Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


The Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path
Takamaro Shigaraki
translation by David Matsumoto
Hozokan Publishing, Kyoto, 2005

Being (I flatter myself) intelligent and curious I read all sorts of books that interest me and that I feel could improve my understanding of life in general and of the Buddha Dharma in particular. I sometimes compare this reading with the parallel reading I continually undertake to keep up to date in my medical practice. I must and do read journal articles of sometimes mind-numbing detail and of remote theoretical interest only. This I hope does me some good, but I am always asking of anything medical that I read - 'How will this help my patients/how will this change my practice?'

So it is with my reading of books to do with the Buddha Dharma. I do not read detailed expositions of the teachings and practices of schools of Buddhism other than Jodo Shinshu - there is no point - but I can't help reading as widely as I can in the Sutras, the history and, as best as I can understand, the philosophy and metaphysics of the Mahayana. I read thus because I enjoy it and because I think it my duty as a Jodo Shinshu cleric to attempt to acquire a broad understanding of the Dharma. The books I enjoy most though are those that go right to the heart of the matter, that clearly hold up the glorious primacy of the Pure Land teachings in terms I can readily understand and that I can use to help share the teachings with others, and books that make me think about the content of the teachings. 'A Life of Awakening' is in both ways such a book.

From the very start of the first chapter - 'The Fundamental Principles of Buddhism' - Shigaraki goes to the heart of the whole Buddhist way, and demonstrates the continuity at the heart of the teachings from the time of the Buddha to the Jodo Shinshu teachings transmitted to us today. He presents the Buddha's last words as:

Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself; do not depend on anyone else. Make my teachings your light. Rely upon them; do not depend on any other teaching

and interprets them as telling us that we must live our lives taking responsibility for our actions, but at the same time seeking to intersect our troubled lives with the indescribable something that the Buddha awoke to and which his teachings aim at guiding us to realize. This starting point is, as the starting point must always be, an aspect of the Four Noble Truths. For us the only way to realize the Buddha's wisdom is to rely on Amida and the entrusting mind He gives us. Our awakening to this is the intersection of our limited selves with the infinite, indeed it is the only way we can intersect with the infinite in this life.

Part 1, 'The Shin Buddhist Path', takes us through the author's view of the aim of the Buddhist teachings which he sees as leading us to a dynamic of growth and change. In the subsequent part of this section, Shigaraki teaches the reader about the parallel development of renunciant and householder Buddhism and how the latter developed into Pure Land Buddhism. This is an important matter, totally neglected in most surveys of the history of Buddhism and an area where more research and writing would be most helpful.

Shigaraki continues with discussion of the nature of Amida Buddha ('Let us start by thinking about the Buddha named Amida') and the meaning of the Nembutsu. He concludes that the Nembutsu that Shinran learned from Honen made the pre-existing Pure Land practice 'more far reaching and deeply personal', and that the Shin Buddhist path consists of 'hearing the Name and saying the Name, a path of practice based on the Name of Amida Buddha.' All this, I believe, is true, and in this context, Shigaraki of course quotes from 'Tannisho' that 'the Nembutsu alone is true and real.' He goes on to consider the psychology of the Nembutsu, that when we say the Nembutsu we are directing ourselves toward the Buddha, but that we also awaken to a movement in the opposite direction and thus as a 'necessary consequence of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow' we hear the Buddha's call. After this, after Amida Buddha gives us his mind of true entrusting (shinjin) we awaken to the fact that, in the words of Shinran Shonin, 'when the Nembutsu is the true Nembutsu there is no shinjin apart from the Nembutsu.' He goes on to consider in more detail the nature of Amida Buddha and the meaning of the awakening that is shinjin. He argues that since Amida's awakening is not dualistic then the person of shinjin's 'attainment of Buddhahood and Amida's attainment of Buddhahood are simultaneous and mutually identical events.' This rather abstract concept will not be helpful for everyone and if taken literally cannot be accepted, as shinjin emphatically is not enlightenment and Amida Buddha's enlightenment is already a fact.

Part 2 is entitled 'Shinjin' and expands on Shigaraki's understanding of shinjin as wisdom, awakening, understanding and becoming one's true self; in short a transformation of the self. However it is not a transcendent transformation as one's karmic evil is still present. He sees shinjin as a dynamic, non-dual process of becoming and in this section defends this understanding against what he characterizes as a traditional dualistic understanding that reduces the dynamic gift of shinjin to mere faith in the pejorative sense. I feel that this approach is perhaps a little over-intellectual and does not do full justice to traditional understanding, but Shigaraki is much better placed than I to judge. There is though, and surely always has been, more going on in the experience of shinjin than an intellectual belief in birth in the Pure Land after death. Shinjin is the mind of Amida Buddha given to we foolish beings and is thus true, and true knowledge is always transformative.

In Part 3, 'Shin Buddhist Life', Shigaraki investigates the structure and meaning of 'salvation' in various religious traditions and contrasts this with the Jodo Shinshu conception. From here Shigaraki goes on to consider how the Shin Buddhist should live in this world. This, I feel, is a difficult area to explore. Jodo Shinshu does not demand any form of externally imposed ethics because the Buddha accepts us as we are. As Shigaraki states in Part 2, 'each person living in shinjin has his/her own path to follow.' The 'diamond-like' mind of shinjin tends towards gratitude and forbearance. It does not lead us to any fixed position with regard to ethics or actions. I am sure, as Shinran Shonin asserted, that shinjin leads to a change, perhaps a refinement in character, but how this manifests in each individual will be different as we each have our own unique burden of karmic evil that has made us what we are. Since we remain imperfect, unenlightened, we cannot insist on any particular set of values in others since we do not have any privileged knowledge of right and wrong. We simply lead our lives as best we can, hoping for peace in the world and that the Buddha's teaching spreads. In this section Shigaraki discusses the various philosophical ways we can attempt to understand the apparent dichotomy between absolute truth/perfection/the Buddha and our imperfect world and imperfect selves. He concludes that the view consistent with the Jodo Shinshu way is that 'ultimate and worldly truths are a single truth.' While I agree with this, we cannot in this life realize this knowledge in the true sense - our glimpse of ultimate truth is our assurance of Enlightenment in the Pure Land at the end of this life but our actions as a result of that insight will be, as we are, imperfect.

Shigaraki points out the tension between the spiritual values we hold and the emptiness of the materialism of everyday life. This is another useful insight, but materialism is all pervasive in our culture and therefore in each of us. As individuals following a religious way we can hope to show that there is more to existence than the material. Again though, this must never involve imposing our values on others. From the delusion of excessive and arrogant certainty stem many evils, from everyday intolerance to the cynical use of religion by fascists for dark political purposes. Shigaraki is doubtless aware of this. His thoughts on the Shin Buddhist Life and society end up being rather unfocussed and non-prescriptive. That is, in the end, as it should be. The book concludes with inspiring thoughts reminding the reader that it is by means of our encounters with good friends and teachers that we can 'encounter the Buddha'.

In summary then, while (as can be seen above) I do not agree with everything Shigaraki raises in this book, is it worth reading? Emphatically, yes. It is full of useful insights, and disagreement with some thoughts will provoke the reader to question and contemplate his or her own understanding of the Jodo Shinshu way and to thereby deepen his or her understanding and appreciation of the teachings.

- Mark Healsmith

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