Welcome to the Western Quarter!

This blog is devoted to the propagation of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, a 750-year-old Buddhist tradition.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Jodo Shinshu Ritual: Makuragyo

Like other forms of traditional Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu practice has many rituals that its clergy and lay-members perform. "Ritual" can be a word with many definitions - while some may believe that ritual connotates an empty meaning, or rote and unthinking behavior, in the Shinshu tradition it can provide the context in which ordinary Shin followers understand the Buddha-Dharma teachings and implement the Buddha-Dharma in life-affirmations. The most commonly performed rituals involve the memorial service for the deceased, which can come in several forms.

The initial memorial ritual for the deceased is called the makuragyo, or "pillow service." Traditionally, this is conducted at the bedside of the dying individual, although in the modern context it is now usually conducted soon after a person's passing. In Japan, the Shoshinge is used as the liturgical text for chanting; in the United States, it is the Juseige, again primarily for its brevity. Makuragyo may be conducted by the priest or minister, or by an ordained layperson, such as a minister's assistant.

The location of makuragyo depends on the Shin family of the deceased's preferences : it is one of the few Shin rituals not to be usually performed at the temple. It may be at the hospital or hospice (very typical in the U.S.) or if the person has passed at home, it may be conducted at the home, with the family present. Makuragyo is essentially the "last rites" ritual of Shin Buddhism. As with other rites of Shin Buddhism, the Makuragyo does not "ensure" the person in born in the Pure Land, or help with rebirth, but to affirm the Shin Buddhist identity of the individual, and to give the surviving family members the peace-of-mind that memorial services, of any religious tradition, can provide. Buddhist last rites can be performed for any individual, regardless of faith affiliation, if the individual or his/her family or friends so requests. The most recent makuragyo I performed was here in Afghanistan, for a fallen Marine. The rituals of Buddha-dharma help affirm for us the lasting teachings of the Buddha, which apply to any human situation. As death and dying is something that every human and sentient being encounters, so the importance of Dharma is applied, in the form of such ritual, to help us understand this cause and condition.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

How to Read the Pure Land Sutras (Part 2)

In the Contemplation Sutra, which tells the story of Queen Vaidehi's acceptance of the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, she is visited by the Buddha and his disciples Ananda and Maudgalyayana. They do not simply get a prison pass and walk in the prison, but they appear to her seemingly out of thin air. The Buddha shows her a vision of the Pure Land, and Vaidehi decides to be born there. In many other sutras, the Buddha manifests supernatural powers and accomplishes deeds which could be described as "miracles" or, activities which defy scientific laws.

Much of this can disturb readers who are expecting a more "rational" form of teaching (the idea of Buddhism as only philosophy comes to mind), and who could be uncomfortable with concepts like "miracles," which we assume to belong solely to the Christian tradition (yet even some Christians, like Thomas Jefferson, was uncomfortable with this)! However, these can be present in many other religions, including Islam.

How can we understand the sutras with their descriptions of incredible beings, and abilities manifested by the Buddha and his disciples? Should we just accept them "literally" that these beings and powers existed in history, or just dismiss them as elaborate yet impossible depictions created later by imaginative scribes? Should we accept one explanation without question, and then deny absolutely the opposite opinion? If the sutras contain "impossible" depictions, how can it be reliable? Where is the truth in its pages? Can it speak to us in today's worlds, with 21st-century issues?

I believe that the answer may lie in between these explanations. The Pure Land sutras were not written to be a only a dry, historical account of the Buddha and his teachings, they were also written to convey the idea of the Buddha's uniqueness, to encourage devotion and adherence to the Pure Land teachings, and the wider Mahayana tradition. In the Lotus Sutra, it is encouraged to follow this particular book, while other sutras say that this sutra is best. Is one false and the other true? Yes, some Buddhists have argued one is true and the others all heretical (as the Japanese monk Nichiren did in favor of the Lotus teachings).

The sutra is not only a primer of "philosophy" but a text that is, perhaps pardoxically, irrational. It is meant to take us to a separate level of understanding, perhaps similar to the purpose of the Zen koan. When we read the Pure Land sutras, we read with the mind of faith. This mind of faith is not the mind of "blind faith" (of which many people criticize religion for) but rather the mind of opening the mind to the realm of the Pure Land. We may compare Vaidehi's example, of receiving the manifestation of the Pure Land in her mind.

However, we have to combine our reason with our devotion TOGETHER, to read the Pure Land sutras. Simply stating that everything in the sutras is "literally" true or that everything in the sutra is merely smoke and mirrors for another meaning is falling to an extreme, which we should always try to avoid. Many Christians struggle also with reading the Bible, and take great care how they approach it; as the Pure Land sutras are our "holy text" we should take an approach of equal respect and critical reading towards the sutras (which exist in several different versions). Not to do this can lead us to error and the calamities of doubt, or perhaps worse, to what we see afflicting the religions today. Most people only see this played out on our TV screens. Seeing it in person, in Afghanistan for example, leads me to understand that how we read the sutras is crucial to our own understanding of why it is so important to read the sutras, with always the goal of the Buddha in mind - to achieve peace and compassion, beginning with oneself.

Friday, July 16, 2010

How to Read the Pure Land Sutras: Reading (Part 1)

Reading the Pure Land sutras, or any Buddhist sutra, can be an eye-opener! Historically, probably not many Buddhists read the sutras, especially if they were from the lower strata of society; typically portions of it would be read to them, or created as part of a shomyo (chanting liturgy). Typically only monastics engaged in the study and exigesis of sutras may have bothered to read the sutras, and write commentaries on them. We have few instances of lay Buddhists doing the same.

Today, we have many sutras available, including the three Pure Land sutras regarded as primary in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, including editions available in English-language (see earlier posts). Unlike other sutras, like the Heart Sutra or the Lotus Sutra, they're not readily available at the bookstore, even independent bookstores specializing in "New Age" or "metaphysical" titles. Even in our American Shin temples, the sutras are not exactly the preferred reading choice for many members. One possible reason for this is the lack of easy availability of the titles (even with Amazon), and also that the Pure Land tradition in general has not really gained the popularity that sutras more familiar to Zen or other forms of Buddhism use. But also, if you take a look at the "Eastern Religions" section in your local Borders or Barnes & Noble, the majority of titles available tend to be mostly popular books written about Buddhism and meditation, rather than ready translations of Buddhist sutras.

I've often been asked for copies of the "Buddhist scripture" as a chaplain by people interested in Buddhism. They've read books about Buddhism, so they want to see what the "scripture" itself says. This is a natural result of our Western culture, and a very good thing - we are encouraged to study religions on our own, and one way to do that is to read what their scriptures, or the teachings themselves, say, whether it is the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. When they read these sacred texts, it may be in the context as a "believer" or member of a specific faith, which will also inform them how to read them, whether as "infallible" or in some degree open to interpretation. Of course they may also come to it as a nonbeliever, or "undecided" meaning that they will read it skeptically, or in some other context which will allow them to decide for themselves what to believe. For those coming to the Buddhist sutras, it is also not different from these forms of readings.

For Buddhists, we have a multiplicity of "scripture!" But even reading one, takes some dedication - a willingness to open one's mind, and to have patience with a translated text, and also, together with an open mind, not have it be too open. We should acknowledge: 1) That the Buddha, nor his immediate disciples (Ananda, Sariputra, Maudgalyayana, et al.) did not write down their teachings; 2) That we only have sutras passed down from an oral tradition; 3) That these oral teachings were only committed to writing several generations, at earliest, after the Buddha's Parinirvana, or at least the ones extant today. Therefore, we can never say we have the Buddha's exact words, either in his own language, or correctly translated by later scribes. At most, we can accept we have the Buddha's intent, passed down through his disciples via the oral tradition, and also via samadhi, by later monks gifted in that ability. If you are skeptical about the latter, then accepting the Pure Land tradition can certainly be awkward! Like other sacred books, to read it as a believer takes faith, in that the Buddha's intent was passed down correctly. Unless we obtain a time-machine and tape-recorder, we cannot say we have the Buddha's exact words.

You may also see that the sutras may not seem interconnected, in the way the book of the Bible can be. Buddhists may read one particular sutra, or as a group. In Shin Buddhism, we can read the Three Pure Land Sutras as a group.

Let's look at the Larger Pure Land Sutra. As a sutra, it opens with the traditional statement "Thus have I heard" (Evam me sutam), signifying that the author has heard the teaching. In the ancient Indian tradition, the oral tradition was considered more "pure" than the written text, or less corruptible. The sutra is therefore this anonymous author's faithful account of events he heard and witnessed .
(to be cont'd)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

How to Read the Pure Land Sutras: Translation (Part 2)

Shinran Shonin recognized three specific sutras on the Pure Land as primary: these are The Larger Pure Land Sutra, the Contemplation Sutra, and the Smaller Sutra (or Amida Sutra). Several different English translations exist of these sutras. These sutras are physically placed within the Shinshu onaijin, or alter space, in the form of scrolls with text in the classical Japanese format. They become part of the ritual element during a Shin service, although these are rarely chanted in American temples (with exception of the Amida Sutra for memorial services, and the others only for certain services in Japan.

These three sutras have also been translated by both Japanese and American Shin ministers and priests. Other translations may be authored by scholars unaffiliated with the Jodo Shinshu. The early Buddhist scholar Max Mueller made a translation which was published in the "Sacred Books of the East" series and is available in reprint. Dr. Luis O. Gomez also made a translation of the Sanskrit and Chinese Larger Sutra, published as The Land of Bliss. There are also other translations by scholars affiliated with other Buddhist or Pure Land traditions like the Buddha's Light Publishing Amitabha Sutra Chinese/English edition, which is affiliated with the Fo Guang Shan school and available at their temples at no cost.

For those wishing to study these sutras, I would recommend that the student study all the sutras one can to further their understanding of Buddhist sacred texts, although with an eye to understanding how the translations may differ due to the author's intent. Not all of these translations will necessarily translate the meaning of the sutra as we would understand in the Shin tradition. A translation made by Shinshu scholars, such as Hisao Inagaki or others, will use the accepted Chinese text (translated by Samghavarman) as contained in the Taisho Tripitaka, and the translation will be directed at the Shinshu audience with the objective of making the sutra understandable to Shin followers or those interested in Shin Buddhism.

Other translators, like Mueller and Gomez, aimed to make their translations available to a wider audience, not necessarily only for the Shinshu, or Buddhist, follower, but also for other scholars. Therefore the translators may place different emphasis on some passages, or use different English words for certain concepts, such as saying the Name of Amida. For a Shin follower, reading a text that is translated with the intent of making the Vow of Amida clear and comprehensible is the primary importance. This is not to claim other translations are incorrect, but only that the intent of translation is not directed at the Shinshu Sangha audience. As with any translation of a religious text, it is also left to the individual reader to accept that translation as his or her one for devotional use, similar to how a Christian may prefer a KJV over an NIV translated Bible.

Next, will be a post on how one should read a sutra with the goal of understanding the overall meaning for the Shin follower.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

How to Read the Pure Land Sutras: Translation (Part 1)

Reading a Buddhist sutra can be very different from what might be expected, especially if you were raised with the Christian Bible, or it may be your only experience with reading a religious text. The Bible is laid out as a narrative story (Creation to Revelations and End Times), except for several books that are about ancient Jewish ritual laws. A Buddhist sutra does not necessarily tell a "story" and many passages appear repetitive, or simply bizarre to the new reader. In some sutras, the Buddha manifests what we would describe as "supernatural" powers, and there are lots of otherworldly beings hanging about: devas, nagas, spirits, etc., who don't necessarily participate in a narrative "story." This can seem very confusing especially for someone who is curious about what the Buddhist "scriptures" say, to pick up and read and try to make sense of it. Even many Buddhists who do not read the sutras may find them hard to read! A person can open the Bible and read the story of Joshua and his wars or Moses and the wanderings of the Jews, or read in the New Testament and read about Jesus' life and ministry. In contrast, a person who picks up, for example, the Lotus Sutra or the Larger Pure Land Sutra may have no idea what is happening, and not know when or why such events are taking place. Therefore, some guidance is necessary if a person wants to seriously engage in reading the sutras, and importantly, to make sense of them and acquire wisdom from them.

First, let us look at the physical text itself. Only a few sutras and commentaries (shastras) exist in English translations, and as with any translations into one language from another language (in our case Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese to English) they can vary in style and quality. A translated sutra reflect the times they were written in and the author’s attempt to use English to translate some very difficult and different concepts. It’s not unusual to still find Buddhist sutras (especially early editions) translated such as “The Lord Buddha thus spake to his disciples…” This is not the translator’s trying to be obtuse, it is a reflection of what he thought would be the proper English usage. Until recently, only “King James” English was thought proper to use in Bibles and for “religious” language. Now there are dozens of Bible translations, most using contemporary English, but there are still people who belive only the King James translation is the accurate version. Unfortunately we do not have the luxury of having dozens of sutra translations to choose which is the most "readable", and unless we know the original language of the sutra, we cannot know ourselves how accurate or good it may be. We trust to the translator or translation committee that they are doing their best. However, we also have to be mindful that the translation, in an well-meaning attempt to be readable, does not sacrifice the meaning for the sake of "readability." We trust a sutra's translation usually in context of our own tradition.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pure Land Quote of the Week: Truth Dispels Our Evil Karma

"The evildoer in question has committed evils in a false and perverted frame of mind, whereas the ten repetitions of the Name arise when he hears the teaching of Truth from a good friend who consoles him by various skilful means. One is truthful and the other false. How can they be compared with each other? Suppose there is a room which has been dark for a thousand years. If light is cast into the room even for a short while, the room will instantly become bright. How could the darkness refuse to leave because it has been there for a thousand years?"

The above quote is from the Ojoronchu, or T'an-luan's Commentary on Vasubandhu's Discourse on the Pure Land. Vasubandhu and T'an-luan are two Masters of the Jodo Shinshu Pure Land lineage. The "teaching of Truth" is the teaching of the Nembutsu. When we are settled in Faith, or shinjin, we thoroughly understand Amida Buddha's salvific power, and regardless of our past karma, can be brought to Birth in the Pure Land and thus liberation. Different Pure Land Schools have debated on the number of repetitions one should make of the Nembutsu: ten times or just one time, or any combination. This was quite a vigorous and contentious debate back in the day! However, in Jodo Shinshu teaching, how many times we repeat Nembutsu is not important, as compared to the importance of awakening Faith (shinjin). Saying the Name without shinjin is just our own voice; saying the Nembutsu with shinjin is Amida's Voice and our voice as one.

The metaphor of the darkened room is ourselves as beings of evil karma who are "dark" because of the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance/stupidity. All human beings are like a darkened room! T'an-luan explains that the Name of Amida can be for us a way to bring light into the room. Once we embrace the Name, our inherent darkness has no choice but to dissipate. No matter our past negative karma, Amida Buddha is the light that can transform us - thus a meaning of the name of Amida (or Amitabha) is "Limitless Light." I truly appreciate this passage as it clearly and simply helps us to understand the working of Amida's Name, and provides hope for beings like ourselves who otherwise have no abilities, in these times, to comprehend the profundity of Buddha-Dharma.

The Ojoronchu exists in two English translations. One is the 1998 Inagaki translation, published by Nagata Bunshodo. The other is an unpublished dissertation by the late Buddhist scholar Roger Corless. I met Dr. Corless as a graduate student, and have a copy of this dissertation (I am not sure if it is available through dissertation Web sites or through interlibrary loan). The Corless translation differs slightly from Inagaki's as Dr. Inagaki is a Shinshu scholar, and Dr. Corless approached the text from a different perspective. Once I return from deployment, if anyone would like a copy, you can contact me.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Smaller Sutra on Amida Buddha

The Smaller Sutra on Amida Buddha, also known as the Amida Sutra (Amidakyo) is the last of the three Pure Land Sutras that make up the principal Dharma texts of the Jodo Shin School of Pure Land Buddhism. It is a very brief sutra, and it is typically chanted during funeral services at Shinshu temples (also Shoshinge is sometimes used instead). This sutra contanis another description of the glories of the Pure Land, and then a longer recitation of the Buddhas in the ten directions who witness the validity of the Pure Land and Amida’s Vow to bring all sentient beings there. At its conclusion, the Buddha proclaims to Sariputra that this sutra is the most difficult to accept in faith; in fact, he repeats this assertion at least twice in the text. Importantly, the Buddha emphasizes that those individuals who have taken refuge in the Vow of Amida Buddha, and aspire to be born in the Pure Land, dwell in the stage of Non-Retrogression, thereby not falling back into the cycle of birth-and-death.

“Sariputra, those who have already aspired, now aspire or in the future will aspire to be born in the land of Amida Buddha, all dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression for realizing the highest, perfect Enlightenment. They have already been born, are now being born, or will be born in that land. Hence, Sariputra, good men and women of faith should aspire to be born there.” Inagaki translation, p. 359.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Sutra on Contemplation of Amitayus

The Jodo Shin School upholds three sutras as its principal Dharma texts. One is the Larger Sutra on Amitayus (another name for Amida), and the second is the Sutra on Contemplation of Amitayus. The Larger Sutra is the most important one, as it contains the story of Dharmakara Bodhisattva and the 48 Vows (see the Juseige below) including the 18th Vow, which is the basis of Shinran Shonin's thought. The Contemplation Sutra as it is also known, contains the story of Prince Ajatasatru's usurpation of the throne of his father, King Bimbisara of Rajagriha, one of the Buddha's royal followers, and his mother Queen Vaidehi's imprisonment; these events resulted in her taking refuge in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.

Much of the text contains instructions on the visualization of the elements of the Pure Land; while very interesting in its detailed description,Shin Buddhism does not maintain that we must actually practice these visualization techniques (although they may be practiced in other Pure Land schools); our understanding of this sutra lies in the inspirational story of Queen Vaidehi and also the other participants in this story, including the "evil" Prince Ajatasatru. Shinran Shonin maintained that these all principals acted for our benefit to understand Amida Buddha's Great Compassion for people of evil karma, which is ourselves.

"If good men or women simply hear the Name of this Buddha or the names of the two bodhisattvas, the evil karma which they have committed during innumerable kalpas of Samsara will be extinguished...You should know that all who are mindful of that Buddha are like white lotus-flowers among humankind; the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara [Kannon] and Mahasthamaprapta [Seishi] become their good friends. They will sit in the place of Enlightenment and be born into the family of the Buddhas."
- Inagaki translation, pp.349-350.

Friday, April 9, 2010


An excerpt from the Larger Pure Land Sutra is typically chanted in Jodo Shinshu temples in the United States, but I don't believe as much in Japan, which is usually Shoshinge, the "Hymn of True Shinjin." This excerpt is known as the Juseige, an important excerpt in the story of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, who after making vows to save all sentient beings, repeats this in verse in the sutra:

"I have made vows, unrivalled in all the world;
I shall certainly reach the unsurpassed Way.
If these vows should not be fulfilled,
May I not attain perfect Enlightenment.

If I should nto become a great benefactor
In lives to come for immeasurable kalpas
To save the poor and afflicted everywhere,
May I not attain perfect Enlightenment.

When I attain Buddhahood,
My Name shall be heard throughout the ten quarters;
Should there be any place where it is not heard,
May I not attain perfect Enlightenment.

Free of greed and with profound mindfulness
And pure wisdom, I will perform the sacred practices;
I will seek to attain the unsurpassed Way
And become the teacher of devas and humans.

With my divine power I will display great light,
Illuminating the worlds without limit,
And dispell the darkness of the three defilements;
Thus I will deliver all beings from misery.

Having obtained the eye of wisdom,
I will remove the darkness of ignorance;
I will block all the evil paths
And open the gate to the good realms.

When merits and virtues are perfected,
My majestic light shall radiate in the ten quarters,
Outshining the sun and the moon
And surpassing the brilliance of the heavens.

I will open the Dharma-store for the multitudes
And endow them all with treasures of merit.
Being always among the multitudes,
I will proclaim the Dharma with the lion's roar.

I will make offerings to all the Buddhas,
Thereby acquiring the roots of virtue.
When my vows are fulfilled and my wisdom perfected,
I shall be the sovereign of the three worlds.

Like your unhindered wisdom, O Buddha,
Mine shall reach everywhere, illuminating all;
May my supreme wisdom
Be like yours, Most Honored One.

If these vows are not fulfilled
Let this universe of a thousand million words shake in response
And let all the devas in heaven
Rain down rare and marvellous flowers.
[Inagakai translation]

Following this chanting is a recital of 6 nembutsus and a short ekoku, or dedication of merit.
This is the "backstory" of the Amida Buddha, who thus established the Pure Land. Pure Land Buddhists consider the Vows of Dharmakara to be fulfilled kalpas ago; while there are many diverse Pure Land practices, Shin Buddhists accept that to go to the Pure Land, one does not need to do practices or other merit-making activities, but allow oneself to embraced by Amida and the Vow.

In future posts I will focus exclusively on discussing the Three Pure Land Sutras, since I have a copy with me here.
Namo Amida Butsu

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Importance of Study

I am currently deployed to Afghanistan so unfortunately I cannot post as often as I would like to this blog! However, during the down time here (and in the absence of many recreational activities we take for granted!), I am taking the opportunity to engage in some study of the Pure Land texts. Although we rightly say that faith, or tariki ("Other-Power") is foremost in our tradition, this does not necessarily imply that we shouldn't take advantage of studying the writings of not only Shinran Shonin, our founder, but also of the Seven Pure Land Masters the sutras themselves, and even writings by contemporary Pure Land scholars and priests. This is the reason for my earlier posts of some quotes and other books. In my job as chaplain, I often encounter Buddhists and it still surprises me of how little is known of their own traditions. However, this equally is true of many members in our Jodo Shinshu temples, who for one reason or another have never picked up a Pure Land text other than the service book for chanting. Although we are a tradition of ritual, like other Buddhist traditions, we should also remember that Shinran Shonin and Rennyo Shonin actively promoted the study of the Pure Land, through their letters and writings, and asked that their letters be read to others. It's not just for scholars! Ideally, we should all put on our "scholar cap," take a break from the TV or Internet, and pick up a Pure land text to read. Every time I read the writings of the Masters, I still find something new and inspiring, that can speak directly to me although they were written centuries ago. Don't think that the texts are "too intellectual" or too hard to read - take a chance and go to the source! This is how we can eliminate our own doubts about the efficacy of the Pure Land, and Jodo Shinshu teachings.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Letter of Rennyo

"When I reflect quietly, I realize that one receives life in the human world due solely to the merit of observing the five precepts in one's past life. This is indeed a rare thing to happen. Life in the human world, however, is but momentary and ephemeral the life in the Pure Land is the eternal, blissful fruit.
Even if we boast of pomp and glory and revel in prosperity, we cannot enjoy such a state for long, because 'those who prosper will necessarily decline, and those who meet must definitely part' is the way of the world. Life lasts only fifty or a hundred years. In addition, since it is not certain whether death comes to the old first and then to the young, human life is hardly reliable.
For this reason, people of today should seek the entrusting heart of Other Power and aspire to be born in the Pure Land.
In order to attain the entrusting heart, you do not need wisdom or learning; it is not a question of whether you are rich and noble or poor and destitute, whether you are good or evil, male or female. The essential point is to give up various practices and take refuge in the right practice, that is, the nembutsu.
To take refuge in the right practice means simply to entrust yourselves to Amida Tathagata single-mindedly and unwaveringly.
Those beings who thus entrust themselves to Amida will all be embraced in his light and not be forsaken; when their lives come to an end, they will unfailingly be brought to the Pure Land. Your birth in the Pure Land is attainable only through the single thought of the settled mind. How easy it is to attain the settled mind which is free of calculations! This is why the two-character word, 'an-jin' also means 'easily attained mind.'
You will be born in the land of bliss only through having the entrusting heart - a single-minded and unwavering reliance on the Tathagata without any calculations.
How easy it is to realize the settled mind! How easy it is to go to the Pure Land!
Hence, it is stated in the Larger Sutra, 'To go is easy and yet no one is born there.' This passage means that it is easy to go to the Pure Land if you attain the settled mind and entrust yourselves unwaveringly to Amida, but those who atain the entrusting heart are rare. For this reason, the sutra states that the Pure Land is easy to go to but there is no one who is born there.
Calling the Name day and night, morning and evening, after you have reached this understanding, is simply to express your gratitude for the benevolence of the universal Vow of great compassion.
You should, by all means, keep in mind the Buddha Dharma and seek to know the essentials of the entrusting heart which is easy to gain, and never fail to attain birth in the fulfilled land, the matter of the greatest importance.
Humbly and respectfully."

Rennyo Shonin's most important body of written work is his letters to Nembutsu followers throughout Japan. Many of these were compiled in a collection known as the Gobunsho. These letters address many aspects of Jodo Shinshu doctrine; one of the most important is the letter known as "On White Ashes," concerning the transience of human life and which is recited today during funerals. Other letters are also used in Jodo Shinshu liturgy.

The purpose of these letters was to instruct Shinshu followers, and they are still used for that purpose today. This particular letter encapsulates the basic teachings of the Dharma, such as impermanence and the concepts of rebirth and karma. It is uniquely Jodo Shinshu in the emphasis of birth in the Pure Land (that it restricts no one) and how it stresses importance of the "entrusting heart," as shinjin is translated here. The mind that is transformed by shinjin is anjin, or "settled mind." Anjin is explained further in other letters. We are also cautioned to know that shinjin can be uncommon, perhaps this was to keep in mind that entrusting in the Vow of Amida Buddha is a truly transformative experience; also, that it can't be gifted by other teachers. For this reason, we should treat the idea of shinjin with care, being wary of people who speak carelessly about it, and especially cautious of those who claim shinjin (or, conversely, deny others' shinjin reality. Shinjin, as a personal transformative experience, is entirely left to the individual and his or her understanding and faith. Therefore, this can be a clue to reading the puzzling statement, "To go is easy, and yet no one is born there!"

Friday, February 26, 2010

Pure Land Quote of the Week

"The Shonin said, 'When a single thought of Faith is awakened in us, our birth in the Pure Land is definitely settled. It is left up to Amida Tathagata whether or not he saves us after destroying our karmic evil. It is useless for us to discuss matters concerning our karmic evil. What concerns us is that Amida saves those who entrust themselves to him."

The Shonin in this quote is Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499), the second most influential person in Jodo Shinshu history aside from Shinran Shonin, who was his direct ancestor. He is often referred to as the "Second Founder" because of his great organizational and preaching abilities, which made the True Pure Land School a distinct religious and also a social and political power in medieval Japan. His 500th memorial service held in 1998 in Kyoto, Japan, was attended by thousands of Shin Buddhists from all over the world.

In this quote, we are reminded of the importance of shinjin, or entrusting to Amida Buddha, as primary among all Dharma matters. Although the ancient idea of karma is important in Buddhist doctrine, we should not excessively worry about it. Our karmic debt is like credit card debt - although we may "try" to make merit and acquire good karma, we could never truly be certain whether we have alleviated our karma, and of course we go on making more! It is easy to fall into depression and disillusion when considering this. Therefore, it is more reasonable to rely on Amida's Vow.

This quote comes from a collection of Rennyo Shonin's words, recorded by later Shinshu members, the Goichidaiki-kikigaki . There are two translations available in English: the most recent one (2008) is by Zuio Hisao Inagaki-sensei published by Dharma Lion Publications, and an earlier translation by Kosho Yamamoto, published by The Karinbunko Press in 1968 (out-of-print).

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pure Land Quote of the Week

"It is saddening that so many people, both young and old, men and women, have died this year and last. But the Tathagata [Amida Buddha] taught the truth of life's transience for us fully, so you must not be distressed by it.
I, for my own part, attach no significance, good or bad, of a person in his final moments. People in whom shinjin is determined do not doubt, and so abide among the truly settled. For this reason their end also - even for those ignorant and foolish - is a happy one.
You have been explaining to people that one attains birth through the Tathagata's working; it is in no way otherwise. What I have been saying to all of you from many years past has not changed. Simply achieve your birth, firmly avoiding all scholarly debate. I recall hearing the late Master Honen say, 'The person of the Jodo tradition attains birth in the Buddha Land by becoming his foolish self.' Moreover, I remember him smile and say, as he watched humble people of no intellectual pretensions coming to visit him, 'Without doubt their birth is settled.' And I head him say after a visit by a man brilliant in letters and debating, 'I really wonder about his birth.' To this day these things come too mind.
Each of you should attain your birth without being misled by people and without faltering in shinjin. However, the practice in whom shinjin has not become settled will continue to drift, even without being misled by anyone, for he does not abide among the truly settled.
Please relay what I have written here to the others. Respectfully."

This is an excerpt from a letter to Joshin-bo, one of the followers of Shinran Shonin, the founder of the Jodo Shinshu. It can be read in English in the Mattosho, or "Letters of Shinran." This letter was written in 1260.

Reading these letters, particularly the excerpt above, I am struck by how timely Shinran's message is. We still have wars and natural disasters, and no lack of personal tragedy in our own lives. Shinran encourages us to be settled in shinjin, no matter what happens. He cautions us not to be misled by others, even if they have good intentions. Each one of us, regardless of how much we've studied, read Dharma books, or listened to charismatic teachers, is equal in Amida Buddha's consideration. No amount of meditations or meritorious activities are required: we do only need to humbly accept Amida's Power. I think perhaps this is the most difficult for us, living in the 21st-century, the concept of simply accepting.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Pure Land Quote of the Week

"The Buddha said: 'If a man or a woman single-heartedly and exclusively recites Amida's Name for one to seven days, when his or her life is about to end, Amida Buddha will come in person to welcome him or her, thus enabling the aspirant to be born in the Western Land of Utmost Bliss.' Sakyamuni Buddha continued: 'As I see this benefit, I have spoken these words."

This a quote from The Sutra on Amitayus Buddha, one of the three Pure Land sutras which are the principle sutras of the Jodo Shin School. It is also quoted in one of the writings of the Seven Masters, Shan-tao's Kannenbomon ("The Method of Contemplation on Amida"). Pure Land Buddhists, whether of the Shinshu or another school, whether in Japan or China, take these words to heart and practice chanting Amida's Name to be born in the Pure Land.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"The Western Quarter"

The title of this blog "The Western Quarter" comes from the Inagaki English Translation of Ojoraisan, in English "Liturgy for Birth" composed by the Chinese monk Shan-tao, who lived in the 7th-century. Shan-tao is one of the "Seven Masters" of the Jodo Shinshu. These "Seven Masters" form something like a "lineage" which stretches back to Sakyamuni Buddha, and ultimately, to Amida Buddha. This is typical of Buddhist schools: a series of teachers provides a historical connection (but not necessarily a direct link, in some cases) back to the original teacher (Sakyamuni); some famous teachers of the past, such as Nagarjuna, are important in the lineage of many diverse Buddhist schools, while other teachers are important to only a few specific ones. It depends on the school. The Ojoraisan is typically chanted like a sutra, and is not regularly conducted in Shin temples outside of Japan. Prior to the time of Rennyo Shonin (15th-century CE), it was regularly conducted in Japan (also in other Pure Land traditions), but was eventually replaced by other liturgies (possibly because of its length - it may have been performed round-the-clock).

However, Ojoraisan is a very beautiful liturgy; the essence is Shan-tao's aspiration, and aspiration for others, to be born in the "Western Quarter" or the Pure Land of Amida Buddha. Amida Buddha is the Buddha of the Western Quarter, in Sanskrit sukhavati, Japanese, ojodo, or Chinese, jingtu.

What is the Pure Land? This is the realm where Buddhahood may be realized, and attained by all sentient beings. This is a major tradition within Mahayana Buddhism (also if we include the Tibetan traditions), which elaborates on the realms of the Buddhas. Pure Land is possibly the most accessible of all Buddhist traditions, as it emphasizes faith in, and devotion to Amida Buddha (and the possibility of Buddhahood), but this doesn't mean it cannot be profound. There are many Mahayana sutras whose topic is solely on the Pure Land, commentaries which discuss it, and just as many rituals and practices which accompany these beliefs. It is probably beyond the scope of a blog(!) to discuss all the complexities of Pure Land Buddhism, so future posts will focus on how Jodo Shinshu interprets Pure Land teachings. Jodo Shinshu recognizes certain Pure Land sutras as particularly authoritative for its tradition, and the writings of the "Seven Masters" as of special importance. Together with the writings of Shinran Shonin, they provide the basis for the Jodo Shinshu teachings.

If you are interested in Pure Land teachings, go directly to the sources! However, there are not many books that focus on Pure Land Buddhism at your usual Borders or Barnes & Noble, unless it is a general overview-type book. In fact, there are some books that tend to neglect or even dismiss outright the Pure Land tradition because it seems too "faith-based"! Unfortunately, not many of the Pure Land sutras or writings of the Seven Masters are too readily available in English translation; you may have to try some online searching. Try Amida Net linked at the right of this blog, or the BCA Bookstore, where the Inagaki translation of Ojoraisan is available.

Namo Amida Butsu

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Hello all!

This is a new blog which will be devoted to the propagation of the teachings of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (also known as "Shin Buddhism"), a 750-year-old Japanese Buddhist school. Jodo Shinshu, which means "The True Pure Land School," has its origins in medieval Japan, and in the East Asian Mahayana tradition, more specifically, the Pure Land tradition. While all Buddhist traditions ultimately go back to the historical Sakyamuni Buddha (or "Gotama Buddha"), the Jodo Shinshu tradition itself was founded by Shinran Shonin and kept alive by his disciples and family, up to today. While the majority of Jodo Shinshu temples are in Japan, there are also temples, and many devoted sanghas, in countries around the world, including the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa.

This blog will aim to present Jodo Shinshu faithfully, and in a manner that is neither overly academic nor "dumbed down." If you are new to Buddhism, I hope this blog can answer some of your questions about this particular Buddhist tradition. If you are a long-time Shinshu follower, I also hope this blog will refresh your understanding, and that you may still learn new things! We are all newcomers to Dharma.

Since this blog will focus on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, you may not find questions answered about other Buddhist traditions - I am ordained only in the Shinshu tradition. Although I have studied other forms of Buddhism, and visited other Buddhist temples, I am certainly not an expert on any of them. I cannot give you any advice on "which Buddhism is better" type of questions, only perhaps a personal and frank explanation of why Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is the path I "practice."

If you are familiar with my other blog, Buddhist Military Sangha, that is open to discussions of all forms of Buddhism, not only Jodo Shinshu (please visit)! Like that blog too, I will not engage in political debate here, or engage in ad hominem attacks on other teachers, or other religions. I will, however, speak out against mischaracterizations about Jodo Shinshu, in order to remove confusion or incorrect descriptions. That is also part of propagation!

I may not be posting too often, since I am going to be very busy soon with deployment, but I hope to get this blog on a good start in this Year of the Tiger. Check back soon!

Namo Amida Butsu
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The Western Quarter by Jeanette Shin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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