What is Jodo Shinshu Buddhism?

Amida Buddha sitting on lotus throne in the Pure Land

Amida Buddha sitting on lotus throne in the Pure Land

In the world of Japanese Buddhism, Jōdo Shinshū (浄土真宗) or “The True Essence of the Pure Land Teaching” stands out as one of largest and most popular of sects, though still relatively unknown in the West beyond the Japanese immigrants who brought it to Western shores. This is a sect of the much larger Pure Land tradition in Buddhism, which extends from Tibet to Japan and everything in between.

Pure Land Buddhism as a distinct sect, and not part of a larger tradition, did not arise until the 13th century in Japan, when disaffected monks such as Hōnen and his disciples sought to teach a path to salvation in troubled times. Shinran, one of his disciples, carried this message further into what we know as Jodo Shinshu today. In spite of efforts to suppress the sect or to root it out, the teachings of grace through the Light of Amida Buddha gained in popularity until it reached acceptance centuries later, and continues to thrive today.

In the last 100 years, Japanese immigrants came to the Americas, mainly from humble peasant backgrounds, and carried this simple faith with them to the New World. There, churches were established, and ties strengthened with the home temples or hongwanji (本願寺), while new clergy were trained and generations of Shinshu followers maintained the community in spite of oppression and discrimination in the West to what we see today.

Critics have contended that Pure Land Buddhism isn’t real Buddhism due to its devotional approach and lack of traditional monastic practices, but the message of Pure Land Buddhism, as taught by Shinran and others is simple: no one, no matter who they are, will be excluded from Amida Buddha’s compassion if they take refuge. And upon taking refuge, they can be assured of rebirth in the Pure Land and Enlightenment thereafter as a Buddha. Once one takes refuge in Amida Buddha, they have nowhere to go but up.

To take refuge one need only recite sincerely the nembutsu (念仏), which is the phrase: namu amida butsu (南無阿弥陀仏)1

As Amida Buddha himself states in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:

(Vow #18) If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.

Or in another Buddhist text, the Amitabha Sutra:

“Shariputra, those who have already aspired, now aspire or in the future will aspire to be born in Amida Buddha’s land, all dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression for realizing the highest, perfect Enlightenment. They have already been born, are now being born, or will be born in that land. Hence, Shariputra, good men and women of faith should aspire to birth there.

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is a path accessible to all, and all are encouraged to visit a Jodo Shinshu temple and check it out if are able to do so. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is a venerable, lay-only and a family-oriented community seeking to follow the Buddha’s teachings, the Dharma, amidst their daily lives.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 Spelling and pronunciation variations exist, but these are just as valid. The point is intention, not linguistics.

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