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.