Shinran’s 750th Memorial & Great Faith

Saint Shinran from Denver Buddhist Temple

This weekend marks the 750th anniversary (here at least) of the founder of Shin Buddhism; Shinran’s memorial.  You can check out a live stream of this event and some keynote speakers here (for good blog post on someone more knowledgable about Shin Buddhism check out this post). For those that are not familiar with Shinran, he was a Tendai monk during the 11th (?)  century that became disillusioned with the intensive emphasis placed upon self-reliance and…

Shinran despaired of attaining awakening through such discipline and study; he was also discouraged by the deep corruption that pervaded the mountain monastery. Years earlier, Honen Shonin (1133-1212) had descended from Mt. Hiei and begun teaching a radically new understanding of religious practice, declaring that all self-generated efforts toward enlightenment are tainted by attachments and therefore meaningless. Instead of such practice, one should just say the Nembutsu, not as a contemplative exercise or means for gaining merit, but wholly entrusting oneself to Amida’s Vow to bring all beings to enlightenment.

This practice of complete trust in the Amida Buddha’s Vow through the recitation of the Nembutsu is also incorporated into Zen practice as a suppliment to practice and sometimes, as in the case of Suzuki Shosan as a central fixture.  In Bill Porter’s book “Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits” I was surprised that many hermits reported that Nembutsu practice was going hand-in-hand with zazen rather than in opposition with each other.

Sometimes viewed as “working class” Buddhism or as Christianity cloaked in Buddhism, Shin Buddhism, in my humble opinion is neither.  Rather than a path of lessened ability or skill, Shin Buddhism enables practioners to focus on Tariki (Power from Outside sources, in this case the power of Amida’s Buddha’s Compassion),  rather than through Jiriki (Power from our selves).  I come from the school of thought that enlightenment can come from Jiriki solely but if some help is out there why not tap into it?  Why attach to my own power or ability?

For me, personally, reliance on the Amida Buddha’s vow does seem similar to Christian concepts of a savior and rebirth in the Pure Land is disturbingly similar to a Christian Heaven.  For me, this is besides the point.  If it aids in your practice then comparisons and discriminations are worthless.

In Shinran I see a monk that was a teaching ordinary man to lead a truly compassionate and humble life without necessarily having to be a  monastic or even a meditator.  A working man, a poor woman or an elderly man is still active in practice.  The Tanni Sho amazes me.  Just like the Keisaku – it is simple, pure and can strike a deep tone.

The Vow of Amida was to free all sentient beings and for this his practice is dedicated to all those that do not sit on a cushion or do prostrations.  Amida’s central theme the placement of one’s full attention and compassion in the reciting of his name. The Nembutsu embody’s the practice of monks, the actions of saints and the compassion of Buddhas.  The Pure Land is not a Heaven but a place of intensive practice that is available to those that can’t spend a life of contemplation and mediation.  I see it less of holy place and more of an extended sit after a life of work and compassion.

My pillars of my Buddhism is “Great Striving, Great Faith and Great Doubt”.  Amida Buddha may offer that faith, Zen may offer that practice and my own skeptical mind provides the doubt. 

And here is a cartoon.

I am not a Shin Buddhist nor an academic.  I am a Zen practitioner and as such I understand that when I open my mouth to express the Dharma, shit will fly out.  If my conceptions of Shin practice, Zen or anything else disturbs you feel free to comment.  But keep in mind, when we talk Dharma we are, in essence, throwing feces in the air and calling it the moon. 

I would prefer, though, that you add your own wisdom and humility to the comments and not denigrating mine.




10 thoughts on “Shinran’s 750th Memorial & Great Faith

  1. There are several interpretations of Shinran’s writings. If you read Shinran and the Pure Land Sutras figuratively the Pure Land in the West seems a lot less like Christian Heaven.

    Honen the founder of Jodo Shu and Shinran’s teacher taught not to necessarily abandon other practices in favor of Nembutsu.

    As a fairly novice Pure Land practicer the same stuff issues forth from my mouth when I try to express the Dharma.

    • Happy to be slinging shit with ya!

      I am, begrudgingly, unfamiliar with Honen’s works and do need to pick up some of his writings.

      I don’t tend to read anything figuratively if I can help it. But the cosmology seems very similar.



  2. That’s a really good write-up of basic Shin Buddhism, John, thank you for offering that.

    Since you asked for corrections just let me note that you are quite right that the Pure Land is not a heaven, but also point out that in Shin Buddhism the Pure Land is not a place of intensive practice either (some other schools of Pure Land Buddhism do believe that, but not Shin–which is by far the largest form of Buddhism in Japan). Rather, according to Shinran the Pure Land is nirvana itself, true reality. Therefore we are immediately liberated from delusion at the moment of death–freed to instantaneously leave the Pure Land and return perpetually to samsara in order to help sentient beings escape from suffering.

    I understand that from a Zen point of view, power beyond the self must seem odd. From the Shin Buddhist point of view, there is no such thing as the self, which is the root of the problem. Turning from the illusionary self toward non-self (i.e Other Power) thus operates to correct our suffering-laden ego attachments. Just that I’d add that since it might help explain Shin terminology.

    Thanks again for your post.

    • Thanks for the clarifications, Jeff! Much appreciated. Personally, I view the Pure Land as being representative of the Buddha-Nature and thus completely able to be realized by practitioners of the way.

      I put Shinran’s reliance on Nembutsu practice as a statement that the Buddha-Nature can be realized outside of the monastery and distinct from meditative practices. That the Great Vow of Compassion was, in actuallity a venue to discover the Mind.

      When I say “self” I don’t mean “SELF” ya know. The process seems similar to Vajrayana practice of visualizations when your illusionary self in replaced by the idealized self of the deity you are visualizing in order to release those illusions.

      Thanks for the comment!


      • To me, that’s exactly the right way to look at it–just as the self from which Zen self-power derives is (as you say) not the false self, so too the other from which Shin Other Power derives is not truly other. There’s really no such thing as self OR other, and this apparent dualism dissolves in awakening. But provisionally we use “other” to counter the poison of “self,” since by far the most common problem foolish beings face is attachment to self.

        Funny that you bring it up, because Shinran too viewed the Pure Land as Buddha-nature. He said that Amida is in fact Buddha-nature, and that Amida and the Pure Land were just different ways of speaking about and looking at the same thing.

        I think all of this must be why Zen and Shin have a long complementary history in Japan, with various historical masters of each school viewing them as parallel paths that suit various different types of people on the same basic journey.

  3. Thanks, John and Jeff. I had been doing a lot of reading about Shin last year and found it to be a very deep and resonant path. Reading the teachings of Shinran, and of great modern Shin writers like Jeff and Taitesu Unno and Alfred Bloom, actually brought a lot to my Zen practice. I think if I’d discovered Shin before Zen, and if I lived within driving distance of a temple, I could have been just as happy in that tradition as in Zen.

    • I have enjoyed Taitesu Unno’s writings and oddly enough (although not really) it is my understanding that there are two camps (I am oversimplifying here) of Shin Buddhists, one more traditional and one “reformist”. Basically, as I understand it, the traditionals take a stance that the Pure Land is an actual place while the reformists (like Unno) see it as metaphorical.



      • Yes, that does oversimplify, but no worries, that’s natural enough. The real issue is that Shinran understood the Pure Land in a complex way that was neither literal nor metaphorical. For Shinran, the Pure Land in its ultimate, fullest aspect was the realm of true reality–what we refer to as nirvana or suchness (Shinran referred to it with those terms, among others). At the same time, the Pure Land was also represented as paradisaical, with jeweled trees and gentle waters and so on. As he explained, Amida Buddha and Pure Land are beyond human conception. Completely beyond (he used the word inconceivable over and over and over again, it has to be one of the most common words in his entire body of writings). Therefore, the ultimate (Dharmakaya) takes on the provisional form of an anthropomorphic Buddha and a heavenly Bliss-land, in order that sentient beings can have something to work with.

        As Shinran taught, because we are unenlightened beings, we must “enter from words into no-words, enter from thought into no-thought.” This differs from the Zen approach, which is to cast aside all words and thoughts and try to plunge directly into the ultimate. That’s a truly noble path, but one beyond the situation and capacity of most people, myself included. So instead in Shin Buddhism words, thoughts, conceptions, etc are used to draw the ordinary being on gradually toward the inconceivable true reality. That is why we have the story of Amida Buddha: it embodies the truth in a form that our present minds can grasp and leads us on toward great awakening. Shinran is quite explicit about this, and that this isn’t just a fairy tale, but that it accords with reality and thus is truly skillful means coming to us from the side of the Dharmakaya. It is the finger provided to us by the moon, as Shinran puts it, whereby we learn about the presence of the moon’s light shining on us.

        Of course, being deluded beings, it is easy for us to get attached to one or the other side of the equation, even though Shinran included both in his holistic approach to the Pure Land way. Factions can arise from this. That’s just the human side of religion. There aren’t really just two camps, though–there are many camps (Jodo Shinshu is a very large religion), and the majority of people don’t belong to any particular camp. Some have seen Unno as a metaphoricalist but his position is close to that of Shinran–the Pure Land exists and the story of Amida is real, but in their truest reality they are beyond conception, including anthropomorphic or literalist depictions, and as Shinran said we are supposed to “rely on the meaning, not on the words.”

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