Shinran’s Distillation of the Essence of the Mahayana into the Quintessence of the Ekayana


Even more so than Honen, Shinran is often held (by proponents and opponents alike) to have initiated innovations regarding the theory and practice of Buddha-Dharma.

As has been explained elsewhere in this Dharmalog, Shinran was not an innovator, for he was—as he often declared himself to be—”Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Sakyamuni“! Disciples cannot innovate, they may only faithfully transmit the tradition as they have received it. Be that as it may, true disciples can and must employ upaya-kaushalya (that is, ‘skillful use of expedient means’) to project the teaching so that it is applicable and functional within contexts significantly different than those for which it was originally established.

Shinran was very conscious of the need to bring BuddhaDharma out of the stultifying, elitist and spiritually bankrupt monastic institutions of his time, and allow for its dispersion outside of the monastery and into the lives, hearts and minds of the laity – not excluding the simple, the ignorant and the disenfranchised.

Shinran Shonin‘s legacy to us, for which I am supremely grateful, is his successful distillation of the essence of the teachings of the Mahayana (or, Great-Vehicle)—which many find to be recondite and convoluted—into the simple and easy quintessence of the Ekayana (or, One-Vehicle – aka the Buddhayana, or Buddha-Vehicle).

The charge against him

Shinran stands accused of encouraging partisanship and sectarianism by extolling the virtues of Hozo Bosatsu (that is, Bodhisattva Dharmakara), Amida Butsu (that is, Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light), and Gokuraku (that is, Sukhavati, the realm of ultimate bliss) in contradistinction to the many other Bodhisattvas (or, enlightening beings), Buddhas (or, enlightened beings) and DharmaDhatus (or, Buddha-Lands/Dharma-realms).

After much reflection, this charge appears unfounded—though it is easy to understand how one might interpret the Shonin in such a way. As we have mentioned elsewhere, in the Lotus Scripture (Myōhō Renge Kyō, Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra or Miàofǎ Liánhuá Jīng) Sakyamuni declares his unicity—his identity—with all ‘other’ Buddhas; saying, in fact, that there is only one Buddha and all the various names, specific qualities, and lifespans are so many instances of upaya:

I have constantly been preaching and teaching in this sāha-world, and also leading and benefiting all living beings in other places in hundreds of thousands of myriads of nayutas of asamkhyeya domains… During this time I have ever spoken of myself as the Buddha Burning Light and other [Buddhas], and have also told of their entering into nirvana. Thus have I tactfully described them all … Whenever living beings come to me, I behold with a Buddha’s eyes all the faculties, keen or dull, of their faith and so on. And I explain to them, in stage after stage, according to their capacity and degree of salvation, my different names and the length of my lives.

The need to look beyond the manifest, historical Buddha to the Samboghakaya and ultimately the Dharmakaya is the explicit teaching of the Flower Ornament Scripture (Kegon Kyo, Avatamsaka Sutra or Hua Yen Jīng)—a scripture quoted often in KyoGyoShinSho:

If a person, for a hundred-thousand years,
should look to the Tathagata
without relying upon ultimate reality,
but only seeing the world’s savior,
such a person, attached to form,
enlarges the net of ignorance and delusion
and remains tied to the wheel of birth and death.
Deluded, such a person never looks upon the true Buddha.

The quote from the Lotus Scripture (further above) is a skillful way of indicating that there is only one Buddha, but there is no clear and explicit indication of what the shared nature of that singular Buddhahood might be. However, the quote from the Flower Ornament Scripture (immediately above) clearly states that the shared and ultimate nature of Buddhahood is the DharmaKaya (that is, ultimate reality without form).

That such an understanding of the relationship between the supreme nirvana of Dharmakaya (without form) and the world savior, Śākyamuni as Nirmanakaya (with form) via Amida as Samogakaya (with subtle form) as the sotereologically efficacious link between them is also Shinran Shonin‘s understanding, is clear from the following:

The supreme Buddha is formless, and because of being formless is called jinen. When this Buddha is shown as being with form, it is not called the supreme nirvana. In order to make us realize that the true Buddha is formless, it [the Sambogakaya] is expressly called Amida Buddha: so I have been taught. Amida Buddha is the medium through which we are made to realize jinen. – Letters of Shinran, ed Yoshifmi Ueda, pg. 30.

Shinran was not extolling devotion to Amida over devotion to some other Buddha such as Vairocana, he was skillfully removing the need to differentiate between Buddhas which ultimately have a single, shared nature. By reinforcing to the need look past the world savior to the formless  ultimate reality of Buddha-nature through the medium of the subtle reality of Amida, he made it possible for all (not excluding the simple and ignorant among the faithful) to concentrate their devotion on Amida as Sambogakaya (fulfillment-body) and thus to realize jinen as Dharmakaya (the dharma-body which is the absolute, or ultimate, reality without form referred to in the quote from the Flower Ornament Scripture as well as the relative absolute or dharma-body as compassionate means). So, the Shonin distilled the many and various supra-historical Buddhas (as mentioned in the Lotus Scripture) down to their single and ultimate shared nature: the formless Dharmakaya (as mentioned in the Flower Ornament Scripture).

So also for the supposed preferential treatment of Bodhisattva Dharmakara (or, Dharma Treasury) and Gokuraku (or, Land of Ultimate Bliss). There was no intent to indicate a preference for Bodhisattva Dharmakara over any other Bodhisattva like Samantabadhra, Mañjuśrī, or Avalokitesvara, nor was there any intention to glorify Gokuraku over any other Buddha-land (that is, DharmaDhatu). Shinran, Honen and the other Pure Land Masters were conscious of a need to render BuddhaDharma practicable for the laity as well as monastics; for those of meager capacity as well as for those of considerable capacity; for those whose lives were characterized by abject poverty and intense labor, as well as those of considerable wealth and leisure.

This is clearly not an attempt to assert a preference for one particular Buddha, Bodhisattva or Dharmadhatu over any and all other such beings or realms. Rather it is a skillful way to eliminate confusion in theory and diffusion in practice: which brings us to our next point of interest.

Shinran did not extol the practice of Nembutsu (or, Buddha-anusmriti) over any and every other practice. As the quote from the Flower Ornament Scripture makes clear, if one concentrates on form to the exclusion of the formless, one “enlarges the net of ignorance and delusion”. Sentient beings are said to have 84,000 afflictions so the Dharma is said to offer 84,000 expedient teachings such that every malady has its appropriate remedy. However, as with specific Buddhas with form and the single, shared Buddha-nature without form, so too there are many specific formal practices with a single, shared nature: cessation of concentration on the form-bound self-nature with its obsessive self-attachment, and recollection of formless Buddha-Nature with its clarity and pervasiveness. The many and various expedient practices are not causative of enlightenment, they are merely preparatory. Even self-power nembutsu is not causative, but merely preparatory. However, Great Practice, is not ones own practice at all, it flows (as the Flower ornament scripture suggests) from sincere recollection of and refuge in Amida (or, formless Buddha-Nature) and relying upon ultimate reality to accomplish the work of severing ties to those gross and subtle attachments which bind us to our limited self-nature and the wheel of birth and death.

True Nembutsu instantly and immediately (of itself) arises whenever and wherever one—through deep-hearing of the name that calls—gratefully and joyfully recalls and takes refuge in the single, shared nature of formless Buddhahood (ultimate reality). This Great-Practice is not context dependent, but may arise and permeate any and every context: in stillness and activity; silently and audibly, in the monastery and in the home, by monastics and the laity, by oneself and along with others, in health and in sickness, in repose and in activity, while awake and when asleep, etc.

Such Nembutsu then, changes from a calculative practice, to remembered gratitude, mounting joy, and sincere refuge-taking that arises instantly and of itself; from a temporal cause and effect to an atemporal cause-as-effect and effect-as-cause; from a practice motivated by spiritual greed, self-aggrandizement, and merit-acquisition to a recollection of spiritual-poverty, self-naughting and merit-transference (from the Dharma Treasury).

This Other-Power Nembutsu allows for the remedying of any and all of the specific maladies that each of the 84,000 practices can remedy, but removes the diffusion of energy required to learn and perfect a multitude of practices. It holds the virtue and ripens the fruit of both śamatha and vipaśyanā.

Namu Amida Butsu


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