Shinran’s Appreciation of Others
By Rev. Patti Nakai, Buddhist Temple of Chicago

Presentation for the Federation of Buddhist Women’s Associations conference (Oct. 13-14, 2007) in San Francisco

Countless Amida Buddhas reside
In the light of the Buddha of Unhindered Light;
Each one of these transformed Buddhas protects
The person of true and real shinjin.

When we say “Namu-amida-butsu,”
The countless Buddhas throughout the ten quarters,
Surrounding us a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold,
Rejoice in and protect us.

From Jodo Wasan (“Songs of the Pure Land”)
Translation from The Collected Works of Shinran, p.35
(Kyoto: Hongwanji-ha, 1997)

At Ho-on-ko we speak of our appreciation to Shinran Shonin but those expressions of gratitude seem shallow in comparison to how Shinran expressed his appreciation of the people in his life.

When Shinran started out as a monk from age 9 to age 29, he must have been appreciative of his elders—the parents he lost, the uncle and other relatives who helped him, the many teachers and senior monks at the Mt. Hiei monastery. But as a member of the aristocracy (as were almost all the monks at that time), he probably looked down on all the “evil persons,” the people whose work violated the Buddhist precepts: the farmers, fishermen, hunters and merchants. Shinran’s attempts to eliminate all defiled thoughts from his mind probably meant he felt all those people who acted on their defiled thoughts deserved to be eliminated from any sort of spiritual salvation.

In despair over his failure to get rid of his filthy thoughts, Shinran sought inspiration by meditating in the Rokkaku-do (“six-sided hall”) dedicated to Japan’s great patron of Buddhism, Prince Shotoku. At the Rokkaku-do, the sutras which Prince Shotoku focused on—the Lotus Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra and Queen Srimala Sutra—came together in a dream for Shinran, a dream reminding him of the Mahayana teaching that enlightenment (nirvana) is the transformation, not the elimination, of defilements (samsara).

But how does this transformation come about? As described in the sutras that Prince Shotoku cherished, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas show us the way by transforming themselves into beings of all shapes and sizes to act out lessons for us. When Shinran joined the diverse Pure Land sangha led by Honen, Shinran saw that Honen looked at all people as if they were Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in their “transformed” bodies—whether they were refined lords and ladies or ragged thieves and prostitutes. For Honen “Namu Amida Butsu” was not some phrase of worship to a particular divine being; instead, it described what Honen was actually doing—bowing down (namu) to life in all its forms (Amida) as spiritually liberated (Butsu).

When Shinran was exiled to the countryside, it probably took time for him to accept that the people he used to look down on as “evil persons” were actually the transformed bodies of Buddhas. It became like a turned-around version of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Instead of murderous pod-creatures taking over the bodies of people around him, Shinran saw it was spiritually awakened beings taking on the forms of various persons. “Oh, maybe it was just last night or several months ago, but I see that a Buddha took over the body of that person who was always irritating and mean. Now he’s just pretending to be irritating and mean in order to teach me.”

In the two verses above, Shinran expresses his appreciation for all these Buddhas-in-disguise. Amida, “the Buddha of Unhindered Light,” shows up in numbers too great to count, not to be Shinran’s “fan club,” but to awaken shinjin (“entrusting/heart”) in him and keep it going. As in the commentary by Haya Akegarasu,* this entrusting-heart is not our idea of emotional ecstasy, a prideful sense of religious faith. “True and real shinjin” is a gift we humbly receive, but to get us to that realization might take some harsh lessons from the Buddhas-in-disguise.

In the latter verse, Shinran brings out the imagery of being surrounded in the hundreds and thousands by these transformed Buddhas. It is not just two or three nice people that we happen to know—it is pretty much the whole population of this metropolitan area, including the clout-wielding politicians and the gun-brandishing gang members. These transformed Buddhas are not out to protect our hard-earned dollars or physical well-being. What they rejoice in us is the path of Namu Amida Butsu, our bowing down to the Oneness of life. Sometimes they have to shake us out of our possession-grasping selfishness to inspire us to take action for the sake of others. For example, Shinran spoke out against the emperor for ordering the persecution of Honen’s group (CWS p. 289). He normally would be afraid of the consequences, but seeing the emperor as a transformed Buddha, Shinran could feel gratitude towards this enlightened being who spurred him to protest the unfair treatment of others instead of just wanting to save his own skin.

In the work of these transformed Buddhas, Shinran experienced the transformation of his defilements (e.g. being afraid of the punishment a real emperor would give out) into virtues (the pretend-emperor allows him to protest political oppression). By reading Shinran, we learn that the path to true appreciation of our life and the lives of others may seem radical, but it is definitely doable.

*1935 lecture on the “Benefits in the Present Life” verses in the Jodo Wasan found in Wasan Kowashu (published in 1984).

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