Lamenting Modern Misunderstandings – A reflection on a western literalist interpretation of Jodo Shinshu

written by: Shin Buddhists Against Hate

For the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, the Buddha Amida and the Pure Land of Utmost Bliss are of crucial importance. Traditionally both Amida and the Pure Land have been seen as both symbolic and actual, neither fully immanent nor fully transcendent. In recent times, however, the marginal view that we ought to see Amida exclusively as ‘a real person’ and the Pure Land as ‘a real place’ has emerged. This modern variant is always expressed without any reference to the original texts of the tradition and shows no appreciation of the inherent ambiguities of languages like Chinese and Japanese. Further the literalist position is also often put forth in conjunction with homophobic statements that have no precedent in the Shinshu tradition, largely unconcerned throughout its history with policing sexuality. What follows is a challenge of such misunderstandings by going back to the original sources in their original languages. In so doing we ascertain the openness, inherent ambiguity and liberating qualities of the Jodo Shinshu teaching.

Download chapters 1-3 in pdf format here

  1. Introduction

Over the last decade western Jodo Shinshu followers of the Hongwanji-ha tradition, the largest Jodo Shinshu denomination outside Japan, have witnessed the emergence of a loud and forceful, albeit marginal, variant. This variant claims to be orthodox and, further, it states that theirs is the only ‘true’, orthodox interpretation of Shinran’s teaching, decrying any other possible interpretations as heresy and banning texts that disagree with their viewpoint from their centre and websites. Although their central concern is to assert that Amida is a ‘true and real person’ and the Pure Land a ‘true and real place’, devoid of any symbolic or metaphorical meaning, they have also developed unique views about karma, gender and sexuality. Among these peculiar views there is the idea that pregnancy terminations are causing climate change, that anything other than heterosexual, vaginal sex goes against Buddhist morality or that having relations with somebody who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth is also forbidden. Needless to say, these views are neither traditional nor part of the orthodoxy of the Hongwanji school of Buddhism.

At the centre of this movement, we find the prolific Romanian soryo (priest) Rev. Josho Adrian Cirlea, who was ordained through Nishi Hongwanji in 2002. After demanding for a few years that Hongwanji expel clerics who do not agree with his views, ironically, Mr. Cirlea finds himself currently outside of the Hongwanji fold. For this reason, we shall refer to him from now on as Mr. Cirlea, as his Dharma name, Josho, is associated with his identity as a member of the Hongwanji-ha denomination. As of today Mr. Cirlea is the ‘Head Priest’ and ‘Founder’ of a new denomination of Jodo Shinshu: The Amidaji Branch, fully independent from Hongwanji-ha.

It is difficult to estimate the overall number of Jodo Shinshu followers in the west (i.e. Europe, North and South America and Hawai’i), but given that the BCA has slightly over 16,000 members and the size of the South American Jodo Shinshu community is estimated around 10,000, the total figure might be reckoned to be around 30,000. In Europe, followers of Hongwanji-ha, Otani-ha, Shogyoji, Shinran-kai, are unlikely to be more than 500. And now, Amidaji, with a very small base in Romania and online sympathisers in Eastern Europe, the Americas and Australia are unlikely to have more than a dozen committed members in total. Given their size, one might wonder, why their views matter. However, Amidaji and its Head Priest, have a significant presence online and their resources are often encountered by newcomers to Jodo Shinshu very early on in their quest, often making them doubt whether Jodo Shinshu is for them.

Newcomers to Jodo Shinshu have mentioned that they found online the writings of Mr. Cirlea and, not having much background in Shinshu doctrine or history, took at face value his claims of orthodoxy. Some were almost ready to give up on Jodo Shinshu as they assumed it was a homophobic and racist cult which seemed to believe in a foreign god-like figure and a Buddhist version of heaven. Of course, many more might have encountered the literalist interpretation and never made it to a mainstream Jodo Shinshu Sangha, thus giving up their interest in Shinran and Pure Land Buddhism. Encouraged by those who persevered in their search to understand Jodo Shinshu and with great sadness, we set out to explain some of the misunderstandings of the literalist variant, its modern(ist) roots and the groundlessness of many of their claims.

Literalists present themselves as traditional and orthodox Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, severely criticising what they deem ‘modern(ist)’ interpretations of the teaching. Ironically, as we will show in detail, the literalist movement is indeed very modern and modernist in its anti-modernism and it stands distinctly apart from the historical mainstream of the Jodo Shinshu tradition. Significantly, their most visible leaders and ideologues do not read Japanese, Chinese or Sanskrit, and exclusively quote canonical materials from only certain English translations. Although we might argue that one does not need to learn Kanbun (i.e. Sino-Japanese) or classical Japanese to appreciate Shinran, when making bold claims with such confidence, one would expect at least some knowledge of the original sources that are being interpreted. Classical Japanese (and even more Kanbun and classical Chinese) are extremely complex and vague languages that manage to evoke layers of meaning in an often poetic, ambiguous and ambivalent fashion. English (and to a lesser degree Sanskrit) is a much more narrowly specific language, so English translations often only convey parts of the original range of meaning.

Although some of the literalist positions do not entirely go against the Shinshu tradition, and its current orthodoxy, the fervour with which they defend a very narrow reading of Shinran is largely enabled by the English language. Had they not read Shinran through English, and particularly through some, now dated, Christian-flavoured English translations from the 20th century, we doubt that the literalists could have constructed such a tidy, linear and narrow interpretation of the Pure Land message. Their condemnation of what they imagine to be ‘modernist views’ betrays not only a lack of historical awareness of the various ways Shinran’s teaching has been interpreted over the centuries, but also a lack of understanding of the nature of the language(s) Shinran wrote in. The open-ended and evocative character of classical Chinese, Kanbun and classical Japanese (ordered from more to less abstruse) requires many interpretative choices; these choices become vividly clear when trying to translate into a language like English.

There are many seeming paradoxes, and even contradictions in Shinran’s writings, and the traditional interpreters have wrestled (and continue to wrestle) with them for centuries. Certain ambiguities have been read traditionally in certain ways, creating patterns of orthodoxy and established exegesis[1]. However, others remain a matter of discussion.  Yet, others, like the ‘real’ vs. symbolic nature of Amida and the Pure Land only became a point of debate in the modern period, as Japan ended the isolation of the Tokugawa era and started engaging with western, both Christian and scientific, thought.

It is therefore not surprising that the literalist movement has largely appealed to westerners who come from strong Christian societies (e.g. U.S., Colombia) or from countries where Christianity and religion in general has suffered suppression (e.g. Eastern Europe). I am not aware of any Japanese or Japanese-descendants who have joined the movement. The only visible inspiration that connects the literalists to Japan is Rev. Eiken Kobai, a senior Hongwanji priest who subscribes to a literalist reading of Amida Buddha and the Pure Land and who has also strong views about the precise moment that shinjin settles in an individual and the ability to tell who does or doesn’t have shinjin. However, Rev. Kobai’s knowledge of English is limited, and some of his western followers report needing a translator in order to communicate with him[2]. Thus, to what extent he understands or endorses the movement is not certain. It must also be noted that some significant writers in the literalist movement seem to have taken a polite distance from Mr. Cirlea after he started writing about matters other than Shinshu doctrine, namely sexuality, precepts and karma. Consequently, not all literalists subscribe to the agenda Amidaji and its Head Priest defend, though they would agree that Amida is a male, real person and the Pure Land a real location. What follows engages largely with the writings of Mr. Cirlea, doubtlessly the most prolific, problematic and belligerent representative of Shinshu literalism.

  1. On Amida as a ‘real person’

It is not far-fetched to say that for committed Jodo Shinshu followers what the tradition calls Amida Buddha is real. However, to say that Amida is a ‘real person’ is at best misleading. At least in English, a real person connotes a historical, factual and embodied human being, which by most accounts Amida doesn’t seem to be. Christians might assert that God is a real person and though not human, since humans are created in God’s image, God might be said to be in some sense a ‘real person’. Notwithstanding, when talking about a supernatural, non-human being English tends to use ‘being’ rather than ‘person’. When explaining what Amida Buddha is, Jodo Shinshu teachers, and Mr. Cirlea is no exception, refer to the three Buddha bodies or trikaya. These three bodies represent the different aspects of the dynamic we call Buddha or awakening. The essence of a Buddha is dharmakaya (dharma-body) which is formless, emptiness, like the dharma itself. In fact, our teacher Shinran states that “Supreme Buddha is formless”[3]. Thus, Amida as dharmakaya cannot be said to be a person, since a person presupposes form. The other two bodies involve a more embodied and form-based manifestation. The sambhogakaya represents the ‘body’ that results from the fulfilment of vows. In terms of Amida, the immeasurable light and life, the Pure Land and its beings, and the Buddha that is said to live in it are all forms of sambhogakaya, as they are concrete forms resulting from the fulfilment of a vow. So, Amida as sambhogakaya can be said to include a personified manifestation, but also forms that are not of a personal nature, such as birds, light, life, trees or space (i.e. the Pure Land). The third body, the nirmanakaya, assumes a much more tangible existence in order to guide beings back to the formless dharmakaya. A nirmanakaya might well be a historical, factual human being, like Shakyamuni or Shinran, but it might also be a book, a falling leaf that awakes us to impermanence, a statue, a building or a place. As for Amida as nirmanakaya, it traditionally refers to the many forms and manifestations that sentient beings may encounter and that would lead them to the dharma and the realisation of awakening. These might appear in dreams, visions or, temporarily, as teachers or objects. They might appear in an anthropomorphic way (like the statue of Amida in most Shinshu temples) but also in a non-personal fashion as a symbolic object, sound (e.g. the nenbutsu) or other phenomena. Though, symbolically, poetically and emotivelyhuman teachers like Shan-tao, Honen and Shinran are referred to as emanations of Amida Buddha, no consistent tradition has ever developed to consider such human beings as Amida nirmanakaya.

It can be said that the rupakaya, form-body, which encompasses both sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya, is a symbol of the dharmakaya. The dharmakaya stands for formless reality, which is impossible to imagine, explain or conceptualize and the rupakaya emerges from such formlessness as a symbol that is never separate from the dharmakaya, from emptiness. The purpose of such a symbol is to bring us back to our true home, the realisation of the formless, which is never separate from form. What we call Amida functions in these two or three different ways which constitute an integrated dynamic. To say that Amida is a real person who possesses the dharmakaya (or for that matter the sambhogakaya) is to fundamentally misunderstand what Amida and the three bodies are. Mr. Cirlea speaks of Amida’s formless dimension as “His Dharmakaya”, which hints that there is a ‘real person’ who possesses a formless quality. It is, rather, the other way around: a formless reality manifests as concrete form, but the concrete form cannot be said to possess the formless reality any more that the formless reality can be said to possess the forms it takes. They are two sides of the same coin. Form and formlessness are different and yet not separate, they are in a relationship of oneness, even if they are not identical, and, therefore, one cannot possess the other.  

The rupakaya functions as a symbol, which does not compromise in any way its reality. The issue with the real in ‘real person’ is the very different implications of the words used by Shinran (真, shin, true; 実, jitsu, real) and the way we currently use the word in English. Because of the Christian and scientific background of the English language, ‘real’ assumes an existence that is either empirically provable, objective and experienceable or transcendentally true like the god of Christianity. The Buddhist usage of these terms is unsurprisingly different, and it cannot be fully apprehended without understanding emptiness (空, ku) and suchness (如, nyo). If something is real in the Buddhist sense, it is because it is an expression of emptiness and therefore it reflects the way things truly are, or suchness. A ‘real’ being would be one which is fully aware of its emptiness and acts as a symbol of such emptiness, leading us back to the true nature of reality, emptiness, suchness. From this point of view, we could say Amida is a real being or a real person, when appearing personified, because they are a transparent expression of the formless that leads us back to the formless.

To reduce Amida Buddha to a personified manifestation is to forget that “Supreme Buddha is formless” and to neglect the very purpose of Amida Buddha, which is to “mak[e] us know the significance of jinen” [4]. It is to cling at the proverbial finger and ignore the moon. Even if we might temporarily need the finger in order to see the moon, to vehemently argue over the finger’s ‘real existence’ and to severely criticise those who are trying to look at what the finger is pointing at, seems to miss the whole point of the teaching.

Traditionally, in Jodo Shinshu and Mahayana Buddhism at large, cosmic, non-historical Buddhas like Amida have been perceived, in some sense, as actual and, also, in a sense, as symbolic. The dichotomy between real vs. symbolic when talking about Amida or the Pure Land only seems to enter Jodo Shinshu in a significant way at the end of the 19th century, when Japan begins to engage with western thought. It is only when we place Amida against the backdrop of scientific and Christian thought, that the need to defend Amida’s real existence against a supposedly modernist symbolic or metaphorical interpretation comes into place. Pre-modern Buddhists understood very well that there can be such thing as a ‘real’ -in the Buddhist sense- symbol or metaphor. Only when we apply ideas of factuality and reality which are foreign to the Buddhist tradition the dichotomy, the issue and the confrontation emerges.

Therefore, to assume that the traditional view is that Amida is a real being and that to read Amida symbolically is a modernist deviation is a gross misunderstanding. The literalist position emerges simultaneously with the symbolic position, in perfect mutual dependence. They are both equally modern(ist) and share a common, relatively recent history. This history has been thoroughly explored in Melissa Curley’s chapter “The Modern Tradition” (47-85), and particularly in the section ‘Inventing Tradition: The Pastoral Letter of 1871’ (47-56), which shows the political motivations and consequences of enshrining a ‘transcendent’, ‘real’ Amida as ‘orthodox’ and ‘traditional’.

It is true that in Jodo Shinshu we speak of Amida as a person, but current Hongwanji orthodoxy does not fully side with either an exclusively literal or metaphorical conceptualisation of Amida. Nor does a traditional understanding preclude either side. That we speak of Amida in a personalized way is simply a skilful means that helps us connect with the formless in an emotional, embodied way. But skilful means ought to lead us to a realisation beyond form, not to obscure the reality they point at. In this sense, skilful means are truly metaphorical, in the etymological meaning of the Greek word, which is to ‘carry further’. The reality that is Amida is meant to carry us further, like a boat, from this shore to the other shore, from our deluded attachment to form to a realisation that forms and the formless are not fundamentally separate. Or, in Shinran’s words: “In order to make it known that Supreme Buddha is formless, the name Amida Buddha is expressly used”[5].

At times Shinran refers to Amida in ways that suggest she might be a real person, when he celebrates her as “our mother”[6] and at others he talks about Amida as a rather formless, impersonal phenomenon: “Know therefore, that Amida Buddha is light, and that light is the form taken by wisdom”[7]. It seems clear that Shinran grasped the fluid, dual and integrated nature of Amida as both form and formlessness. Amida is truly real because she or it, or for that matter he, demonstrates how form and formlessness appear as each other with perfect ease and naturalness. Whether Amida really existed or exists in the factual way the current use of the word ‘real’ connotes is entirely besides the point. In truly awakening and entrusting to the play of form and formlessness that Amida is, lies the key to resolve the greatest matter of life and death.  

  1. On the Pure Land as a ‘real place’

The debate around whether the Pure Land is a ‘real place’ reflects the same dynamics as that of Amida’s ‘real personhood’. This is also another dichotomy that has emerged in the modern period out of the felt need to explain the ‘location’ of the Pure Land within a scientific view of the world. Again, to say the Pure Land is a ‘real place’ is at best misleading, unless we are invited to collapse and expand our very idea of what place is. As Melissa Curley puts it, “there is much in the sutras to suggest that this pocket universe (i.e. the Pure Land) has trouble containing itself: the Pure Land, located a hundred thousand kotis of lands away from here seems nonetheless to show up here all the time” (35-36)[8].

The difficulty of establishing the nature of what we call Pure Land lies in part in the way the concept was translated from Sanskrit to Chinese. The Sanskrit kshetra is a more ambiguous and open term, connoting a field (or sphere of influence), a region, a world or a realm. However, the Chinese 土 (do, as in Jodo, 浄土) has a narrower sense of land, place or earth/soil. The Pure Land represents a place or space under the influence of a Buddha, the Buddha’s sphere of influence. This principle is clearly explained in the Larger Sutra when Shakyamuni states:

Wherever the Buddha travels, be it country, province, town or village, there is no place which does not benefit from his virtue. Peace and harmony reign throughout the land. The sun and the moon shine brightly, the wind and rain are timely, and no disaster or disease ever occurs. The land is prosperous and people live in peace, so there is no need to use soldiers and weapons.[9] 

The Buddha’s presence transforms anywhere it inhabits, which means that the natural elements and the people reflect the qualities of the Buddha’s enlightenment. The intimate interrelationship between land, beings and enlightenment lies at the heart of the idea of Buddhakshetra, Jodo or Pure Land.

However, as the Sanskrit intimates this is more a dynamic field, akin perhaps to an electromagnetic field, rather than simply a specific point in space. The Larger Sutra presents this idea in all its subtlety and complexity, complicating the possibility of calling the Pure Land ‘a real place’ -or a place at all. First the Pure Land is boundless and, as the 31st vow indicates, “my land will be pure and brilliant, completely illuminating and reflecting all the countless, innumerable, and inconceivable Buddha-worlds”[10]. Our teacher Shinran reflected his appreciation of the boundless nature of the Pure Land in a wasan (i.e. poems, hymns or songs with a Buddhist subject) to Bodhisattva Vasubhandu: “That land is infinite, like space / vast and without bound”[11]. The first and foremost characteristic of a place is the fact that it is bounded, contained within clear boundaries that separate it from the rest of space. The Pure Land seems to defy boundaries and containment to the point that it is hard to call it a place at all. If this land reflects all other lands in the cosmos, and its light, sounds and even smells can be sensed throughout the ten quarters, this is a ‘place’ that is simultaneously in many other places; arguably in every other place that exists.

In the same vein as Amida’s realness, from a Buddhist viewpoint, the fact that the Pure Land interpenetrates every other place in the cosmos and its boundaries are impossible to define makes the Pure Land a ‘real place’. Because ‘real’(実, jitsu) in a Buddhist context often conveys the true nature of reality: interdependence, emptiness. The Pure Land is true and real because it is empty and inextricably connected to every point in space (and time). However, the common, current usage of the English phrase ‘real place’ implies that this is a geographical place, the kind of place that is on a map and that can be visited by travelling by land, water or air. The Pure Land of Amitabha does not seem to have been depicted in maps of the ‘real world’ in India, China or Japan and we are not aware of any expeditions aimed at reaching such a place. This, again, shows how in pre-modern times Buddhists understood the Pure Land to be simultaneously real and metaphorical.

By real we mean real both in the Buddhist sense of expressing the qualities of emptiness and interdependence, and an actual place. However, the literal existence of the Pure Land was never an issue of debate or much consideration -because from the point of view of our liberation from samsara it is largely irrelevant. The story of Gendayu, from the Konjaku Monogatari, a collection of stories from the Heian period, reveals how the Pure Land was traditionally regarded as simultaneously subjective and objective, metaphorical and real[12]. Gendayu was somebody who very literally believed that there was a real-person type Buddha in a very concrete Pure Land, which he tried to reach on foot by walking westwards. In the end he stopped walking and sat on top of a tree looking west. He finally meets Amida, though Gendayu is not thought of as having walked the hundred-thousands of kotis[13] of worlds that separate the Pure Land from our world, as described in the Larger Sutra. He has just wandered off for a few days on a Japanese island. However, Gendayu manages to reach the Pure Land and meet the Buddha, who appears to him where he happens to find himself. The story simultaneously affirms the factuality of Amida and the Pure Land, but also shows their subjective and slippery nature. They only appear on a specific Japanese coastline because of Gendayu’s presence, and crucially, due to Gendayu’s shinjin or faith. On one hand they can be said to be factual realities, directly experienced by Gendayu, but on the other hand they only exist relatively and relationally, because Gendayu and his shinjin are present. The strong subjective element in Gendayu’s story complicates the objectivity of the Pure Land as a place, by showing the deep mutual dependence between subjectivity and objectivity.

Mr. Cirlea is right when he warns us against the danger of shinjin becoming abstract and conceptual. Indeed, the practitioner might need to believe the Pure Land to be in some sense real to truly aspire for it. This however does not automatically mean that the Pure Land is a real place, like Tokyo or San Francisco. We agree that for a person of shinjin the Pure Land cannot be a mere, cold abstraction or idea; it needs to be a lived reality. But by no means that means the practitioner believes or ought to believe the Pure Land to be a real place in the common-sense, daily use of the English word -rooted in a scientific worldview. For Gendayu, the Pure Land in front of him seems very much a reality, but we are not sure we can say it is a place, since it only appears because of Gendayu’s faith and not to others who had looked in the same direction before and after Gendayu climbed up that west-facing tree.

Further, many of the phenomena of the Pure Land seems to fulfil a symbolic function. A good example are the various birds mentioned in the Amida Sutra[14]. The sutra makes the point that these are not ‘real birds’ but manifestation of Amida that teach the dharma through their songs. In fact, the relevant excerpt from the Chinese text (実是罪報所生, “real [birds] born out of the result of evil karma”) uses the kanji 実, commonly translated into English as real, which can be ambivalently understood as implying that the birds are not factual, but also that they are real in the sense that they express the true nature of reality. In other words, in true Mahayana fashion, they are real (i.e. empty) because they are not real (i.e. substantial). The symbolic quality of these birds seems undeniable and it is not unreasonable to think that other elements in the Pure Land (e.g. trees, water, dharma halls) which fulfil the same purpose of expressing the dharma are working as symbols of awakening. Like the personified Amida Buddha, all the forms in the Pure Land act as symbols of the dharmakaya. They are skilful means leading us to the realization of the formless.

Our teacher Shinran Shonin refers to the Pure Land both as a somewhat contained place that is inaccessible from this world and as the formless dynamic of awakening that can’t be pinned to a specific time and place. When writing to his disciples, and offering them consoling words in the context of somebody having lost a loved one, Shinran speaks of the Pure Land as a place where those who died before us await us[15]. Yet at other times the Pure Land is none other than “the spontaneous working”, the same “spontaneous working” that allows us to naturally become Buddhas by saying the nenbutsu[16]. This “spontaneous working”, 自燃 (jinen), is synonymous with emptiness or dharmakaya. Ueda Yoshifumi explains how “Shinran uses jinen to express both suchness or true reality and the working of dharmakaya as compassion to save each being”[17], implying that jinen encompasses both form and the formless and conveys their interrelation. Such a “spontaneous working”, the nature of reality itself, cannot be easily identified with a single place, or person.

Again, like any other skilful means, the Pure Land or the personified Amida, function as precious, living, real symbols that point to a formless reality that constantly manifests everywhere. Their factual or literal existence is besides the point, what matters is that such skilful means lead us to awakening, they show us the way things truly are. For these means to work on us we might need to believe in their existence in a heartfelt and meaningful way, but this does not mean that they are necessarily, or literally, true. The Buddha often used metaphors and symbols to convey profound and subtle points, and the very idea of skilful means echoes the etymology of metaphor: to carry further. The skilful means in question might not be literally true, but it can help us realize an actual truth. The paradigmatic example is perhaps the parable of the burning house in the Lotus Sutra, where a father lures his children out of a burning house by promising them toys that do not exist. Needless to say, the Buddha praises the father saying he did not lie, and metaphorically reinterprets the expedient means of the toys, by stating that preserving your own life is the ultimate toy.

The way the Pure Land is described in the sutras suggests imprecise and unimaginably large distances that are difficult to take literally. The very nature of the Pure Land as a space that interpenetrates all other worlds seems to challenge our daily idea of place, awakening us to a deeper view of reality, where everything exists in mutual dependence. Also, what are we to make of the fact that the Pure Land is said to be in the west? It is difficult to interpret this cardinal direction as other than metaphoric, even within the worldview of the sutras. In an infinite cosmos with countless worlds spanning every direction, how could we ever establish where the west lies? [18] West only works as an absolute reference point if we assume the sun revolves around a flat earth. Indeed, at the time the sutras were written, the common-sense view of the world in India was that the earth was flat, with mount Sumeru at the centre. The earth was believed to be limited but it existed within a cosmos that was boundless, both spatially and temporally. The Pure Land Sutras engage with this dual view of the world and naturally locate the Pure Land within it. The boundlessness of the cosmos seems to resonate with what we currently seem to know about the universe, but the view that the ground we stand on is a flat surface has been proven to be wrong and largely abandoned. In fact, the idea of a flat earth was dispelled very early on in India (among other places), thanks to the observations of the mathematician and astronomer Aryabhatta (476-550 CE). If we are to read the sutras literally, do we also need to assume the earth to be flat? Was that the true intention of Sakyamuni and the seven masters? To turn us all into flat-earthers? Perhaps it is time to “throw away the expedient and take the real; put aside the temporary and take the true”[19].

To leave comments & see further updates:

Correspond with ‘Shin Buddhists Against Hate’: shin.buddhists.against.hate(.at.)


[1] Throughout this heavy-hearted lamentation we shall use many times the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘orthodox’ and it is imperative that our readers are aware of what we exactly mean by them. ‘Traditional’ refers to views or attitudes that reflect a certain historical consensus over a specific issue in a given tradition, whereas Jodo Shinshu, Pure Land Buddhism or Buddhism in general. For instance, we can say that a certain disinterest in policing sexuality is ‘traditional’ to Jodo Shinshu, as sexuality has never been a major point of debate in our non-celibate school of Buddhism. However, when we use the term ‘orthodox’ we refer to an institutional, normative formulation of doctrine that is specific to a certain time and organization. For example, during the late Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods (i.e. in the lead-up to WW2) our mother temple, like all major Buddhist institutions of Japan, issued ‘war-time doctrines’ which showed devotion to the emperor and reformulated the message of Shinran to fit the ideology of the times. Such ‘war-time doctrines’ were orthodoxy at the time, but they were not ‘traditional’, and have since been discarded. A less problematic and current example is the inclusion of the following organizational goal in the current orthodoxy of the Hongwanji-ha: “the realization of a society in which everyone, both within and outside of the organization, is able to live a life of spiritual fulfilment (Shusei, Hongwanji Constitution, p. 1. Also at Such a goal might not have always been part of the traditional mainstream of Jodo Shinshu, though it might be said to reflect a sentiment that was latent in the tradition. In any case, these are examples of how traditional and orthodox might not always go hand in hand.

[2] Paul Roberts, an American literalist, reports on one of his blog post how he “wrote to Eiken [Kobai], and he replied with the help of an American translator”. The full post can be found at 

[3] CWS, p. 428. Also 

[4] Collected Works of Shinran (CWS), Dennis Hirota (head translator) et al., Vol 1., Kyoto: Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, 1997. P. 428. Also available at: 

[5] CWS, p. 428. Also

[6] CWS, p. 380. Also

[7] CWS, p.462. Also

[8] Melissa Curley, ‘Know that we are not good persons’: Pure Land Buddhism and the Ethics of Exile. PhD Thesis submitted to McGill University (Montreal, Quebec), 2009. Pp. 35-36. The full text can be found at 

[9] Larger Sutra. The Three Pure Land Sutras Vol II. Shin Buddhism Translation Series. Inagaki Hisao (editor). Kyoto: Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, 2009. P. 93.

[10] Larger Sutra, p. 26.

[11] CWS, p. 364. Also 

[12] The story of Gendayu, as translated by Royall Tyler, can be found online: 

[13] A koti is an Indian numeral equivalent to 10,000,000

[14] For the original text see For the official Hongwanji-ha English translation see The Amida Sutra and the Contemplation Sutra. The Three Pure Land Sutras, Vol I.   Shin Buddhism Translation Series. Inagaki Hisao (editor). Kyoto: Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, 2009. Pp. 3-13.

[15] In a letter to an unnamed follower, Shinran offers the following words of consolation: “I am truly sad to hear about Kakunen-bo. I had expected that I would go first [to the Pure Land], but I have been left behind; it is unutterably saddening. Kakushin-bo, who left us last year, has certainly gone [to the Pure Land] and is awaiting us there. Needless to say, I will surely meet them there; it is beyond words.” CWS, p. 579. Also 

[16] The wasan referred to here is number 82 in the Koso Wasan collection: “ はよりずれば/なり/はすなはちなり/うたがはず” ( Wasan no. 82). A literal translation would read: As for shinjin, it is born from the vow. Becoming Buddha through Nembutsu is naturalness (jinen). Naturalness is none other than the Fulfilled Land (i.e. Pure Land). Realizing great nirvana is beyond doubt. It seems clear that not only Shinran regards here the Pure Land as a dynamic (i.e. jinen), rather than a place. This same dynamic is what enables us to awaken to shinjin and becoming Buddhas by saying the nenbutsu. It is also what guarantees our eventual attainment of nirvana.

[17] Ueda Yoshifumi, “The Mahayana Structure of Shinran’s Thought” in Listening to Shin Buddhism: Starting Points of Modern Dialogue. Michael Pye (editor).Sheffield, UK: Equinox, 2012, pp. 173-212. P. 202, note 42.

[18] The Avatamsaka Sutra (Kegon, 華厳) lucidly expresses this boundless view of the cosmos in a way very relevant to our discussion. In modern Japanese the passage has been rendered as 大空に東西の区別がないのに、人びとは東西の区別をつけ、東だ西だと執若する (Although in the great space there is neither east nor west, for those who are tenaciously attached to their own views about the differentiation between east and west, there is east and west). Shinran greatly revered and often quoted this sutra. The Japanese translation can be found in さとりの知恵を読む. 仏教伝道協会 (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai). 東京: 2015. p. 96. The English rendering is our own.

[19] The Tannisho: Notes on Lamenting the Differences. Ryukoku Translation Series. The Ryukoku University Translation Centre (tr.). Kyoto: Ryukoku University, 1990. P. 78.

Leave a Reply