Essential Functions of a Good Teacher of True Shin Buddhism

by Paul Roberts

Let me say, for the benefit of everyone, that a good teacher of True Shin Buddhism has two essential functions in the Sangha:

FUNCTION #1:  To explain the True Teaching of the Pure Land Way simply and clearly, so it can be understood by ANYONE.  

This is in accord with the very heart of Amida Buddha in making and fulfilling His vows.

I can't tell you how many times I have read Shin Buddhist teachings and not been certain about what the teacher was saying. 

The teaching should be simple and clear, and require no special training or background in order for the listeners to understand it intellectually.

We should never forget that both Master Shinran and Master Honen were exiled by the government in Japan, and so spent some of their lives in the remote rural areas of Japan, where there was little or no education, much less Buddhist influence.  Master Shinran writes about how his listeners were "painfully" ignorant, and how his teaching style was to repeat the basic ideas of our Dharma message over and over again.

And we see, in the letters of Master Rennyo, how he followed the same methodology in teaching - repeating the basic ideas of the Dharma again and again, and urging his fellow teachers to avoid anything that smacked of esotericism or complexity.

Yes, there is much in Buddhist thought that is esoteric and complex - but that sort of teaching is NOT appropriate for a Sangha full of plain people, foolish people, BONBUS, and  illiterates.

One of the greatest challenges I see is that so many modern Buddhists are highly educated.  We have the riches of the world's Buddhist thought literally at our fingertips - and so many people get used to absorbing vast quantities of Dharma.  When they finally come to Shin Buddhism, they bring along their habits of sucking up yet more DHARMA DATA.

Of course, sucking up DHARMA DATA doesn't lead to so many people find out.  Then, disappointed in their experience - or rather lack of experience - they go looking somewhere else for another sort of experience.

Some of those who stay with Shin Buddhism, and yet don't ever get over their overly intellectual and analytical approach, find that the only way they can make Shin Buddhism palatable is by mixing in intellectual ideas from various sorts of philosophy - whether it be borrowing from Christian theology, post-modernism, Jungian mythos, or whatever.

Shin Buddhism - TRUE Shin Buddhism - has nothing to do with any of those ideas.  It was conceived of and brought to fruition ages ago - before the beginning of the universe as we know it.  Its origin is beyond human conception - and it is human foolishness and arrogance to try to reduce it to something less than what it actually is.

And yet, despite its truly INCONCEIVABLE beginnings, Amida Himself has chosen to make a Dharma path that is easy for anyone to conceive of.  I have found, over and over again, that I can talk with ANYONE, regardless of how much Buddhism he (or she) knows about - and explain all the salient aspects of the Dharma in easy to understand and universal language.

When people UNDERSTAND the Dharma message, then they can go inside, and find out from the Buddha within that the message is, in fact, the TRUTH.

Anyone who is going to function as a GOOD teacher of True Shin Buddhism needs to be able to do that kind of simple, clear teaching.  If a person can't do that, he (or she) really isn't ready to teach.

So that is the first function of a TRUE teacher of the TRUE teaching.

Let's move onto the second function.

FUNCTION #2:  The second function of a TRUE teacher is to confront and correct divergences.

Why is that such an important BASIC function of a good teacher?  Because by confronting and correcting divergences his (or her) listeners are not confused and distracted by false teachings that inevitably lead people AWAY from settled shinjin.

Richard St. Clair and I always use ourselves as examples, to explain why this is such a critical function.  We both came to Shin Buddhism with open minds and hearts, ready to listen deeply to the Dharma.  But we both found ourselves listening to false teachers, who have become such a big part of the Shin Sangha today.  As a result, we were both confused, and could not come to settled SHINJIN, because we were listening to and believing all sorts of false ideas - ideas that were exactly opposite to what our Dharma masters teach.

Someone might ask how we could become so confused.  My answer is, that when a person first comes to the Dharma, he (or she) is often like a little baby.  He looks to his teachers like a baby looks to its parents.  If the teachers say that one plus one equals three, the child is likely to believe it.  And it is the same with people who first come to the Sangha.  Most of us are very impressionable at that time in our lives.  We DEPEND on our teachers to feed us the pure milk of the Dharma.

So Richard and I (and countless others) simply believed these teachers when they made statements about how Dharmakara Bodhisattva wasn't a historical figure, or Amida Buddha wasn't a real Buddha, or the Pure Land wasn't a real place, or the Larger Sutra wasn't a true record of the words of Shakyamuni on Vulture Peak.

We'd hear it from Alfred Bloom, from Nobuo Haneda, from Taitetsu Unno, and from Takamaro Shigaraki and over and over again - and we'd hear how these were great teachers that were making the Dharma "relevant" for our modern age, and we simply didn't have the discernment to recognize that we were being taught falsely.

Now the really important question here is:  How could this happen?  How could so many in the Sangha go so far from the Dharma truth upon which the Sangha was built.

And the answer to that question is this:  The reason false teachings and false teachers have prospered, to the point where they actually dominate the Shin Sangha in much of the world, is that too many others who are called to be true teachers have ignored this second critical function.

Whether from apathy or cowardice or some other egocentric motive, too many clerics and scholars have chosen to keep silent about the divergences destroying the Shin Sangha today.

If the Shin Sangha is to fulfill its unique mission here on this planet, that must change.

My challenge to all those called by Amida to be true teachers is this:  Go inside, and ask Amida what your own fundamental duties as a teacher really are.  Lay down your own thoughts and ideas, and ask Amida whether you too are called to do what Master Shinran did, and Master Rennyo did, and the layman Yuien-Bo did, when they confronted divergences in their day, and used a Dharma sword to cut away all the divergences that would pollute and ultimately destroy the pristine Dharma if left unrefuted and unchecked.

Ask Amida Buddha whether you are called to anything less than that.

Master Shinran said, very plainly, that the most difficult task in the world is to share the Dharma as it should be shared.  And he also said that we who are called to share it should do it to the very best of our ability "EVEN TO THE BREAKING OF OUR BONES".

Those were his words.

It is difficult to confront others in the Sangha, and to tell them that they are teaching false teaching.  It is difficult to speak to members of one's own local Sangha community, and warn them that a particular teacher is a false teacher, and his words do not reflect the teaching of our Dharma masters.  And it is difficult to endure the ostracism of others that can come when one is committed to speaking the whole truth for the benefit of all beings everywhere.

Over the past seven years, I've had people call me all sorts of names, simply because I have insisted on speaking the unvarnished truth.  But because I have spoken the truth, many of those who initially said bad things about me have reflected, eventually, on my words, and have repented of their former false thoughts, and come to embrace the truth of the Dharma.

That's what matters.  And that's why this second function of confronting divergences is so critically important.

Now, I am sorry to say that from what I can see there seem to be very few people functioning today as TRUE teachers, fulfilling these two basic functions I have described above.

Many are lost in Shin scholasticism, expounding the Dharma in ways that are obscure and impossible for most of us to understand, rather than preaching and teaching simply.

And with very few exceptions, most of the clerics and scholars in the Sangha are entirely unwilling to confront the false teachings - even when they grumble among themselves about it.

Apathy and cowardice, unfortunately, are the order of the day.

I have a close Dharma friend who recently became a Shin priest and is now serving in Japan, after spending his life here in America as part of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), which is the American branch of the largest Shin sect, the Nishi Honganji.  

We talked, just a few weeks ago, about what is going on here in America right now, in the BCA.  It is truly tragic.

The BCA is now entirely dominated by modernists.  The bishop, a man named Koshin Ogui, recently sent 12 candidates to Japan for ordination.  My friend and other true priests there met these 12 candidates, and were shocked and appalled at their ignorance of the basics of the True Teaching.

The BCA Sangha is thus being systematically destroyed, from the inside out, by its own leaders.

I asked my friend about his own minister, and some other ministers I know.  What were they doing to turn back the tide here?

My friend told me that no one was willing to speak up directly, because they would be removed by the bishop from the ministry if they did.

It's impossible to express how tragic this all is.  In my own heart and mind, this weighs much more heavily than the terrible disaster we are seeing unfold in Japan.  There will always be all sorts of disasters - whether tsunamis, or earthquakes, or technological malfunctions - that cause suffering and death.  Suffering and death are what mark our existence here in this Saha world.

But right before my eyes, I see the one Dharma door being closed that leads to the end of suffering and death.  If the Shin Sangha cannot or will not do what is necessary to keep this Dharma door open and easily accessed - how will people ever find their way to Buddhahood in this world?

What would our Dharma masters say if they were here?  Remember, Master Shinran himself judged that slandering the Dharma was a worse karmic act than even killing ones' own parents!

My hope is that each and every one who does emerge as a teacher will have a burning desire to fulfill the two BASIC functions of a good teacher:  

1.  To teach the Dharma simply and clearly

2.  To confront and correct divergences.

And my hope is that others who are already teaching - whether as clerics, scholars or lay people - will also take seriously their responsibility to fulfill these same two basic functions, in whatever venues they happen to be functioning in.

Apathy must come to an end.  Cowardice cannot rule the day.  Self-interest and self-preservation must be laid aside for the sake of all beings everywhere.

Those of us called to teach by Amida must ask ourselves, "What would Shinran say?  What would Rennyo do?".  And then we must say and do the same.

This MUST be the mindset for renewal, revival and restoration of the Shin Sangha to occur.

In closing, I want to invite anyone who reads this to forward it on to others - particularly to anyone who is a priest or a scholar in the Shin Sangha.  


Paul Roberts