‘How adorable! In place of the World- Honoured One,
our Founder Shinran Shonin
has appeared in the world.
Look up to him as the Buddha
and entrust yourself in him.’ (33; p. 26)
For those of us who have taken up the life of nembutsu, this is very sound advice. Shinran Shonin is exhaustive and thorough in his research and interpretation of the teaching that began with Shakyamuni Buddha, and was passed down through the great Pure Land masters. Shinran reconciled apparent inconsistencies, by upholding the traditional orthodoxy of the Bodhisattva vehicle.
Nevethetheless, Zuiken’s strong advocacy of Shinran as having appeared in the world ‘in place of Shakyamuni’ could also be said of other great teachers. I do not know all of the great thinkers and reformers of the Buddha-dharma but I would number Buddha-ghosa (Sri Lanka, 5th century) and Nagarjuna (b. approx. mid 2nd century) amongst the greatest teachers. Both are considered to be true exponents of the Dharma that was proclaimed by Shakyamuni.
The Numata Centre for Translation and Research has published the works of Dogen (1200-1253), Honen (1133-1212) and Nichiren (1222-1282) in recent years. I think we could also say of them what Zuiken says of Shinran.
In raising the question as to which of the reports of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment in the sutras is true, since they are widely divergent, the renowned historian Hajime Nakamura says that – amongst a number of resulting consequences for followers of the Buddha Dharma – there is this:
‘Buddhism does not have a fixed doctrine. Gotama did not want to teach the content of his enlightenment in any prescribed form, preferring to preach differently according to the nature of his audience. This explains why people, comprehending the teachings in their own way, transmitted them differently.’ (GB, p. 213)
From the time that I first read the description of the Pure Land in the old Penguin anthology of Buddhist scriptures ( 1959 pp. 232-237) in the early 1970s and felt the irresistible call of Amida Buddha’s Vow from that moment onwards, and through many vicissitudes, I have known that the teaching that derived from the Pure Land Sutras provides the only credible way to liberation for me. Millions of other people would say the same thing.
Shinran expresses a common experience for nembutsu people in this way:
‘When I consider deeply the Vow of Amida, which arose from five kalpas of profound thought, I realize that it was entirely for the sake of myself alone! Then how I am filled with gratitude for the Primal Vow, in which Amida resolved to save me, though I am burdened with such heavy karma.’ (CWS, p. 679.)
The following quotation from Shan-tao, which Shinran thinks is important enough to include in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, informs the way we interpret Zuiken’s claim that we can regard Shinran as Shakyamuni Buddha. Throughout the long journey of Buddhism, the fine teachers, which I have mentioned here, have together reiterated Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching so that the gamut of spiritual needs in the great variety of human character and experience can be met.
‘You should undertake practice in accord with your opportunities and conditions and seek emancipation. Why do you obstruct and confuse me with what is not the essential practice corresponding to my conditions? What I desire is the practice corresponding to my conditions; that is not what you seek. What you desire is the practice corresponding to your conditions; that is not what I seek. Each person’s performance of practices in accord with his aspirations unfailingly leads to rapid emancipation.’ (Shan-tao, Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation III, 13; CWS, p. 89)
Shan-tao makes it clear that each of us needs to choose a specific practice that answers our spiritual needs, and individual characteristics and commitments. He enjoins confidence in our own choices and respect for those of others.
It is not that Shinran’s teaching encompasses the entire scope of the liberating insight passed down to us from Shakyamuni. Rather, he has developed an excellent doctrine pertaining specifically to Shin Buddhism, ‘the true essence of the [Pure Land] teaching’, which is ‘attainment of Buddhahood through the nembutsu’ (CWS, p. 40), and one of many traditions leading to liberation that derive from Shakyamuni.
As custodian and conduit of this particular teaching of Shakyamuni, Shinran is utterly imbued with its essential truth.
That is why I
‘Look up to [Shinran] as the Buddha
and entrust [myself] in him.’