The Vow of the Buddha is Deep

In late 1206, while the Japanese Emperor Gotoba was away from the capital on a pilgrimage to the Kumano Shrine, his consorts Suzumushi and Matsumushi joined a Nembutsu gathering led by Honen’s followers Juren-bo and Anraku-bo.  After hearing the Nembutsu teaching, the emperor’s consorts experienced a great change of heart and took ordination as Buddhist nuns. 

When the emperor returned and discovered that Suzumushi and Matsumushi had renounced their lives in the imperial palace to join Honen’s Nembutsu Sangha, he became enraged and ordered Juren-bo and Anraku-bo to be executed along with two other leading followers of Honen.  Honen was ordered to be exiled on the island of Shikoku.  Seven more of his followers, including Shinran, were dispossessed of their priesthood and sent into exile, scattering the community throughout Japan.  While many lamented the exile, Honen instructed his disciples that this too should be accepted as the flow of karmic causes and conditions in their lives.  The following were his parting words to the Sangha:

“Do not resent my being sent into exile, for I am approaching eighty years of age.  Even if we were living together as teacher and students in the capital, my departure from this saha world is drawing near.  Even if we are separated by mountains and oceans, do not doubt that we will meet again in the Pure Land.  Though we may reject this world, our human existence carries on.  Though we may cling to life, our death will come.  Why insist upon being in a certain place?

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The Path to the Pure Land: A Translation of and Commentary on Shinran’s Saihō-Shinan-shō

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

7:00 p.m. via Zoom Meeting

Rev. Dr. Toshikazu Arai

Professor Emeritus

Soai University, Osaka

We invite you join us to hear Rev. Dr. Arai share insights from his recently published translation of Shinran’s record of teachings by his master Honen.  This superb translation makes Saihō-Shinan-shō available to English language readers for the first time.

CLICK HERE to purchase The Path to the Pure Land: A Translation of and Commentary on Shinran’s Saihō-Shinan-shō

To join us for this online Dharma Session, CLICK HERE and sign up for “Study Classes and Seminars”.

Dharma Discussion: Śīla (July 19, 2020)

Please review the Bodhisattva Precepts

Discussion Questions

  1.  How do you practice these precepts in your daily life?
  2. Is there meaning in doing one’s best, even though one is not able to practice these perfectly in daily life?
  3. Which of these do you think our world needs most at the present moment?

Honen’s Perspective on upholding precepts (from The Passages on the the Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow)

If the original vow required us to make images of the Buddha and to build stupas, the poor and destitute would surely have no hope of birth, but the fact is that the rich and highborn are few, while the poor and lowborn are exceedingly many.  

Continue reading “Dharma Discussion: Śīla (July 19, 2020)”

True Victory

In a recent address to the Sangha, our temple President began his remarks with the words, “I would like to offer my condolences to Reverend Adams. . .”  Wondering what loss I should be grieving, I momentarily searched my memories of the preceding weeks.  Then he finished his sentence with the words, “. . . for the inhospitable treatment your Minnesota Vikings received from the San Francisco 49ers yesterday afternoon.”  I grew up in Minnesota and the previous day those two professional football teams had faced off for the Division Title.  Having suffered defeat at the hands of the 49ers, the Minnesota Vikings lost their chance to play in the Super Bowl on February 2.  For many families, Super Bowl Sunday is a major social event that rivals the traditional winter holidays as an occasion for gathering friends and loved ones for elaborate feasting and celebration—or drowning your sorrows in bean dip and hot wings if your team happens to be losing.

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Olympic Victory

Growing up in Minnesota, my favorite sport was alpine skiing. As a teenager, I competed in slalom racing on my high school ski team and the great sports hero of my youth was Olympic slalom champion Alberto Tomba. Our team practiced at a local ski hill that somehow managed to rise out of the flat surrounding farmland, gradually increasing in elevation over the years thanks to innumerable dump truck loads of dirt. I never came close to winning a race, but I enjoyed practices because the course of gates was set differently each time, transforming the otherwise unremarkable little hill into a challenging and exciting place to ski.

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Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu

At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we look to Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition. However, Shinran himself never set out to found his own Buddhist school. Throughout his writings and teachings, he describes himself as a humble student of his teacher Honen Shonin (1133-1212), as we find in the following words from A Record in Lament of Divergences (Tannisho):

As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, “Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida”; nothing else is involved.

I have no idea whether the nembutsu is truly the seed for my being born in the Pure Land or whether it is the karmic act for which I must fall into hell. Should I have been deceived by Master Honen and, saying the nembutsu, were to fall into hell, even then I would have no regrets.

The reason is, if I could attain Buddhahood by endeavoring in other practices, but said the nembutsu and so fell into hell, then I would feel regret at having been deceived. But I am incapable of any other practice, so hell is decidedly my abode whatever I do.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 662)

What is the nembutsu that Honen taught? The Japanese word nembutsu is made up of two Chinese characters nen(m) 念 “to be mindful of” and butsu仏 “Buddha,” so one way to translate the word “nembutsu” would be “mindfulness of the Buddha.” In the teachings of Honen and Shinran, the nembutsu refers to the recitation of the words “Namo Amida Butsu.” Namo Amida Butsu is a Chinese transliteration of a phrase from the ancient Sanskrit language of India. A literal translation of the meaning of “Namo Amida Butsu” would be, “I take refuge in Amida Buddha, the Awakened One of Immeasurable Light and Life.” The light of the Buddha represents wisdom and the life of the Buddha represents compassion.

Shinran tells us that to say the words “Namo Amida Butsu” is to hear Amida Buddha calling us to take refuge in the boundless wisdom and compassion of awakening. When we say Namo Amida Butsu, we hear the voice of Amida Buddha is calling to us, saying, “Hey you! Take refuge in me (Amida Buddha).” Hearing the nembutsu in this way, we discover the joy and peace of mind that arise from entrusting in the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. Realizing the settled mind that we call shinjin, the nembutsu of joy and gratitude flows forth from our mouths throughout the day and throughout our lives. Thus, the simple practice of saying Namo Amida Butsu becomes an expression of profound awareness of the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha constantly guiding and sustaining us.

Because the flow of the nembutsu comes from Amida Buddha, Honen and Shinran call this Other Power nembutsu. Despite the clarity of Honen’s simple instruction to “Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida,” disputes and confusion arose regarding the true intent of this teaching and the spirit in which the nembutsu should be recited. Among Honen’s students, Shinran was one who made a concerted effort throughout his life to clarify misunderstandings, so that future generations would be able to encounter the same great peace and joy that he found in the nembutsu.

Among the many volumes of teachings that Shinran has left for our guidance, perhaps the clearest and most concise crystallization of the teaching of Other Power nembutsu can be found in a selection of verse called the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Shoshin Nembutsu Ge), commonly referred to as the Shoshinge. A teacher of mine once said, “We chant Shoshinge in the morning, and we chant Shoshinge in the evening. This is the culture of Jodo Shinshu.” The Shoshinge begins with the heart of Namo Amida Butsu:

I take refuge in the Tathagata of Immeasurable Life!
I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light!

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 69)

Shinran’s descendent Rennyo (1415-1499) established the practice of chanting of Shoshinge and Wasan as a daily liturgy in the Hongwanji School. Revered as the eighth generation leader (Gomonshu) of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha (Nishi) and Otani-ha (Higashi) Schools, Rennyo revived Shinran’s Nembutsu teaching in his time by consolidating the many small and scattered Nembutsu communities under the leadership of the Hongwanji. As part of his project to establish standard practices across the diverse communities he brought together under Hongwanji leadership, he published the “Bunmei Edition” of the Shoshinge and Collected Wasan in March of 1473. The Bunmei Edition utilized printing-press technology for mass production and widespread dissemination, so that practicers of the nembutsu throughout Japan could deepen their familiarity with Shinran’s teachings and realize peace of mind and joy through entrusting in Amida Buddha.


Namo Amida Butsu

Treasure of the Nation

We will be observing our annual Gotan-e Service on May 21, 2017 at 9:30 a.m. Gotan-e celebrates the birth of Shinran Shonin, the founder of our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, in the year 1173. As we celebrate Shinran’s birthday, we take time this month to recall the events of his life. Shinran was ordained as a Buddhist monk of the Tendai school at the age of nine under the guidance of the eminent monk Jien. Shinran spent the next twenty years studying the Tendai teachingsand practicing monastic discipline on Mount Hiei. Although he departed from Mount Hiei at the age of 29, his later writings show the lifelong impact that the Buddhist education he received in the Tendai tradition had on his understanding of the Dharma.

The Tendai School was established in Japan, bythe monk Saicho (767-822) who in 804 joined an official delegation to China, where he studied with the leading monks of the Tiantai (Jpn. Tendai) school. Upon his return to Japan he worked to establish a dedicated site for monastic practice at Mount Hiei, just northeast of the capital. Saicho envisioned the Mount Hiei monastic complex as a site for Mahayana Buddhist practice based on the model of Bodhisattva Vows and self-realization through working for the benefit of others.

As he petitioned for support to establish an officially sanctioned ceremonial platform for ordaining monks in the Mahayana tradition, Saicho emphasized the benefit that his mountain Buddhist community would bring to the nation of Japan.


What is the treasure of the nation? The religious nature is a treasure, and he who possesses this nature is the treasure of the nation. That is why it was said of old that ten pearls big as pigeon’s eggs do not constitute the treasure of a nation, but only when a person casts his light over a part of the country can one speak of a treasure of the nation. A philosopher of old once said that [he who is capable in speech, but not action should be a teacher of the nation]; he who is capable in action but not in speech should be of service to the nation; but he who is capable both in action and speech is the treasure of the nation. Apart from these three groups, there are those who are capable neither of speech nor action: these are the betrayers of the nation.

Buddhists who possess the religious nature are called in the west bodhisattvas; in the east they are known as superior men. They hold themselves responsible for all bad things while they credit others with all good things. Forgetful of themselves, they benefit others. This represents the epitome of compassion.

(Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume One: From Earliest Times to 1600, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary, et. al., p. 145-146)


As a student on Mount Hiei, Shinran would have aspired to these lofty ideals set forth in the writings of Saicho and other great teachers of the Tendai tradition. While the specific reasons for Shinran’s departure from Mount Hiei are not recorded in his writings or other contemporary documents, we do know that by Shinran’s time the monasteries of Mount Hiei had come to be dominated by monks from aristocratic backgrounds who were regularly embroiled in secular and political affairs. There was even a standing army of “warrior monks” based on Mount Hiei, who would periodically march on the capital to influence matters of the state.

Perhaps exasperation with how far monastic life on Mount Hiei had diverged from the ideals set forth by Saicho was a contributing factor in Shinran’s decision to leave Mount Hiei and join Honen’s Nembutsu community on the outskirts of Kyoto. In his Hymns on the Dharma Ages, Shinran writes, “It is saddening to see the behavior of the monks of the major temples and monastic complexes at present, whether high-ranking monks or ‘teachers of dharma.’” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 424) In contrast, Shinran expresses his joy in encountering his teacher Honen (Genku) in the following verse from the Hymns on the Pure Land Masters:

Though Shan-tao and Genshin urged all to enter the true Pure Land way,

If our teacher Genku had not spread it among us

On these isolated islands in this defiled age,

How could we ever have awakened to it?

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 387)

Suzumushi and Matsumushi

This month we will celebrate the birth of Shinran Shonin at our Gotan-e Service on Sunday, May 15. For me, Gotane is a time when I feel renewed gratitude for the founder of our tradition, Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), and his life dedicated to sharing the Nembutsu. In 1207, Shinran was exiled to a remote area in Echigo Province (modern-day Niigata Prefecture) as part of a widespread persecution of his teacher Honen Shonin’s Nembutsu community. Honen taught that by simply reciting the Nembutsu, it was possible for any person to break free from the cycle of birth and death through birth in Amida Buddha’s realm of peace and bliss. At that time in Japan, many mainstream Buddhist teachers taught that people who engaged in professions such as fishing and leatherworking, those who had broken monastic precepts, and women in general were so burdened with negative karma that they would surely remain bound to the cycle of birth and death at the end of their present life. From that perspective, Honen’s Nembutsu teaching was radical, even subversive. In 1206, the conservative scholar-monks of the Kofukuji Temple in Nara, sent a letter to the emperor recommending that he prohibit the practice of exclusive Nembutsu advocated by Honen.

Because Honen taught that men and women have equal potential for fulfillment through the Nembutsu, women from all segments of society were drawn to his community. In late 1206, while the Emperor Gotoba was away from the capital on a pilgrimage to the Kumano Shrine, his consorts Suzumushi and Matsumushi joined a Nembutsu gathering led by Honen’s followers Juren-bo and Anraku-bo. After hearing the Nembutsu teaching, the emperor’s consorts experienced a great change of heart and took ordination as Buddhist nuns. As imperial consorts, it would have taken great courage for Suzumushi and Matsumushi to abandon the world of palace life. The emperor wielded great power in his world, but the hearts of his consorts turned away from that world and turned toward Amida Buddha’s realm of peace and bliss. In hearing the Nembutsu teaching, they came to the radical realization that in the light of Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion, the lives of all people are equally precious. It is not difficult to see how the Nembutsu teaching was a source of consternation for the emperor and the established Buddhist schools.

When the emperor returned and discovered that Suzumushi and Matsumushi had renounced their lives in the imperial palace to join Honen’s Nembutsu Sangha, he became enraged and ordered Juren-bo and Anraku-bo to be executed along with two other leading followers of Honen. Honen was sent into exile on the island of Shikoku. Seven more of his followers, including Shinran, were dispossessed of their monkhood and sent into exile, scattering the community throughout Japan. While many lamented the exile, Honen instructed his disciples that this too should be accepted as the flow of karmic causes and conditions in their lives. Honen’s disciples took that teaching to heart, and as a result, the Nembutsu teaching flourished in the rural provinces to an extent that likely would not have been possible had it not been for their exile.

Prior to his exile, Shinran himself enjoyed special status as an ordained monk of the influential Tendai School. Years after he was stripped of his monastic status, he commented on that experience, writing “I am now neither a monk nor one in worldly life.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 286) Even without the special status of monks and nuns, our lives in the Nembutsu are illuminated by the Buddha’s wisdom that shines brighter than the misguided values of worldly life. Wherever he went, Shinran worked tirelessly to share the Nembutsu teaching, so that the people he met would see the preciousness of their own lives when viewed in the light of Amida Buddha.


Namo Amida Butsu

Living Together in the Nembutsu

In late twelfth-century Japan, an unusual Buddhist gathering took shape around a charismatic monk called Honen-bo Genku who was living in the Yoshimizu district of Kyoto. Honen had spent much of his life as a student on Mount Hiei, one of the great centers of Buddhist learning in Japan at the time. The depth of Honen’s knowledge and understanding was well-known. Leading monks of his day referred to him as “The Most Wise Master Honen,” and he was regularly summoned to conduct Buddhist services for the imperial family and high-ranking members of the nobility.

Given the high esteem in which he was held, it was no wonder that a gathering of Honen’s regular students in Yoshimizu included ladies from the prominent families of the capital and erudite monks from Mount Hiei. However, a first time visitor to Yoshimizu would likely have been surprised to find a motley assembly of samurai warriors, common peasants, fishermen, monks who had broken the precepts, prostitutes and even notorious outlaws sitting down together with the high-class ladies and dignified monks to listen to what Honen had to say. All these people came to hear one simple teaching: “Entrust yourself to the great compassion of Amida Buddha and say the Nembutsu. If you live in the Nembutsu completely free of doubt, then you will surely realize liberation through birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.”

One of the ladies who heard these teachings given by Honen at Yoshimizu was the daughter of Miyoshi Tamenori, the head of a powerful family in Echigo province (modern-day Niigata Prefecture). It was a common practice in the provinces for young women from prominent families to be sent to Kyoto to learn the ways of sophisticated society by serving as a lady-in-waiting to an aristocratic family. While in Kyoto, Tamenori’s daughter encountered Honen’s teachings and became one of his dedicated students, eventually taking the Dharma name Eshinni.

Around that same time, a monk by the name of Hannen joined Honen’s Sangha at Yoshimizu, eventually taking the Dharma name Shinran. Shinran had studied on Mount Hiei from the age of 9 to 29, and like Honen became disillusioned with the life and practices of the elite monks there. Shinran sought out the teachings of Honen after having a vision in which the World-saving Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Jp. Kannon Bosatsu) appeared before him and gave the following instruction:

“If you, practicer, are obliged to have sexual contact with a woman through some past karma,

I will transform myself into a beautiful woman and become your partner.

I will adorn you with virtues throughout your life,

And at your death I will guide you to the Land of Utmost Bliss.”

(An Illustrated Biography of Shinran,

As a monk who had been observing a strict vow of celibacy for the previous twenty years, Shinran must have been at a loss regarding how to understand this profound vision that he received from the Bodhisattva of Compassion himself.

When Shinran met Honen at Yoshimizu, he surely confided in him and sought guidance on how to continue his study and practice of the Dharma now that he had abandoned his life as a monk on Mount Hiei. Honen, for his part, taught that the most important matter of Buddhist practice is not conforming to one specific lifestyle, but rather finding a life style that supports your life in the Nembutsu. He emphasized this matter such that we find the following words in “The Sayings of Honen-shonin as Stated by His Disciples”:

“To live this life means to create the conditions in which one is able to recite nembutsu in a natural way. . . . If one cannot practice nembutsu as a monk, one should take a wife and recite nembutsu. On the contrary, if one cannot practice nembutsu with a wife, one should recite nembutsu as a monk. If staying in one place makes nembutsu impossible, go on a pilgrimage and practice nembutsu. Conversely, if nembutsu is difficult on a pilgrimage, stay in one place and recite nembutsu.. . . If the practice of nembutsu in seclusion is impossible, practice it with other nembutsu devotees. Conversely, if practice with other devotees is impossible, recite in seclusion. Food, clothing, and housing are considered to be supporting elements for nembutsu.”

(The Promise of Amida Buddha, Wisdom Publications, p. 319)

While we have few details about how Shinran and Eshinni first met, it is clear that Honen’s nembutsu teaching was a key karmic circumstance that brought them into each other’s lives. We know from a letter written by Eshinni to their youngest daughter, Kakushinni, that by 1211 they were married, living together in Echigo with three children. In the subsequent years, they would continue to have children and live their lives as a family dedicated to sharing the Nembutsu teaching they received from Honen.

At 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 18, 2015, we invite you to join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for a special service in remembrance of Eshinni, Kakushinni, and Lady Takeko Kujo, a descendent of Shinran and Eshinni who worked tireless to share the Nembutsu teaching in the early decades of the 20th Century.


Namo Amida Butsu

The weight of a table

I am very much looking forward to our annual temple bazaar on Saturday, June 27 and Sunday, June 28. Thanks to all of you who make time in your busy schedules each year to help—whether setting up, helping on bazaar day, or helping with clean up and putting things away afterward. As we were setting up for the bazaar last year, I was impressed by how we are able to continue using the materials and equipment that have been passed down from previous generations. Many summer festivals I have been to use only commercially available pop-up tents and lightweight plastic tables. However, here at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple I was awed by the sturdy booths we construct with steel pipes and joints that have been custom fitted to make the best use of the space that we have.

Last year during the bazaar setup, I was admiring the construction of the tabletops made from thick plywood and two-by-fours as teams of volunteers were carrying them across the parking lot. As we paused for refreshments, one of the younger crew members shared a memory from his first year helping out with the bazaar set-up. When he suggested to one of the senior Nisei members that it was about time to replace the heavy wooden tables with a more modern and lightweight plastic model, the Nisei member proceeded to tell him the story how his Issei father hand-crafted those tabletops in the years after they returned to San Mateo from the internment camps at the end of the Second World War. As the young crewmember recounted the story he had heard of how the tabletops were made, I realized with deepened appreciation the caring wishes for future generations that went into their construction. The temple is a treasure in our community where we continue to receive the benefits of the Buddhist way of seeing our lives of that has been passed down by previous generations.

As I consider the way in which our San Mateo Buddhist Temple parking lot is completely transformed each year during the last weekend of June, it occurs to me that if we relied solely on cookie-cutter manufactured booths that come in two or three standard sizes, we probably wouldn’t be able to create the kind of comfortable and efficient space we have during our bazaar, where each booth fits perfectly into its place. When I think back to last year’s bazaar and the way my son spent a gleeful afternoon running back and forth between the game booths, I realize that it is those special spaces designed by our temple’s pioneering generation that create the lasting memories for our Sangha and our guests at bazaar time.

The wisdom and creativity to take what we have in our life and make the happiness we need, enables us to create the circumstances that perfectly meet our needs and the needs of the people around us. There is infinite possibility in this way of truly appreciating the value and potential of what we have in this very moment. The Japanese expression mottainai captures the spirit of a life lived with deep gratitude for all that is received.

The San Mateo Buddhist Temple is our place for gathering in the Nembutsu. To say the Nembutsu is to hear the words “Namo Amida Butsu” and encounter the light of wisdom that has been passed down over generations, through Honen and Shinran , all the way back to Sakyamuni Buddha himself. The Nembutsu is the Buddha’s message to each of us that we already have everything we need; we already are everything we need to be to realize true peace of mind. We do not need to acquire something new. What is necessary is a shift in perspective—to turn and see that our purpose in life is not to accumulate and grasp more and more, but to recognize the boundless potential of what is here right now.

It seems to be in my nature to be dissatisfied with what I have. Part of me says, “This can’t be enough. There must be something more that I can get that will make me happier.” However, in the rare moments when my mind turns to the Nembutsu and I am able to pause in my constant chasing after the next pleasure, I glimpse the truth of profound peace of mind and boundless joy. As Shinran writes:

When beings just turn about at heart and often say the nembutsu,

It is as if bits of rubble were turned into gold.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 42)

Namo Amida Butsu.