For another year …


The twenty-five bodhisattvas (CWS, p. 35)
The twenty-five bodhisattvas (CWS, p. 35)

‘Further, it is declared in the Contemplation Sutra:

‘When practicers say Amida’s Name, worship and think on the Buddha, and aspire to be born in the Buddha’s land, the Buddha immediately sends innumerable manifestation-bodies of Buddhas, of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and of Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta to protect them. Together with the twenty-five bodhisattvas mentioned before, they surround the practicers a hundredfold, a thousandfold, and never part from them, whether they are walking, standing, sitting, or lying, at all times and in all places, whether it is day or night.’ (Kyo Gyo Shin ShoCWS, p. 35)

Shinjin is shinjin that is directed to beings through the power of the Primal Vow. Joy expresses gladness in body and mind. Even includes both many and few. One thought-moment: because shinjin is free of double-mindedness, one thought-moment is used. It is the mind that is single. The mind that is single is the true cause of [birth in] the pure fulfilled land. When we realize the diamondlike true mind, we transcend crosswise the paths of the five courses and eight hindered existences and unfailingly gain ten benefits in the present life. What are these ten?

‘1. The benefit of being protected and sustained by unseen powers.
2. The benefit of being possessed of supreme virtues.
3. The benefit of our karmic evil being transformed into good.
4. The benefit of being protected and cared for by all the Buddhas.
5. The benefit of being praised by all the Buddhas.
6. The benefit of being constantly protected by the light of the Buddha’s heart.
7. The benefit of having great joy in our hearts.
8. The benefit of being aware of Amida’s benevolence and of responding in gratitude to his virtue.
9. The benefit of constantly practicing great compassion.
10. The benefit of entering the stage of the truly settled.’ (Kyo Gyo Shin ShoCWS, p. 122)

‘Shinjin that is the inconceivable working of the power of the Vow
Is none other than the mind aspiring for great enlightenment;
The evil spirits that abound in heaven and earth
All hold in awe the person who has attained it.

‘When we say “Namo Amida Butsu,”
Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta,
Together with bodhisattvas countless as the Ganges’ sands or as particles,
Accompany us just as shadows do things.

‘Countless Amida Buddhas reside
In the light of the Buddha of Unhindered Light;
Each one of these transformed Buddhas protects
The person of true and real shinjin.

‘When we say “Namo Amida Butsu,”
The countless Buddhas throughout the ten quarters,
Surrounding us a hundredfold, a thousandfold,
Rejoice in and protect us.’ (Hymns on  Benefits in the Present, CWS, p. 354)

My sincere good wishes to all for 2015:
Saying Namo Amida Butsu
the inconceivable light of  compassion embraces you
now and forever.

The bodhisattva vehicle

CH1986.11AShinran Shonin wrote in a letter:

‘The four vehicles are: first, the Buddha vehicle; second, the bodhisattva vehicle; third, the pratyekabuddha vehicle; fourth, the sravaka vehicle. The Pure Land school belongs to the bodhisattva vehicle.’ (Shinran, Lamp for the Latter Ages, CWS, p. 534)

The twenty-five bodhisattvas (CWS, p. 35)

Shinran places Jodo Shinshu squarely within the bodhisattva vehicle.  This is because the ‘attainment of Buddhahood through the nembutsu is the true essence if the teaching (shinshu)’ (CWS, p. 40), and because the three Pure Land Sutras belong to the bodhisattva pitaka. (CWS, p. 534)

The objective of the bodhisattva vehicle is to become a Buddha, whereas in the shravaka school it is to become an arhat. People of shinjin, or entrusting heart, are a heartbeat away from Buddhahood. (CWS, pp. 122-4 et. al.)  That is why Jodo Shinshu is in the mainstream of the bodhisattvayana.

What implication does this knowledge have for us? If we accept Amida Buddha’s shinjin, should we act as though we are already bodhisattvas?

Of course, it seems clear that people of shinjin are, de facto, on the bodhisattva path, and that shinjin is equivalent to the stage of joy, the first rung on the ladder to becoming a Buddha. A person of shinjin has certainly breached the entrance to the way of the bodhisattva.

Shinran advises us to live the way of naturalness of the dharma (jinen honi) with the proviso that this does not entail breaking the law or engaging in anti-social behaviour.  After shinjin we just keep on as we are.  As the Larger Sutra says, we are ‘people of the world, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, (and) other family members.’ (LS, p. 70). If we are hunters, we hunt, if we are salespeople, we sell, if we are soldiers, we soldier on, if we are fishers we fish – and so on.

But some will say that we should change what we do and who we are because a bodhisattva  practices the six paramitas. Shouldn’t we follow that course? I do not think that is at all necessary.  After all, we are people of nembutsu because, to our dismay, we have discovered no such capacity within ourselves.

For many bodhisattvas, the six paramitas (pefections) are the rules that bridge the divide between samsara (the world of birth-and-death) and the ‘other shore’ of nirvana. However, those who have already received the shinjin of Amida Buddha and become nembutsu people have indeed received the virtue of the six paramitas.

It could be argued that people of nembutsu owe it to the Buddha to follow the paramitas out of gratitude for freely receiving the virtue of the Buddha.  However, neither Shinran nor Rennyo ever suggest such a thing. In fact, Shinran says quite clearly that we have only two obligations in the life of naturalness: to awaken faith ourselves and to awaken it in others, and to say the nembutsu. (LE, p. 95-6)

The ninth of the ten benefits of shinjin in the world, outlined by Shinran in the chapter on faith in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is ‘the benefit of constantly practicing the great compassion.’ (CWS, p. 112) This is surely to fulfil a bodhisattva purpose in life. ‘To continue solely in the nembutsu … [and] always practice great compassion’, is, in fact, to ‘bring others to say the Name’. (CWS. p. 119)

The way people will hear the Dharma of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow is to encounter the Name; and the only way most people will encounter the Name will be to hear about it from nembutsu person, a person of shinjin.

A person who lives in  the compassionate light of Amida Buddha is also very self-aware, knowing that, despite everything, they are in the embrace that does not forsake.  They tend to know themselves as they really are.  Quoting the words of Shan-tao,  Shinran admonished those who put on sanctimonious airs:

‘We should not express outwardly signs of wisdom, goodness, or diligence, for inwardly we are possessed of falsity. We are filled with all manner of greed, anger, perversity, deceit, wickedness, and cunning, and it is difficult to put an end to our evil nature. In this we are like poisonous snakes or scorpions. Though we perform practices in the three modes of action, they must be called poisoned good acts or false practices. They cannot be called true, real and sincere action.’ (CWS, p. 84)

So I think that we perfectly fulfil our bodhisattva vocation by living the way of nembutsu as an ordinary person (bombu).

The letters of Rennyo Shonin

Rennyo Shonin (1415 – 1499)

‘When you read the scriptures, there is no use just passing your eyes over them.  Rennyo Shonin advised, “Make a point of reading the scriptures over and over.” Also, “There is a saying, ‘If you read a passage a hundred times, its meaning becomes clear by itself.'” Remember this.  The passages of the scriptures should be understood as they are. ‘ (SR, p. 61)

Here, Rennyo Shonin, explains a most important aspect of the life of faith in Jodo Shinshu: the repeated reading of sacred texts. The scriptures that he has in mind, of course, are those written in Japanese, like the Wasan (Hymns) and commentaries of Shinran Shonin, rather than the Classical Chinese of the sutras. In time to come the sacred ‘scriptures’ would become Rennyo’s own writings, the letters.

In the 1980s I was too busy establishing a home and my career to read much. However, the Shinshu Seiten (Buddhist Churches of America, 1978) had been published. Included in it was a marvellous translation of the Gobunsho, the collection of Rennyo’s letters, translated by Elson B Snow. At that time, I read a letter a day.

Since then at least two new translations of the complete text of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho have also become readily available.  Not everyone enjoys reading this work, but I do. I adore its world of luminous  joy and read from it for about ten or fifteen minutes a day. From this, over many years, I have become convinced that Rennyo was actually summarising the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho in his letters.

The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho gives us the following process of spiritual development: 1) hearing the Name (Primal Vow) ➡ 2) shinjin (entering the stage of the truly settled) and ➡ 3) nembutsu of thanksgiving (ho-on nembutsu) for the rest of our lives, until ➡ 4) birth in  the true fulfilled Pure Land and Buddhahood.

In his letters, Rennyo explicates each of these four stages. For example, we read about stage (1) ‘hearing the Name’ in fascicle 3 – 6 of the Gobunsho:

‘”Hearing the Name” is not simply hearing it in the ordinary sense of the term. It should be remembered that, when you meet a good spiritual teacher and hear with deep understanding the significance of the six-character word “Namo Amida Butsu,” this is the entrusting heart of Other power, through which you will attain birth in the fulfilled land.’ (LR, p. 51)

Because, in fact, Rennyo’s teaching is based firmly in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, which is the Principal Scripture (honden) of Jodo Shinshu, reading the Letters of Rennyo repeatedly is tantamount to studying the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho itself.

This is one reason why Rennyo’s letters have become  standard fare at the morning and evening observance (gongyo) in our temples and homes. In hearing the words of Rennyo, it is safe to say, we are hearing the Dharma in full. And, if we have spare moments and seek inspiration and spiritual refreshment, most of us have recourse to Rennyo’s letters or the book of his sayings (SR).

The same can be said for the Hymns of Shinran.  These were compiled after the completion of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho and are clearly intended to communicate that work’s essential truths to ordinary men and women. Nevertheless, the compact structure of Rennyo’s instruction in his letters makes his teaching easy to grasp in a very short time. And we can re-focus our understanding easliy by turning to Rennyo in spare moments.

One stumbling-block for some people in appreciating and treasuring Rennyo’s letters has arisen in recent years because some scholars have claimed that Rennyo’s faith is somehow not the same as Shinran’s. However, such ideas are not credible because the faith is the single shinjin of Amida Buddha.

You will remember the dispute among Honen Shonin’s followers, when Shinran stated that his shinjin was the same as the master’s. Shinran’s claim could be affirmed by Honen himself, because the shinjin was that of Amida Buddha.  There could not be two more unlike personalities than Shinran and Honen but both shared an identical shinjin. Indeed, it is the same as the shinjin of the Dharma masters, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, Vasubandhu Bodhisattva, Tan-luan, Tao-ch’o, Shan-tao, Genshin and Honen.

That they all were people of Amida Buddha’s shinjin is one of the reasons why we venerate and trust them, in spite of their varying perspectives on the  Dharma and the great variety in their historical and cultural contexts. It is especially significant that, from Shan-tao to Rennyo, all of the Dharma masters, including Shinran, are exemplars of the so-called ‘Shan-tao’ school of the Dharma (the ‘True Pure Land teaching’ – Jodo Shinshu), and most definitely share the same shinjin.

Without question, although they lived in very different times and circumstances, Shinran and Rennyo most certainly shared the same shinjin.

So, I have come to see that the Gobunsho, Rennyo’s Letters, is the sacred text that is best to recommend as a life-long companion for daily reading:  to hear the Dharma and, as Rennyo says, ‘constantly dredge the channel of shinjin’. It is trustworthy, points accurately to the essential features of Shinran’s thought, and is inspired by the same shinjin.

The letters of Rennyo in translation

There are 266 letters altogether.  Rennyo wrote them between 1461 and 1498. Most versions of the Gobunsho are a representative selection.

1) Letters of Rennyo, A Translation of Rennyo’s Gobunsho, Shin Buddhism Translation Series. This is the newly authorised (1998) collection of thirty-three letters.

2) Rennyo Shonin Ofumi: The Letters of Rennyo, tr. Ann T Rogers and Minor L Rogers, Numata Centre for Buddhist Translation and Research.

[Digital version]

3) The Epistles (Gobun Sho of Rennyo Shonin)  tr. Elson B Snow, included in Shinshu Seiten, Jodo Shin Buddhist Teaching, Buddhist Churches of America pp. 271 – 390

Shinjin (entrusting heart)

Namo Amida Butsu
Namo Amida Butsu

In the way of nembutsu, shinjin is essential.

Our Hongwanji religious organisation has chosen the English phrase, entrusting heart, as the best available translation of shinjin.

In the eighteenth Vow of Amida Buddha shinjin is inextricably associated with the Name. The eighteenth Vow is the epitome of all of Amida’s forty-eight Vows, which collectively are known as the Primal Vow.

The Primal Vow works upon us to engage, attract and persuade us to hear and accept the Name – Namo Amida Butsu.

Through chance meetings, deepening understanding, listening, reading and study of the Dharma, we one day come to a point where we acknowledge the intractable limitations that lie at the very root of our being, and accepting the truth of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow, surrender entirely to the Name in joy. We become a person of shinjin.

From then on, people of shinjin know that they are embraced in Amida Buddha’s compassionate and inconceivable light. Here Amida’s Vow-power overwhelms not only their vast stock of evil karma but also their attempts to build a stock of good. Lifted out of the thrall of samsara – the cycle of birth-and-death – they are carried, in due course, at the end of this life, into the Pure Land, the realm of light: free forever, serving the world of pure compassion.

Shinjin shoin’, meaning that shinjin is essential, was a crucial part of the Pure Land way from its inception, but had come to be overlooked, and great emphasis placed on the idea that we could accrue merit on the basis of how many times we said the nembutsu. Or, there were others who thought of the nembutsu as akin to something like a magic talisman that could save us if we said it just once.

In his writings, Shinran went to great pains to return to a true understanding of the Primal Vow, which is that the quality of our nembutsu is the important thing, and not how many times we say it, or how many religious practices we add to it. This quality comes from the pure and true reality of Amida Buddha, which is given to us as shinjin alone. Nothing more is needed.

Shinjin (entrusting heart) is Amida Buddha’s gracious gift to all beings. Why not just accept it?

Other Power

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘Other Power is none other than the power of the Tathagata’s Primal Vow.’ So said Shinran Shonin in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho (CWS, p. 57)

‘Power’ (riki) in the phrase ‘Other Power’ can be misleading if ‘power’ is associated with force. In the case of Amida Buddha’s Vows, the power is the power of attraction; the power of persuasion.

To reach into our hearts and make Amida’s compassion known and felt, the main vehicles which work upon us are the ‘light and Name’.

As far as I know, it was the fifth master of Shin Buddhism, the Chinese teacher Shan-tao (613-681), who brought this fact to light from the preceding tradition of the nembutsu way that we follow:

‘Amida takes in and saves all beings throughout the ten quarters with light and Name;  Amida brings sentient beings to realize shinjin and aspire for birth.’ (CWS, p. 54)

‘The power of the Tathagata’s Primal Vow’ encompasses all of Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows, as they are recounted in the Larger Sutra. However, the main focus in this case are the twelfth, seventeenth, and eighteenth Vows – especially the eighteenth.

The relevant common titles for these Vows are:-

  • 12th Vow: ‘The Vow of Immeasurable Light';
  • 17th Vow: ‘The Vow that all Buddhas praise the Name';
  • 18th Vow: ‘The Vow of birth through the nembutsu’, and ‘the Vow of the sincere and entrusting heart’.

Shinran has a general formula as a recapitulation that he uses to conclude his explanations of aspects of the working of the Vow.  For example, it appears at the conclusion of the first half of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, which covers the Aspect of Going Forth (i.e., birth in the Pure Land), where it is proclaimed in this way:

‘As I contemplate the teaching, practice, shinjin, and realization of the true essence of the Pure Land way, I see that they are the benefit that the Tathagata directs to us in his great compassion.

‘Therefore, whether with regard to the cause or to the fruition, there is nothing whatever that has not been fulfilled through Amida Tathagata’s directing of virtue to beings out of his pure Vow-mind. Because the cause is pure, the fruit is also pure. Reflect on this.’ (CWS, p. 158)

This recapitulation, in slightly modified form, also appears twice in Shinran’s small masterpiece entitled Passages on the Pure Land Way.  (CWS, pp. 295 – 317) The first of these says,

‘Hence, whether with regard to practice or to shinjin there is nothing whatever that has not been fulfilled through Amida Tathagata’s directing of virtue to beings out of the pure Vow-mind. It is not that there is no cause or that there is some other cause. Let this be known.’ (CWS, p. 300)

Of particular note are the words ‘there is nothing whatever that has not been fulfilled through Amida Tathagata’s directing of virtue to beings out of his pure Vow-mind‘.

In other words, the practice, which is the saying of the Name of the Tathagata of unhindered light, and shinjin, have both been completed in the Primal Vow. There is literally nothing, including the practice and entrusting heart, that Amida Buddha has not already taken care of, and will graciously give us, if we accept it.

Hence, when analysing the declaration by Shan-tao that I quoted above, Shinran points to the working of Other Power, in the specific form of the twelfth, seventeenth, and eighteenth Vows, in this way:

‘Truly we know that without the virtuous Name, our compassionate father, we would lack the direct cause for birth. Without the light, our compassionate mother, we would stand apart from the indirect cause of birth. Although direct and indirect causes may come together, if the karmic-consciousness of shinjin is lacking, one will not reach the land of light. The karmic-consciousness of true and real shinjin is the inner cause. The Name and light – our father and mother – are the outer cause. When the inner and outer causes merge, one realizes the true body in the fulfilled land. Therefore master [Shan-tao] states:

‘[Amida] takes in and saves all beings throughout the ten quarters with light and Name; [Amida] brings sentient beings to realize shinjin and aspire for birth.’ (CWS, p. 54)

The Name, Namo Amida Butsu, the inconceivable light, which is Amida Buddha,  and shinjin – the entrusting heart – have all been fulfilled through Amida Buddha’s ‘directing of virtue to beings out of Amida’s pure Vow-mind’.

The Name reaches us through the praise of Shakyamuni Buddha, and all the other Buddhas, including, by proxy, people of shinjin. The light, which is inconceivable, inspires the way we respond to the Call of the Vow. It also comes to us in the form of enlightened teachers, like Shakyamuni, the seven dharma masters, and Shinran.

By adding the two temporal forms of the working of Other Power to the three immediate conditions that Shan-tao and Shinran reveal – light, Name and shinjin – Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499) presented the  ‘five conditional steps’ by which birth is attained:

  1. the culmination of related past conditions and circumstances leading one to the Dharma
  2. a ‘Good Teacher of the Dharma’
  3. The light of Amida Buddha
  4. Faith – ‘Shinjin’
  5. Amida’s Name. (SS, p. 310)

This is the working of Other Power, the power of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow.

My writing in this blog, and other places, is an attempt to celebrate these five factors of the working of ‘Other Power’. Essentially, this working is intensely personal for each of us. But I think it so important for our own ultimate individual well-being, and that of all sentient beings, that I want to make it known as widely as I can.

There is more to say about Other Power, of course. What happens when we surrender to the ‘Call of the Vow’ and accept nembutsu as the way to liberation and Buddhahood?