trusted disciples and possessed a clear understanding of his teaching, this work provides valuable insights into Shinran’s true teachings. For example, in Tannisho VI, he quotes Shinran clarifying a common over-estimation of one’s self-power: “It is utterly unthinkable that among the followers of single-hearted nembutsu practice there are arguments about ‘my disciples’ and ‘other’s disciples.’ As for myself, Shinran, I do not have a single disciple. If I could make others say the nembutsu through my own devices, they would be my disciples. But how arrogant it is to claim as disciples those who live the nembutsu through the sole working of Amida’s compassion.”

In another sense, because even Shinran’s own son Zenran was not invulnerable to deviation—Shinran disowned him because, among other things, Zenran claimed to possess “secret teachings” (i.e., that he had privileged information) from Shinran—the ubiquity of deviations can be viewed as validations of Shinran’s teaching of the ineradicable egoism that exists in human beings, even in those trusted with propagating the teaching.

Of course, the issue of deviation has an additional relevance today: as a tradition transplanted from Japan to America, the reality currently facing both Higashi and Nishi Honganjis today is that to thrive in America, if not simply survive, Shin Buddhism must change. However, it isn’t the message of Shinran that needs changing; it is, in a sense, we American Shin Buddhists as its “messengers” that need to creatively find new and effective ways to communicate Shinran’s message here in the West. And actually, because Shinran claimed Shin Buddhism was in reality the true teaching (shin-shu) of Shakyamuni Buddha, this message is also the message of the Buddha himself. One example of a contemporary change is, because the typical first-time temple visitor usually finds the emphasis on ritual in Shin Buddhist services difficult to understand, American Shin temples are increasingly implementing Western-style English language lecture classes which are devoid of ritual. Of course, we know that when changes are implemented, either intentionally or unintentionally, accusations of deviation may appear, causing friction among American Sanghas and teachers, and/or between American Sanghas and their Japan-based headquarters. In fact, because ornate and often “exotic” rituals are a symbolic link to the Asian and Indian roots of Buddhist tradition, a contemporary issue is the question of whether or not this lessening of the centrality of ritual in the temple experience is also detrimental to the “message.”

But “deviation” per se isn’t necessarily always negative. The word probably has a negative connotation because the word “deviant” of course usually refers to a person with unacceptable or even illegal behavior. However, the word “deviation” simply refers to something that has departed from a previously established course or from accepted past standards. And, in looking at the history of the Honganji, the masters who transmitted the Pure Land teaching to Shinran clearly “deviated” from previous tradition when their causes and conditions required them to, when they perceived that the contemporary expression of the teaching was no longer effective as a path to buddhahood for common people. For example, Shinran’s teacher Honen was persecuted for having “deviated” from the Tendai by emphasizing exclusive Nembutsu, yet this central point established the independent Pure Land school in Japan. Shinran himself “deviated” from Honen by emphasizing shinjin over nembutsu practice, but many would argue that Shinran was simply clarifying the true content of Shakyamuni’s teaching. Later, Rennyo “deviated” from Shinran by, to consider just two notable examples, aggressively propagating the teaching and then creating a rigidly structured institution. However, it was this institution, the Honganji, that was able to preserve and promote Shinran’s teachings despite the considerable turmoil of the period. In the modern era, Manshi Kiyozawa “deviated” from institutional/conservative Tokugawa Shinshu by emphasizing that religion—or “sprituality,” as he called it—was ultimately not a matter of one’s lineage or hierarchical status, but a subjective and deeply personal matter. It is hard to overestimate his far-reaching influence; his re-emphasizing the essential teaching of Shakyamuni and Shinran—two of his major influences were the ancient Agama sutras and the Tannisho—revitalized Shinshu for the 20th century.

In a similar way, for the contemporary American Jodo Shinshu follower, it is clear our reality requires new adaptation. Not only has the 21st century brought to the forefront global issues that have not existed before, Americans, as Westerners, bring with them unique non-Japanese intellectual and cultural traditions. If Shinshu is merely presented to Americans as it has been in Japan, it will eventually disappear. Thus, going forward, it is crucial to critically examine the history of deviations in Higashi Honganji. And, in order to make this assessment, one must know the essence of the tradition. Often, in looking at the masters in our tradition, this determination may be mixed, as it is with regards to Rennyo, and this makes going forward even more difficult.

But changes are most certainly coming in America. Hopefully, those that make these changes will do so from a deep appreciation of the essence of the tradition. And as Yuien points out, appreciating this essence requires that we “rely upon a good teacher with whom our karmic destinies are fortunately bound,” or in other words, that we have a clear understanding of Shinran’s emphasis on shinjin. With this clear understanding, changing the expression of the tradition—finding “expedient means” to communicate this teaching in compelling ways—will not also mean negatively deviating from it, but rather clarifying its timeless and universal relevance for 21st century Americans.

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