Shinran Today - Our founder’s Relevance to the Modern World

Marcus Cumberlege

‘When I attain Buddhahood in the next birth,

each and everyone will be saved.’

Although he was very much a man of his time, Shinran speaks to us today with the compelling voice of a contemporary pioneer. Shinran was totally immersed in real life, not protected or sheltered from it; and he underwent all the ups and downs of fortune. At a personal level, he exposed himself to the joy and the pain of close personal relationships and mixed with the least privileged members of society, the outcasts of medieval Japan.

Shinran was an individual with a mind of his own, not a religious robot. He was a humble man who never ceased to proclaim his own limitations. ‘I, Shinran, have not a single disciple,’ he was fond of saying, and he referred to himself disparagingly as ‘the bald-headed idiot’, a person like the rest of us, full of blind passion. He was also a married man, who took his marriage very seriously. In fact many people today, whether interested in Buddhism or not, can identify with Shinran through his attitude towards married life. He was a normal human being, never a priest on a pedestal.

In his spiritual life, Shinran opened doors to people of today with enquiring minds. He took the teaching of the Great Masters like Nagarjuna and Shan-tao and simplified it, making it accessible to us, without any loss of power. Shinran uses a direct, uncomplicated but poetic style which makes his work very readable for us. Like his teacher Hōnen, he chooses the Easy Way and emphasizes that salvation is to be obtained by the practice of the Nembutsu. ‘If I am wrong’ he honestly admits, ‘I am prepared to go to hell’.

You may not agree with my picture of Shinran. I am not a scholar and I have not yet made an exhaustive study of the Shin literature. Perhaps you think I am naive. These are personal impressions based on my limited reading of Shinran’s works (time is much too short to deal with them all); my conversations and correspondence with other members of the sangha, as well as my private thoughts, meditations and day-to-day experience.

I see Shinran as a visionary with his feet on the ground who, anchored in the down-to-earth reality of his day and age, a time like ours of religious dispute and political conflict, saw eternal truth and was unafraid to proclaim it and stand up for it.

Shinran would not have been afraid to live amidst the hurly-burly of a modern city (whether East or West, First World or Third World). In fact he would have felt at home in our industrial environment and I am sure he would have used the media, the internet and other devices of high technology to expound the Dharma. I cannot visualize him living in a monastery or an ashram, or cutting himself off from people in any way. Shinran relished human contact.

There is ample evidence in the Letters, Tannishō and elsewhere to show that Shinran enjoyed exchanging ideas with other people. I can imagine him giving interviews and taking part in discussion panels and television debates. I can see him here.

In spite of much hardship, Shinran did not become embittered. It may be that he was saddened by some aspects of his private life. But he remained young at heart despite his advanced age, always tolerant, open-minded and fair. I am sure that biographies of Shinran have been written, but I have not yet read one, so cannot vouch for their accuracy.

Shinran amassed a vast wealth of knowledge about the Pure Land teaching. He was deeply imbued with the Buddha Dharma. But that which makes him most endearing to us is the humility with which he passes on his knowledge and wisdom. He enlivens his teaching with reference to personal experience, which gives his writing quite a present day touch. Complex truths are driven home to the reader’s heart in forceful, direct language, such as this: - ‘As for myself, Shinran, I simply receive the words from my dear teacher, Hōnen, ‘Just say the Nembutsu and be saved by Amida’, and entrust myself to the Primal Vow. Besides this, there is nothing else.’

It makes you want to go deeper! It invites you to explore the thinking behind it. It’s really attractive to the spiritual seeker of today. Shinran is master of the paradox and the understatement. Many of his pronouncements appeal to our curiosity, for he can be outrageously provocative. What about the following saying of his which stands the conventional idea of religion on its head?

“Even the good person attains birth, how much more so the evil person!”

The man-in-the-street has a dislike for demagogues and demi-gods. He is sceptical of religion in general, and of founders in particular. Shinran never claimed to found a religion, and did not want disciples. It does not require a great effort to cross the bridge between our limited goodwill and Shinran’s honest benevolence. It would be nice to think that there were more Shinrans walking around today. There probably are.

There are certain concepts in Shinran’s thinking which have a definite application in the world of today. I want to concentrate now on Shinran’s letters, aptly called Mattoshō, A Lamp for Latter Ages. Letter-writing in itself is very much a modern idea and means of communication. Practically all the great writers of the 20th century left us a rich legacy of letters, in which they shared their lives and intimate thoughts with friends, often, like Shinran, recording for posterity details which are not to be found in their other works.

Letter-writing became important when distances became greater, travel expanded and emigrations became a normal phenomenon with friends and family living far apart. You don’t need to write letters to people living in your own village. This was exactly Shinran’s case. Due to the exile which had been imposed upon him for propagating the Nembutsu in Hōnen’s footsteps, he was in touch with people in distant parts of Japan. Indeed, it could be said that Shinran’s exile was a blessing in disguise. It connected him with simple, uncomplicated folk whose lifestyle was extremely basic. From his contact with people of the Japanese lower class he learned to express his ideas in a direct and clearly understandable style.

When we read Shinran’s Letters, several hundred years after they were written, we notice the difference between them and the more ornate, cultured and scholarly style of Kyōgyōshinshō, for example. The Letters deal with some difficult spiritual issues in an open, colloquial way. Ideas which are mentioned and referred to in the Hymns of the Patriarchs, for example, are here ‘opened up’ and discussed in plain language. Shinran is a master of the conversational letter-writing style. The letters are highly instructive and help to make the practice of Jōdo Shinshū accessible to the modern reader. This must have been Shinran’s intention.

“Simply achieve your birth, firmly avoiding all scholarly debate,” Shinran advises his readers in a letter on the topic of death, written in a year of great famine and pestilence when he himself was 88 years old. In facing death, he states, no scholarship or moral virtues are required. “The person of the Jōdo tradition attains birth in the Buddha Land by becoming his foolish self.” There is not the least hint of pomposity or self-righteous moralizing in Shinran’s style. Puffed-up religiosity, which is also little to the taste of today’s reader, is absent from these letters.

Again and again Shinran hammers home the message of simplicity in the working of faith and dharma. Falsehood and hypocrisy are among his pet hates. Salvation comes from Amida - not from good works which are the result of Self Power. In an unforgettable phrase, encapsulating a whole way of life, he states: “Other Power means to be free of any form of calculation.” Here, there is no room for dishonesty of any kind. Easily memorized statements like this one abound in the Letters. Shinran succeeds amazingly well in making difficult ideas easy for us to understand.

Continuing in the same vein he writes: “Other Power means above all that there must not be the slightest calculating on our part.” A categorical statement like this could puzzle and perplex a modern reader brought up to question everything. Here is something entirely new for the man in a hurry, the man seeking to make his first million, the man who has seen it all on television and heard the arguments for and against a thousand times.

Do we not live in a world of Self Power? Are we not self-centered people busy arranging things around us to our own advantage? The Other Power which Shinran writes about so often in these Letters appears ridiculous on the face of it to us who are so much engaged in the pursuit of self-satisfaction. Don’t we take our hats off to the self-made man? Don’t our schools and universities encourage students from an early age to compete for the best results, so as to outdo their rivals in the stampede for the best paid jobs? I hardly need mention the foreign policy of governments and the machinations of economics at every level. Is there a place for Shinran’s Other Power Nembutsu in all of this?

For the practising Shin Buddhist of today, the inescapable fact of life is, believe it or not, that Other Power works. Shinran puts it in a nutshell: “Simply give yourself up to Tathāgata’s Vow; avoid calculating in any way.” In our language this sounds a little bit like relaxing and taking it easy, being completely natural, being yourself. Of course it sounds easier than it is, especially for those of us trapped in difficult situations, karmic or otherwise, sometimes complicated by poverty, physical or mental illness, everything Buddha told us about. Yet, if we follow the steps carefully explained by Shinran and the Great Masters who preceded him, it should be possible for us to work with Other Power without losing our jobs or our sanity. Again and again, Amida comes to our rescue!

Do I detect a constant note of gratitude in Shinran’s writing? Look at the way he speaks of Śakyamuni and Amida: “They are our parents of great compassion; using many and various compassionate means, they awaken the supreme Shinjin.” Statements like this arouse our gratitude too and help us to smash pride in Self Power. Do we decide, on the basis of calculation, or are we “grasped, never to be abandoned”? These are questions for modern man to think about.

Shinran seems to be saying that each one of us individually is the focal point of Amida’s Primal Vow, if only we are willing enough to realize it. For each one of us, whether or not we get Shinjin, there is an eternal Buddha of Light and Life extending a warm invitation into the Pure Land. Once there, we shall become enlightened ourselves and in so doing gain the power (which is not ours at present) to be of real help to our suffering fellow men and women. Until then we have the Vow and the Nembutsu. Namu Amida Butsu. It’s as simple as that.

Ekō 100

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