Dharma study

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWherein lies the true intention of
Shinran Shonin?
Study the Buddha-Dharma while deeply
contemplating the Shônin’s mind.
(Zuiken, SDP, p. 69.)

Dharma study often gets a bad press in Jodo Shinshu and sometimes with justification. Dharma study can deceive; it can masquerade as faith or we can confuse knowledge with wisdom.

Famously, the twelfth chapter of the Tanni Sho deprecates the notion that ‘for practicers who do not read the sutras and commentaries and engage in study, birth is not settled.’ (CWS, p. 668-9)  In one of Shinran’s letters we also read about a conversation that he had with his teacher, Honen Shonin, who doubted the birth of a man ‘brilliant in letters and debating’. (CWS, p. 531)

In the same letter, Shinran encourages us to ‘simply achieve your birth, firmly avoiding all scholarly debate.’ And this is really the nub of the matter. To use the sutras as material for boosting one’s own standing in debate is not really the point of Dharma study, which ought to be chomon – hearing well the Dharma of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow.

Of course, pure scholarly or academic research and discourse is a perfectly legitimate activity that has been sanctioned in European society since the time of Aristotle (384-322BC). It does increase knowledge and understanding of the things that are important for human welfare. This tradition has resulted in the remarkable capacity of technology and medicine in our own time.

When it comes the the Dharma, of course, pure research and academic study is vitally important, too.  I especially appreciate the work of historians of the Buddha Dharma like Hajime Nakamura.  They help me to reconcile the contextual facts with the deep truths of the Dharma. Information from scholars like Nakamura bring clarity to our relationship with the Dharma and help to keep us grounded.

It was, indeed, Zuiken who first brought the importance of Dharma study home to me. This, after all, is the implicit value of his wonderful introduction to the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. In his other writing he also encourages us to delve deeply for our entire lives into the teaching of Shakyamuni and the writings of Shinran Shonin and the Dharma Masters.

In modern times there is good reason for this commendation of Dharma study. Listening to Dharma talks is very important but we also need to move out of the pastoral setting to behold the wondrous depth, beauty and light of the Dharma in all its power and strength.

Zuiken is right, I believe, to suggest that, when we study Shinran’s writing we ought to ‘deeply contemplate the Shonin’s mind.’ We look beyond the mere technical meaning of the language and build an inner store of understanding from the whole. This is, in fact, in keeping with the twelfth chapter of the Tanno Sho. If we study merely to score points by mouthing selected sentences in defence of our own preferences, or to silence someone who thinks differently to us;  …  is this not, perhaps, abuse of the Dharma?

Shinran encourages us to be aware of the ‘four reliances’ (CWS, p. 241) and not to settle for isolated words or sentences, but to be imbued with the Dharma through becoming at home with the whole. When we study Shinran, whom I consider to be the finest exponent of the Pure Land Dharma, we need to do so in such away as to accept seeming contradictions, for example, as contributing to  the beauty and truth of the whole.

Setting aside time each day to spend with Shakyamuni Buddha and Shinran Shonin is one of life’s greatest privileges. We do not ask ourselves what its value might be, or whether it would be more productive to spend time in other pursuits. It is not long before we realise we do it for love; that is, a manifestation of Dharma hunger (Skt.: dharma-trshna), the only thirst that is wholesome and will lead us to eternal life.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf I was asked to give a succinct summary of Shinran’s teaching, I would quote the fifteenth verse of the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu.  This is the second verse on the first Pure Land Master, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, who lived from the middle of the second century to the early third century of the Common Era.

This is the verse in question:

‘[Nagarjuna] teaches that the moment one thinks on Amida’s Primal Vow,
One is naturally brought to enter the stage of the definitely settled;
Solely saying the Tathagata’s Name constantly,
One should respond with gratitude to the universal Vow of great compassion.’ (CWS, p. 71.)

This, indeed, is Shinran’s rendering of Nagajuna’s original verse in The Commentary on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages (CWS, p. 18.). In his own rendering of this verse in the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu, Shinran elucidates its actual meaning in the light of his own research and lived experience.

The moment one thinks on the Primal Vow.

For Shinran, the statement ‘the moment one thinks on Amida’s Primal Vow’  means shinjin or entrusting heart, which is the moment that we enter the ‘stage of the definitely settled’, when we are ‘embraced and not forsaken’ by Amida Buddha’s compassion.

It is also ‘hearing the Name’. Shinjin and hearing the Name are both key themes in the second and third parts of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.

This short statement alludes to the working of the Vow through the Name, Namo Amida Butsu, and the light of Amida Buddha, to awaken shinjin.

Solely saying the Tathagata’s Name constantly.’

In the third section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran further develops the meaning of ‘shinjin’ by exploring the threefold mind of the eighteenth Vow in the Larger Sutra.  He then returns to the Name  but this time not as the active agent in  the awakening of shinjin but as the manifestation of settled shinjin – the act of praise that it draws forth.

So to re-phrase the verse I quoted at the beginning of this post:

The person who has ‘heard the Primal Vow’ (the Name) and entrusts himself to it, ‘enters the stage of the definitely settled’, is assured of salvation, and from then on says the Name in joyful thanksgiving.

This, the second verse on Nagarjuna from the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu, is, in fact, a succinct statement about the second section, and the first part of third section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. In these sections, Shinran demonstrates how Other Power works to reach out to and awaken shinjin in us through the working of the light and Name, Namo Amida Butsu.

This active ‘calling’ to us attracts our attention and causes our minds to turn to Amida Buddha – to think of him. As Professor Hisao Inagaki has written:

‘One who trusts in Amida thinks of him, and he who thinks of him says his Name.’

Shakyamuni and Shinran

In the little book Zuiken’s Shinshu Dharma-pada (Horai, 2006) we encounter this arresting verse:

‘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.’


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘The Master once asked, “Yuien-bo, do you accept all that I say?”

“Yes I do,” I answered.

‘”Then will you not deviate from whatever I tell you?” he repeated.

I humbly affirmed this.

‘Thereupon he said, “Now, I want you to kill a thousand people. If you do, you will definitely attain birth.”

‘I responded, “Though you instruct me thus, I’m afraid it is not in my power to kill even one person.”‘

‘He continued, “By this you should realize that if we could always act as we wished, then when I told you to kill a thousand people in order to attain birth, you should have immediately done so. But since you lack the karmic cause inducing you to kill even a single person, you do not kill.”‘ (CWS, p. 670f)


Yuien was a close and devoted disciple of Shinran Shonin.  Most scholars seem to attribute authorship of A Record in Lament of Divergences (Tanni Sho) to Yuien, who is mentioned by his name in this brief exchange.

Shinran would not have spoken the way he did, unless he knew Yuien well.  Shinran was also, no doubt, especially comfortable about the fact that Yuien was settled in diamond-like shinjin.

These words are at the beginning of a very important chapter (13) of the Tanni Sho, which deals with the mistaken view – amongst certain of Shinran’s followers at the time – that we can somehow add some virtue of our own to the working of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. The conversation that Yuien relates tells us little about the overall significance of this chapter.  Often lost in the importance of the chapter’s content, this small record of a conversation between master and disciple is instructive in itself.

Note, firstly, that Shinran pretends to make obedience to his command a condition for the final attainment and liberation that Buddhists describe as salvation. Not only that, Yuien has affirmed his unyielding obedience in the moment before Shinran makes his request.  It takes Yuien only a split second to decline the invitation to commit such a heinous crime.

This exchange is remarkable because it tells us two things about Yuien:

The first is that Yuien’s shinjin was, indeed, completely settled and he was already secure in Amida Buddha’s embrace, without needing confirmation of it from someone else, no matter how exalted. There is nothing anyone could ask Yuien to do or say that would make the slightest difference to his faith. He had nothing to prove, so was under no obligation to obey unacceptable commands from any authority if he did not think it appropriate. As Shinran says in one of his letters:

‘I have learned from the Master of Kuang-ming temple [Shan-tao (613-681)] that after true shinjin has become settled in us, even if Buddhas like Amida or Sakyamuni should fill the skies and proclaim that Sakyamuni’s teaching and Amida’s Primal Vow are false, we will not have even one moment of doubt. ‘ (CWS, p. 575)

We also learn about Yuien’s true humanity. He simply cannot commit the crime in the name of religion that his master, Shinran, has apparently directed him to carry out. Why? Because Yuien feels empathy for other beings and cannot bring himself to hurt them. Such a frame of mind is natural to him and he does not even give it a moment’s thought.

As the Dharmapada says,

‘All beings fear death; all fear sword and cane. Put yourself in another’s position, and do not kill nor harm.

‘All beings fear sword and cane; all beings love their lives.  Put yourself in another’s position and do not kill nor harm.’ (BD, p. 435)

Of course,  in Chapter 13 of the Tanni Sho a paradox follows this conversation between Shinran and Yuien. Because he lives in the light of Amida Buddha’s compassion, and knows what it is to receive Amida Buddha’s blessing in spite of being a foolish being (bombu), Yuien is free of discrimination.

In chapter 13 of the Tanni Sho, Yuien emphatically upholds the teaching of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow: that no failure of character, no occupation, no conditions of gender, no mistakes, no actions, no social status, or any other similar obstacle, can stop us from hearing the Call of Amida Buddha’s Vow and joyfully responding, finding ourselves embraced, at last, in Amida’s compassionate light.

‘The Larger Sutra states:

‘”When I attain Buddhahood, the sentient beings throughout the countless, incalculable Buddha-realms of the ten quarters, upon receiving my light and having their bodies touched by it, shall become soft and gentle in body and mind, thereby surpassing other men and devas. If it be not so, may I not attain the supreme enlightenment.”‘ (CWS, p. 117)


Shakyamuni and Amida

Gandhara_Buddha_tnm‘Shakyamuni and Amida are our father and our mother,
Full of love and compassion for us;
Guiding us through various skilful means,
They bring us to awaken true shinjin.’
(Shinran, Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, Master Shan-tao, 70; CWS, p. 380.)

‘Shakyamuni has  already entered nirvana and people of later times cannot meet him.  His teachings still remain, however, and we can follow them.'(CWS, p. 91)


Shakyamuni Buddha is the ‘Giver of Sutras’, and it is in this way that he is portrayed in this Ghandaran image of Buddha.  The sutras are in his left hand.  The rock of the sculpture has been eroded by time and other kinds of damage, but it is still evident.

We speak of Shakyamuni in the past tense. Amida Buddha,  Tathagata of Inconceivable Light, is of the present. Amida Buddha calls to us now in the Name, Namo Amida Butsu. Hearing and accepting the call with a joyful, unconditional and wholly trusting heart, we receive Amida’s faith, manifested as the nembutsu,  which we say in return.  Thenceforth we are in Amida Buddha’s compassionate embrace forever.

Shakyamuni is our father, our kind enlightened teacher, the Great Sage; Amida Buddha our mother of tender care, love and spiritual nurture. It is ultimately to Amida Buddha that Shakyamuni directs our hearts and minds.

My own spiritual pilgrimage began with Shakyamuni when I heard the story of the Great Renunciation at school.

We know of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow entirely because of Shakyamuni Buddha, so he is vitally important to us. But how, in turn, do we know about Shakyamuni?

I have read several very impressive modern attempts at a biographical narrative for Shakyamuni. These books are often very detailed, scholarly and worthy of our attention. It is very interesting, when it comes to any great and widely revered figures, like Shakyamuni, to seek to uncover a person whose life is set within the context of their culture and social environment.

Authors of such biographies use stragegies like historical and literary criticism in their work but they also tend to engage in speculation that assumes the superiority of their own world-view. It is a chauvinistic process that can demonstrate lack of respect for the integrity of ancient peoples.

I have found such works interesting, engaging and even exciting but ultimately unsatisfying. Not only for the reasons that I have already mentioned but also because, in the case of Buddhism especially, the subject of the biographies, Shakyamuni, is embedded in a textual tradition that was not actually set down in writing for several centuries. There are too many questions surrounding the assumptions that the authors of such biographies make, so their work struggles to convey confidence or to be truly reliable or credible.

That is why I always return to the first biography of Shakyamuni that I ever encountered and still find the most compelling of all: the Buddhacarita of Ashva-ghosha.  Ashva-ghosha, indeed, lived two millennia earlier than modern authors and, in his magnificent and enduring work, uses a tradition of centuries that no doubt began during the life-time of Shakyamuni himself: a tradition that was imbued with love, reverence and respect. These three perspectives are, surely, the most decent way for any human being to regard another, no matter who they are!

I was pleased to read, in the 2011 edition of Pacific World,  an article by Dr Charles Willemen of the International College, Thailand, which looked favourably on the Buddhacarita, which is, after all, the earliest consolidated biography of Shakyamuni.  Dr Willemen, indeed, was the translator of the Chinese recension of this wonderful epic poem for the BDK English Tripitaka, published by the Numata Centre for Buddhist Translation and Research in 2009.

Speaking for myself, it is to the Buddhacarita that I turn for the traditional biography of Shakyamuni Buddha.  So it is wonderful to have Dr Willemen’s new translation to hand.

Dr Willemen’s translation is from the classical Chinese version, which in turn comes from the original Sankrit. My preference is for the former. Nevertheless, the most recent translation of the Sanskrit is Life of the Buddha by Ashva-ghosha, translated by Patrick Olivelle and published by NYUP in 2008. Unlike the Chinese recension, the last part of of the Sanskrit version has been lost.

The details of Shakyamuni’s biography serve as the background and underpin the teaching that has continued to be handed down through the ages in his name. Of these, it is the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life that he especially delivered for ordinary people like us. It is a priceless, magnificent and immortal teaching. It is to this teaching itself that I have always paid closest attention.


‘Shakyamuni has  already entered nirvana and people of later times cannot meet him.  His teachings still remain, however, and we can follow them. ‘(CWS, p. 91)