Reverend ‘S’

This is a Lorraine Lee rose, one of the few truly successful Australian breeds. Not only does it have a powerful scent but it flowers abundantly in – of all seasons – the winter! 12 April 2015

Readers will remember that one of my favourite Shin Buddhist teachers is Professor Kosho Yamamoto, who translated Shin Buddhist texts and wrote many books.  He was a professor at the University of Hawaii for a while; otherwise, I know very little about his personal history. I wish I did.

Today I would like to tell you about one of Yamamoto Sensei’s Shin Buddhist ‘stars’, as I call them – or ‘heroes’, perhaps. This is a man, whom Yamamoto refers to as ‘Rev S’, a temple priest from an unnamed village in Kyushu.  Yamamoto holds Rev S in such high esteem that he relates his story in two of his publications (OP & U).  I have read this brief account several times and can remember its salient details. I will relate it to you, mostly in my own words.

Rev S was  unusual for a Jodo Shinshu minister.  He retained his tonsure, his head always shaven, and he wore the black robes of a priest all the time. He retreated to the quiet of his village and his home every month but otherwise he was out-and-about in the public domain.

Mostly, he could be found at Tokyo Railway Station, a tall man, who always smiled, greeting passersby in a warm and friendly manner. It seems that he was at the station during the rush-hour and during the day he visited prisons, hospitals, and borstals. He sought out the oppressed and disadvantaged, including, it seems, ladies of the night, whose ‘secret hearts’ he kept entirely to himself.

Rev S became well-known and many people came to him for solace and advice. But the most striking feature of Rev S was his passionate and radiant devotion to the nembutsu way. He was so imbued with the embrace of Amida Buddha, that his ‘Amida mind’, as Yamamoto calls it, was palpable.

One time, Yamamoto took Rev S to task for his monthly retreat from his field of evdeavour on behalf of the compassionate Buddha. Clearly an eccentric fellow to many bystanders, while he was loved by those who took refuge in his radiant compassion, many ridiculed and jeered at him. He told Yamamoto Sensei, that he needed a break from it all and time to refresh his heart and mind. But Yamamoto pleaded with Rev S to stay the course and maintain his post as Amida Buddha’s ambassador in the  big city, accusing him of cowardice.

Rev S responded that his was the Middle Way. He could only do what was possible and he knew that after his death he would become a Buddha with a powerful capacity to endure it all and to hold all in his compassionate embrace.

‘”Oh! please do not say the next world or eternity,” pleads Yamamoto Sensei, “Limit your talk to the Amida-mind that works in this world!” ‘(OP, p. 129)

Rev S responds that ‘now’ and ‘eternity’ are one, and that, more importantly, self-made compassion will not do, ‘What we need is that which comes from above.’

I would love to have met Rev S. Undaunted by the jeers of skeptics he ploughed on as a disciple of the Buddha. But he was still unenlightened and frail, recognising his frank limitations, and took a moderate course, which included taking care of himself, looking forward to the time when his compassion would become, through the working of the Primal Vow of Other Power, the pure compassion of the Buddha.

I think there is a natural tendency to an outward demeanour of joy and compassion for many people who have been long in the nembutsu way. But we are all still frail and must live with our blind passions. Better times will come, but, for now, we do our best.

‘… all people of the present, whether monk or lay, must take measure of their own capabilities.’ (Shinran – CWS, p. 244)

I do not think that Yamamoto Sensei entirely agreed with Rev S, however much he admired him. In his 1963 translation of the Tanni Sho Yamamoto Sensei omitted the fourth chapter (ISB, pp. 214-5), which emphasises that ordinary human beings are limited in their capacity to practice compassion.

Namo Amida Butsu.

Reading the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho

Blossom of Eucalyptus leucoxylon rosea, the red flowering blue gum. It is a small woodland tree that is a red-flowerd variety of this species native to the Adelaide Plains. It flowers in early autumn. 9 April 2015.

Although there are many introductions to the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, there is a very easy way to gain entrance, so to speak, to it. The introductions are important reading because they help to orientate us, people of the twenty-first century, to ideas that may be unfamiliar to us. But once we get beyond that stage and seek to uncover the vast spiritual riches of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho I think there is one further step.

The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is known as the ‘basic text’ (honjo) of Shin Buddhism but it is also known as the ‘extensive scripture’ (kôten) or even more, ‘extensive collection of writing’ (kômonrui). But there is another basic text, which is an abridged version (ryakusho) – Passages on the Pure Land Way (Jôdo Monrui Jushô). It takes up just eighteen pages in The Collected Works of Shinran (pp. 295-317).

In this elegant and sublime little work, Shinran Shonin gives us his own account of the salient points of his great magnum opus, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. In particular he identifies the Vows to which each of his main chapters refer.  In doing this he does not identify them by numbers but by underlying themes; the meaning and significance of every Vow.

Bearing these facts in mind, then, we can see that, first of all, Shinran identifies the classical text, which, of all of Shakyamuni Buddha’s sermons, reveals the Great Sage’s ultimate purpose in appearing in the world of birth-and-death: to teach the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

Then, as you would expect, we learn about the significance of each of the Vows that relate directly to our liberation, our salvation.

As is the case the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho itself, Shinran then presents each of the Vows that make up the core of the Primal Vow. The practice of the Pure Land way (the 17th Vow) is the practice which ‘embodies Amida’s perfect benefiting of others’. This is the Name, Namo Amida Butsu, the call of the Primal Vow. The seventeenth Vow is called, especially, ‘the Vow of the right act, which is Amida’s directing of virtue for our going forth’ [to birth in the Pure Land].

The next Vow, the 18th, is ‘the Vow of shinjin, which is Amida’s directing of virtue for our going forth‘. So both the 17th and 18th Vows are ‘Amida’s directing of virtue for our going forth’.

Next is the 11th Vow, also Amida Buddha’s directing of virtue for going forth‘, but this time it is the gift of realisation – ultimate birth in the Pure Land, nirvana. Finally, the completion of the full intent of Amida Buddha’s Vow, the 22nd. This is the ‘Vow for the attainment of Buddhahood after one lifetime’.

Shinran sums up the entire scope of these four Vows in this way:

‘Hence, whether with regard to the aspect for going forth to the Pure Land or to the aspect for return to this world, there is nothing whatever that has not been fulfilled through the Tathagata’s directing of virtue to beings out of the pure Vow-mind. Reflect on this.’ (CWS, p. 302).

This is a refrain, which Shinran repeats three times in this short work.  It is clearly the core message of both Passages on the Pure Land Way and the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.  Everything that we require for deliverance has already been perfected by Amida Buddha, leaving nothing more for us to do than to actually accept it.

The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, like this short work, is a commentary on the Larger Sutra, and especially the 11th, 17th, 18th and 22nd Vows. In reading the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, then, we are accessing a collection of passages from the sutras and commentaries, which illuminate each of these Vows. In addition, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho goes on the clarify the meaning of the 12th and 13th Vows (these are about Amida Buddha) as well as the 19th and 20th Vows, which clarify the provision of Amida Buddha for other means of salvation for those who cannot yet accept the teaching of the four Vows.

Both the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho and Passages on the Pure Land Way are expositions on the Primal Vow and its component parts, which are revealed in the sermon that Shakyamuni came into the world to deliver: Bussetsu Muryōju Kyō (The Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life).  If you want to understand these Vows, these books are the ones to cherish, read and study.

You will be richly rewarded. Why? Because, in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho we discover that the Primal Vow is implicit in the entire Buddhist canon, and also in everything that we know and experience in life. That’s why people who gradually grow fond of reading the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho come to love it so much.

The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is for everyone

Dr Aiyoshi Kawahata, a medical practitioner who developed a simple method of meditation for ordinary, busy people (UM), which is frequently referred to as ‘Seiza’.

Although it is often claimed that the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is beyond the reach of most ordinary people, I believe that, in a good translation, it is not only universal property – because its message is of universal relevance -, but also that it is ultimately accessible to anyone.  I believe that Rennyo Shonin’s encouragement to people of nembutsu to repeatedly read the scriptures is sound advice.

I know of two notable examples of ordinary people with no philosophical background or training in Buddhist studies, whose religious life was shaped by their reading and study of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. Of course, as Rennyo Shonin also suggests, it helps to be ‘firmly settled’ in Other Power Faith (SR, p. 30).

The first example that I would like to mention is Dr Aiyoshi Kawahata who, with some medical colleagues, developed what became a very popular meditation technique (usually referred to as Seiza) amongst Shin Buddhists and has also been of great value to me from time to time. This kind of meditation is not at all intended to bring about enlightenment – and certainly not the awakening of shinjin – but only to nurture our inner life, especially in times of stress.

Dr Aiyoshi practiced under a Zen teacher for some time but it was his reading and study of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho that enabled him to accept the nembutsu of the Primal Vow. He continued meditation as a practice that could support our inner life and could be used at any time or place. His teaching and rationale can be found in his book (UM) published in 1984.

Another very inspiring Jodo Shinshu person who relied on the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho for insight and understanding of his day-to-day life experiences was Shinmon Aoki (C). As a young man Aoki answered an advertisement for a person to become and apprentice in the ‘departures’ industry. At the interview he discovered that this was training to become a mortician – a person who prepared people for burial.

I find Aoki’s recourse to the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho  inspiring and encouraging. The insights that it brings him, and which become essential to his life, are most moving. Despite his book’s sometimes grim subject matter, his writing is full of light and joy, reflecting the light and joy that fills the pages of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.

If you would like to take up the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho seriously as your spiritual guide, I sincerely encourage you to do so.

The principal introduction to the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho can be found in CWS2 pp. 11-74. This is a very useful and scholarly introduction, but in spite of reading the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho in the CWS you may find this introduction by Professor Emeritus of Ryukoku Unversity Dr Hisao Inagaki more accessible. There are other good introductions, but this latter is probably the best.

On Rennyo Shonin’s 600th birthday

Rennyo Shonin, born 4 April 1415
Rennyo Shonin, born 4 April 1415

Yesterday, 4 April 2015, was the 600th year since the birth of Rennyo Shonin. Of course, by traditional Japanese reckoning, I think it is 601 years since his birth. But whatever the exact numerical significance of the day, it set me on a serious bout of Rennyo nostalgia.

I have already explained the genesis of my love of Rennyo Shonin and his teaching, especially in the Gobunsho, the traditional collection of his letters. During the 1980s I was occupied with the business of living – setting up a home and launching on a new career course, which at one point required extra study (in Horticulture, in fact).  I had already taken up the way of exclusive nembutsu some five years beforehand at this time of my life, and the Buddhist Churches of America had published an English-language collection of sacred texts (Seiten), which included the Gobunsho.

For about six years, my spiritual diet was almost exclusively the Gobunsho.  I did not have time to chant sutras very often, and my years of wider reading in the Buddha Dharma were largely behind me. This included, especially, some Pali Suttas, The Path of Purification by Bhadantâcariya Buddhaghosa, much of the Prajnaparamita literature, some of the Abhidharma and the Lotus Sutra. My direction in the nembutsu way changed decisively on a reading of F. Max Müller’s translation of the Sukhavativyuha Sutra.

Once things began to settle down, however, it became possible to read the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho of Shinran Shonin. The first edition that I encountered was the Ryukoku University translation with its excellent notation and transparent rendition of the text, through the availability of the original kana and a transliteration in romaji Japanese. Eventually, however, the Shin Buddhist Translation series published instalments of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, and I also helped with proofreading the English manuscript of Rev Dr Hisao Inagaki’s translation, which was in preparation for publication as part of the Numata English Tripitaka Series.

In 1997, however, the Hongwanji finally launched its magnificent publication The Collected Works of Shinran. The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho comprises the first 292 pages of this book. From then on the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho eclipsed and quickly banished the Gobunsho as the staple of my religious diet.

Now, I know perfectly well that the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is not everyone’s cup of tea. That does not matter in the least as far as I am concerned. There are plenty of other comprehensive accounts of Pure Land Buddhism available, among them the Tanni Sho, which, since about 1900 has been of critical importance in the spiritual life of most of us.

However, I love epic works. Think of the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, or Gustav Mahler’s symphonies.  The composer himself described these as universes or worlds, entire in themselves. If one soaks oneself in them for their duration, one always emerges emotionally satisfied, inspired and refreshed.

I can say the same thing about Shinran Shonin’s Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. I just love this work. It is to religious and sacred truth what Mahler’s symphonies are to music and secular truth.

If one absorbs oneself in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho one gazes into the depths of sacred reality and emerges spiritually renewed and refreshed, with brand new insights, sublime encounters and a wonderful set of challenges. Indeed, I recently calculated that, since the publication of The Collected Works of Shinran, I have read the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho more than a hundred times. And, still one does not tire of it; still one always finds something new.

The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is uplifting and a powerful source of resilience. Yet the most important thing I have discovered in all of this constant exploration is this:

In the matter of the entrusting heart, the letters of Rennyo succinctly capture the essence, ethos and meaning of this teaching in Shnran’s Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.


forestlightIn Jodo Shinshu there is a standard for deciding between good and evil. Good is whatever is in accord with the mind of Amida Buddha.  Evil is anything that is not in accord with the mind of  the Buddha. The good refers especially to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha,  which is Amida’s Dharma. It manifests the mind common to all Buddhas: the mind of unconditional compassion.

The Contemplation Sutra attests to these facts:

‘The Buddhas’ mind is great compassion. It embraces sentient beings with unconditional benevolence.’ (PLS, p. 87)

Such compassion is only realised by Buddhas because they have completed the six paramitas (perfections) culminating in the perfection of wisdom: all things are empty (shunya). This is not mere nothingness but transcendence arising from the demolition of all concepts. From perfect wisdom comes perfect, unconditional compassion.

Compassion is the principal practical quality of all enlightened beings. It is quite wrong to characterise Pure Land Buddhism as having exclusive claim to compassion.  All schools of Mahayana Buddhism have a similar focus.  For example, the most important aspect of Zen is the compassionate bodhisattva vows. Zazen (sitting) is only a means to their fulfilment. Similarly, Shinran’s strongest focus is on the light, or wisdom, of Amida Buddha. Wisdom and compassion have equal emphasis in all schools of Mahayana.

In Jodo Shinshu those who realise deliverance through the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha naturally live a life of reciprocity. They strive to repay the Buddha’s unconditional compassion by extending it to all beings.

The first aspect of this is to say the nembutsu so that living beings may hear the call of the Buddha’s Vow. But there is also a social aspect associated with our conduct. We try our level best to bring the Buddha’s unconditional great compassion to bear in our relations with all sentient beings.

As Shinran says in the Tanni Sho, this is difficult for unenlightened creatures like we ordinary folk (bombu) who accept the embrace of Amida’s Vow and say the nembutsu.  We can barely distinguish between good and evil. (CWS, pp. 663 & 679)

But Shinran also suggests that with long faithful engagement with the nembutsu of the Primal Vow, we develop warmth for fellow practicers. (CWS, p. 551) I think  this also tends to expand beyond the sangha to reach into all of our relationships. In non-enlightened terms we may, perhaps, characterise a Buddha’s compassion as inspiring us with growing empathy or love for all beings, which grows through long association with the nembutsu.

The human manifestation of the good, the Buddha’s mind of compassion expressed in the Primal Vow, is fellow-feeling, or empathy, or simply kindness.