The Problem of Modernism in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism:

The Writings of Takamaro Shigaraki

by Paul Roberts

In his essay entitled "The Problem of the True and the False in Contemporary Shin Buddhist Studies: True Shin Buddhism and False Shin Buddhism", Takamaro Shigaraki asks and answers the following three questions:

1. Is Amida Buddha an Entity or a Symbol?
2. Is Shinjin in Shin Buddhism Non-dualistic or Dualistic?
3. Is Shin Buddhism a Religion of Power or a Religion of Path?

I assert that his answers are WRONG. By WRONG, I mean that his answers are entirely different from the answers that Master Shinran, Master Rennyo and the Seven Pure Land Masters give to us in their writings.

Since Shigaraki has a large sphere of influence in the Shin Buddhist community today, let me get into a bit of detail as to why, where and how his answers differ from those of our Dharma masters. In the end, of course, it is up to each person to listen deeply to the Dharma for himself or herself, and decide which memes (or beliefs) to embrace: the memes of Professor Shigaraki or the memes of Master Shinran.

I'm not going to attempt to have a scholarly debate with Shigaraki on the particulars of his academic arguments. Rather, I'm simply going to look at Master Shinran's answers to Shigaraki's questions.


Anyone who approaches the core texts of Shin Buddhism with any honesty, and without a pre-existing bias or an axe to grind, will inevitably conclude that Master Shinran, Master Rennyo and the Seven Pure Land Masters ALL recognized Amida as a True Buddha - an independent entity - a Buddha of Reward Body who rules over a place we know as The Pure Land.

I challenge anyone to find passages where our Dharma masters either say or imply that Amida Buddha is an idea, a symbol, a "finger pointing at the moon", or any sort of semiotic device, as Shigaraki and other modernist Shin teachers assert.

I could easily write an entire book, if I had the time, filled with nothing but quotations from our Dharma masters to prove my point ABOUT WHAT THEY EACH AND ALL BELIEVE. But instead, I'll choose just one quotation that sums up the position of all of them.

Here are the words of the great sage Nagarjuna, the first of the seven Pure Land masters cited by Master Shinran - a man whose teaching influence in the Buddha-Sangha is so great that he is sometimes called "the second Buddha".


By Nagarjuna

Translated by Hisao Inagaki

1. With reverence I bow my head to Amida, the Sage,
The Most Honored One, who is revered by humans and devas.
You dwell in the wonderful Land of Peace and Bliss,
Surrounded by innumerable children of the Buddhas.

2. Your spotless golden body is like Sumeru, the king of mountains;
Your steps while you are absorbed in Shamatha are like an elephant's;
Your eyes are as pure as blue lotus-flowers.
Hence, I prostrate myself to the ground and worship Amida, the Holy One.

3. Your face is in perfect shape and serene like the full moon;
Your majestic light shines like a thousand suns and moons put together;
Your voice sounds like a heavenly drum or a cuckoo.
Hence, I prostrate myself to the ground and worship Amida, the Holy One.

4. You reside in the crown which Kannon wears on his head;
Your excellent features are adorned with jewel-ornaments;
You destroy anti-Buddhist views, devilish thoughts and conceited ideas.
Hence, I prostrate myself to the ground and worship Amida, the Holy One.

5. Incomparable, spotless, broad and pure
Is your virtue; it is serene and clear like space.
You have attained freedom in giving benefit to beings.
Hence, I prostrate myself to the ground and worship Amida, the Holy One.

6. Bodhisattvas in your Land, renowned everywhere in the ten directions,
Are always glorified even by innumerable maras;
You dwell with the Vow-Power for the sake of all sentient beings.
Hence, I prostrate myself to the ground and worship Amida, the Holy One.

7. In the jewel-pond strewn with gold sands grows a lotus;
The excellent throne on its dais has been produced by your acts of merit;
On the throne you are seated like the king of mountains.
Hence, I prostrate myself to the ground and worship Amida, the Holy One.

8. From the ten directions the Buddhas' children come in flocks;
Manifesting supernatural powers, they reach the Land of Peace and Bliss.
They look up at your august face adoringly and worship you without interruption.
Hence, I prostrate myself to the ground and worship Amida, the Holy One.

9. All things are impermanent and selfless,
Like an image of the moon in the water, lightning or morning dew.
Your sermons to the multitudes are, in reality, wordless.
Hence, I prostrate myself to the ground and worship Amida, the Holy One.

10. In the Revered Buddha's Land exist no evil names,
Nor are there beings in the female form, nor fear of evil realms.
All worship the Honored One in sincerity of heart.
Hence, I prostrate myself to the ground and worship Amida, the Holy One.

11. In the Buddha's Land accomplished with innumerable skillful devices,
There are no samsaric realms, nor evil teachers;
Upon attaining birth there, one reaches Bodhi without falling back.
Hence, I prostrate myself to the ground and worship Amida, the Holy One.

12. I have extolled the Buddha's excellent virtue,
Thereby acquiring boundless merit like the ocean.
The roots of pure good I have thus acquired
I wish to share with other beings, aspiring together to be born in his Land.

Over and over again, the great Dharma Master Nagarjuna says, "I  prostrate myself to the ground and worship Amida, the Holy One."

He would never say that if he considered Amida to be a SYMBOL. He says that because he has been given the faith-mind that KNOWS Amida to be a real and true Buddha of reward body, "the Sage, The Most Honored One, who is revered by humans and devas."

So we have two competing visions of truth here: Nagarjuna's vision, and Shigaraki's vision. Which is true and real? Which is false and delusional?

If you believe that Shigaraki sees more clearly into reality than Nagarjuna, then of course you will want to follow him. But if you believe that Nagarjuna was one of the great Dharma masters of all time, and that is vision is truer than yours, or mine, or Shigaraki's, then you'll be hungry to know the REAL and TRUE Buddha Amida, the very same Buddha that Nagarjuna knew.

Ultimately, no one can decide this question for another. Each person has the privilege and the responsibility to listen deeply, and wait for the answer to arise from the deepest part of his or her being.


Once again, I'm not going to make a point by point dissection of Shigaraki's arguments that SHINJIN is a non-dualistic experience. One can argue that 2 + 2 = 5, but that does not make it so.

Instead, I'm going to do what I did before, and simply show you what Master Shinran believed, asserted and taught for 60 years of his life. I'll also discuss why the understanding of Master Shinran - that we come to the experience of settled SHINJIN while we are still very much prisoners of dualistic view - is so central to understanding True Shin Buddhism as a coherent Dharma teaching.

Although there are so many passages that can be cited, once again, I'll choose just one. Here is Master Shinran's letter "Lamp for the Latter Ages #6":


It is saddening that so many people, both young and old, men and women, have died this year and last. But the Tathagata taught the truth of life's impermanence for us fully, so you must not be distressed by it.

I, for my own part, attach no significance to the condition, good or bad, of persons in their 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 and lacking in wisdom - 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, "Persons of the Pure Land tradition attain birth in the Pure Land by becoming their foolish selves." 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 heard 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 to mind.

Each of you should attain your birth without being misled by people and without faltering in shinjin. However, the practicer 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.


The simple determinant of SHINJIN for Master Shinran is those who "DO NOT DOUBT", even if they are "ignorant and foolish and lacking in wisdom".

It's obvious that anyone who is still "ignorant and foolish and lacking in wisdom" is not living in any sort of state of non-dual consciousness. So to make such a state of non-dual consciousness the bar or the definition for settled SHINJIN would exclude countless plain people and foolish BONBUS who are clearly INCLUDED by Master Shinran and Master Honen - and, most importantly, by Amida Buddha's Primal Vow.

As we read the rest of this letter we get a very clear example of just what SHINJIN is and is not, from the perspective of Master Shinran and his own teacher Master Honen. We're shown how simple, unlettered people come to Master Honen, with no intellectual pretensions, with an open heart and mind. They listen to the simple Dharma message and accept it with gratitude because their karma is ripe. Right then and there, they become people of SHINJIN...because (as Master Honen declares) "without a doubt their birth is SETTLED".

Now, let's just use plain common sense. If this narrative account of Master Shinran is to be believed, is there any possible way that these simple peasants could have or would have come to the advanced state of non-dual consciousness that is characteristic of beings who have spent years, and even lifetimes, on the path of self-power?

Of course not.

There's nothing "non-dual" about these simple peasants' experience. But even though they are still very much bound by dualistic reality, they HAVE come to diamond-like faith in the person and work of Amida Buddha, simply by listening deeply to Master Honen's Dharma teaching.

Because they have received the faith-mind of Amida Buddha, these unlettered peasants KNOW that they are grasped by Amida Buddha and will never be abandoned.

Because they have received the faith-mind of Amida Buddha, they are grateful beyond words, as anyone is grateful who truly hears this Dharma and is touched deep within.

And so, even though they are still the same simple, uneducated, easily distracted and ignorant people they were the day before, everything is different. Their SHINJIN is settled. They know the reality of salvation in the present, anticipate it's full unfolding at the end of their lives, when they will awaken in the Pure Land and experience the final transformation to Buddhahood.

Why is this so important - the FACT that shinjin is not held forth as any sort of non-dual experience, but rather an experience that can be apprehended by an BONBU still stuck in dualism like a fly stuck on flypaper?

It's important - critically important - because while some of us may have a lot of non-dual experiences, both before and after we become people of SHINJIN, many of us will have very few such experiences - or maybe none at all. And that doesn't disqualify ANYONE from partaking of the inconceivable benefits of Amida's Primal Vow.

It can't be said too often: True Shin Buddhism isn't just for the best of us, but for the rest of us as well. It's for the evil person FIRST, and THEN also for the good person. It's for the poor mundane fool who couldn't have a non-dual experience if you gift wrapped it for him, and not just for the mystically inclined.

Any attempt, by Shigaraki or anyone else, to make some sort of high bar that Master Shinran does not make, closes this singular Dharma gate that Amida Buddha has opened wide to one and all. That is a tragic error, and entirely contrary to the Dharma. Why? Because Amida's Vow is the Primal Vow - the Universal Vow - the Vow that embraces ALL and rejects none.

If you had to have some sort of non-dual experience to be a person of settled SHINJIN, then Amida Buddha would no doubt have to reject a lot of plain people who've gone to the Pure Land and become Buddhas already - even though they had no non-dual experience whatsoever.

So, once again, we are presented with two competing visions of SHINJIN: There is Master Shinran's vision, which requires nothing more than simple faith that is Amida's gift to us - and then there is Shigaraki's vision, which requires some sort of non-dual experience or other. This is an experience that most people of SHINJIN don't have right away, when all doubts are settled - and some might never have, even though they are people of SHINJIN.

Which vision speaks to you, deep in your heart? Which do you bear witness Dharma TRUTH?

Shigaraki also declares that "Shin Buddhism should be understood from the standpoint of the nondualism of Mahayana Buddhism."

Shigaraki's idea of understanding Shinjin is the kind of understanding sought after by the academic or the scholar. But here's the most important question: Is that kind of understanding central, or even particularly relevant, to the understanding that Master Shinran and our Dharma masters strove to instill in the minds and hearts of their listeners?

Clearly, the answer to that question is NO. Understanding the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of Mahayana Buddhism is clearly not a pre-requisite, nor even a co-requisite to coming to settled SHINJIN - which, for our Dharma masters, is the kind of understanding that really matters most.

Many of the followers of our Dharma masters were illiterate peasants of medieval Japan. These people were - to use Master Shinran's words - "painfully ignorant". They were not men like Master Honen, or Master Shinran. They were consumed 24/7 with the difficult business of making ends meet in a hostile, dangerous world. They did not have the luxury of TIME to study in the monastic environment, nor were they the object of any sort of educational outreach from the Buddhist establishment of the day. Indeed, they were called ICCHANTIKA - meaning people without the seed of Buddhahood - hopeless cases for whom the Triple Gem would be useless.

Yet with all their limitations, including their lack of understanding
of Mahayana Buddhism - those very same men and women had it within them to become people of deep and settled SHINJIN. That's why they could bear witness to the person and work of Amida Buddha, and the power of the Primal Vow. That was the source of their natural gratitude and devotion.

So while Shigaraki is certainly entitled to his own opinions - he's definitely not entitled to his own facts. And the life and witness of these simple, often illiterate people who knew nothing of Mahayana Buddhism - but did know the reality of Amida's salvation in their lives - is a fact that is beyond dispute.

But we also have the direct words of our Dharma masters to assure us that intellectual understanding of Mahayana Buddhism is neither a pre-requisite nor a co-requisite for becoming a person of settled Shinjin.

Just days before he died, Master Shinran's own teacher Master Honen, one of the greatest scholars of Mahayana Buddhism, distilled his views into his famous "One Sheet Document". In it, he declared that regardless of how much Dharma knowledge a person thinks he has, when it comes to this Dharma, he should approach it like an uneducated nun.

Master Shinran told his followers to avoid all scholarly debates and arguments, and simply hold fast to the faith-mind given to them by Amida Buddha.

And Master Rennyo declared that a scholar who was not a person of SHINJIN could never teach the Dharma properly or effectively to another - but an illiterate who was a person of SHINJIN could, if only someone would read the texts on his behalf so he could expound them.

So once again, Shigaraki's thinking doesn't conform to the thinking of our Dharma masters. More than that, it sets up yet another barrier - the barrier of having a certain sort of education - that is counter to the intention of Amida Buddha in His declaration and manifesting of the Primal Vow - the UNIVERSAL Vow - the Vow that opens wide the door to liberation for the illiterate just as much as for the scholar.


In asking this question, Shigaraki creates an "either-or" academic religious framework that is neither accurate, nor useful. He defines "religion of power" as a religion that is concerned with supernatural powers and deity figures...such as Shinto with its KAMI (deities). And he defines "religion of path" as a religion that is concerned with gradual transformation and ennobling of character. Then he concludes that Shin Buddhism is the latter, and not the former.

There's a term for this in computer science - GIGO...which means "garbage in, garbage out". If you put in the wrong data, or ask the wrong question, or start from an incorrect understanding, you can't come up with the right answers, whether you use a computer or a human being to do the processing.

So let's start by putting in the right data: The fact is that Buddhism concerns itself with both path AND power. Anyone who denies that is being reductionist in his thinking - and ignoring the Dharma truth we have been give by Shakyamuni Buddha Himself.

PATH is the journey that all beings must walk, transmigrating for countless lives, until each has arrived at the ultimate state of Buddhahood, in one way or another. POWER is what enables beings to undertake and ultimately complete this journey. And - it must be said - authentic Buddhism is necessarily MOST concerned with the possibility - or the certainty - of actually being able to reach the end point of the journey. In other words, Buddhism is ultimately about the path which ends in becoming a Buddha, and nothing less.

The question then becomes: What power is available to enable us to complete the journey?

Any serious student of Master Shinran knows are two kinds of power available: the power of our own efforts, known as self-power...and the power that comes from some source outside of ourselves, known as other-power. All the other schools of Buddha-dharma rely on one or more forms of self-power. Only Shin Buddhism relies exclusively and entirely on Other-power.

Our Dharma masters make so many statements of this most basic truth that I could fill a book with them. But I'll just quote one or two brief snippets from Master Shinran, offered by him right at the beginning of the Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho.

Here is Master Shinran quoting the Larger Sutra:

Boundless is the majestic power of the Buddha of immeasurable life. This Buddha is praised by every one of the Buddha-tathagatas throughout the worlds in the ten quarters, whose number, incalculable and limitless, is beyond conception.

Master Shinran quotes from the Larger Sutra again:

The power of the Buddha's Primal Vow is such that those who, hearing the Name, aspire for birth all reach that land - Their attainment of non-retrogression coming about of itself.

Is Master Shinran reticent about discussing POWER? Does he deny that POWER is essential for those called to respond to his Dharma message? Or does he declare, rather, that the power of Amida Buddha is as necessary as it is boundless - and that it is this very power which causes us to reach the Pure Land, and attain to a state of non-retrogression which comes about of it's own accord?

So - once again we are presented with two divergent views of Dharma truth. Shigaraki rejects the idea of the enabling of OTHER-POWER for people on the Shin Buddhist path, while Master Shinran declares that the enabling of OTHER-POWER is essential in order for us to complete the journey to Buddhahood.

Once again, each person must decide for him or herself who and what to believe -what is true and (conversely) what is false, when it comes to the Dharma of Shin Buddhism.

I have concluded that when it comes to the Dharma of Shin Buddhism, Master Shinran's is the TRUE teaching, and that Shigaraki's is one of many false teachings that have arisen in the Shin Sangha since it began. What is most important - and the reason I wrote this essay - is that everyone sees clearly that Shigaraki's assertions are in no way congruent with Master Shinran's Dharma message to the world. Once you see that, it is up to you to decide who you want to receive as a Dharma teacher in your life: Professor Shigaraki, or Master Shinran.

I choose Master Shinran.