The Great Sage, the World-honored One

From The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 3, Letter 4

When we carefully consider the transiency of human life, we realize that the living will certainly end in death and that the prosperous will eventually decline. This is how life is in the human world. Even so, we vainly live days and nights, spending months and years to no purpose. Indeed, we may lament about it, but I feel that we could never really comprehend the true extent of this pitifully sad situation.

How true it is that impermanence is difficult to escape for all, from the Great Sage, the World-honored One, at the highest level, to Devadatta, who committed evil acts and grave offenses, at the lowest.

Moreover, to receive life as a human being is indeed rare and difficult, and even more so is it the opportunity to encounter the Buddha Dharma, the way of emancipation from birth-and-death through practices of self-power is difficult to follow at the present time in the latter days. Therefore, our lives would be spent in vain unless we encountered the Primal Vow of Amida Tathagata.

Continue reading “The Great Sage, the World-honored One”

On the Designation of Our Tradition

The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 1, Letter 15

Question: How has it come about that there is such a widespread practice of referring to our tradition as the “Ikkōshū”? I am puzzled about this.


Answer: Our tradition’s designation as the “Ikkōshū” was certainly not determined by our founder. Generally speaking, the reason everyone says [this] is because we “steadfastly” (ikkō ni) rely on Amida Buddha. However, since a passage in the [Larger] Sutra teaches “steadfast and exclusive mindfulness of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life” (Daimuryōjukyō, T.12:272b), referring to us as the “Ikkōshū” presents no problem when the implication is “be steadfastly mindful of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life.” Our founder, however, did indeed designate this sect as the “Jōdo Shinshū.” Hence we now that the term “Ikkōshū” did not come from within our sect. Further, others within the Jōdoshū allow the sundry practices. Our Master rejected the sundry practices, and it is on this basis that we attain birth in the true and real (shinjitsu) fulfilled land. For this reason, he specifically inserted the character shin (true).


A further question: I understand clearly that, long ago, [the founder] designated our tradition as the “Jōdo Shinshū.” However, I would like to hear in detail how it is that in the teaching of our sect, although we are laypeople of deep evil karma, burdened with evil acts and grave offenses, we are to be born readily in the Land of Utmost Bliss through reliance on the working of Amida’s Vow.

Answer: The import of our tradition is that when faith is decisively settled,
we will unfailingly attain birth in the true and real fulfilled land. And so if you
ask what this faith is, [the answer is that] it is just [a matter of] relying single-
heartedly and without any worry on Amida Tathāgata, giving no thought to
other buddhas and bodhisattvas and entrusting ourselves steadfastly and withoutany double-mindedness to Amida. This we call “settlement of faith.” The twocharacters shin-jin are [literally] read “true mind.” We say “true mind” because the practitioner is not saved by his mistaken mind of self-power (jiriki no kokoro) but by the right mind of other-power given by the Tathāgata.
Further, we are not saved simply by repeating the Name without any understanding of it. Hence the [Larger] Sutra teaches that we “hear the Name
and realize faith and joy” (Daimuryōjukyō, T.12:272b; Kyōgyōshinshō,
T.83:601a, 605a). “Hearing the Name” is not hearing the six-character Name
na-mu-a-mi-da-butsu unreflectively; it means that when we meet a good
teacher, receive his teaching, and entrust ourselves (namu) to the Name
(namu-amida-butsu), Amida Buddha unfailingly saves us. This is explained
in the [Larger] Sutra as “realizing faith and joy.” Consequently, we should
understand that namu-amida-butsu shows how he saves us.


After we have come to this realization, we must bear in mind that the
Name we say walking, standing, sitting, and lying down is simply an expres-
sion of gratitude for Amida Tathāgata’s benevolence in saving us. With this,
we are to be declared other-power nenbutsu practitioners who have attained
faith and will be born in the Land of Utmost Bliss.


Respectfully.


The compilation and writing of this letter were completed between 9:00 and 11:00 A.M. on the second day of the latter part of the ninth month, Bunmei
5 (1473), at the hot springs at Yamanaka, Kaga province.
Shōnyo, disciple of Śākyamuni
(written seal)

The Peace of Mind We Receive from Sakyamuni Buddha

In February, we observe our Nirvana Day Service commemorating Sakyamuni Buddha’s passing from this world into the lasting peace of parinirvana.  In departing from this world, Sakyamuni embodied the essential truth that all who are born into human life will eventually pass through the gate of death.  Given that our bodily form will not last forever, where shall we find meaning and purpose in this life?  Observing the world in which we live, it seems that many lives are devoted to the pursuit of fame and profit.  Shinran Shonin himself concludes his Hymns of the Dharma-Ages with the following verse:

I am such that I do not know right and wrong
And cannot distinguish false and true;
I lack even small love and small compassion,
And yet, for fame and profit, enjoy teaching others.

The pursuit of fame and profit pervaded life in Shinran Shonin’s time, just as it does in our own time.  Reading these words of Shinran Shonin, I recognize how the desire for fame and profit often compels my own life.

In this internet age, we may find ourselves spending considerable time and energy curating an image of ourselves on social media platforms.  When our posts accumulate more and more “likes,” we taste the fleeting pleasure of fame and recognition.  This is what makes social media platforms so addictive.  When our lives are driven by the quest for fame and recognition, it is easy to become preoccupied by how we are evaluated by others.  This preoccupation with our own image can cause our hearts to become narrow and self-serving.  We may worry that if others receive attention and recognition that we will be forgotten and ignored.  We become resentful of those who receive praise, thinking that the recognition they receive signals a lack of regard for our own accomplishments.  Rather than leading to peace of mind, chasing after fame and recognition tends to lead to increased stress and anxiety.

When our lives are driven by the desire for profit, we are at risk of losing sight of what it is that makes this human life precious.  In our contemporary society, there is a tendency to attribute more value to the lives of those who have the ability to accumulate great profits.  As a result, those who dedicate their lives to helping others through vocations like teaching and care-giving often struggle to maintain their livelihood.  While recent advances in artificial intelligence raise the prospect of even more efficient and profitable operations for businesses, many workers now have great anxiety that they will no longer be needed in their current job and that their value as an employee will disappear.  When the guiding principle of life is maximizing profits, anxiety and fear are pervasive and peace of mind is rare.

Ordinary unenlightened beings fall into confusion and anxiety in their pursuit of fame and profit.  In the following verse from Shinran Shonin’s “Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu,” he expresses his deeply held belief that the true purpose of Sakyamuni Buddha’s life in this world was to provide peace of mind for ordinary unenlightened beings:

Sakyamuni Tathagata appeared in this world
Solely to teach the ocean-like Primal Vow of Amida;
We, an ocean of beings in an evil age of five defilements,
Should entrust ourselves to the Tathagata’s words of truth.

The Primal Vow expresses Amida Buddha’s steadfast commitment to liberate all beings without discrimination.  The quest for profit can lead to discriminatory treatment of others if we value them only according to how much they are able to contribute to our own profit.  Sakyamuni taught the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in order to liberate all those who are lost and suffering in this world dominated by the quest for fame and profit.

Our lives are precious not according to how much fame or profit we attain.  Our lives are precious because we have the potential to realize liberation from suffering through the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.  The words “Namo Amida Butsu” that I hear are the voice of the Buddha calling out to me, saying “I will liberate you without fail.”  The words “Namo Amida Butsu” that I recite are my joyful response saying, “Thank you for liberating me.”  Sakyamuni Buddha’s true purpose in life was to bestow upon us the genuine peace of mind that we receive in the Nembutsu.

Namo Amida Butsu

Year of the Dragon

Best wishes for the New Year!  In the traditional zodiac calendar of East Asia 2024 is the Year of the Dragon.  In Buddhism, dragons are revered as protectors of the Buddha’s teaching, or the Dharma.  Many temples feature dragon images on incense burners, painted doors, and altar adornments.  In his Hymns in Praise of Prince Shotoku¸Shinran Shonin describes how a dragon protects the Dharma at the Shitennoji Kyoden-in temple built in the sixth century by Prince Shotoku in the area of present-day Osaka:


On this site, there is a body of pure water;
It is called Koryo pond.
An auspicious dragon constantly dwells therein;
It protects the Buddhist teaching.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 436)

Living in modern society, we tend to think of protection as something for our property and our bodies.  We lock the doors to our house to protect ourselves and our belongings from intruders.  We install alarms in our cars to protect them from thieves.  People who play rugged sports like skateboarding, football, and ice hockey wear pads to protect their bodies from injury.  Whenever I go for a bike ride, I wear a helmet to protect my head and sunglasses and sunscreen to protect my skin from harmful ultraviolet rays.  Protection generally implies keeping something harmful out, like keeping burglars out of our homes, keeping thieves out of our cars, and keeping harmful ultraviolet rays from penetrating the delicate tissues of our skin and eyes. 

Continue reading “Year of the Dragon”

On the Point of Departure

From The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 2, Letter 2

In the school founded by the Master, faith is placed before all else. If we ask the purpose of that faith, [the answer is that] it is the point of departure enabling wretched ordinary beings like ourselves, who lack good and do evil, to go readily to Amida’s Pure Land. Without attaining faith, we will not be born in the Land of Utmost Bliss but will fall into the hell of incessant pain (avīci). If we then ask how to attain that faith, [the answer is that], relying deeply on the single buddha, Amida Tathāgata, we give no thought to any of the various good deeds and myriad practices, and, dismissing the inclination to make petitions to the various buddhas and bodhisattvas just for this life, and discarding false, erroneous thoughts such as those of self-power, we entrust ourselves singleheartedly and steadfastly, without double-mindedness, to Amida; without fail, Amida embraces such people with his all-pervading light and will not abandon them.

Continue reading “On the Point of Departure”

On Practicing as Prescribed

From The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 3, Letter 2

The teachings of the various sects differ, but since they were all [expounded] during Śākya[muni]’s lifetime, they are indeed the incomparable Dharma. For this reason, there is absolutely no doubt that people who practice them as prescribed will attain enlightenment and become buddhas. However, sentient beings of this last [Dharma] age are of the lowest capacity; this is a time when those who practice as prescribed are rare.

Here [we realize that] Amida Tathāgata’s Primal Vow of other-power was made to save sentient beings in such times as these. To this end, [Amida] meditated for five kalpas and, performing practices for numberless kalpas, vowed that he would not attain perfect enlightenment unless sentient beings who commit evil and lack good reach buddhahood. Completely fulfilling that Vow, he became the Buddha Amida. Sentient beings of this last [Dharma] age can never become buddhas unless they deeply entrust themselves to Amida, relying on this buddha’s Primal Vow.

Continue reading “On Practicing as Prescribed”

Great Compassion is Untiring and Illumines Me Always

Heartbreaking news arrives daily from the Middle East, the war in Ukraine rages on, and gun violence in America continues unabated, reminding us that the darkness of greed, anger, and ignorance continue to prevent the people of this world from recognizing our shared humanity.  In discouraging times like this, I find comfort and hope for the future in gathering with friends from other religious traditions to affirm our shared wishes for a world in which peace and kindness prevail.  Recent conversations with Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Christian friends have reminded me that many of the world’s religious traditions observe festivals that celebrate light transforming darkness, such as Ramadan, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Diwali.

In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, Bodhi Day, the day of Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, is observed on December 8.  This service is a time when we reflect on Siddhartha Gautama’s heroic journey in search of the light of clear wisdom that shines through the darkness of ignorance and mistaken thinking. 

In the traditional telling of the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, it is said that as the moment of his awakening approached, a brilliant light shone forth from the place where he sat in meditation.  When Mara, the Demon King of Illusion, saw this light, he knew that Siddhartha was about to transcend the world of illusion and break free from Mara’s control in the unending cycle of birth and death.  Mara came at Siddhartha with the full force of his army of illusion in the hope of disrupting Siddhartha’s meditation. 

Continue reading “Great Compassion is Untiring and Illumines Me Always”

On Drowsiness

From The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 1, Letter 6

I don’t know why, but recently (this summer), I have been particularly subject to drowsiness, and when I consider why I should be [so] lethargic, I feel without a doubt that the moment of death leading to birth [in the Pure Land] may be close at hand. This thought makes me sad, and I feel in particular the sorrow of parting. And yet, to this very day I have prepared myself with no lack of care, thinking that the time of birth might be imminent. All I continually long for in regard to this, day and night, is that, after [my death], there will be no regression in those among the visitors to this temple whose faith is decisively settled. As things now stand, there should be no difficulties if I die, but each of you is particularly lax in your thinking in regard to birth. As long as you live, you should be as I have described. I am altogether dissatisfied with what each of you has understood. In this life, even tomorrow is uncertain, and no matter what we say, nothing is to any avail when life ends. If our doubts are not clearly dispelled during this life, we will surely [be filled with] regret. I hope that you will bear this in mind.

Respectfully.

This is entrusted to those [assembled] on the other side of the sliding doors. In the years to come, please take it out and read it.

Written on the twenty-fifth day of the fourth month, Bunmei 5 (1473).

All the Sacred Scriptures

From The Letters of Rennyo Shonin (Gobunsho) Fascicle 5, Letter 9

The essential point of the settled mind in our tradition lies simply in the meaning of the six-character Name, “Na-mo-a-mi-da-butsu” (literally, paying homage to Amida Buddha).

This means that when we pay homage - “namo” - to Amida Buddha, we are immediately saved by the Buddha. So the two-character word, “na-mo,” means to take refuge.

“To take refuge” means that we, sentient beings, setting aside various practices, entrust ourselves unwaveringly to Amida Buddha for our emancipation in the afterlife Accordingly, Amida Tathagata, knowing this fully, saves all of us, without exception.

Thereupon, since Amida Buddha saves the sentient beings who entrust themselves - “namo” - to the Buddha, the six-character Name, “Na-mo-a-mi-da-butsu,” manifests how we, sentient beings, are all saved without discrimination.

For this reason, when we speak of attaining the entrusting heart of Other Power, we find that it is exactly what the six-character Name, “Na-mo-a-mi-da-butsu,” means. We should, therefore, realize that all the sacred scriptures indeed are solely meant to make us entrust ourselves to the six-character Name, “Na-mo-a-mi-da-butsu.”

Humbly and respectfully.

This Marvelous Human Life

This past month we had the opportunity to gather three generations of our family at the Grand Canyon when my wife and I traveled with our sons to join my parents in celebrating their golden wedding anniversary at a place they visited on their engagement trip 50 years prior.  We had all visited the Grand Canyon together five years ago on the occasion of my father’s 70th birthday.  Plans are already in the works for another visit in five years’ time to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday.

I find the Grand Canyon to be an ideal place to reflect upon the passage of time in our lives.  Viewing the layers upon layers of rock that were formed over millions of years, and then gradually carved out by the waters of the Colorado River, the flow of time is on display in a rare and magnificent fashion.

On this trip, we learned that the canyon continues to evolve as the river flows like sandpaper, carrying sediment and boulders in its current.  When the spring snowmelt comes down from the Rocky Mountains, strong flows of water carry boulders the size of automobiles that scrape against the riverbed, helping to carve the canyon even deeper through the layers of hard, dry rock. Even with all these dramatic and powerful forces of nature at work, a park ranger told us, “You can come back in 50 years and the canyon will be deeper by about the thickness of one Harry Potter book.” 

Continue reading “This Marvelous Human Life”