Chapter Seven
Spirituality: Shinjin Awareness

What is Shinjin awareness?

Shinjin awareness refers to a profound spiritual transformation in this life, not after we die. In that experience we find resolution to our spiritual quest. It is generally thought that Shinran Shonin underwent this transformation at the age of 29 upon meeting his teacher, Honen. I believe that his awareness continued to evolve and deepen throughout his life. So, we can say that Shinjin is a kind of awareness.

Awareness is really an important part of Shinjin, isn’t it?

Yes. Shinran Shonin referred to it as the “Shinjin of wisdom.” Jodo-Shinshu spirituality is not simply devotional; it involves understanding, insight and awareness. Failure to understand Shinjin leads some modern scholars to view Jodo-Shinshu as a simply devotional, popular form of Buddhism.

The word “devotion” insinuates that there is no spiritual transformation to be realized in this life and that a devotee simply prays for happiness in the afterlife. This view is contrary to what Shinran Shonin advocated. In breaking with the earlier Pure Land teachers, he stressed the here-and-now (see page 57) and transformation in the present life. This emphasis on the present life, rather than the afterlife, has contributed to Shinran’s popularity among spiritual seekers in modern times.

By “transformation,” do you mean Shinjin awareness?

Yes. Shinran Shonin captures the meaning of transformation when he describes Shinjin awareness as e-shin, which means “the transformed mind.”

How does Shinjin awareness relate to the well-known Buddhist doctrine, Buddha nature?

According to Shinran the two refer to the same reality, as he stares, “This Shinjin is none other than Buddha-nature.”60 Many contemporary Buddhists associate the doctrine of Buddha nature only with the Zen school; they further see it as residing “within” in contrast to Amida which resides “without.” This view is incorrect, for Buddha nature and its related teachings such as the Buddha-womb (tathagata-garbha in Sanskrit) is talked about by virtually all Mahayana schools, including the Pure Land tradition. To compare Buddha nature with Amida Buddha is like comparing apples and oranges. It is more correct to compare Buddha nature with Shinjin awareness. Both doctrines refer to the inner dimension. However, Shinjin and Buddha nature are not possible without the “outer” reality of Amida or Dharmakaya that embraces all beings. Shinran Shonin explains, “This Tathagata (Buddha) pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings.”61

In Buddhism there are many levels of understanding, with the highest level being the Buddha’s. At which level is Shinjin awareness?

Shinran Shonin viewed Shinjin awareness as a realization equal to that of the Stream-enterer of the Theravadins, or the Stage of Joy of the Hua-yen or Kegon school. These two stages are accepted by virtually all schools of Buddhism and are essentially of the same level. This level is the initial level of enlightenment at which we are assured of the complete enlightenment that all Buddhas realize. In other words, we can no longer fall back to the lower spiritual levels. That is why it is referred to as the Stage of Nonretrogression. Persons who realize this stage share two qualities: 1) insight into the truth that all existences are not discrete and separate but are interdependent, and 2) absence of doubt regarding the teaching.62

Is this level the same as satori in Zen Buddhism?

Satori is a well-known term even among many English speakers. It means many things. It can mean anything from realizing the wisdom of a fully-awakened Buddha, to the gaining of sudden insight about human nature. Shinjin awareness and the insights of the Stream-enterer or at the Stage of Joy are somewhere in the “middle” of satori’s range of meaning. Those of Shinjin awareness and other similar attainments have not yet fully overcome greed, hatred, pride and ignorance, which are deeply seated and difficult to eliminate.

If Shinjin awareness involves wisdom, of what do we become aware?

We become aware of the same truth as the other Buddhists. In reaching the first level of enlightenment we are no longer attached to the idea that everything is separate and not interconnected; we become aware of Oneness through our deepened understanding of the Four Marks of Existence. In Jodo-Shinshu, this Oneness is referred to as Other Power or Amida’s Primal Vow (see Chapt. 9). What makes Shinjin awareness special is that we also become aware of our own foolish human nature. These two, respectively, are none other than the supportive ocean (Oneness, Amida, etc.) and the drowning swimmer (foolish self) in our metaphor.63 However, when asked which of the two is more fundamental, I would unequivocably say the ocean. Ocean is the truth which resolves our drowning human predicament!

What other quality does Shinjin awareness contain?

The other prominent quality is the absence of doubt. The elimination of doubt corresponds to the second quality of the initial level of enlightenment common to all Buddhist schools. Shinran Shonin explains:

Truly we know, then, that this is called Shinjin because it is untainted by the hindrance of doubt.

(Teachings II, p. 228)

The doubt that is eliminated in Shinjin awareness is the doubt we have about the truth of the Primal Vow and its meaning.

The word here (=Shinjin awareness) in the passage from the Larger Sutra means that sentient beings, having heard how the Buddha’s Vow arose — its origin and fulfillment — are altogether free of doubt.

(Teachings II, p. 257)

In order for us to eliminate doubt, the Vow in this sacred story must come to hold a personal meaning for each of us. For many people in the tradition, the Vow has signified the true caring that exists in the universe and in their lives. The meaning of the Vow must come alive in ways unique to each of us. The Vow cannot simply remain just a story in a scripture but become true and real in the spiritual search of each person. Shinran Shonin expressed this in one of the most often quoted lines in Jodo-Shinshu:

When I ponder on the compassionate vow of Amida, established through five kalpas (eons) of profound thought, it was for myself Shinran, alone.

(Tannisho, p. 35)

He is certainly not monopolizing the Vow for himself, but is expressing the joy and gratitude of realizing that he himself is a beneficiary of the compassionate Vow.

I find that to eliminate doubt sounds simple but it is actually extremely difficult. Isn’t it also true in your tradition?

Yes, in fact there is a passage in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra that addresses the difficulty in a paradoxical and somewhat humorous manner:

Going [to the Pure Land] is easy, but there is no one there!

Shinran interprets this passage to mean that “people of true and real Shinjin are extremely rare.”64 People without doubt are difficult to find.

This difficulty is due to our human attachment, which prevents us from realizing the truth that is already right under our feet. This difficulty is expressed metaphorically by the drowning sailor’s struggle to swim, which prevents him from discovering that the ocean is already a caring friend and not an enemy. We need not swim to the distant island. Doctrinally, Amida’s Vow contains all the karmic conditions necessary for our enlightenment, and we simply need to entrust ourselves to it.

Doubt is, however, already an indication that the person is seeking and making spiritual progress. A person experiences doubts precisely because he has embarked on the path. Doubt is a natural product of reaching for a higher ideal. You should, therefore, be commended if you have doubt! Moreover, it is the struggling with doubt that enables us to fully appreciate the breakthrough, just as the drowning sailor whose “letting go” was so liberating precisely because he had struggled so intensely.

What happens to a person of Shinjin awareness?

Shinran Shonin spoke of ten spiritual benefits in the present life: the benefit of 1) being protected and sustained by unseen powers, 2) being possessed of supreme virtues, 3) our karmic evil being transformed into good, 4) being protected and cared for by all the Buddhas, 5) being praised by all the Buddhas, 6) being constantly protected by the light of the Buddha’s heart, 7) having great joy in our hearts, 8) being aware of Amida’s benevolence and of responding in gratitude to his virtues, 9) constantly practicing great compassion and 10) entering the Stage of the Truly Settled (shojoju).

Which of the ten is the most important?

The Shinshu tradition has emphasized the tenth, the benefit of entering the Stage of the Truly Settled. This stage is also referred to as the Non-retrogressive State as mentioned earlier. This was a coveted level of realization since the Buddhists were extremely fearful of falling back to lower levels of spirituality. In earlier Pure Land Buddhism, the Stage of the Truly Settled was guaranteed after death upon birth in the Pure Land. Shinran, however, broke with the tradition to argue that this level of the truly settled can be achieved in this life.

For all intents and purposes, when the seeker enters the Stage of Truly Settled, the seeker has realized the highest spiritual goal attainable in the present life. Northing more needs to be realized, for she has entered the stage that assures her complete enlightenment immediately upon her physical death. She is none other than the sailor who, in being allowed to place complete trust in the ocean, experienced the supportive assurance of the immense ocean. In the mountain analogy, this is realized when the tired and desperate climber finds that the ski lift was right under her nose; the lift was there all along, but she did not see or appreciate it. She knows for sure that this ski lift will take her to the top where her spiritual needs will be completely fulfilled.

This assurance is invariably accompanied by a deep and abiding serene joy, the seventh benefit. Shinran Shonin exclaimed:

My joy grows ever fuller, my gratitude and indebtedness ever more compelling!

(Teachings IV, p. 617)

What about the benefit of “constantly practicing great compassion”?

This refers to the ideal in all Buddhist teachings, and of all true religions, of sharing with others the awareness and joy derived from the teachings. This sharing is conducted in various ways: reciting the Nembutsu Namo Amida Butsu, making the teachings available to others, supporting the cause of Dharma, and working to enhance the material and emotional welfare of those in need.65

What does the person of Shinjin awareness do?

She does not immediately jump on the lift to climb to the top. She knows she can do that when her present life comes to an end. Instead, she tells others about the ski lift, calling them to discover it. She does not just stay clinging to the lift, for she has a life to lead filled with her friends, family, work and community. And throughout these endeavors, she appreciates the benefits and caring she receives. That sense of gratitude strengthens her willingness to work for the welfare of the community however she can. It’s for this reason that Shinran Shonin admonished:

The person who feels that his or her attainment of birth (enlightenment) is settled… would aspire for peace in the world and the spread of the Buddha-Dharma.66

I’ve seen Shinjin awareness translated as “faith.” Is that a correct translation?

While some modern teachers prefer to leave Shinjin untranslated, others feel it should be translated into English. The most frequent translations are “faith,” “true entrusting,” “faith-mind,” and “serene faith.” In my view, however, no single translation will do justice to the meaning of Shinjin awareness. “Faith” is no exception. Shinran Shonin defines shin in Shinjin (jin = mind):

Shin means truth, reality, sincerity, fullness, ultimacy, accomplishment, reliance, reverence, discernment, distinctness, clarity, faithfulness.

(Teachings II, p. 227)

As is evident from the quote, we find some characteristics that are associated with faith, for example, reliance and faithfulness. These meanings, however, do not exhaust the fullness of meaning of this term which contains elements of wisdom (discernment and clarity) as previously discussed.

So, do you think “faith” is misleading and should not be used?

“Faith” is an inadequate translation, as would be the case for any other single word. So, whenever “faith” is used, its limitation must be explained. Otherwise, faith will be misleading.

On the other hand, “faith” does express one important dimension of Shinjin. We should, therefore, adopt “faith” whenever it helps to illuminate the rich meaning of Shinjin. One such area of contribution lies in its distinction from belief. “Faith” is different from “belief.” “Belief” in modern language means to agree to a creed or belief only with your mind, without much feeling or commitment. “Faith,” on the other hand, means trust in something because your whole being feels it to be true.

Prof. Wilfred C. Smith, a noted scholar of comparative history of religion, devotes an entire book comparing the two in Faith and Belief. He explains the difference:

Faith is deeper, richer, more personal… It is an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe; a total response. Belief, on the other hand, is the holding of certain ideas. Some might see it as the intellect’s translation (even reduction?) of transcendence into ostensible terms.67

This dimension of faith sounds like faith in Christianity.

I feel this common quality does not weaken the Jodo-Shinshu message and shows that there is a universal side of Shinjin awareness that others share. The similarity also gives us a common language that helps religions understand one another. In fact, I was excited to read Professor Smith’s further description of faith (not confined to any one religion), for it captures an important element of my understanding of Shinjin awareness.

Faith, then, is a quality of human living. At its best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen to oneself at the level of immediate event. Men and women of this kind of faith face catastrophe and confusion, affluence and sorrow, unperturbed; face opportunity with conviction and drive; and face others with a cheerful charity.68

Then isn’t there anything unique about Shinjin awareness?

Well, I don’t know about being “unique,” but as related to the earlier discussion I feel that the awareness of oneself is a prominent feature of Shinjin. This contrasts with what I think is the distinctive feature of Christian faith: awareness of God. And this awareness of God calls for a radical shift in the faithful’s will in accordance with the will of God. God clearly plays a more dominant role than does Amida Buddha. God is, after all, the creator. Here, the distinction that I grew up hearing in Buddhist temples regarding the difference does apply, that is, humans cannot become God, while humans can become a Buddha.

Can you give me an example of the idea of awareness of the self in Jodo-Shinshu?

Let me share a poem written by Mr. Goromatsu Maekawa, a ninety-three-year-old contemporary Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist in Japan entitled, Just Right.

You, as you are, you are just right
Your face, body, name, surname,
For you, they are must right.

Whether poor or rich
Your parents, your children, your daughter-in-law, your grandchildren
They are, all for you, just right.

Happiness, unhappiness, joy and even sorrow
For you, they are just right.

The life that you have walked, is neither good nor bad
For you, it is just right.

Whether you go to hell or to the Pure Land
Wherever you go is just right.

Nothing to boast about, nothing to feel bad about,
Nothing above, nothing below.
Even the day and month that you die,
Even they are just right.

The Life in which you walk together with Amida,
There is no way that it can’t be just right.

When you receive your life as just right
Then a deep and profound faith begins to open up.

(translated by Taitetsu Unno)

I really like that!

Well, I am not surprised; whenever I share this, many people are also touched by this poem. The message strikes a deep chord within us all. Having said that, however, some may interpret this poem as fatalistic. I don’t see that. There is a difference between negative acceptance and positive affirmation. In my view, this poem articulates the latter with a profound sense of gratitude and no regrets.

Now, if you notice, virtually the entire poem refers to oneself and only one line to Amida! This, of course, does not mean that Amida is insignificant for Mr. Maekawa, since all his insights about his life situation would have been impossible without his faith in Amida. Nevertheless, the poem does focus on his newly found awareness about himself and his life. This focus is, indeed, consistent with one of the four qualities of basic Buddhism, persona interpretation (see page 32).


60  Notes on ‘Essentials of Faith Alone.’ (Kyoto: Hongwanji International Center, 1979), p. 42.

61  Ibid., p. 42. The inextricable relationship between the ultimate reality (Dharmakaya, Amida, etc.) and the inner realization (Shinjin and Buddha nature or womb) are discussed in Indian Mahayana texts, such as the Ratnagotravibhaga. Inner realization is dependent on the ultimate reality.

62  The two in Sanskrit are satkaya-dristi and vicikitsa, and represent the defilements that are overcome at this initial level of enlightenment. This level is also called the Insight Path (darsana-marga).

63  The two are expressed (though in reverse order) in the famous words of the Chinese master Shan-tao:
”There are two aspects [to deep mind]. One is to entrust deeply and decidedly [to the truth] that you are a foolish being of karmic evil caught in birth and death… The second is to entrust deeply and decidedly [to the truth] that Amida Buddha’s Forty-eight Vows grasps sentient beings.” (Teachings II, p. 213)

64  See Notes on the Inscriptions on Sacred Scrolls. Shin Buddhist Translation Series (Kyoto: Hongwanji International Center, 1981), pp. 36-38.

65  For an in-depth discussion of my argument for a more expanded meaning and role of jogyo-daihi than the traditional view that limits this notion simply to the recitation of the Name, see Kenneth K. Tanaka, “Constantly Practicing Great Compassion: Re-evaluation Based on Tokugawa Scholars for a Basis of Shin Involvement in the World.” The Pure Land, Vols. 10-11 (Dec. 1994): 93-104.

66  Goshosokushu, SSZ II, p. 697.

67  Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Faith and Belief (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 12.

68  Ibid., p. 12.