By Dr. Taitetsu Unno

The teaching of Shinran, transmitted as Jodo Shinshu (known as Shin Buddhism in the West), brings the depth of the Buddha Dharma to people in simple, clear language. Appearing from the heart of true compassion, it responds to the spiritual needs of everyone - not only the privileged, select few who can afford the time and resources to pursue religious practices, either full-time or part- time. As the working of great compassion, it assures everyone the liberation from the darkness of ignorance and the attainment of supreme enlightenment.

But this fact can be truly appreciated only in so far as one goes beyond the objective and rational approach. The objective approach seeks an answer based upon the subject-object framework. Such questions as "What is Shin Buddhism?" or "What is Amida Buddha?" separates the subject, the questioner, from any meaningful answer that may be forthcoming. The teaching remains unrelated to one's burning questions and deepest concerns. Consequently, the Buddha Dharma has no vital relevance to one's everyday life. The rational approach is based on a purely intellectual comprehension which excludes or suppresses the needs of the heart; the unconscious, instinctual and somatic self is completely disregarded. Since the Buddha Dharma addresses the whole person, it satisfies the deepest intellectual, emotional and volitional needs of the total self.

In the experience of Shinran the Buddha Dharma is realized intimately as the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable Life, the Buddha Amida. Thus, Amida is referred to in endearing terms, such as Oyasama, meaning my dear father, my dear mother. Immeasurable Light illuminates the fundamental human condition and awakens us to our limited, imperfect and mortal selves. It shows us why our life is characterized by insecurity and disrupted by greed, anger and folly. When this is felt deeply, we have already been touched by the Light of true compassion; the working of Light, warm and compassionate, proceeds to transform existential unease into profound gratitude for this life. This working is simultaneous with that of Immeasurable Life that pervades all beings, awakening each of us to ultimate reality here and now, not in some uncertain future. Our limited life-unto-death is but another manifestation of Immeasurable Life that has no beginning and no end. Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable Life enable us to become our truly human selves.

This truth is brought to vivid reality in the saying of nembutsu - "Namu-amida-butsu" - which is the deep wish, called the Primal Vow of Amida, touching each of us, so that we may be liberated from self-delusion, The saying of nembutsu affirms that this limited self, "namu" - imperfect, fallible and mortal self - is sustained by "amida-butsu," unlimited, boundless Light and Life. The nembutsu, "Namu amida-butsu," as an unified experience, coming from the depth of life itself, grasps us and transforms us, enabling us to awaken to ultimate reality. Here it must be realized that in Buddhist understanding neither the "self" nor the "Buddha" is a fixed, static object; rather, each is a fluid aspect of dynamic reality that is constantly becoming. Because nothing is fixed or final, the limited, imperfect self, just as it is, can be transformed into a being of supreme enlightenment. Such is the wonder of Buddhism.

This dynamic process, made real and concrete by the nembutsu, works in different ways at various junctures in one's life. Awakening to Namu-amida butsu solves difficulties in human relationships, ameliorates hardships and sufferings, provides wise counsel when confronted with difficult choices, inspires timely and compassionate action, transforms sorrow into joy, and gives us the power to see and criticize false social constructs. Living the nembutsu with full awareness of human limitedness leads us not to denigrate but to celebrate life within the boundless wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha.

Such in brief is Shinran's basic teaching, a rich tapestry woven from so-called Pure Land scriptures and original insights developed within Mahayana Buddhism, which arose in the first century B.C.E. in India. Later transmitted to the vast reaches of the Asian continent, today it is now touching the shores of the Western world. Among the array of Mahayana scriptures, three classic texts were selected as foundational to the Pure Land tradition: Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Daimuryoju-kyo), Smaller Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Amida-kyo), and Meditation Sutra (Kanmuryoju-kyo).

Among them, the most important is the Larger Sutra which reveals the mythic history of Amida Buddha fulfilling 48 major vows, all designed to meet the specific needs of people - psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual (mythic here refers to that which is true and real beyond ordinary understanding). Among them the crucial one is the 18th Vow which culminates in the forging of the nembutsu as the ultimate gift to humankind. It is a priceless gift, for anyone who is touched by it becomes transformed and achieves supreme enlightenment. The nembutsu enables us to lead a natural, spontaneous life in direct contrast to our normal life, filled with self-centered calculations and anxieties. The light of true compassion reveals them for what they are, nullifying their negative consequences. But an immense struggle is involved in realizing the spontaneous life of nembutsu, a struggle which some of us may undergo as the "transformation through the three vows." As conceived by Shinran, it refers to the progressive levels of religious life contained in the l9th, 20th, and 18th vows.

As mature human beings, we all aspire to the ethical life. The stage of the 19th vow encourages good conduct, moral rectitude, religious piety and adherence to scripture. But when one is made to realize that even the highest good may be tainted by egoistic concerns and that religious piety may simply be self-serving, one is ready to move into the world of the 20th vow. Here reliance on self-generated power is abandoned, and one embraces the sole practice of nembutsu as the working of Other Power. All other religious disciplines, such as observing monastic vows, meditative endeavors, and various religious rituals, are regarded as superfluous. Recitative nembutsu alone is considered to be meaningful and productive. But even such a practice can unconsciously fall into the trap of merit accumulation based on self-power. It then becomes another form of ego-assertion that obstructs the working of Other Power. As a result, a person is subject to unease and anxiety.

The true nembutsu comes to life in the 18th vow, when unlimited life realizes itself in a person, and that person embodies the universe of the 18th vow. That is, a limited being becomes liberated from entrapment in self-delusion and manifests life that is most natural and spontaneous. Although the passage from the 20th vow to the 18th vow is closed to the designs of self-power, the compassion of the Buddha reaches down into the world of the 20th vow to touch all beings. The Primal Vow, thus, affirms the limited self as inseparable from unlimited life at every moment of life; and when our karmic life becomes exhausted, we become one with boundless life in all its richness and manifestations.

In sum, the transformation through the ethical stage (19th vow) to the self-generated religious stage (20th vow) and finally to the truly accomplished stage (18th vow) shows the evolution of spirituality which continues as an ever deepening awareness of the finite (human beings) sustained by the infinite (Amida Buddha). At the core of this transformation is the penetrating insight into the delusions of the ego-self, born from the unfathomable darkness of ignorance, and brought to full realization through the working of the Primal Vow. The focus is on the unlimited and boundless compassion of Amida Buddha - not the deluded self - which touches every phase of human life. Having described the essentials of Shinran's teaching, we now turn to highlight its significant features which make it a unique expression of the Buddha Dharma.

The primary question for Shinran is the efficacy of religious practice. It is easy to pursue practices of various kinds, but rare is it to obtain the desired results. None of the existing paths that Shinran attempted led to ultimate fulfillment. He recognized the bankruptcy of practice both within himself and without in monastic institutions. In his words, "The Primal Vow is established for those of us who cannot become freed from the bondage of birth-and-death through any religious practice, due to the abundance of blind passion" (Tannisho III). Two points require elaboration in this admission: first, the radical rejection of existing forms of religious practice, based on twenty years of dedicated disciplines in the Tendai Buddhist tradition; and second, the admission of massive blind passion which could not be overcome through any existing religious practice.

The first realization in Shinran's case was compounded by the socio-historical sense of mappo, that the end-time of history spelled the doom of institutional Buddhism and everything connected with it. For him religious practice was a matter of life and death, a matter of total commitment to the monastic life, including renunciation of all family ties, adherence to strict precepts, including celibacy, and the goal was nothing less than buddhahood. In spite of his conscientious dedication, however, the practices he pursued did not produce any fruitful result, and institutional Buddhism could not provide any support, for the whole world itself was disintegrating and collapsing.

The bankruptcy of practice led to the second, much more powerful, realization: the depth of blind passion which permeates every human thought, speech and action, all testifying to the undeniable fact of human limitedness. According to Buddhist reflection, passion is an instinctual, emotive force arising from the unconscious and deeply rooted in the body. When it becomes intertwined with egocentric human calculations, it becomes distorted and causes havoc in our lives. Thus, as long as human existence means having a body, a person is forever bound to all kinds of limitations and bondages. This is the infinite finitude of samsara.

Since traditional forms of religious practice, such as meditative or contemplative disciplines, normally fail to reach the deep core of blind passion, Shinran focused on the practice of monpo, "deep hearing of the Dharma." Deep hearing leads to a twofold awakening: appreciating the boundless compassion of Amida, and simultaneously seeing into the bottomless depth of blind passion. The compiler of the Tannisho went even further when he acknowledged the lack of thoroughgoing penetration into both kinds of awareness:

How grateful I am that Shinran expressed this in his own person to make us deeply realize that we do not know the depth of karmic evil and that we do not know the height of Tathagata's benevolence, both of which cause us to live in utter confusion (Epilogue).

Deep hearing, then, is not just an auditory sensation, involving the ear, but a matter of the whole person. "Deep hearing of the Dharma" means embodying the Buddha Dharma, an experiential awakening of the total self, conscious and unconscious, mind and body.

A synonym of hearing the Dharma, monpo, is an unusual expression, monko, or "hearing the Light." This phrase suggests that authentic hearing brings to light the hidden karmic self of blind passion rooted in the body. This is the reason that Daiei Kaneko, a leading spokesman of contemporary Shin Buddhism, urges, "Receive material gifts with your heart and receive the Buddha Dharma with your body" It is with this body that the Buddha Dharma is truly realized.

Deep hearing, synonymous with true awakening, is made possible by the working of the Buddha or Tathagata. According to Shinran, "The Tathagata is Light. Light is none other than wisdom; wisdom takes the form of light. But wisdom is, in fact, formless; therefore, this Tathagata is the Buddha of inconceivable light. This Tathagata fills the countless worlds in the ten quarters, and so is called the Buddha of Boundless Light" (Notes on Once-calling and Many-calling, p. 46). When a person is thus touched by Light, an awareness beyond conceptual understanding occurs; Shinran calls it the wisdom that is drawn out of the foolish being by the power of true compassion. In his formulation,

A sutra states that Avalokitesvarareveals itself as the deity of the sun and dispels the darkness of ignorance in all beings; and Mahasthamapraptaappears as the deity of the moon and illuminates the long night of birth-and-death. Together they bring forth wisdom in all beings (Notes on the Essentials of Faith Alone, pp. 31-32).

The symbolism of Light reveals not only the working of wisdom but also of compassion. In the Buddhist tradition compassion is all-embracing, nonjudgmental, warm and nurturing. All-embracing compassion means that everyone is saved equally, but special concern and love are shown to those who recognize their weakness, powerlessness and foolishness as limited beings. As such, it is not judgmental, for no one is regarded as dispensable and everyone receives nurturing for supreme enlightenment. Even the lowliest in the eyes of society can attain the highest awakening, due to the transformation wrought by true compassion. The warmth of compassion melts evil to transform it into good, making possible the flowering of each person's fullest potential. This process is known as jinen, "made to become so by itself and for itself." As explained by Shinran,

"To be made to become so" means that without the practicer's calculation in any way whatsoever, all the past, present, and future evil karma are transformed into the highest good. To be transformed means that evil karma, without being nullified or eradicated, is made into the highest good, just as all river waters, upon entering the great ocean, immediately become ocean water (Notes, pp. 32-33).

An even more graphic metaphor for transformation states: "When we entrust ourselves to the Tathagata's Primal Vow, we who are like bits of tiles and pebbles are transmuted into gold" (Notes, pp. 40-41). Historically speaking, at the time of Shinran those "who are like bits of tiles and pebbles" included the disenfranchised in medieval Japan: people who violated life to make a living, hunters, fisherfolk, peasants, and so on; those who preyed on others, such as peddlers and merchants; monks and nuns who had violated the precepts; and women of all classes. Shinran identifies with such people considered as "bad" in the eyes of privileged society and excluded from entering the Buddhist path. The compassion of Buddha, however, all the more focuses on such abandoned people and eventually "transmutes them into gold," into human beings of true and real worth.

Such an understanding forms the basis of the paradoxical claim by Shinran that "Even the good person is saved, how much more so the evil doer" (Tannisho III). This should not be read as a negation of ethical life, or as a license to do evil, but as a penetrating recognition of human reality at its depth - limited, imperfect and mortal - yet sustained and protected by Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable Life. This simultaneous appreciation - finite existence and infinite reality, related to each other in double exposure - is traditionally expressed in the phrase, ki-ho ittai - the unity (ittai) of the limited, finite self (ki) and unlimited dharmic reality (ho).

In everyday life whenever we experience our human limitation in outbursts of anger, jealousy, hatred, lust and fear, it is the Buddha Dharma that reveals their true reality to us, making them transparent and showing us the unlimited life that flows below them. When this experience is verbalized, the spontaneous saying of Namu-amida-butsu occurs. The awakening to the limited self (namu) is made possible by the working of unlimited life and light (amida-butsu). Shinran expresses this in a deeply personal way: "When I ponder on the Primal Vow of Amida, established through five kalpas of profound thought, I realize that it is for myself, Shinran, alone" (Tannisho Epilogue). Here Shinran is not speaking as an unreflecting, egocentric being but is affirming the single one, irreplaceable and unique, who lives interrelated and interconnected with all beings. As such, each self is affirmed as manifesting ultimate significance and worth.

The nembutsu is the Sacred Name (myogo), the source of spirituality and focus of devotional life. The central image in Shin Buddhist worship is not the image of the historical Buddha, nor the sculpted or painted figure of Amida Buddha; rather, it is "Namu-amida-butsu." Fundamentally, the Sacred Name is the selfarticulation of basic reality, expressing itself in language that makes it accessible to anyone who has the ability to hear deeply. Since the Sacred Name is neither a concept to be understood nor a proposition to be figured out, anyone, at anytime, under any circumstance can call on the Name.

In living "Namu-amida-butsu" there is no dogma to uphold, no religious authority to follow, and no special teacher or guru to revere. It is in this spirit that Shinran, who, in spite of having hundreds of known followers, proclaimed, "As for myself, Shinran, I do not have a single disciple" (Tannisho VI Behind this disclaimer is also the affirmation of the interconnectedness of all life as expressed in his proclamation: "All beings have been mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers in the timeless process of birth-and-death" (Tannisho V). He calls all those who walk the path of Buddha Dharma, "fellow seekers, fellow practicers."

This interconnectedness with life, however, extends not only to humans but to all beings, both animate and inanimate. Based upon the central Mahayana philosophy of interdependence and interpenetration, Shinran writes:

The Tathagata pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain Buddhahood. Since it is with this heart and mind of all sentient beings that they entrust themselves to the Vow of Dharmakaya-as-compassion (Amida Buddha), this entrusting is none other than Buddha-nature (Notes, p. 42).

The Tathagata or Buddha as fundamental reality pervades everything in countless worlds, providing the source of life and creativity. This source fuels the energy in nature, so that plants, trees and land fully realize their potentials. The same source enables human beings to become liberated from their ego-self by virtue of Immeasurable Life and Light and thus become truly human. This is none other than Buddha-nature actualized in a person and attaining its fullest flowering.

Previous | Next

Tannisho Menu

Library Menu | Home