Rennyo Letter 01

The Monto Deshi no Sho (門徒弟子の書)
(CHAPTER ON LAY FOLLOWERS AND DISCIPLES)

Someone has said, “There are those who say that there is a basic principle in our Jodo Shinshu sect whereby a priest can consider without question the lay members of his temple as his own disciples. Still others say that lay members should all be called disciples of Amida Buddha and Shonin Shinran. I do not understand this differentiation.”

Further, there are those who say that to conceal the scattered formation of small local informal groups of followers from the resident priest of that particular jurisdictional area, the existence of such groups should be kept secret. Still others say that this is not the way it should be. This, too, is extremely confusing to me. I respectfully wish to inquire on these points.

In answer, I say:

Please understand that these points in question are very important. I shall relate, accurately, what I remember being told long ago. Please listen carefully.

In the quotations of the late Shonin he has said, “Shinran does not have even one disciple. The reason for this is that when I explain and urge Tathagata’s teachings to sentient beings in the Ten Directions, I only act as His1 representative. Shinran does not propagate any new doctrine that is particularly his own. Having faith2 in Tathagata’s teachings myself, I but communicate them to others. What do I teach other than Tathagata’s teachings that would give me reasons to call those who listen to me my own disciples?” Thus, he is quoted to have said.

Therefore, we should all possess the same FAITH3 and tread the same path. Because of this, the Shonin, with deep reverence, said that we are all brethren of the same Faith2 and fellow travelers.

However, recently there have been chief priests of temples who are not truly aware of the meaning of “FAITH”3 of our Sect that have severely rebuked members within their temples for having attended discussion groups on the subject of “Faith”2 occasionally held elsewhere. This has created dissentions between them and, thus, the priests cannot carefully study the true meaning of Faith, and the members cannot either when their attendance at such discussions is hindered in this manner. The priests do not gain Faith;2 the members do not gain Faith;2 the lives of both pass, utterly, in vain. Indeed the mutual loss to both is a mistake upon which it is most difficult to refrain from commenting.

An old poem reads:
Long ago, I had happiness wrapped in my sleeve,
Now, it is more than my being can contain.

The meaning of “Long ago, I had happiness wrapped in my sleeves…” is that, formerly, a person not distinguishing between Self-Power and Other-power, thought that rebirth was gained by the recitation of the Nembutsu. “…Now, it is more than my being can contain” means that after one gains a thorough understanding of the difference between Self-Power and Other-Power and obtains Faith1 through a singleness of heart, 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. Hence, this happiness, so powerful that it could even cause one to dance with complete abandon, means the joy that is more than one can contain within himself.

With reverence, I remain

15th day, 7th month, 3rd year of Bunmei (1471)

Group Study Notes:

Suggested titles: Heart of Assurance and Letters on Faith

It may seem remarkable that a founder of a religious sect would say that he has no disciples. But it may not be so remarkable when you consider that the opening paragraph in this letter raises the basic issues that we are confronted with in a modern Jodo Shinshu temple: What is a disciple, and what is a priest? Is there a distinction? Is there a need for priests? In Rennyo’s age, priests were regarded more highly than they are today. Now that priests are of a lower status, why do we need people to play this role? Especially if the Primal Vow4 saves us all equally, is it possible to make a distinction between teacher and disciple? Rennyo Shonin quotes Shinran Shonin as saying that since Amida Buddha is spreading the teachings, then he is simply someone who is also relying on those teachings.

The answer to this seeming contradiction lies in the Nembutsu, which opens up a world so huge that these arguments about priests and disciples make no sense. They become trivial. The Nembutsu is uttered out of a sense of indebtedness.

The final paragraph speaks of self-power vs. other-power. These words specifically refer to enlightenment and the ability to distinguish between the true and the auxiliary. A person has to study if he wants to progress. Saying the Nembutsu alone is not enough. But even if one were to fail that does not devalue him whatsoever. One of the original ways of describing the difference is easy practice vs. difficult practice. Difficult practice is similar to climbing high mountains and flat plains. If a person cannot take that route he can take a boat. The boat is the “faith” [shin]. This faith is called the active force that allows us the path into enlightenment. The first part of the eight-fold path is right view. When a person can see things correctly the wisdom follows naturally, and his joy transcends the physical body. When a person does not have right view he has incorrect thoughts and speech, and there is a tendency to capitalize.

Throughout this letter and others, there is a thread that there is something superior to oneself, but nothing inferior to oneself. Therefore, the doctrine cannot be used to rationalize “righteousness.” In other words, although the aspect of “up” still remains, the aspect of “down” disappears because Shinran did not envision anyone below or beneath him. Instead of viewing relationships in terms of superior and inferior, saver and saved,

Annotations:

1 The Tathagata, the Buddha Amitabha.
2 Faith through entrusting, or shinjin (信心).
3 Faith through peace of mind, or anjin (安心).
4 The Primal Vow (18th vow) forms the crux of Pure Land tradition. The Primal Vow is the vow in which Amida promises to save all sentient beings. The condition of his attainment of Buddhahood is he promises not to become enlightened until all other sentient beings are enlightened. This vow expresses the compassion and wisdom of Amida Buddha. All life is one and if any one of us fails to appreciate the value of all others, then everything fails. Shinran Shonin viewed the Pure Land as a place of enlightenment, rather than a place to go to become enlightened. The very moment we enter the Pure Land we become enlightened, whereas it used to be seen as the ideal place to practice. The assurance of birth into the Pure Land means your birth into the Pure Land is guaranteed.

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