Over the years, as I try to make sense of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, or “Shin” Buddhism as all the teenagers say nowadays,1 I have tried a number of different ways to understand and explain it to others.2 However, I wanted to share an explanation that really opened my eyes.
I was recently perusing the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, which I received a while back (and regularly use) as a sample copy. I was looking up some information on Zhiyi, the famous Chinese Tian-tai Buddhist monk which I then used to rewrite the Wikipedia article on the Five Periods and the Eight Teachings. But having finished that, I decided to then lookup the entry on Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, and this passage caught my attention (emphasis and links added):
Shinran refers often to the single utterance [of Amitabha Buddha’s name Namu Amida Butsu] that assures rebirth in the pure land. This utterance need not be audible, indeed not even voluntary, but it is instead heard in the heart as a consequence of the “single thought-moment” of shinjin, received through Amitābha’s grace. This salvation has nothing to do with whether one is a monk or a layperson, man or woman, saint or sinner, learned or ignorant. He said that if even a good man can be reborn in the pure land, then how much more easily can an evil man; this is because the good man remains attached to the illusion that his virtuous deeds will bring about his salvation, while the evil man has abandoned this conceit. Whereas Hōnen sought to identify the benefits of the nembutsu [reciting the Buddha’s name] in contrast to other teachings of the day, Shinran sought to reinterpret Buddhist doctrine and practice in light of Amitābha’s vow [to rescue all beings]. For example, the important Mahāyāna doctrine of the Ekayāna, or “one vehicle,” the buddha vehicle whereby all sentient beings will be enabled to follow the bodhisattva path to buddhahood [full enlightenment], is interpreted by Shinran to be nothing than Amitābha’s vow.
The top-half of this quotation is pretty standard Jodo Shinshu teaching. I’ve read this before, and share it here more as a background reference. What gave me pause was the second-half where it talks about how Shinran interpreting Buddhist doctrine in light of the Buddha Amitabha’s vow to rescue all beings. In all my years of learning about Jodo Shinshu, I simply never noticed that. I admit I’ve always approached it the way Honen did: finding a way for Pure Land teachings to fit within the greater Buddhism, but Shinran’s approach is kind of radical in a way.
The Lotus Sutra teaching of Ekayana is a great example of this, because I do consider myself a devotee of the Lotus Sutra, but it never occurred to me that his would be an expression of Amitabha Buddha’s compassion toward other beings. Usually the Lotus Sutra describes itself as the king of all sutras, the pinnacle teaching, and much of Buddhism tends to follow this line including me. In such a framework, the Pure Land sutras and practices are part of the overall “vehicle” preached in the Lotus Sutra. However, Shinran turns this on its head. It kind of blew me away. For example, the verses in chapter five of the Lotus Sutra, when seen in the light of Amitabha’s compassion take on a whole new meaning for me.
I found this passage last week, and I’ve been mulling it over since then, appreciating the implications. I may explore this again in future posts. Stay tuned. 😉
1 Just kidding. I just wanted to sound like a cranky old man. 😉
2 I know I have more posts buried somewhere in the last 8 years of blogging, but I didn’t have the time to search. Thankfully there’s Google! 😉