Letters of Rennyo Shonin

The senseis or their assistants lead a study group at the temple once a month.  I had the pleasure of attending the August session, which focused on Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499), eighth head priest of the Hongwanji branch of the Jodo Shinshu.

After chanting the Juseige and meditating for about 20 minutes, the eight participants convened to hear an overview of Rennyo’s life by MA Joe Schwab, followed by our reading aloud and discussing some of Rennyo’s letters.  According to the authors of his biography, Minor L and Ann T. Rogers, these  “were his chief instrument in his efforts to translate and convey the subtlety of Shinran’s teaching in language familiar to ordinary men and women in late medieval Japan.”

Joe started by saying, “We wouldn’t be sitting here without Rennyo.   Shinran’s teachings would have died without the ‘Great Restorer,’” as Rennyo was called.  There was little sign of a religious organization remaining at the time of Rennyo’s birth, some 150 years after Shinran’s death.  Rennyo was the one who propagated Shinran’s teachings.  He traveled, cultivated local leaders, as well as ordinary citizens and shared his letters with them to be used as teaching tools.  He distributed scrolls of the Nembutsu to the temples and dojos where the religion was practiced.  He also taught participants to chant the Shoshin Ge at their services.  Through these efforts, he significantly increased interest in Jodo Shinshu and in having temples where people could meet to learn more about the Dharma.

One of the themes in the letters, which was emphasized in the group discussion, was that of “merit.” Before Shinran, people would recite the Nembutsu and engage in other practices in order to gain merit towards a favorable rebirth.  Even during Rennyo’s time large groups of people would make long pilgrimages to a temple he had constructed, seemingly to gain merit.  In volume 1, letter 8,  Rennyo said,  “However, since these pilgrimages appeared to be of no benefit, meaning, or purpose whatever, I have closed this temple to them starting this year.”

What do we turn to for a favorable rebirth if not merit?  According to Letter 3, “The fundamental point in the Teachings of Jodo Shinshu is not the necessity to eliminate one’s evil thoughts or the attempt to stop the rise of evil thoughts and attachments.  We should believe that we repeat the Nembutsu* while we have life for the purpose of expressing our gratitude and thankfulness because rebirth for us hopeless beings is through this Power of Faith.”

Faith is described in Letter 1 is what happens “after one gains a thorough understanding of the difference between Self-Power and Other-Power…”  When this occurs, “there will be an exceptional difference in the heart that recites the Nembutsu for the purpose of expressing gratitude for the Grace of Amida Buddha.”  In letter 5 Rennyo provides additional clarification.  “Also understand that you need only to recite the Nembutsu for the purpose of expressing gratitude to Amida without respect to time or place, your rebirth, this time, is assured without fail.”

Today Rennyo’s letters should be read by those who would like a deeper understanding of the teaching of Shinran Shonin.  For those who want to dig deeper into these questions, Rennyo’s letters can be found here.

*Namo Amida Butsu. Per letter 5

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Return to Bright Dawn

Seven months later, I’m returning to Rev. S.K. Kubose’s wonderful primer, Bright Dawn.  Two things that strike me as I read it are his ability to stay focused on the little acts of daily life as he is doing them and to turn them into lessons about Japanese Buddhism.

An example of the first point is the attention he pays to his shoes.  As a runner, he acknowledges that his shoes are important and that he is mindful about lacing them up every morning.  He explains that shoes merit our gratitude, because they allow us to get around, and they protect our feet.  He goes on to describe a deeper meaning to his shoes in this way: “Being grateful to one’s shoes… always goes beyond whatever one is being thankful for.  One becomes more aware of being grateful in general.  One becomes a grateful person.”

The second point comes in his description of his commute to Lake Michigan, for his daily run, in which he uses stop signs or lights as “reminders to stop or pause mentally, and be aware of how I am living.”  He goes on to talk about building up his ‘stopping power”  and “deepen my awareness of the causes and conditions that support my life.  We can all build up ‘stopping power’ which means to stop taking things for granted and to stop doing things that are harmful to ourselves, to others and to the world we live in.  Then we can start to give back.”

Part of giving back is to fulfill our obligations, which Kubose Sensei identifies as the obligation to thank and repay what we have received from our parents, then our obligations to “our family and friends, then to the society we live in, and finally to all living and non-living things in the world.  We are interdependent and our lives as human beings are supported by all things.”

A lot to think about when tying one’s shoes or driving a car, but a good way to get us out of our narrow, “I am the center of the universe” perspectives.

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Blog Mention and Saying Hi

Hello all,

Folks here in Seattle Betsuin have been pretty busy as of late looking down the road on projects and gearing up for Bonodori this year.

In the meantime, we want to call out an excellent bi-lingual Buddhist blog on Jodo Shinshu topics: Echo of the Dharma – A Bilingual Blog on Shin Buddhism 日英両語による浄土真宗ブログ

As the Japanese-American population is changing and the older generation aging, bi-lingual sources on Buddhism are becoming harder to find, so the blog is a welcome change, and an excellent read for people curious about Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. We highly encourage you to take a look. 🙂

Namu Amida Butsu

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The Pure Land of Naturalness

While in Japan recently, I spent some free time (what little there was) catching up on reading including a nice book I purchased recently that summarizes all of Shinran’s writings, called The Essential Shinran. Shinran, who founded the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, is a hard man to figure out sometimes. People often rely on the Tannisho as the basis for understanding Shinran, but without context, it’s confusing and potentially misleading. Shinran’s magnum opus, the Kyōgyōshinshō (教行信証) is a very difficult read due its layer upon layer of quotations, and subtle points made. I managed it once (then wrote the Wikipedia article linked), but can’t remember much of it. So the “essential” book has been very helpful for me in understanding Shinran’s ideas in a more distilled form, but with the much needed context lacking in the Tannisho.

One little gem I found almost by accident was on page 99 of the book (emphasis added by me):

Attaining Buddhahood through the nembutsu is the true essence of the Pure Land way;
The myriad practices and good acts are the temporary gate.
Unless one distinguishes the accommodated and the real, the temporary and the true,
One cannot possibly know the Pure Land that is naturalness. (Hymns of the Pure Land #77)

The book notes that by “naturalness” Shinran is using the term jinen (自然),1 which if the kanji are broken down, can mean things like “self as it is”, “it is what it is” or some such. The first kanji 自 means self, in all sense of the word, while 然 gets used in words like 天然 (natural, nature), 自然 (shizen, see note 1 below), 偶然 (gūzen, by chance) and so on. One often hears such sentiments in Zen, but may not expect to hear them in Pure Land Buddhism as well. You can see Shinran’s interpretation of the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha is not a literal paradise located so many buddha-lands to the west, but rather something far more profound. You can see similar sentiments in the Lotus Sutra, Chapter 16:

All harbor thoughts of yearning
and in their minds thirst to gaze at me.
When living beings have become truly faithful,
honest and upright, gentle in intent,
single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha
not hesitating even if it costs them their lives,
then I and the assembly of monks
appear together on Holy Eagle Peak [a historical place in India].
At that time I tell the living beings
that I am always here, never entering extinction,
but that because of the power of an expedient means
at times I appear to be extinct, at other times not,
and that if there are living beings in other lands
who are reverent and sincere in their wish to believe,
then among them too

When living beings witness the end of a kalpa
and all is consumed in a great fire,
this, my land, remains safe and tranquil,
constantly filled with heavenly and human beings.

Or, more bluntly, from chapter 17:

“Ajita, if good men and good women, hearing me describe the great length of my life span, in the depths of their mind believe and understand, then they will see the Buddha constantly abiding on Mount Gridhrakuta, with the great bodhisattvas and multitude of voice-hearers surrounding him, preaching the Law. They will also see this saha world [world of suffering], its ground of lapis lazuli level and well ordered, the Jambunada gold bordering its eight highways, the rows of Jeweled trees, the terraces, towers and observatories all made of jewels, and all the multitude of bodhisattvas who live in their midst. If there are those who are able to see such things, you should known that it is a mark of their deep faith and understanding.

Or even from the Pure Land text, the Amitabha Sutra:

“Furthermore, Shariputra, in the land of Ultimate Bliss there are various birds of brilliant coloring, such as white egrets, peacocks, parrots, sharikas, kalavinkas, and jivamjivakas. The birds sing six times a day in exquisite voices. Their very singing expresses Amitabha’s teachings, such as the Five Roots of Goodness, the Five Powers, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, and the Noble Eightfold Path. When the people of the land of Ultimate Bliss hear the bird’s voices, all of their thoughts are dedicated to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

And so it is said in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:

“The light of Amitayus shines brilliantly, illuminating all the Buddha-lands of the ten quarters. There is no place where it is not perceived. I am not the only one who now praises his light. All the Buddhas, shravakas, pratyekabuddhas and bodhisattvas praise and glorify it in the same way. If sentient beings, having heard of the majestic virtue of his light, glorify it continually, day and night, with sincerity of heart, they will be able to attain birth in his land, as they wish. Then the multitudes of bodhisattvas and shravakas will praise their excellent virtue. Later, when they attain Buddhahood, all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in the ten quarters will praise their light, just as I now praise the light of Amitayus.”

Amitabha’s Light is everywhere, all around us, embracing us and guiding us and cannot be exhausted nor obscured ever. If we perceive this light here and now, we perceive the Pure Land, and have already attained rebirth there.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 The same kanji in modern Japanese are read as shizen meaning something spontaneous, natural.

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I alone am the World-Honored One

Taken by me while visiting Japan recently at Ginkakuji temple in Kyoto. This was a small altar to the infant Shakyamuni Buddha traditionally done around the time of the Buddha’s Birthday:

Altar room at Ginkakuji, Togudo Hall

The title comes from the traditional Buddhist story that the Buddha upon birth, took seven steps,1 whereupon lotus flowers bloomed at each step and stated:

“Above heaven and below heaven, I alone am the world-honored one”

As the appearance of a fully-awakened, self-enlightened2 Buddha is said in Buddhism to be unfathomably rare, this statement is fitting. But it also reminds me of a poem by Issa, quoted in Buddha’s Wish for the World (pg. 10):

笋(たけのこ)も takenoko mo
名乗るか nanoru ka
唯我独尊と yui ga dokuson to

“Even the lowly bamboo shoot
proclaims to all the world:
I alone am the World-Honored One”

As the author, the Monshu of the Nishi Honganji explains:

Issa must have noticed its commanding presence and related it to the evenof Shakyamuni Buddha’s birth. He didn’t just plop it down at the market for so many pennies a pound. Issa saw in the bamboo shoot another existence living the same life that we all live. He sensed that the same force that resisded in Shakyamuni Buddha was at work in the bamboo shoot and expressed this significance with the words, “Truly, I alone am the World-Honored One.”

Namu Amida Butsu

1 For the Six Realms of rebirth, plus one more for Nirvana or emancipation.

2 In other words, without the help of someone else to teach them the Dharma.

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Shinran and Shinjin

From the book, The Essential Shinran, I found this quotation in one of Shinran’s letters:

Shinjin that is the inconceivable working of the power of the Vow [of Amida Buddha]
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.

(Hymns on Benefits in the Present #107, pg. 163 in the book)

I had never heard such a clear-cut explanation of Shinran’s interpretation of Shinjin. The term Shinjin is a fairly broad Buddhist term for the aspiration for enlightenment, but it takes on a slightly different nuance in Jodo Shinshu because it comes not from our own cultivation, but through our encounter with Amida Buddha.

As stated in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:

“If, sentient beings encounter his light, their three defilements are removed; they feel tenderness, joy and pleasure; and good thoughts arise. If sentient beings in the three realms of suffering see his light, they will all be relieved and freed from affliction. At the end of their lives, they all reach emancipation.

Namu Amida Butsu

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Jodo Shinshu Daily Practice: a summary

While visiting the temple of Tsukiji Honganji in Tokyo, Japan, my wife and I picked up some nice Buddhist gifts, when I noticed something on the shopping the bag. The words were:


Asa ni reihai
Yū ni kansha

This means “worship in the morning, gratitude in the evening” based on my own poor translation. I think this is a wonderful summary of the Jodo Shinshu daily practice because in the morning one may show veneration and worship to Amida Buddha before starting the day, but by night we reflect in gratitude on the life we’ve lived, for better or worse.

Namu Amida Butsu

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