KGSS Preface: Shinran’s Rugged Universalism

The Dharma thought of Dharma Master Shinran is at odds with the current fashion in thinking today. To discuss Shinran’s Dharma HONESTLY, we must first meet him on his own terms - rather than the terms we have been familiar with.

Then, once we have understood what he says - and what he means - we are each free to decide for ourselves whether we accept what he says as Dharma Truth. Do we believe Shinran saw clearly and spoke truly as a Dharma Master - or was he just foolish and deluded in his assertions about the most important subject of all: suffering and the end of suffering?

The fact is, most Buddhists think he WAS deluded. They think his ideas - about giving up the monastic life to marry - about abandoning the precepts - about letting go of the entire STRUCTURE of religious Buddhism - are absurd.

I can understand why. Along with his teacher Honen, he turns all the other paths of Buddhism on their heads. He declares plainly that they’re ALL ineffective when it comes to ending suffering once and for all. He says that no one can actually use these other teachings to become a Buddha, because of the age in which we live.

What REALLY tragic is that most people acting in the role of teacher in the Shin Buddhist community think Shinran was deluded as well. They wouldn’t dare say it in such bald terms, of course - that’s not politically correct, and most of them make a living off of their status as teachers.

But here’s what someone - a serious student of these teachers - actually wrote to me:

We need visionary thinkers to guide us through the doctrinal pitfalls of living in a religiously plural world. Relying simply on the words of Shinran, who could not have conceived of the world in which we live, is dangerous and delusional.

You can read his entire letter to me, and my reply, HERE. Just so you know, if you do read it: every word I write is read carefully by Eiken Kobai Sensei, who many consider to be one of the world’s leading scholars of TRUE Shin Buddhism. If I write something that is false dharma, Eiken will tell me, and I will amend it, or remove it. So you can trust that what you are reading in my response is in accord with what Shinran himself and his true followers would say. This man, and those who have taught him such things, are WRONG about Shinran, and wrong about all those who rely simply on his words, as he told us to do. We are neither dangerous, nor delusional, to do so. We are simply people of the same SHINJIN.

I have suggested - and will continue to suggest - that you not try to make this decision about what is and is not the True Teaching by using your own intellectual capacity as so many have, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

Why? Because it can’t be done. A truly INFORMED decision, a KARMIC decision, can only come as a result of Amida Buddha’s revelation to you directly - not by intellectual parsing of one sort or another - regardless of how smart you are - or how sincere you think you are.

That is why this “easy path” is - paradoxically - “the most difficult of all difficulties”, according to Dharma Master Shinran.

That is why the only practice for Shin Buddhists is to LISTEN DEEPLY. That means paying close attention to what Shinran says - listening to understand the content (which is simple enough for an unlettered peasant to grasp), and ASKING AMIDA if that content is true and real.

Do you trust in the words of Shakyamuni Buddha, when he discusses Amida Buddha in the Larger Sutra, or not? If you don’t, SHINJIN will elude you. You will be plagued, inevitably, by DOUBT.

If you SAY that you have taken refuge in Amida Buddha, and yet you will not ask Amida Buddha if Shinran’s assertions are true and real - then you haven’t taken refuge YET. You are still depending on the strength of your own ego - rather than depending entirely upon Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow.

So let’s listen deeply to Shinran together - suspending the pre-existing judgment of our egos - and asking Amida for revelation - for light in the midst of our current darkness.

Shinran writes:

I realize that the inconceivable universal Vow is the great ship that carries us across the sea of samsara which is difficult to cross

Shinran taught - and through his writing teaches today - that the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha is UNIVERSAL.

By universal he means two things:

First, he means that The Primal Vow will work for ANYONE and EVERYONE. It doesn’t matter whether a person is very good or very evil, or (like most of us) a mixture of both. It doesn’t matter if a person is highly educated, or totally ignorant. It doesn’t matter if the person has a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies, or doesn’t even know what the word “Buddha” means.

Most people don’t have much problem with that part of Shinran’s thinking about the universality of the Primal Vow. But it’s the next part that lots of modernist Shin Buddhists - and other Buddhists - choke on:

Second, Shinran asserts, over and over again. that there is just no other way to attain to Buddhahood. And - from a more “earthbound” perspective, there is just no other way for any of us to escape the six realms of samsara. We are all transmigrating endlessly from one life of suffering to another, without finding the doorway OUT of samsaric life and into True Buddhahood - apart from this singular Dharma Door.

For Shinran, taking complete and utter refuge in the person and work of Amida Buddha, leaving everything to him, believing that his words are true and real, and thus becoming a person of SHINJIN - is the ONE AND ONLY way for EVERYONE to escape the karmic drama of suffering life after suffering life, for endless ages.

That’s Shinran’s universalism. It’s RUGGED - not watered down pap. Not “everything is just as ok as everything else” universalism. Not “all roads lead to nirvana” universalism. Not the metaphysical mush that all mysticism is essentially the same.

On the contrary, Shinran speaks, right in the introduction to the entire Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho, in terms that warn serious seekers of the Dharma away from that kind of syncretic thinking.

Let’s listen to him deeply together, once more:

Oh, how difficult it is to encounter the strong influence of the universal Vow, even in many cycles of birth-and-death! How difficult it is to attain the True Pure Faith, even in millions of kalpas!

If you are fortunate enough to attain Practice and Faith, you should rejoice at your close relationship with Amida from the distant past.

If your mind is still covered with a net of doubt, you will continue to wander about in samsara for myriads of kalpas.

How trustworthy are the words of truth which say that we are embraced in Amida’s Light and never forsaken! How extraordinary and wonderful is the Right Dharma!

Hear and reflect; be careful not to hesitate too long.

Like Shinran, I am one of those who is fortunate enough to attain Practice and Faith. Like Shinran, I too say the simple Nembutsu of Thanksgiving. Like Shinran I too have encountered the strong influence of the universal Vow.

I’m not boasting here. Boasting is absurd, for anyone who has experienced Amida Buddha’s great compassion. All I can say is, Thank You Amida Buddha. I can’t even SEE my own close relationship with Amida Buddha from the distant past. I’ll just have to take Shinran’s word for that one. Since I acknowledge him as my Dharma Master, I can do that.

Along with my Dharma Master Shinran, along with his teacher Honen, along with his true student Yuien, along with the 8th Abbot Rennyo, along with Eiken Kobai Sensei, and his translator Ken, and George Gatenby, and countless others, I can say this:

How trustworthy are the words of truth which say that we are embraced in Amida’s Light and never forsaken! How extraordinary and wonderful is the Right Dharma!

THAT is the sum and substance of being a person of the same SHINJIN as Shinran. If you can say those words, with that kind of certainty, then you too are a person of Shinjin. Rejoice in that, despite any hardship or confusion in your life - because this is your last life as a suffering bonbu. At the end of your life you will awaken in Amida Buddha’s Pure Land, and complete your journey to Buddhahood.

It’s not about you - and it’s not about me. Rather, it’s ALL ABOUT Amida Buddha’s grasping you, and taking you to the land where you can finally attain your great desire - the desire for Buddhahood at last.

But - if you are reading this and cannot say these same words with certainty and sincerity, then here is what you must do:

Let go of your pre-conceived thoughts and notions. They’re just ideas - human ideas that you heard from other bonbus. Put them on the shelf for a bit. Don’t worry - you won’t misplace them, and you can always pick them up and clutch them again any time you’d like. But for now, LET GO.

Then, LISTEN DEEPLY to the Dharma of Shinran Shonen. And since he points to the Larger Pure Land Sutra as THE reason that Shakyamuni Buddha came into the world, LISTEN DEEPLY to Shakyamuni there as well.

  • Listen deeply: meaning read the words, and grasp the content, with an open mind and an open heart. Ask Amida Buddha to tell you whether the words of Shakyamuni and Shinran are TRUE and REAL.
  • Listen deeply: meaning listen INTENTLY. Listen as if your karmic destiny depended upon you putting all your attention on what is being taught here.
  • Listen deeply: When it comes to the Dharma, pay attention. Don’t be indolent. Don’t be lazy. And please - don’t be proud. Let’s face the facts: You’re a bonbu, living life in samsara, always afraid of one thing or another, plagued with anger and anxiety and all our common human ills. You’ve been transmigrating from one suffering life to another for endless ages, and FINALLY you have come to read these words, at this moment - and being offered an opportunity that is PRICELESS.

Don’t take it lightly, and don’t treat it lightly. Listen deeply. Then…and only then…revelation will come.

How? The light and life of Amida Buddha - unlike the light and life of all the other Buddhas - is without limit. It is infinite. It penetrates everything, everywhere. It lives between the synapses of your brain…indeed within the sub-atomic energy fields that sustain the very fabric of our universe.

Amida’s light is Amida’s presence. He is here, right now, speaking directly to you. All you need to do is listen deeply - and you WILL hear…you WILL know…you WILL understand what Shinran understood.

And - once you do - it will all be clear. It will all make sense. And you will have one over-riding thought and feeling in that moment: GRATITUDE, pure and simple.

That is the revelation of SHINJIN - of TRUE ENTRUSTING - given freely to all who are willing to LISTEN DEEPLY.

So…hear and reflect - just like Dharma Master Shinran says.

Be careful not to hesitate too long - just like Dharma Master Shinran says.

Abandon your self-powered efforts - just like Dharma Master Shinran says.

Let go of ALL your calculated thinking - just like Dharma Master Shinran says.

If only you will listen deeply, you WILL hear. And when you finally hear, you will take refuge in the person and work of Amida Buddha. Completely, utterly, finally.

Just like Dharma Master Shinran says.


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