Chapter Three
Buddhist Development: Branches of the Tree

Your answers so far haven’t been distinctively Jodo-Shinshu, have they?

You’re right. Jodo-Shinshu as part of the greater Buddhist tradition shares the basic assumptions and insights of other Buddhist schools. The questions so far have dealt with the trunk of the Buddhist tree. I like to think of Jodo-Shinshu as being a flower on that tree.

Where does the Jodo-Shinshu school fit within the overall development of Buddhism?

Today there are two major branches of Buddhism. One is called Theravada (School of Elders), which is dominant in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. The other is called the Mahayana (the Larger Vehicle), which is practiced in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan, Tibet, and Vietnam21. Both branches trace their roots to the original teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. Buddha himself belonged to no specific school, just as Jesus was not a Roman Catholic, an Eastern Orthodox or a Protestant.

Mahayana Buddhism in China gave birth to many schools during the sixth century including the Pure Land. The Pure Land school along with Ch’an (Zen) became two of the most popular and enduring traditions in China.

The Pure Land teaching crossed over to the Japanese islands as early as the eighth century22. Some four hundred yeas later, the Jodo-Shinshu school, a form of Pure Land Buddhism based on the teachings of Shinran Shonin (1173-1263), was born. “Jodo-Shinshu” means “the true essence of Pure Land [Buddhism].” The school is also known by its shortened names, “Shinshu” or “Shin.”

What is the main characteristic of the Theravada branch?

I would say the important role of the monks23 is the main characteristic of Theravada. Perhaps, you have seen scenes of the saffron-robed monks meditating in the monasteries or on their morning round of collecting alms in the streets. These monks are considered to have the best position to realize enlightenment in this life. The laypersons play the role of supporters, in the hope that in some future lives they will become monks themselves.

Many years ago, I too led the life of a novice monk for three months in a monastery in Bangkok, Thailand. I still have many fond memories, particularly the stillness of the predawn morning, the aroma of the food being placed in my alms bowl, the genuine devotion of the laywomen, and the coolness of the ground as my bare feet paced mindfully through the town streets. I have nothing but respect for the monks who dedicate their lives to overcome greed, hatred, and ignorance. I marvel at their self-reliance, for they exemplify the Buddha’s final words, “Make yourself an island (or light) and make the Dharma your light.” I could not be as self-reliant; I needed people too much.

How is the Mahayana branch different from the Theravada branch?

Mahayana Buddhists place more emphasis than the Theravada Buddhists on the idea that laypersons (not only monks and nuns24) can realize enlightenment. The Mahayana Buddhists then look to an enlightened group called the “Bodhisattvas” to lead as many people to enlightenment as possible. These Bodhisattvas voluntarily put off becoming Buddhas themselves in order to assist all beings to attain enlightenment.

When did Mahayana Buddhism start?

Most scholars believe it started sometime in the first century B.C.E. (or B.C.), about 400 years after the death of the Buddha. The Mahayana Buddhists believe that their teachings express the true intent of what the Buddha taught. In their view, all beings have the potential to become Buddhas, and called this potentiality “Buddha nature.” The Mahayanists offered a broad gate with hope for all beings. So they thought of themselves as the “Larger Vehicle” and criticized the older schools as “Hinayana” (Smaller Vehicle).25

A number of Mahayana branches developed within the next five hundred years in India, mostly centered around specific sutras or set of sutras. For example, the Prajna-paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutras led to the Madhyamika (Middle [Path]) school founded by Nagarjuna (ca. 150-250 C.E.). Another set of sutras that included the Sandhinirmocana Sutra inspired a school called the Yogacara (Yoga Practice) or Vijnanavada (Teaching of Consciousness Only). Two brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu (ca. 400 C.E.), were the key figured of this school. The Lotus Sutra, on the other hand, did not contribute to the formation of a doctrinally-based school in India, but its teaching of the One Vehicle and its literary beauty continue to have major influences in East Asia. The Avatamsaka (Garland) Sutra with its teaching of interdependence also did not lead to a school n India, but its impact outside India has been enormous.26

Please say a little more about Pure Land Buddhism.

The Pure Land tradition is part of the Mahayana branch, and started around the first century C.E., probably in Northwestern India. Its teaching is expressed in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, and strongly stresses the Mahayana ideal of enlightenment for everyone. The early Pure Land Buddhists felt that if everyone is to be enlightened, the teachings have to be for men and women strapped down to family life and who often live in a world full of wars, famine and political instability. Pure Land Buddhists still think so today.

The Pure Land Buddhists found hope. Through simpler practices, they could look forward in their next life to a birth in a special realm called Sukhavati (the Realm of Serene Bliss) Pure Land. There, they are able to concentrate on completing their training in a perfect environment with the help of Buddha called Amitabha (in Japanese “Amida”) and Bodhisattvas. All those born in the Pure Land are assured of quickly becoming Buddhas. Many elect to return as Bodhisattvas in this and other worlds of birth-and-death (samsara) to help others realize the same spiritual liberation. Pure Land Buddhists believe their teaching shows the true intent of Shakyamuni Buddha: compassion, expressed as enlightenment for everyone. (See Chapter 10 on Pure Land.)

How did Pure Land Buddhism develop afterwards?

It became a distinct school in China from about the fifth and sixth centuries and continues to this day as an important stream within the Buddhism of China. In fact, the number of Buddhists (lay and even monks and nuns) who engage in Pure Land practices is enormously large. They are also found in Tibet, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan in large numbers and probably make up the largest Buddhist segment in the world.

Pure Land teachings reached Japan as early as the eighth century, and developed gradually in the two centers of Buddhism: Nara and Mt. Hiei. Mt. Hiei, especially, produced many important scholar monks who practiced and taught Pure Land teachings. But it was Honen (1133-1212) who created a school that focused solely on the Pure Land teachings. (See Chapt. 5 on history.) Honen was the foremost leader of the new Pure Land movement that included not only peasants but also warriors and aristocrats. Shinran Shonin was one of Honen’s devoted disciples. Shinran’s disciples and descendants established the Jodo-Shinshu school, which has not only survived but is one of the largest Buddhist schools in Japan today.

Where does Zen fit in?

Zen is another sub-branch of Mahayana. It became a distinct school in China around the same time (seventh century) as the Pure Land school. In Japan, both schools emerged again, in the early Kamakura period (1185-1333). Today, both of these schools continue to be two of the most dominant streams in Japan as well as in East Asia. In China, Korea and Vietnam, monks and nuns generally engage in Zen meditative practice but also include some forms of Pure Land devotion in their daily regimen.

What are the major Japanese Buddhist schools that now have branches in North America?

There are only a handful of temples from the Shingon and Tendai schools. Honen’s Jodo school is represented by a fairly good number of temples, particularly in Hawaii. The Rinzai branch of Zen has far fewer adherents than the Soto branch of Zen. The Jodo-Shinshu school is the largest and oldest, and claims the largest segment of the Japanese-descended community as its members. The older Nichiren school is sparsely represented, but its modern offshoots, Reiyukai, Rissho Koseikai and the Sokagakkai, have large followings.

Now that we have talked about the trunk, the major branch (Mahayana), and the minor branch (Pure Land), we are ready to talk about one of the flowers: Jodo-Shinshu.


21  Some people speak of Vajrayana (Thunderbolt Vehicle) as the third branch, but I agree with some scholars who see Vajrayana as part of Mahayana.

22  I am here including the scholastic commentaries on Pure Land writings by the Buddhists of the Nara period, which were soon followed in the ninth century by the transmission of Pure Land practices within the Tendai school.

23  There no longer exists a legitimate order of nuns in the Theravada countries since their line of transmission was broken in 1017 C.E. when Indian invaded Sri Lanka and persecuted Buddhism. Attempts to restore the order in modern times have not met with success. In actual practice, the white-robed female practitioners in Thailand, for example, play vital roles in the life of Buddhist communities.

24  Attempts to “revive” the line of nuns (bhikhuni) have not been universally accepted by the Theravada hierarchies in Southeast Asia and in North America.

25  The Theravada Buddhists who are today in Southeast Asia were long gone from India when the Mahayanists came on the scene. Thus, the pejorative “Hinayana” referred to other earlier schools but not to the Theravada.

26  See Robinson, Richard and Willard Johnson. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (Belmont, Ca.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1970), 65ff.