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Shinran Shonin’s Logic of Salvation

Paper prepared on January 8, 2013, by Gabriel Schlaefer, a lay Nembutsu follower in America.

The practice of logical thought is as old as humanity itself. While most people in Western societies associate formal logic with the classical traditions of Greek and Roman philosophy, many are unaware that an equally rigorous tradition of dialectic and debate took root much earlier in India and China. It is certain that a majority of people in our contemporary Western culture think of logic as necessarily utilitarian or reductive, suited only to deconstructing arguments or engaging in academic debate. As an undergraduate student, I am frequently required to use logic in this way, and very tiresome it can become! When I first turned to the Buddha Dharma for spiritual sustenance, however, I discovered a new and refreshing use of logic as a means to awaken the mind and set it on the path that leads to Enlightenment. And I have found that this use of logic is nowhere more redemptive than in the True School of the Pure Land (Japanese Jodo Shinshu) founded by Shinran Shonin (1173-1263), particularly in the sublime logical progression of its doctrine concerning salvation in the present life, which many consider to be the heart of this wonderful and endlessly invigorating Dharma.

In his hymns and other writings, Shinran Shonin clearly demonstrates by his remarkable understanding and inspired reading of the sutras and commentaries that those who have the unique experience of awakening “true faith” (Japanese shinjitsu shinjin) of the Buddha Amitabha (Japanese Amida) share the same confidence of attaining Nirvana as those who are already born in his Pure Land. One can determine the following points or stages in Shinran’s argument, which ultimately takes the form of a classic syllogism:

  1. In his 18th Vow, Amida has promised that all who realize serene, joyful faith and call his Name (Japanese nembutsu) will be born.
  2. According to the 11th vow, those who dwell in the Pure Land necessarily abide in the stage of non-retrogression.
  3. Therefore, those who have attained true faith and call the Name likewise abide in the stage of non-retrogression.

This beautiful teaching, so simple yet at the same time so profound, is discussed in much greater detail in Shinshu canonical texts, such as the Kyogyoshinsho. Yet, in spite of its cogency, many Buddhists of other sects regard the certainty of Jodo Shinshu followers regarding their Pure Land birth with skepticism. After all, in the self-power (Japanese jiriki) schools of Pure Land Buddhism such as Tendai, one must first be born in the Pure Land at the end of death in order to enter the “rightly established group” of those whose attainment of Buddhahood is definitely assured. Accordingly, such critics regard Shinran as a dangerous innovator. However, it turns out that his teaching of salvation in the present, though revolutionary in its emphasis, is not without doctrinal precedent. The great Indian bodhisattva Nagarjuna (c. 150-250 CE), celebrated for “crushing the views of being and non-being,” as stated in Shoshinge, was a brilliant logician who used his extraordinary mental abilities to further the cause of the Dharma. Yet even the gifted Nagarjuna took personal refuge in the Buddha Amitabha, and urged others to do likewise. In the Path of Easy Practice, as quoted by Shinran in his Kyogyoshinsho, Nagarjuna proclaims:

Those who think on Amida Buddha’s
Immeasurable power and virtues
Immediately enter the stage of the definitely settled;
For this reason I constantly think on Amida …. (KGSS, II, 15; CWS, p. 23)

Throughout this passage, Nagarjuna makes clear that anyone who takes refuge in the Buddha Amida and recites his Name immediately enters the Stage of Definite Assurance. This concept was further illuminated and expounded by the Pure Land Masters who came after Nagarjuna, including Vasubandhu Bodhisattva and Zendo Daishi (Shan-tao), and found its culmination in Shinran Shonin, who most perfectly demonstrated that salvation in the present is in consonance with Amida’s Universal Vow.

It seems to me that logic in the service of the Buddha Dharma becomes a “skillful means” (Sanskrit upaya) to awaken our small, deluded minds to the inconceivable realities of Amida’s transcendent wisdom and compassion, which ultimately lie beyond all logical thought. Like many (countless?) others, my initial reaction to Shinran’s unambiguous claims was one of suspicion. Surely he went too far in reducing the entire Pure Land Way to faith alone! It wasn’t until I was able through repeated listening to accept this Faith for myself that I truly understood the validity of the joyful logic underlying the possibility of its attainment. It may take innumerable lifetimes floundering throughout Samsara to reach that one moment of true realization, but it is well worth it when it arrives.

Of course, it is essential to keep in mind that when Shinran Shonin speaks about being in the rightly established group, the “Stage of the Definitely Assured,” he is not simply making an abstract assertion. On the contrary, he is sharing with us his own personal experience of salvation. Like Shakyamuni Buddha himself, Shinran speaks to us of what he knows, and his words are firmly grounded in the compassionate intent of the Primal Vow. Accordingly, his logic is never cold or strictly utilitarian, but rather warm, joyful, and (above all) immensely liberating. It gives Jodo Shinshu followers confidence to live their lives strongly and fully in the realization that everything they do comes within the all-encompassing parameters of the Primal Vow, which is itself an active, emancipating reality—one to which, in the end, we can only humbly bow in Namu Amida Butsu.

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 Shonin, Hymns of the Pure Land 4; CWS, p. 325

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