Shinran Speaks: The Most Difficult of All Difficulties - Part 2

We’ve been talking about Master Shinran’s observation that being able to truly hear and accept the True Teaching of the Pure Land Way is “the most difficult of all difficulties”.

Here (once again) is Master Shinran speaking about this in his HYMNS OF THE PURE LAND:

It is difficult to encounter a time when a Tathagata appears in the world,
And difficult to hear the teachings of the Buddha.
It is rare to hear the excellent dharma for bodhisattvas,
Even in a span of countless ages.

It is difficult to meet true teachers,
And difficult to instruct.
It is difficult to hear the teaching well,
And more difficult to accept it.

More difficult even than trust in the teachings of Shakyamuni’s lifetime
Is the true entrusting of the universal Vow.
The Sutra teaches that it is “the most difficult of all difficulties”,
That “nothing surpasses this difficulty”.

There are a number of reasons this teaching is so difficult to hear and accept.

One of the reasons is that it violates the basic idea that almost all Buddhists have that Buddhism is a series of means to bootstrap ourselves into a state of pure enlightened consciousness, or Buddhahood. This idea is so deeply ingrained in most Buddhists alive today that it becomes impossible for them to actually grapple with the truth that Master Shinran so clearly declares - that all their attempts at attaining the fruit of enlightenment will come to naught, no matter how long, how hard, how diligently they practice.

In his collected letters, Master Rennyo instructs and advises us not to aggressively try to change someone’s mind, if they are set in their thoughts about such an important basic matter. He urges us to have a more tentative conversation, to see if there is an openness, and proceed only if the listener is karmically ready to listen. And if he or she is not ready, then we release them gently into the stream of life, entrusting that in due time - in this life or another - they will actually become ready, and a fruitful Dharma dialogue leading to settled SHINJIN will be possible.

That is how our Dharma masters tell us to engage with people OUTSIDE of the Shin Sangha. But WITHIN the Sangha, their words and actions were entirely different.

Here, within the Shin Buddhist Sangha, there is a sacred responsiblity - a responsibility we all share as fellow travellers with Master Shinran himself - to preserve the Shin Buddha-dharma intact, for our own generation, and for future generations as well.

I can think of no better example of a man who understood and embraced this responsibility than Master Shinran’s lay student Yuien-Bo, author of The Tannisho - Lamentations on the Divergences from the True Teaching.

Writing after Master Shinran had died, Yuien-bo spoke movingly of why he was writing to the Sangha. Here’s what he said:

As I humbly reflect on the past [when the late master was alive] and the present in my foolish mind, I cannot but lament the divergences from the true shinjin that he conveyed by speaking to us directly, and I fear there are doubts and confusions in the way followers receive and transmit the teaching.

For how is entrance into the single gate of easy practice possible unless we happily come to rely on a true teacher whom conditions bring us to encounter? Let there be not the slightest distortion of the teaching of Other Power with words of an understanding based on personal views.

Here, then, I set down in small part the words spoken by the late Shinran Shonin that remain deep in my mind, solely to disperse the doubts of fellow practicers.

Yuien-bo felt it was his own personal responsibility - even though he was a person of little learning in the Sutras - to set down and explain the teachings of his teacher Shinran - SOLELY TO DISPERSE THE DOUBTS OF FELLOW PRACTITIONERS.

With all my flaws as a human being (and I have plenty!) I have felt the same sort of burden, ever since I began to realize just how far the Shin Sangha had drifted from Shinran’s teachings, as I struggled and reflected and sought answers after my beloved daughter’s death in November 2003.

Some months thereafter, I came across Eiken Kobai Sensei’s writings, all jumbled up in a Wordperfect document on his Japanese website - and reading them I realized that everything I had thought and discerned about the tragic divergence of the modern Shin Sangha from Shinran’s teaching wasn’t just a trick being played by my own grieving mind - but an insight into TRUTH - truth confirmed to be by the writings of this true scholar of the Dharma, Eiken Kobai.

I could find - at that time - literally NO ONE writing in English able and/or willing to simply stand up, as Eiken Sensei has stood up in Japan for 40 years - as Yuien-bo did in the years after Shinran’s death - to give a GOOD account of the teaching AND to correct the tragic divergences that have plagued the Shin Sangha for the past 50 years or so.

That is why I began The Shin Ugly Blog (”ugly” as in PLAIN, rather than FANCY), and worked with Eiken to make his books available in English, on the web. That’s why most recently I began an online Sangha - a place where there would be true Dharma dialogue - just as Master Rennyo prescribed - in order that people might be able to discuss their faith and their doubt, and the faith or doubt of others - and come to settle SHINJIN at last.

During these past four years, I have found fellow travellers - teachers and students of the Dharma who share my own dismay and concern about the current crop of Shin Buddhist teachers and teachings in the Western world.

Some of them were choosing to ignore these false teachers and their false teachings, and simply concentrate on trying to teach the Dharma Truth of Shinran. Others, following the examples of Master Shinran, Master Rennyo, and Yuien-Bo - were doing BOTH the work of explaining the True Teaching in simple, understandable language, AND also criticizing divergences from the Dharma of Master Shinran just as our Dharma masters did while they were alive.

Why am I saying all this? Because today, the single biggest hindrance - the major blockage that makes both HEARING and ACCEPTING Shinran’s Dharma “the most difficult of all difficulties” - is the proliferation of false teaching coming from those who claim to be speaking in Master Shinran’s name - and yet are saying (and believing) something ENTIRELY different from what Master Shinran said and believed.

This creates TREMENDOUS barriers to sincere seekers who come to the Shin Sangha, often burnt out from their own failed efforts at self-powered Buddhism, just as Master Honen and Master Shinran were both burnt out from their efforts. These seekers walk through the doors of the Sangha, whether via going into a physical temple, joining an online group, reading some Shin Buddhist literature - and find a whole bunch of METAPHYSICAL GOOP rather than the pristine Dharma.

By METAPHYSICAL GOOP I mean any mixture or commingling of the Pristine Dharma of Shinran and any other kind of metaphysical, philosophical or religious thought - Buddhist or otherwise.

Of course, there are those who like metaphysical GOOP because that’s their karma, just as there are those who like Christianity, or Islam. They stay and begin parroting the metaphysical GOOP dispensers who present themselves as Shinran’s heirs. But most of the people who come can’t make any sort of sense out of that GOOP - especially if they are bruised and battered by life, or if they don’t have sufficient intellectual background - and so they go away unfulfilled.

This is a terrible shame. A tragedy. A waste. It is - let me speak plainly - the Sangha FAILING at it’s one and only task. As Eiken Kobai has put it (and I have repeated it more than once), the singular purpose of the SANGHA is to teach the DHARMA that leads a person to become a BUDDHA. And the only way to become a Buddha in our day is to come to settled SHINJIN - the same true faith as SHINRAN - in our lifetime, so we may take birth in the Pure Land at the end of this life, see Amida Buddha face to face, and IMMEDIATELY be transformed into Buddhas ourselves. And the only way to come to settled SHINJIN is to listen to the True Teaching, presented accurately, and to grapple honestly with it until every last shred of doubt is removed.

That was, is and will continue to be, Amida Buddha’s way of revealing Himself, His Vow, His Land to those of us stuck here in samsaric existence.

Every single word that Master Shinran ever wrote was imbued with this simple, laser-like, diamond-hard message of coming to Amida Buddha, taking refuge, receiving this gift of SHINJIN, and thereby being done - at long last - with the endless journey from life to life to life, and the beginning of Buddhahood at last.

As you can well imagine - there are endless permutations and combinations of this metaphysical GOOP - the countless false teachings that human beings can and do invent. People have, through the centuries, tried to mix Shin Buddhism with various schools of self-powered Buddhism (most notably Zen), with other non-Buddhist religious paths (like in Japan where a lot of people practice a mixture of debased Shin Buddhism along with Shinto), and most recently, mixing Shin Buddhism up with various schools of western thought. In the 20th century, Shin Buddhism was being mixed up with Marxism, for example, in the most presigious of Shin Buddhist universities!

And this pernicious current dogma of stating that Amida Buddha is only a symbol and a myth is yet more metaphysical GOOP - intellectually rooted in the work of Carl Jung, and his protege Joseph Campbell.

The fact is, when people are determined to make metaphysical GOOP out of the pristine Dharma, the recipes for divergence are truly endless.

But of all the divergences out there - the single most problematic is the fact that many of these divergent teachers don’t actually accept the transcendental vision of Shakyamuni Buddha himself. By discounting and even dismissing Shakyamuni Buddha’s transcendental vision, they miss the entire POINT of Buddha’s teachings - and then transmit their eviscerated understanding to the unwary seeker who wanders into their sphere of influence.

That is how - even for those who’s karma is RIPE - for those who are ready to listen deeply - for those who are ready to HEAR - this Dharma becomes obscured, clouded and covered over. That is how this simple, pristine path to the end of suffering and the beginning of Buddhahood becomes - even when it should not - “the most difficult of all difficulties”.

Let me explain exactly what I am talking about - by example.

These modernist teachers of “Shin GOOP” diminish or deny the actual personhood of Amida Buddha. They are uncomfortable with - and often downright hostile to - the idea that the narrative of his passage through many lifetimes given by Shakyamuni Buddha is true. They don’t accept that he was once a real king named Dharmakara, ruling over a real land somewhere. They don’t believe that he gave up his kingdom to dedicate himself to a search for enlightenment. They don’t accept the idea that he took birth in many, many forms, over many, many lifetimes, gradually building up his store of merit until he became a great Bodhisattva.

They think it’s just a fairy tale…a story…a MYTH designed to tell us something about the progress of human consciousness by means of an allegory.

And then, of course, disbelieving Shakyamuni’s discourse about King Dharmakara, they have no reason to believe and accept in the reality of the vows he made. There was no vowmaker, so of course there could be no vows. Those vows are - once again - just allegorical - a general statement of the universe’s benevolent intention towards us.

And of course, since there were no real vows by a real Bodhisattva, the idea that this Bodhisattva went around and actually visited countless Buddhas in countless Buddha lands is laughable, and not to be believed. Once again, it’s just part of the story - and not a description of an event that actually HAPPENED somewhere, at some time.

And finally, since there was no Bodhisattva, no vows, and no visit to countless Buddhas, it’s just silly to take Shakyamuni Buddha’s words at face value when he tells Ananda and the thousands at Vulture Peak that this Bodhisattva created a place called the Pure Land. It’s absurd to think that this “symbol” could have created a karmic mechanism by which the most stupid, the most evil, the most ignorant, the most foul-smelling, the most unenlightened could take birth in in such a Pure Land, if only they would listen to Shakyamuni’s Dharma. It’s preposterous to assert that that once born there, they would immediately have their stupidity, their evil, their ignorance and yes, even their foul smell ENTIRELY removed - so that the True Buddha lying at the center of each one would fully and finally emerge.

It’s all just a story, these false Shin Buddhist GOOP teachers say - and anyone who believes it, much less preaches and teaches is - is just a dumb Shin Buddhist fundamentalist.

That’s what they say. I know, because those words have been said to me, and about me. No doubt they’ve been said about Eiken Sensei, as well.

What these modernist Shin Buddhist teachers are all doing - each in his or her own egocentric speculative way - is trying to REDUCE the Dharma to something that fits inside their modernist, intellectual capacity to understand. They cannot - with their over-reliance on their rational left brain thinking, or even their right brain intuitive thinking - swallow the story that Shakyamuni Buddha tells his disciples in the Larger Sutra.

And I don’t fault them for that.

Most people, Master Shinran tells us, cannot accept this Dharma. Most of the 376 million Buddhists - including most Pure Land Buddhists - cannot accept this Dharma. There are 2.1 billion Christians in the world right now who cannot accept this Dharma…and on and on it goes.

No - I do not fault these teachers for being unable to accept the True Teaching as it has been given to us. But what I DO fault them for is standing up under false pretenses and SAYING they represent Shinran Shonin - that their teaching is his teaching - when clearly and unequivocally it is NOT.

The reason I fault them, just as Shinran Shonin faulted his own son Zenran, is that the false teachings of these false teachers have karmic CONSEQUENCES.

When these teachers do that - when they deny the transcendental basis for every word Master Shinran ever wrote - they create an IMMENSE barrier for uninformed, but otherwise open people, who find themselves coming to the Shin Sangha. Because of their own delusions and obscurations, their own need to reduce the teachings to something they can fit into their own intellectual boxes - they cause reductionism to become the mindset of those who listen to their sermons, and read their books.

They actually become destroyers of the Dharma when they do this - and (from Shakyamuni Buddha’s perspective) there is no worse thing that a human being can do. They are killing people’s opportunity to hear the Dharma - and (as Shakyamuni himself taught) it could be countless lives before a person would get such a rare and precious opportunity again.

So how can we - individually and as a Sangha - help sincere seekers get a fair shot - a real opportunity - to listen to this pristine Dharma AS IT IS - so that they can respond to Amida Buddha (or not) according to their own karmic readiness - and not according to the confusion and metaphysical GOOP being disseminated by these false teachers who call themselves representatives of Shinran Shonin?

That was - of course - the very question Yuien-bo struggled with. That’s why he wrote the Tannisho in his day.

In my next message, I’ll share some thoughts about how we - in our day - in light of the current situation - can address sincere seekers in a way that might be skillful means - a way that might be helpful to them in coming to their own conclusions based not on us and our ideas - but on the ideas of Shakyamuni Buddha, and the seven Pure Land masters, and our primal teachers.


Paul R.

This message was originally shared on the TRUE SHIN BUDDHISM online Sangha located at:

WordPress database error: [Table 'netpaul.wp_comments' doesn't exist]
SELECT * FROM wp_comments WHERE comment_post_ID = '180' AND comment_approved = '1' ORDER BY comment_date

Comments are closed.