Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Yoshifumi Ueda

Who is Shinran?

The principal characteristic of Buddhism is that its goal is the attainment of Buddhahood by each person. The purpose in other religions is faith in god, and the ultimate goal is to be saved by god. Other religions do not talk about god saving man in order to become a god; in fact, such a thought would be blasphemous. Shinran does speak of salvation, of entrusting 'ourselves to the inconceivable power of Amida's vow which saves us' (Tannisho I), but the ultimate aim, as in all forms of Buddhism, is attaining Buddhahood.

Today, however, even among Buddhists, the general feeling is that we believe in Amida Buddha in order to be saved from all kinds of difficulties in life, ranging from serious illnesses to natural calamities. How many people know that even though some Buddhist scriptures talk about faith and entrusting, it is a process of becoming a Buddha? In all likelihood people would say, 'I have no need to become a Buddha; to be human is more than sufficient. But when I face difficulties, I would like to be helped.' It seems that such is the common view of religion; hence Buddhism is also regarded in the same way.

Today, very few think of attaining Buddhahood, because people have no idea of what it means to become a Buddha. As a consequence, Buddhism is generally understood as just another religion, and people flock to the temples to seek some kind of worldly benefit. This seems to be the general situation among Japanese Buddhists, including Shin Buddhists.

But even among such people ignorant of the true purpose of Buddhism, many are strongly attracted to the personality of Shinran. In Japan, Shinran holds great fascination for the general public, including many intellectuals, who have no affiliation with the Shin Buddhist organization. What is the attraction that Shinran has for people? I believe that it is the powerful spirituality that emanates from his being, coming through such words as the Nembutsu and the Primal Vow of Amida. This is what draws people who have lost their religious roots to Shinran.

In brief, the deep spirituality of Shinran's thought comes from the awareness that the Primal Vow of Amida makes us foolish beings, steeped in blind passion, ultimately attain Buddhahood. 'The purpose of the Vow is to make each of us an unexcelled Buddha. The unexcelled Buddha is without form.' (Letters of Shinran) The same point is also expressed in another form: 'It is the intention of the Buddhas that we shall all together go beyond birth and death.' (Tannisho XII) To become an unexcelled Buddha and to go beyond birth and death are the same thing. The person who has transcended samsaric life, gone beyond birth and death, is an unexcelled Buddha; and unless one becomes an unexcelled Buddha, one cannot be said to have transcended birth and death.

Late in his life, Shinran stressed the fact that 'the person of shinjin true and real is equal to Tathagata or Buddha.' He repeatedly makes this point in his letters to the followers in Kanto whom he left behind when he moved to Kyoto. In a letter to his disciple Joshin, Shinran writes, 'The person of shinjin true and real may be in this human body, shallow, impure, and creating evil karma; nevertheless, I want you to know that because his or her mind and heart are equal to that of Tathagata or Buddha, we can talk of a person being equal to Tathagata.' (Letters of Shinran). This letter, written when Shinran was 85 years old, is one of several in which he stresses the fact of being equal to Tathagata.

I have no doubt that, in his latter years, Shinran reached the point where he felt that his mind and heart were equal to Tathagata. Some people may think that to become a Tathagata or Buddha is to transcend all human emotions of happiness and sorrow, but that is incorrect; in fact, to become a Tathagata or Buddha means to become, without regards to other people's opinions or comments, one who is able to truly experience happiness when happy and to truly know sorrow when truly sad. The crucial question is whether or not a person is happy or sad only for oneself, or is happy for the sake of other's happiness and sad for the sake of other's sorrows.

However, it is extremely difficult to make another person's happiness my own, and another person's sorrows my own. In fact, it is impossible for us ordinary human beings. For that to be a possibility, Buddhistically speaking, we must have gone beyond birth-and-death. Or to put it differently, we must no longer place our trust in the conventional values of the world by which people live, as echoed in the Tannisho Epilogue: 'In this foolish being filled with blind passion, living in this impermanent world that is like a burning house, all things are empty and vain; therefore, untrue. Only the nembutsu is true, real, and sincere.' Such is the person who can say with Shinran that 'all beings have been fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters in the timeless process of birth and death.' (Tannisho V)

Shinran teaches us what it means to attain Buddhahood, what living the Buddhist teaching implies, in a very realistic and concrete way. While possessing a defiled mind, filled with blind passion, he had reached the realization of being equal to Tathagata. Thus, he could say that his mind and heart have 'already and always been in the Pure Land' (Letters of Shinran). This is the source of Shinran's fascination for many people.

When seen in worldly terms, Shiman did not lead a happy and comfortable life; in fact, his life was filled with hardships of all kinds: he was orphaned as a child, he was exiled and branded a common criminal at the age of thirty five for espousing the nem-butsu; he had to live apart from his wife Eshinni during the latter years of his ninety year life; he was forced to disown his eldest son when he was eighty four years old; and he died at his brother's home which was but a temporary abode. And yet more than seven-hundred years after his death, he continues to attract and fascinate us. I believe the reason he does so is because of his mind and heart that were 'equal to Tathagata.'

Finally, the mind and heart that are equal to Tathagata thoroughly and completely reveals the profound evil and ugliness hidden within us, a human being, bringing it to light and cleansing it for all time. In the words of Shinran:

Although one returns to the teaching of Pure Land,
Rare, indeed, is a true, real, and sincere mind.
In fact, in this self - empty, vain and untrue
There is no purity of mind.

With an evil mind, like a snake or scorpion,
Impossible is it to perform the good of self power.
Unless we rely on Tathagata's compassionate empowerment,
We are without shame and without repentance. (Shozomatsu wasan, 94, 99)

For us human beings, becoming a Buddha means becoming a person who truly knows what shame is and what repentance means. Shinran was such a person. He taught us how to become truly human, truly loving, and truly understanding.

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