‘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.