October 2019 Message

What is Shin?
by Takamaro Shigaraki

The following article is Chapter One from the book, The Buddhist World of Awakening by Takamaro Shigaraki. It was published by The Buddhist Study Center in 1982, translated by our former minister, Rev. William Masuda. I am providing this chapter as an introduction to the new Study Class that I will be leading on the first and third Wednesday of every month beginning in October. For the Study Class, we will be reading Professor Shigaraki’s book: Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path – A Life of Awakening. Professor Shigaraki was one of my main teachers while I was studying at Ryukoku University. He was very kind to many of the U.S. born students studying in Japan to become Jodo Shinshu ministers such as Rev. Marvin Harada, Dr. Rev. David Matsumoto, Bishop Eric Matsumoto and others by conducting regular monthly “Benkyo-kai” or study classes specifically for us in his office.
Rev. Dean Koyama

I am a Shin Buddhist.

Zen, which arose in Japan in the same thirteenth century period of religious reform as did Shin Buddhism, became popular in America and Europe through the writings of D.T. Suzuki and others. Suzuki’s writings on Shin never attained wide readership. Yet, for we ordinary men and women everywhere, Shin Buddhism’s Nembutsu path opens the Buddhist world of awakening through the process of our everyday lives. It is to explore Shin Buddhism in as clear and concise a manner as possible that I write this book, which evolved from my lecture series at the Buddhist Study Center’s 1979 Summer Session in Honolulu, Hawaii.

I shall approach the teachings of Shinran, founder of Shin Buddhism, from the broad perspective of my own experience. I was born in Hiroshima, and raised the second son in a country temple. Because of this background, I received a somewhat strict religious training. For example, as a youngster I liked to go fishing, but my father did not permit this. I had to sneak out to go fishing. When my father caught me, he would really give it to me!

In my early life, the process of death was a condition leading to my religious sensitivity. When I was eight years old, my sister died. When I was thirteen, my mother died. When I was fifteen, my brother died. After my mother’s death, my father remarried. A stepmother came into my family, and this too became one of the painful experiences of my youth.

As the surviving son, I was expected to stay and take over the temple as is the custom in temple families in Japan. This I did not want to do. Instead, I planned after high school to leave and become a teacher. In the Larger Pure Land Sutra, one of the five deadly sins is the slandering of one’s mother and father. Now, as I look back on the early days of my step-mother, I realize that my urge to leave home was from my wanting to slander this new mother who had come into my family.

When I was in school, the War was going on and at age nineteen, I joined the army. One month after I joined, Japan lost the war. It was a time of confusion. Many were truly lost, spiritually, and of these many I was one. I abandoned my idea of going to college to become a teacher. In this period of postwar confusion, I decided to seek out anew the meaning of Shinran in my life.

For those who are not familiar with Shinran, I should like to provide a brief background. He lived from 1173 – 1262 during the Kamakura period, a time of intense political and religious upheaval in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. The Emperor was then merely a figurehead, with affairs of the nation in the powerful hands of a succession of noble families and considerable power wielded by the Buddhist hierarchy of Mt. Hiei, a Tendai complex of temples and monasteries just northeast of Kyoto. Women and police were both forbidden on that monastic mountain—the result of the latter prohibition being that among the monks were refugees who had been thieves, criminals of all kinds, who formed the most powerful army of the day.

A great many of the monks on Hiei were, however, serious and sincere seekers after enlightenment. Such a one was Shinran, who had taken his vows at the age of nine. For twenty years he immersed himself in strenuous study, following the most difficult monastic practices. At the aged twenty-nine, he felt himself a total failure in all this, and with despair left Hiei knowing himself incapable of honestly going forward on what he called the self-power “path of sages.” The former Hiei monk, Honen, a brilliant teacher then nearing seventy, had begun a “Nembutsu only” movement to which Shinran was drawn. For the next six years he remained with Honen, devoting himself to the single practice of his teacher: Nembutsu.

The “Nembutsu only” practice was that of reliance on salvation (enlightenment) through “other power” acknowledged by the recitation of Namo Amida Butsu, a homage to the name of Amida, signifying trust in the Buddha whose Vow was to save all beings everywhere at all times. This was a practice available to even the lowliest, uneducated person, a way in sharp contrast to the scholasticism and noble family connections of the Buddhist hierarchy on Mt. Hiei and that other, more ancient Buddhist center, Nara.

Before long, the leaders of Nara and Hiei joined forces to persuade the Emperor to ban the increasingly popular competition of this “Nembutsu only” movement. Two of Honen’s followers were executed. The others, including Honen himself, and thirty-five year old Shinran, were banished to different remote provinces. Shinran was exiled to Echigo, now the modern area of Naoetsu. He was stripped of his name, reduced to the status of a common criminal, and forbidden to practice Nembutsu. It was a prohibition he chose to ignore. Instead, during his exile he himself became a religious teacher.

Shinran, one of the first Buddhist priests to openly marry and live an ordinary life, called himself “neither priest nor layman.” He fathered a large family and shared the harsh lives of the people among whom he chose to remain after word of his pardon came from Kyoto. With his wife Eshinni, he moved to Mito-Kanto, which like Echigo was then a remote rural area. He stayed in that region, spreading “Nembutsu only” and beginning his major work, Kyō-Gyō-Shin-Shō (Teaching-Living-True Mind-Awakening), until he was sixty years old. He then left his wife and family behind to return to Kyoto where he devoted the remaining thirty years of his life to writings and study that he hoped would settle the place of Honen’s teachings in the mainstream of Mahayana-Buddhism. He lived in quiet obscurity, without a temple of his own, working at tracing “Nembutsu only” in a spiritual lineage back to Sakyamuni Buddha, a scholarly project that was disparaged by many of the Nembutsu teachers of his period. He continuously revised Kyō-Gyō-Shin-Shō, and composed many poems, hymns and a large body of other writings before his death at the age of eighty-nine.

Throughout his long life, Shinran considered himself only a follower of his teacher Honen. He had no idea that he himself had founded a new tradition in Buddhism. However, the religious insights he developed took Shinran far beyond Honen, who is the founder of the Jodo tradition in Japanese Buddhism. Despite the passage of eight centuries between his time and ours, Shinran’s writings and his approach to religion and life remain fresh and compelling. His is the freeing path that has been described as so simple—yet the most difficult of all difficulties for he encourages each one of us to make a choice in terms of our own life, to look honestly at our real self and the reality of our life. For himself, Shinran, was the only way, but for others—“whether you choose to accept it or not, that is up to you.”

There is no distinction, no discrimination, no judgmentalism, in Shinran’s teachings. He exposes the sham and deception of ordinary life, and pioneers into the humbling realm of “Beyond good and evil.” For his followers, and for those us today who follow the Nembutsu path, he opens a way of life that leads to boundless spiritual freedom through the totally honest exploration of oneself and the real world that is so difficult for our ego-limited vision to perceive.

In the past century, Shinran’s teaching traveled with emigrants from Japan to Hawaii, the mainland United States and to Canada. Emigrants also carried Shin Buddhism to South America. Translation of such Shin Buddhist classics as Tannishō into German, English, and French, stimulated an interest in Shinran’s teachings in England and Europe where Shin Buddhist societies have formed in a number of cities.