Always practicing the great compassion


Shinran Shonin lists ten benefits for ‘those who realise the diamond-like true mind (i.e., shinjin or entrusting heart)’.  The ninth of these is:

The benefit of constantly practicing Great Compassion

(Shinran, Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, III; Collected Works of Shinran [CWS] p. 112.)


‘What is “great compassion”? Those who continue solely in the nembutsu without any interruption will thereby be born without fail in the land of happiness at the end of life. If these people encourage each other and bring others to say the Name, they are all called “people who practice great compassion”.’  (Shinran, CWS, p. 119)

‘The repayment of the Buddha’s blessing is to believe the teaching for oneself and then teach others to believe, as in the saying, “To believe the teaching oneself and make others believe; this is the most difficult of all difficulties.”‘ (Shinran, LE, p. 95-6)

‘People in the world – parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, other family members, or paternal and maternal relatives – should truly respect and love one another, refraining from hatred and envy.  They should share things with others, refraining from greed and miserliness.  They should always be friendly in speech and expression, refraining from quarrel and dispute.’  (The Buddha, PLS, p. 70.)

The unbounded light of compassion

The light of wisdom exceeds all measure,
And every finite living being
Receives this illumination that is like the dawn,
So take refuge in Amida, the true and real light.

(Shinran, Hymns of the Pure Land)

One of the first things that Shinran Shonin wants to make plain in his hymns is that ‘every finite living being’ is embraced in the light that is Amida Buddha.

Those who accept it do not feel overwhelmed and blinded by a material light but may experience it as a sense of clarity, serenity and joy. If they express it in their minds they think of the Buddha, if in their voice or recollection it is mostly ‘Namo Amida Butsu’. It depends on us whether we accept the light, but it shines on nevertheless.

There is nothing whatever that hinders its compassionate embrace: no personality flaws, no weaknesses, no confusion, no mistaken actions, and no sense of self-importance.

Shinran says in a footnote that all things of the world are limited, ‘hence they are said to be finite.’ We are among such beings, and so are all other animals, insects, arachnids, worms, germs, viruses, and plants – trees, shrubs, the grasses, and flowers of the fields. The light of wisdom illuminates all.

And, what does it mean to be illuminated by the ‘light of wisdom’? In Buddhism wisdom is ‘prajna’, the non-discriminating wisdom that fills all things, in other words perfect, unqualified compassion.

There is nothing that Amida Buddha’s light leaves out or overlooks, so why not just accept it with a calm and joyful mind saying, ‘Namo Amida Butsu’?

And why should we accept it? Again, in a footnote to this verse, Shinran says that in the phrase ‘true and real light’, which is a description of Amida Buddha, ‘true means free of falsehood and flattery; real means that things will unfailingly reach fruition.’

In other words, the light of wisdom that is Amida Buddha knows us as we really are – and enables us to see ourselves as we really are. In all of Buddhism, seeing things are they truly are leads to liberation. Our ‘true fruition’ is thus to become liberated; to become a Buddha at the end of this finite life.

Equal in beauty

“If, when I attain Buddhahood, humans and gods in my land should not all be of one appearance, and should there be any difference in their beauty, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.” (Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life [Larger Sutra])

A newspaper article (15 July 2009) reported the effect that a person’s appearance makes on their career prospects and their ability to earn a good income. This is not just about how people dress or groom themselves, which is something over which we all have a good degree of control, but it refers to things like stature, gender and facial features.

Most people would agree that the fact that people can be disadvantaged merely because of the physical characteristics that they were born with is very unfair but it highlights the profound nature of our tendency to discriminate, often unconsciously, and frequently in regard to superficial things.

Probably the most telling example of this tendency, which we all have, is in the matter of conservation. We judge between different kinds of animals and value the ones that somehow look pleasant, while we reject animals that don’t look nice. For example, pandas are the symbol for the World Wide Fund for Nature. The people who promote this fund no doubt know only too well that threatened species that many people see as ugly, like snakes, insects and spiders, would not arouse the sympathy that pandas do.

This seems to be a matter of some irony, since animals (including humans) need trees to contribute some of the life-sustaining oxygen to the atmosphere. The choice between trees and pandas is not for their value to the ecology but because of their appearance, their charm and attractiveness.   I can’t imagine a species of shark that is threatened with extinction being the draw card that pandas are.

In every day life it is sadly necessary to choose between people for certain kinds of anti-social or threatening behaviour. There are some people who could manifestly be a danger to our families, our children, loved-ones and us. It is advisable to keep away from such people unless they clearly demonstrate a change in their difficult behaviour.

As we heard in the quote from the Larger Sutra at the beginning of this talk, in the Pure Land there is no difference in the appearance and beauty of gods and people. I think this means that, no matter how exalted you may be, Buddha sees you only with eyes of wisdom, prajna. His light, his wisdom, understands everyone without discrimination between ugly and beautiful; Buddha sees all as beautiful. He sees their true selves, their buddha-nature.

In the Nirvana Sutra we find these words of Shakyamuni Buddha:

“Buddhas do not see sentient beings’ family lineage; they do not see young, old or middle age; poverty or wealth; auspicious times, or astrological sun, moon, or stars; skilled workers, menial labourers, or man or woman servants.” (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho). The truly wise, the buddhas, do not discriminate on the basis of superficial things, like beauty or status. They see only the hidden beauty that we all have.

The Buddha’s community in the realm of birth-and-death (samsara) are the people of nembutsu. Those who say the Name accept the Buddha’s call – his entrusting heart – in Namo Amida Butsu. Shinran Shonin suggests that in such a community, discrimination, even in the matter of deeper things, like personality traits, are out of place:

“ ‘To abandon the mind of self-power’ admonishes the various and diverse kinds of people – masters of Hinayana or Mahayana, ignorant beings, good or evil – to abandon the conviction that one is good, to cease relying on the self; to stop reflecting knowingly on one’s evil heart, and further to abandon the judging of people as good and bad.” (Notes on “Essentials of Faith Alone”)

This reminds us that our discrimination of others is based on a judgement of ourselves in comparison to them. We tend to judge ourselves favourably but we are more discriminating in the way that we see others. Yet, no matter how ugly or bad we may think other people are, we can be sure that the wisdom of Buddha sees them differently. So, when it comes to the nembutsu community, we have no grounds for discrimination, since Buddha does not discriminate. In so doing, we give even those, who we judge in our ignorance as ugly, unwanted people, the chance to be beautiful in the Pure Land.

Ahimsaka was the disciple of a Brahmin teacher. He was a good and gentle man: very handsome, too, and popular with the ladies. Out of jealousy and rage, his master, hoping that Ahimsaka would receive the death penalty and be born in hell told Ahimsaka that, although his wisdom was great, it would be even greater if he became a serial killer. Obeying his teacher, Ahimsaka became addicted to killing. He came to be called Angulimala, which means, “a string of fingers”, because he took a finger from each person that he killed as a token for his necklace.

However, even though everyone was terrified of Ahimsaka, Shakyamuni saw the real Ahimsaka, and spoke to his buddha-nature. He confronted Ahimsaka and taking him through his “progressive talk” he showed him the way to nirvana and release from the misery of birth-and-death. As a result, Ahimsaka became a model disciple. Because Shakyamuni did not see Ahimsaka as ugly and to be rejected, he led him to truth and bliss.

In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho there is a similar story about Prince Ajatashatru. I have always found this passage to be deeply inspiring.

The difference between Prince Ajatashatru in his early life and after Shakyamuni’s parinirvana, when he facilitated the First Council of Sthaviras or “Elders”, is very striking. At first Ajatashatru was so riven with shame and guilt for his father’s murder that he was not only deeply despondent but also covered in suppurating sores. Yet, Shakyamuni Buddha saw beyond these outward ugly manifestations to Ajatashatru’s intrinsic beauty, his buddha-nature, and brought it to light. Soon, Ajatashatru awakened the entrusting heart of Other Power, “which had no source in him”, and his true self was set free.

Ordinary people like us cannot see buddha-nature because we are not enlightened. However, the equal beauty of gods and people is realised in the Pure Land so, in the nembutsu community, just as in the Pure Land, all people are classed as beautiful, and never ugly or unwelcome. We accept them, equally and without discrimination, and encourage others to do so, too.

Namo Amida Butsu


All nembutsu practicers are brothers and sisters

‘All nembutsu practicers within the four seas are brothers and sisters.’ CWS, p. 155.

In the Illustrated Biography of Shinran, Hongwanji Shonin, by Kakunyo Shonin, we learn of a mountain monk, whose name is said to have been Bennen. While Shinran Shonin was staying at Inada, where he first began work on the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, it is said that he often passed through a very deserted mountain district near to where he was living. Shinran visited various places to teach the nembutsu way. The joy of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow moved him to teach others.

My grandfather’s 3rd cousin, Edward Vivian Gatenby lived in Japan for 19 years and lectured in English language and literature at Tohoku Imperial University, Sendai, from 1926 to 1942. The university campuses are mainly on high ground but still experienced extensive damage on 11 March 2011.

This distant cousin of mine wrote a book called ‘The Cloud Men of Yamato’, in which we encounter the poetry of Japanese mountain monks. Bennen was such a monk. I am told they lived in small communities but spent most of the time alone, coming together for services in the morning. Bennen was armed – I guess that the mountain monks originally carried arms to protect themselves from wild animals. For example, in China, Shaolin Temple, which is famous for Kung Fu, apparently developed the martial arts for that purpose, too.

But, of course, weapons for self-defence can also be used for aggression against people. Bennen, who had never met Shinran, developed a hatred for Shinran because Bennen’s followers were leaving his teaching and practice and taking up the nembutsu. In one of his letters, Shinran says, that Bennen, now called Myoho-bo, ‘originally had thoughts of unimaginable wrongdoing.’ We are told that Bennen wanted to kill Shinran.

It seems a strange thing to want to kill someone you really don’t know much about. But it is possible that two things motivated Bennen. The first was that he was jealous of Shinran’s success in gaining followers. This is ridiculous when you think that Bennen should have been concentrating on his religious practices, but it shows how our ego can get in the way of reality.

From the point of view of the nembutsu teaching the number of followers is not the most important thing:

Rennyo Shonin says,

‘The prosperity of this school does not lie in showing off with large gatherings. If even a single person gains shinjin, this is a true sign of prosperity.’ ( SR, 121.)

So even if just one person takes up the nembutsu way – that is a true sign that all is well.

However, I think that Bennen was particularly angry with Shinran and wanted to kill him because he feared him. That may sound strange but he had only heard him by name, and knew that his nembutsu movement was gaining a large following. Bennen had never met Shinran and did not know him. The things we don’t know become monsters to us – mysterious and threatening.

No doubt Bennen justified his violent intentions by thinking of Shinran as a dangerous and evil teacher of falsehoods, whose activities had to be stopped!

Bennen made repeated attempts to ambush Shinran but somehow, over and over again, Shinran walked by when Bennen was not there. Eventually, in utter fury and frustration, Bennen decided to go to Shinran’s house and confront him.

Armed to the teeth, as the saying goes, Bennen charged towards Shinran’s hut just as Shinran came out.

What Bennen met then was a person of quiet peace and calm. Shinran Shonin knew that what was important in life was to accept the call of Amida Buddha in his Name, Namo Amida Butsu, and having done so, he didn’t have to feel jealous about successful people, or people with more followers.

As a person of nembutsu, Shinran also knew what kind of person he was, so he didn’t have any preconceptions or judgements about other people. He was a person of self-realisation. Knowing the embrace of Amida Buddha’s compassionate light he did not have to pretend to be anything he was not, and could be comfortable with his own reality.

‘”To abandon the mind of self-power” admonishes the various and diverse kinds of people – master of Hinayana or Mahayana, ignorant beings good or evil – to abandon the conviction that one is good, to cease relying on the self; to stop reflecting knowingly on one’s evil heart, and further to abandon the judging of people as good and bad.’ (CWS, p. 459.)

‘Others’ faults are easily seen, but one’s own are difficult to see; one airs others’ faults like blowing chaff but hides one’s own faults as a crooked gambler hides his dice.’ (BD, p. 441)

‘Every man carries Two Bags about with him, one in front and one behind, and both are packed full of faults.  The Bag in front contains his neighbours’ faults, the one behind his own. Hence it is that men do not see their oen faults, but never fail to see those of others. (Aesop, AE, p. 49.)

At that moment Bennen’s life completely changed. One life ended – a life of jealousy, fear, and false judgements – and a new, bright, free and joyful life began.

‘Concerning the entrusting of oneself to the Primal Vow, [to borrow the words of Shan-tao,] “in the preceding moment, life ends…”

This means that “one immediately enters the group of the truly settled” [T'an-luan].

Concerning immediately attaining birth, [to borrow the words of Shan-tao,] “in the next moment, you are immediately born.”’ (CWS, p. 594.)

Of this experience, Bennen wrote:

‘The mountain is still the same mountain,

So is the road.

And yet, my heart has changed forever.’


Joining the nembutsu family, Bennen became Shinran Shonin’s friend. He was able to be free from the burden of karmic bondage, and found the world-wide community of brothers and sisters in nembutsu.