A Medieval Criticism of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

This is something I read from the book Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan, which is a great book on the history of this school of Japanese Buddhism. Professor Dobbins quotes from a polemical work called the guanki (愚闇記, “Record of Foolishness and Darkness”) that was written in the early 1300’s by a Tendai Buddhist monk living in Echizen Province about the local Shinshu congregation:

At the present time lay men and women of the single-minded nembutsu gather to sing the wasan hymns composed by the exile named Gutoku Zenshin [Shinran, the founder] and to chant the nembutsu at length in unison. In the “Larger Pure Land Sutra,” where it describes the characteristics of the three classes [of sentient beings] born in the Pure Land, there is the phrase, “The single-minded and exclusive Amida nembutsu”. They take this to be the central message [of the sutra]. Pointing out the appearance of the key phrase “single-minded nembutsu,” they refuse to recite the “Smaller Pure Land Sutra,” nor will they perform praise-singing at the six designated times of the day. Rather, when men and women do their religious practices, they exert themselves, chanting the six character [formula of Amida’s] name, and they sing in unison the wasan hymns [of Shinran]. They are not admonished against such impurities as meat eating, nor do they concern themselves with clerical mantle, robes, rosary, for full attire. Even if they put on a robe, they do not drape the clerical mantle across it, and they wear it over their silk narrow-sleeve gown of various colors. They do not setup monuments to offer up religious merit to the dead, and they teach that one should not observe such things as prohibitions or taboos. This is folly. (pg. 126)

When I read this, I kind of chuckled, because many of these criticisms are still used against Jodo Shinshu Buddhists even today by other Buddhists. Even I’m not immune to this. I sometimes get annoyed by the emphasis on Shinran’s hymns and not the sutras, however I didn’t realize until recently that the Juseige/Shiseige was an excerpt of the Immeasurable Life Sutra. This is frequently recited in both Jodo Shinshu and Jodo Shu services, similar to the way that Nichiren services often recite excerpts of the 2nd and 16th chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Further, since I am practicing the Shoshinge for ordination (which includes 6 of the Wasan hymns), I have begun to appreciate its doctrinal value more.1

Similarly, I’ve often been uncomfortable with the eating of meat on the premises of Shinshu temples. People do not eat in the main hall (hondō 本堂) of course, but often you’ll have picnics, fundraising meals, outdoor festivals in the parking lot, etc. People have good intentions I believe, but at the same time, it kind of contravenes the “spirit” of Mahayana Buddhism (of which Shinshu is a part) by turning a blind eye to the practice. On the other hand, lay-based Buddhist sects such as Shinshu, Jodo Shu and presumably Nichiren Buddhism all focus on making Buddhism as “accessible” as possible, because there’s no where to go but up. Further, I realize it’s probably more worthwhile to focus on my own conduct than that of others.

The final criticism though, the narrowness of Jodo Shinshu, is something I still grapple with. The other issues might be a bit annoying, but this one is the toughest issue I think any long-term, dedicated Jodo Shinshu follower will eventually struggle with. Shakyamuni Buddha encouraged a holistic approach to the Buddhist path including:

  • Moral Conduct
  • Cultivation/practice
  • Wisdom

Much of Jodo Shinshu (and Jodo Shu) is based on the teachings of the famous 8th-century Chinese Buddhist Shan-tao (zendō 善導) whose approach was similarly holistic. He taught the importance of seeking rebirth in the Pure Land and the centrality of reciting the Buddha’s name, but he also encouraged “auxilliary practices” such as reciting sutras, devotional practices and moral conduct to help bolster this. Honen, who started Jodo Shu (and by extension Jodo Shinshu) was deeply devoted to Shan-tao but creatively adapted the recitation of the Buddha’s name as being the only practiced that ultimately mattered for rebirth in the Pure Land.

However, over time, I’ve come to terms with this approach for a few reasons. First, I came to view the recitation of the Buddha’s name as a foundational practice. Once the Pure Land approach sinks in and becomes a part of one’s life, it’s sensible to add other practices as one sees fit. Honen seems to have also favored a similar approach. Second, the “restorer” of Jodo Shinshu, Rennyo, encouraged the practice of expressing gratitude in the Pure Land path and that included reciting the Buddha’s name, but also other things as well, such as other Buddhist practices, or just doing good in society. Shinran didn’t talk about this much, but I think Rennyo’s explanation makes a lot of sense.

Finally, after reading Chinese/Vietnamese/Korean Buddhist sources on the Pure Land Buddhism, such as Ou-I’s 17th-century text, Mind Seal of the Buddha or contemporary sources, I realized that there’s many ways to interpret the same practices and the same goal of rebirth in the Pure Land. So, there’s quite a bit of latitude for how one views the Pure Land, Amitabha Buddha and reciting his name, even if the end-goal and practice are the same. This gave me a sense of relief because I don’t have to “conform” to a particular doctrinal view because they all converge anyway.

In any case, I think it’s important to Jodo Shinshu, or any sect of Buddhism, or any religion, to be open to criticism and for each follower to do soul-searching as part of their journey. If a person, or their religion, is so insecure that they can’t accept any criticism, then that makes their beliefs even more suspect. So, I think it’s good to read criticisms like this, because they help me question my own path.

1 Chanting the Shoshinge itself, even the more melodic “gyofu” style isn’t that hard for me. It’s the Wasan hymns I struggle with. I’m not a good singer, and have no musical background, so I frequently get off key, even with dozens of hours of practice. I have improved, but I still need a lot of work. Believe me, I have become intimately familiar with the Wasan hymns. :p

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “A Medieval Criticism of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism”

  1. The reason Shinran’s ultimate interpretation is “true”, is that it leaves no room for contrivance by ego. In Jodo Shinshu there actually is no practice (necessary for assurance of birth in Amida’s Pure Land). That said, many of the so-called “auxiliary practices” do, indeed, flow naturally from the devotee’s experience of shinjin, and can be viewed as myriad expressions of gratitude for Amida’s compassion and grace. (For more on my perspective, see my YouTube channel: acalaacala. And thank you for your excellent blog.) -John in Western North Carolina

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  2. t so much a comment but a question…do you know of any recordings of the was an? I’m 2000 miles from the closest temple but would like to learn the Wasan.

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