The Jodo-Shinshu Path: Simple Yet Not Easy
Why is Jodo-Shinshu not more well-known in North America?
It is curious that a religion that has existed in North America for close to one hundred years is not better known. I think the reasons have to do with not enough push and pull.
First, the push: It’s partly because the Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists have not actively pushed the message out. I believe numerous cultural and historical factors contribute to this. The strict governmental control and persecution of the tradition throughout its history in Japan (as we saw earlier in Chapt.5) has created an atmosphere of caution and left the tradition with very little experience in propagation. And these historical factors reinforced what I believe are two of the dominant characteristics of Japanese social organizations: hierarchy and group loyalty.49 And of course, the Japanese American experience of severe discrimination that culminated in the Second World War internment experience (see page 93) contributed to the temples being social and cultural centers to an even greater degree than the churches of other immigrant groups to America. The members of the Buddhist temples were forced to “circle their wagons” and turn inward.
Second, the pull: Even when the teaching is presented, those interested in Buddhism in the West seem more pulled to the other forms of Buddhism because of four factors.
What are these four factors that you see?
They are 1) absence of meditation, 2) no superstitions beliefs or worldly benefits, 3) non-monastic priesthood, and 4) superficial similarities with Christianity.
Can you explain what you mean by, “Absence of meditation”?
Jodo-Shinshu does not require meditation like most other schools of Buddhism. When there is a set practice that is required of everyone, the seekers feel secure. They like knowing clearly what to do and seeing signs of progress. This is especially true of those who left the Jewish and Christian traditions. They are eager to “do” something. Many are particularly attracted to meditation because it is “therapeutic” and, most of all, concrete.
This explains the popularity of Zen, Tibetan, and Theravada forms of Buddhism. Even some Christians, particularly Catholic priests, are integrating Buddhist meditation into their daily regimen. I believe that the popularity of Buddhism in North America is due in large measure to the availability of its highly developed and easily-accessible meditative practices. To use an analogy, if we are like the circus tightrope walkers, then meditation provides us with the technique of how to walk and the pole to balance ourselves. In contrast, Jodo-Shinshu lends little assistance on the “how” of walking but simply says “Don’t worry, there is a safety net in case you fall!” With that assurance, we are able to be ourselves and walk naturally across.
Then there is no practice in Jodo-Shinshu?
We need to first define what we mean by practice. In my view, there are two meanings of practice. One is to cultivate and change one’s nature, especially to eradicate greed, hatred and delusion. This demands utmost dedication which essentially only the monks and nuns can satisfactorily carry out. The second meaning, however, does not call for such extreme change in nature but fosters self-reflection, trust and a new awareness about oneself and the world. Shinran Shonin rejected the first type of practice, calling it “self-power” (jiriki) that belongs to the “gate to the path of the sages” (shodo-mon).
Self-power is the effort to attain birth, ... by endeavoring to make yourself worthy through amending the confusion in your acts, words, and thoughts, confident of your own powers and guided by your own calculation. Other Power is the entrusting of yourself to the 18th among Amida Tathagata’s Vows, the Primal Vow of birth through nembutsu, which Amida selected from among all other practices.
Why did Shinran Shonin reject the first type of practice?
There are a number of reasons. The first and foremost is that enlightenment is already here and now, right under our feet. Do you recall the sailor in the metaphor? He awakened to the fact that he is safe and sound right where he was, in the middle of the ocean. Simply by a shift in his awareness, he found himself embraced by a supporting ocean. This awakening did not require him to swim to the distant island to find safety. The ocean was safe all along; the sailor simply needed to awaken to that truth. The ocean is that “Other Power” about which Shinran Shonin speaks so often.
Shinran Shonin’s rejection of the fist type of practice also stemmed from his fear that such practices often led to attachment and self-righteousness. He felt that often practice increased the very problem it set out to overcome, self-centeredness. We all know of “religious” people who carry themselves with an air of self-righteous and superior attitude because they, and only they, are practicing correctly. There is, however, also the danger of going the opposite extreme of becoming too lazy and complacent, to which Jodo-Shinshu was especially vulnerable throughout its history50.
Shinran Shonin chose the second type of practice, right? What form does it take in Jodo-Shinshu?
It has primarily taken the form of “listening to the Dharma” (monpo). We listen to the Dharma by seriously and intently listening to the Dharma talks given by teachers and, in a broader sense of the word, by studying the traditional scriptures and writings of contemporary teachers. Through intense and sincere listening, we are transformed to internalize the Buddhist ideals. This internalization allows us to practice the teachings in daily life, in general accordance with the aims of precepts and meditations of the other Buddhist schools. I call these “self-effort,” as distinguished from “self-power.” Self-effort is vital and needed. It is “practicing” without the self-centered motivation and attitudes of self-power!
Actually, so long as one does not see his efforts as directly causing enlightenment, a Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist is free to engage in any of the well-known forms of practice, including Zen and Vipasanna (of Theravada) meditations. Jodo-Shinshu strongly rejects the idea that our actions in themselves cause our enlightenment. When Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists practice, we do it out of a sense of gratitude. The late Prof. Ryukyo Fujimoto, a widely respected teacher of many active Jodo-Shinshu priests in North America, spoke of gratitude:
Birth through Faith alone, as based on the Eighteenth Vow, does not by any means discourage other Buddhist practices. They must, however, be performed in a spirit of gratitude toward the Tathagata (Amida Buddha) ... (emphases added)51
When we act out of deep-felt gratitude, we become less self-centered.
I appreciate the freedom of the idea that you can do what you want as long as you do it with the proper attitude. What I wish to know is what do you do when Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists get together?
In our services, we have chanting, singing, pledges and quiet reflection, all centered around the Dharma talk usually delivered by a priest. Among all of these, I feel that chanting comes closest to what non-Buddhists and other Buddhists would regard as practice.
We chant the words of Shakyamuni Buddha in the Pure Land sutras of from the words of Shinran Shonin. We chant to honor and praise their virtues as well as to internalize the meaning of their words. We chant aloud in unison in the traditional style. Each words is chanted with care in the proper note and intonation. We normally chant anywhere from seven to forty minutes depending on what we are chanting.
What I like about chanting is that it is done together with everyone gathered at the service. Both adults and children chant together. This fosters an intimate sense of connectedness with others, much more so than when we sit in meditation on our own. When we share the same experience through chanting, we develop a positive and trusting attitude toward others and ultimately toward the world. We then become more capable of realizing the caring that we receive in our lives and so become able to identify with the sailor in our metaphor who demonstrated complete trust in the caring ocean.
But chanting is not meditation, is it?
In my view, it serves a very similar function to meditation in Zen, particularly of the Soto line of Zen where sitting meditation does not in and of itself directly cause awakening. Meditation is understood more as an expression of enlightenment. The same can be said of chanting and particularly of Nembutsu (the utterance of the Name of Amida, Namo Amida Butsu).52 Zen and Pure Land have much more in common than normally thought. Some of my American Soto Zen practitioner friends now openly acknowledge the affinity between the two traditions. In my view, the difference can be seen not in terms of meditation versus devotion but in the emphasis among the three traditional Buddhist actions: Bodily, oral and mental. Zen meditation stressed the bodily action, while Jodo-Shinshu stressed the oral action.53 Both traditions aim to transform the mental.
Chanting similarly required discipline and focus in order to be carried out properly. More importantly, chanting can also lead to a quieting of the mind. This was clearly brought home to me when I observed a group of fourteen Buddhist monks and one priest during an annual celebration of the Buddha’s birthday. They sat on the stage through the long hour-and-a-half ceremony. The monks exhibited calm and mindfulness as expected, but I could not help but be impressed y the one priest who was equally, if not more, calm and mindful in his actions. And that priest was Rev. Haruyoshi Kusada, a teacher of chanting in the Jodo-Shinshu tradition!
How about the second factor, “No superstitious beliefs or worldly benefits”?
Jodo-Shinshu firmly rejects any use of its teachings to gain worldly or secular benefits. The Jodo-Shinshu Preamble says, “We shall not conduct petitionary prayers for secular benefits or magical acts, and shall not rely on fortune telling and other superstitious acts.” This lasting dislike for such acts supports Shinran Shonin’s stance against using religion to gain worldly benefits.
In contrast, there are many temples of other schools in Japan today that actively foster benefits. Any foreign visitor can easily see the fortune papers tied to tree branches seeking everything from success in university entrance exams to household prosperity, longevity, and protection from fire. Temple visitors often direct incense smoke with their hands onto the parts of the body that are giving them aches and pains. That the favorite spot for this “smoke blessing” is the top of the head shows the high value of brain power in the competitive Japanese society.
These requests are certainly not evil in the secular sense, but they go against the Buddhist principle (Second Noble Truth) that desire is the cause of suffering. Shinran Shonin was, thus, strongly against such practices. Certainly, a religious organization can gain more followers by agreeing with and using these desires. We saw how well it works in the examples I gave from Japan.
What do you mean by “non-monastic priesthood”?
Most North Americans who turn to Eastern religious, including Buddhism, look to charismatic spiritual teachers who are monks or nuns. The Dalai Lama of the Tibetan tradition is the best example of this kind of teacher. Zen and Theravada teachers also fit this ideal image. Many find their shaven heads and flowing robes attractive.
In contrast, The Jodo-Shinshu priests look like ordinary people. In most cases, their head are not shaved and in North America, men wear neckties and suits. They wear their religious robes only for ceremonial services. You might see male priests baby-sitting their infant children while working around the temple. They are a far cry from the common Western image of a Buddhist teacher!
Plus, the Shinshu Sangha is often referred to as a community of Fellow Seekers and Fellow Travelers (ondobo ondogyo). In this relationship, though the priests may be at the head of the group, they are nevertheless traveling together toward the common goal. The priests are not agents or representatives of Amida Buddha nor are they regarded as gurus (here “guru” refers to an attitude and not to any clergy of other Buddhist schools) who hold absolute authority over the spiritual lives of the members. In fact, the tradition has been extremely careful not to foster “guru worship” of any kind and has worked hard particularly in North America to apply democratic ideals to matters related to the role of priests. This view is reflected in Shinran Shonin’s self image as “neither monk nor lay.”
What do you mean by the fourth factor, “superficial similarities to Christianity”?
Although there are fundamental differences between the teachings of Jodo-Shinshu and Christianity, many, at first glance, find some similarities between the two traditions. In my view, the similarities are found in the areas of 1) human nature, 2) the ultimate, and 3) the source of spiritual resolution.
With regard to human nature, Christians regard humans as deeply sinful54 while Jodo-Shinshu regard humans as foolish (bombu). (See “foolish being”) Both religions see human nature as self-centered, and assert that people are unable to change their nature fundamentally through their own efforts.
The ultimate in Christianity is God, while it is Amida Buddha in Jodo-Shinshu. Both God and Amida represent spiritual power that lies outside our human capabilities. Both also have qualities that are diametrically opposed to the “sinful” Christians and “foolish” Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists.
Both teachings find humans to be incapable of realizing the spiritual goal by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. Because of our sinful and foolish nature respectively, nothing we do can liberate us. So, no works or disciplines are required. Instead, our spiritual resolution relies on power beyond the self: God’s grace in Christianity55 and the Other Power in Jodo-Shinshu.
Wouldn’t these similarities encourage people to examine Jodo-Shinshu more carefully?
That is not necessarily true. In fact, those from a Western religious background seeking new forms of religion are often not attracted by qualities similar to their own faiths. They seek the fresh, novel, and exotic. If they see just the surface, Jodo-Shinshu often does not have enough separation from what they left behind.
Are these similarities superficial?
Yes. I believe if they looked deeper, they would find that these Jodo-Shinshu teachings are rooted in basic Buddhism. So, they differ in subtle yet fundamental ways from the similar teachings in Christian thought. To do justice to them, I will elaborate on each of the three points later (see Chapts. 7, 8 and 9). Permit me, however, to say a few words in general.
With regard to human imperfection, sin implies a failure to keep one’s promise with God by not living in accordance with his will. The focus is on one’s relationship to God. In contrast, foolishness (bombu) in Jodo-Shinshu stems from being awakened by the Buddha’s wisdom. The focus is the realization of one’s inability to overcome one’s self-centered attachments through one’s own power. So, they differ in the reasons why humans are believed to be imperfect.
Secondly, there is a definite difference in the way we think of the ultimate. God is a supernatural being who is the Maker, Lord and Father. Amida has none of the same characteristics, but is the “spiritual power” that we experience as understanding and caring in our lives.
Thirdly, there is a subtle difference in the way we relate to the transcendent spiritual source. Christians maintain an ongoing persona relationship with God who exists independently from humans and the world. This relationship is maintained largely through prayers, sacraments and contemplation. In contrast, Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists do not regard Amida as a divine being with whom they maintain an ongoing relationship. They realize their essential oneness with Amida in the oral recitation, for Amida is none other than the Name Namo Amida Butsu (see page 150).
That does help a great deal to clarify the difference, and to show that Jodo-Shinshu is rooted in Buddhism.
Good. As I said, I will elaborate later, which should make the distinctions clearer. Unfortunately, even thinkers and scholars have been too quick to judge Jodo-Shinshu. For example, Dr. Albert Schweitzer in 1936 commented, “Of course the doctrine of Shinran is an outrage on Buddhism.”56 More recently, Professor Heinz Bechert remarked, “It takes the ideas of the Buddha and, in a way, twists them into their opposite. The most radical spokesman for this approach is Shinran Shonin ...”57 Their opinion is due precisely to seeing only the surface; they don’t see that the flower (Jodo-Shinshu) is fully connected to the tree trunk of basic Buddhism.
If the seekers who are dissatisfied with their own faith look deeper, they will find that Jodo-Shinshu offers a “middle path.” It has some familiar teachings as we’ve discussed earlier, plus the appeal of family orientation and the collective and emotional involvement in the religious services. But Jodo-Shinshu also offers freedom from many of the things seekers give as reasons for leaving their original religions: for example, 1) an oppressive sense of guilt, 2) the constant fear of judgment, 3) emphasis on belief and morality, 4) discouragement of questions, 5) rejection of personal experience, 6) belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful God, and 7) the conflict between a loving God and an unhappy world.58
What is the relationship between Jodo-Shinshu and other Buddhist teachings?
Jodo-Shinshu is one of the paths to enlightenment. Shinran Shonin felt this was the best path for all Buddhists, especially householder persons who are not monks or nuns. He believed that he lived in the Last Age of Dharma,59 when the previous paths could no longer effectively lead people of the decadent period to enlightenment.
Are there monks and nuns in Shinshu?
No, Shinshu is a non-monastic movement. Shinran Shonin was a monk until age twenty-nine, but left the order because he found a Buddhist path for everyone. He married, raised a family, and worked hard to spread the teaching to everyone, whether they were monks or lay persons. Shinshu clergy have allowed married priests from the beginning, because it is not deed (precepts or meditation), but outlook (Shinjin awareness) that is most important.
I’ve heard that many people find it hard to understand the Jodo-Shinshu path even though it is called the “easy path.” Is that true?
Yes, I agree. Part of the difficulty is that many are looking to religion only for moral guidance instead of spiritual insight. To give you an example, a young mother of a Dharma (Sunday) school student came up to me after my talk to complain:
The Jodo-Shinshu teaching really stresses the ego, selfishness, and foolishness of human beings. But how about guidance on how to get along in this society with all its complex problems? My child needs confidence, not self-criticism!
Her comments are familiar. I find that attitude expressed in my own religion as well.
I am sure that is true. In a religious institution, there are 1) those who are interested mostly in moral guidance, and 2) those who are interested in spiritual matters. If I were to illustrate this with a triangle, the first group makes up the bottom half, while the second makes up the top half. The first category of members outnumbers the second category in most religious groups.
Moral guidance is a real and valid concern, especially for parents interested in their children’s religious education. Jodo-Shinshu must take up this challenge with utmost seriousness if it is to nurture the next generation of confident, committed members. But this moral guidance must be rooted in the spiritual. In Buddhism, the spiritual is primary while the moral dimension is secondary (see p.183).
This “problem” is not confined to your Jodo-Shinshu religion.
That may be so. In my view, however, Shinshu is especially subject to the criticism because its core doctrine is so narrowly focused on spiritual issues, with only limited concern for ethical and social issues. And all this talk, for example, about “karmic evil” and “ordinary foolish people,” which the teaching stresses (and for which Jodo-Shinshu is often criticized by people like the young mother) can only be fully understood within the spiritual context.
In contract, traditional Jodo-Shinshu doctrine has very little to say about moral guidance and conduct. In Japan, it was primarily the Neo-Confucian values and popular Japanese beliefs that offered guidelines for moral conduct. When the Jodo-Shinshu religion was transmitted to North America, this moral dimension remained effective as long as its members were culturally Japanese, like effective among the younger members and new converts.
What is then called for, is moral guidance that is rooted in Jodo-Shinshu teachings in the new cultural environment. Plus, there must be an ongoing adaptation and engagement with the rapidly changing problems and difficult ethical decisions brought on by new technological advancement (e.g. organ transplant) and social diversity (e.g. racial tensions) (see Chapt. 12).
Jodo-Shinshu teaching seems hard to grasp even for those seeking spiritual answers. Why is that?
That is partly because the heart of Jodo-Shinshu teaching makes sense most easily for those who have tried to climb the mountain on their own power or reflected deeply on the meaning of their existence because of pain and hardships in their lives.
All Buddhists start at the foot of the mountain. Most Buddhists, before Shinran Shonin’s time, tried to climb to the top on their own power. Their approach is referred to as the “Path of the Sages based on Self-Power.” The formal Jodo-Shinshu teaching begins with the discovery of the existence of a ski lift that was at the foot of the mountain all along! The ski lift is a lifesaver for these climbers who cannot make the climb on their own on account of their limited spiritual capacity. Jodo-Shinshu calls the ski lift the compassionate “Vow Power of Amida Buddha” (see Chapt. 9 on Amida).
The Jodo-Shinshu teachings seem hard because many do not see the ski lift. A few are wither too busy climbing the mountain on their own power or just staring at the top without taking a step. Even more are looking away from the mountain at the valley below thinking only about the goings-on of daily life. Still others actually see the ski lift, and ask, “Why should I need that?”
How can we compare the ski lift with the ocean metaphor?
The ski lift is the ocean. It’s the ocean that became the supportive and caring reality when the sailor let go.
What can Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists do for these people who have no particular need to ascend to the summit and therefore see no need for the ski lift?
Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists must wait until their religious condition matures. We cannot force this maturity upon them. They must come to see the need on their own. But this does not mean we do nothing. We can share our joys of living the Jodo-Shinshu life. Hopefully our enthusiasm will help them reach religious maturity, and they will begin to climb the mountain by their own free will.
49 Hierarchical relationships within an organization tend to discourage grass roots innovations and initiative in favor of directives from the top which are generally conservative in nature. Group loyalty feeds on the assumption of a clear distinction between insiders and outsiders, discouraging a more fluid interaction and association with members of other groups.
50 Some misguided followers thought that the “Other Power” teaching meant that they did not have to do anything. Others went so far as to purposely commit evil in order to qualify as beneficiaries of Amida’s compassionate Vow.
51 Ryukyo Fujimoto, Shin Buddhism’s Essence: The Tannisho, p.97.
52 Persons of Shinjin awareness utter the Name throughout the course of their daily lives as expression of gratitude to the Buddha for their transformed lives.
53 This of course does not apply to all Buddhist meditations, which lead to deeper levels of mental concentration (samadhi) that cannot be realized by chanting or Nembutsu.
54 I am aware that there has been a tendency among many mainline Christian denominations to de-emphasize the notion of original sin and sin in general. However, the doctrine of sin is much too central to the Christian faith to be readily erased, and this trend to de-emphasize sin is not shared by other Christians, especially those of the conservative branches.
55 Pelagius believed in the human capability to lead moral life, but he was severely criticized by Augustine (354-430 C.E.) who argued that moral life was not possible without God’s grace. Augustine’s position won out and has ever since comprised the core doctrine of Christianity in the West.
56 Albert Schweitzer. Indian Thought and Its Development. Translated by Mrs. Charles E. B. Buswell (1936. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1957), p.154.
57 Küng, Hans el al. Christianity and the World Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986), p.373.
58 These are based on what I have heard from the converts I have known, and thus I am not in any way implying that they are normative qualities in these religions.
59 This is the third period in a progressively deteriorating evolution after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha. The first period, the Age of True Dharma, lasts 500 (or 1,000) years, followed by the Age of Counterfeit Dharma for 1,000 years, with the Last Age of Dharma lasting 10,000 years. According to this theory, the Last Age was believed to have begun in 1152 C.E. In the first period, both the teaching and enlightened persons existed, but in the second period only the teaching could be found; in the Last Age of Dharma even the teaching disappeared, thus calling for the new Pure Land teaching.