The SHINRAN Manifesto: Concerning Shin Semiotics #3 - From Karen Armstrong to Shinran Shonin

This is the third of four posts that I am writing to answer a question posed by a dharma friend named Ray.

Ray asks why I think the view of modern Shin Buddhist scholars - that Amida Buddha is symbol and mythos rather than a real person - is such a lamentable diversion, and so harmful to the propagation of Shinran’s teaching.

These four posts are my answer to his question. This post, in particular is about his use of Karen Armstrong’s teaching about what’s wrong with fundamentalist theology and what’s right with modernist and post-modernist theology - an approach that Ray uses to provide him with tools for understanding Shinran and Shin Buddhism.

I call Ray’s approach - which is also the approach of modern Shin Buddhist scholars and clerics - “Shin Semiotics”.

In a broader context, these posts concerning “Shin Semiotics” offer a basis for an honest discussion around what I call “The Shinran Manifesto”: the call to RETURN TO THE TRUE TEACHING OF SHINRAN, OUR TRUE TEACHER .


Hi Ray –

You have asked me why I don’t think the kinds of modernist and post-modernist approaches of a spiritual philosopher/theologian like Karen Armstrong are expedient for someone who is a Shin Buddhist. Indeed I’ll go beyond that in my statement and say that the kind of approach she advocates is one specifically considered – and then rejected – by Honen and Shinran both, as well as Yuien and Rennyo.

Armstrong’s approach is no different than the approach of many Buddhist scholars, including contemporary Shin scholars, who assert that (for example) Amida Buddha is a concept rather than a real Buddha…or that the Pure Land is a concept rather than a real location in spacetime.

Armstrong goes a step farther. She labels people who declare that such concepts that have independent existence outside of the mind, are, by definition, pre-rational fundamentalists

She goes farther still: Fundamentalism, she asserts, is the mother of sorrows – particularly the sorrows of religious wars. She gives us the example of Osama Bin Laden as an archetype of the fundamentalist mindset – and the violence it necessarily produces, in her view.

In a nutshell, her world view can be summed up as: Modernist Theology GOOD, Fundamentalist Theology BAD.

Of course, she COULD have used a fundamentalist like Dr. Billy Graham as her archetype, but his peaceful work of Christian evangelism wouldn’t suit her shadowy but not very subtle purpose of demonizing people with a different memetic matrix than hers.

A memetic meta-model such as that put forth in the book Spiral Dynamics (which I won’t go into detail about here) recognizes that different memetic matrices are just DIFFERENT – one is not intrinsically better than another other.

Each of the memetic matrices described in the Spiral Dynamics model – including the BLUE matrix of fundamentalism – or the GREEN matrix of post-modernism, can have a healthy expression – or an unhealthy one.

It’s easy enough to go into the post-modern academic world and find just as many people engaging in bonbu behavior - intellectual terrorism - as it is anywhere else. One’s memetic perspective is no predictor of good or bad behavior.

That’s self-evident to any honest observer – and should be doubly so to any Shin Buddhist who is aware that ALL of us are subject to the same blind passions – regardless of how we might “do” theology – or any other area of thought and belief.

Compared to Armstrong, the Buddha’s approach is so much broader: He teachers our memetic world views are just that – VIEWS.

Various memetic views are used, or not, in various dharma gates – as rafts to the far shore of full awakening – Buddhahood at last.

Once there, our rafts are to be discarded as we understand them for what they really are: expedient means to Buddhahood, rather than ultimate reality itself – which both includes and transcends any memetic approach to any of the 84,000 gates of the Dharma.

So rather than talk exhaustively about Armstrong, the more relevant discussion is to talk about the Path of the Sages perspective – of which Armstrong’s is simply a non-Buddhist example.

In that regard, what is really important – for a discussion among Shin Buddhists, in particular, is to compare that perspective to Shinran’s – to listen deeply and explore honestly WHAT Shinran said and believed, and WHY he said it and believed it.

That way we can avoid the kind of silly straw man that Armstrong sets up (the Osama archetype) and have a real dharma discussion – a discussion into which Armstrong’s position can find it’s own home – rather than fitting the Buddha-dharma into Armstrong’s smaller – less inclusive, perspective.

As the 84,000 dharma gates of the Path of the Sages unfolded, any number of those gates put the primal emphasis on mind as creator of experience – and on the recognition of that as a great key to awakening.

I’m no scholar, but even a layperson like me can read the Diamond Sutra and see the power and the beauty in Shakyamuni’s dialogue with Shariputa: the pristine awareness that form is emptiness, and emptiness is form – that samsara is nirvana and nirvana, samsara – that all dharmas are empty, that everything is empty of self-existence.

In this Path of Sages context, Armstrong’s ideas of Mythos and Logos, of the way to “listen” to the Bible (or any scriptural source) more as poetry than as prose, more allusively than literally, more from the right brain than from the left, all fit in quite easily.

But then, Stubble Headed Gotuko – our very own stubborn and dogmatic Shinran comes along, insisting loudly and repeatedly that there are 84,000 dharma gates – plus ONE.

Of course I could find many passages – but this particular one is so BLUNT that when I shared it recently with a Pure Land Buddhist of some learning who hadn’t read Shinran before, her first reaction was that Shinran was blaspheming the other dharma gates.

Here it is:

Having entered forever the ocean of the Vow, I now realize deeply the Buddha’s benevolence.

To respond with gratitude for the supreme virtues, I collect the crucial passages expressing the true essence of the Pure Land way, constantly saying, out of mindfulness [the Name that is] the inconceivable ocean of virtues. Ever more greatly rejoicing, I humbly receive it.

Truly we know that the teachings of the Path of Sages were intended for the period when the Buddha was in the world and for the right dharma-age.

They are ALTOGETHER INAPPROPRIATE for the times and beings of the semblance and last dharma-ages and the age when the dharma has become extinct.

Already their time has passed; they are no longer in accord with beings.

The true essence of the Pure Land way compassionately draws all of the innumerable evil, defiled beings to enlightenment without discrimination, whether they be of the period when the Buddha was in the world, of the right, semblance, or last dharma-ages, or of the time when the dharma has become extinct.

is awfully strong language. It sounds even stronger when I get a bagful of synonyms from Roget’s Thesaurus (which is as close as I can come to scholarship, as a layperson with no Japanese).


· ill-fitted
· ill-suited
· ill-timed
· improper
· inapplicable
· inapropos
· incongruous
· inconsonant
· incorrect
· irrelevant
· unbefitting
· undue
· unfit
· unfitting
· unmeet
· unseasonable
· unsuitable
· untimely

I have no doubt that if Karen Armstrong were to read Shinran here, her Osama Bin Laden fundamentalist warning bell would EXPLODE in her head – as indeed it EXPLODED in the head of my dharma friend – as it probably has EXPLODED in the heads of any number of modernist and post-modernist Shin scholars and clerics and their followers.

On the surface, I can certainly see how Shinran SOUNDS like a pre-rational ignoramus, here – a dyed in the wool, Amida-thumping fundamentalist, to a modernist and/or post-modernist sensibility, such as Armstrong’s.

So the question deserves to be asked: is Shinran just a fundamentalist NUT?

Do we need to step gingerly away from him and what sound like his fundie rants?

Do we need to deconstruct and then reconstruct some kind of 21st Century Revised Shin Buddhist matrix, retaining the ritual (perhaps) while stripping away the fundie Amida thumping that makes us sick inside – because it reminds us of the Bible thumping we have been raised on culturally, if not individually?

At this point, Ray, Karen Armstrong is really beside the point altogether.

The REAL issue always has been - and still is - Shinran himself: How do we understand him? And what are we to do with him, when we read him honestly, with both eyes open, directly – and not refracted through the distorting prism of modern Shin scholars?

These are BLUNT questions, Ray – not disrespectful questions – but honest questions that I believe peel back the public face of this discussion (and not just between you and I).

And I appreciate that you are asking me to consider them with you!

All these questions, about Armstrong and about fundamentalism and about the 84,000 Gates of the Path of the Sages and the ONE Gate of the Path of the Foolish help to reveal OUR thoughts and beliefs.

We are – in my view – already conscious of SOME of our thoughts and beliefs – but not all of them. Because of our individual and corporate limitations our memetic matrix is all to often hidden below the level of our conscious awareness.

These hidden thoughts and beliefs make a tremendous difference in how we hear - or DON’T hear – the dharma of Jodo Shinshu.

And since there is nothing else to do BUT hear – and hear deeply – with our left brain and our right brain both – asking these questions is – in my opinion – critical dharma business for us to engage in – alone and together wherever we gather as a Shin sangha – online or offline.

So in my final letter I am going to answer the questions I have just asked, Ray – about whether or not Shinran is a fundamentalist - as he no doubt appears to be - to some sincere people.

If, after I offer my perspective on that question, you continue to think that Shinran is a fundamentalist – and that fundamentalism is an essential MISTAKE for Buddhists – then of course you will be looking for some kind of thinking tools – whether from Karen Armstrong or the Path of the Sages teachings – to deconstruct and then re-construct Shinran in a way that makes him palatable.

Then again, you might not need to do that, anymore.

To me it is clear that Shinran is no fundamentalist – but coming from an entirely different place than fundamentalism when he makes the statements he does. Because I am very clear about that, I have no need to re-interpret his teaching – to deconstruct anything his says. I can take his teaching at face value – in a literal rather than a semiotic way - without him being an “Amida thumping fundamentalist” – or me being a “Shinran thumping fundamentalist” either, as someone recently called me.

So bear with me, dharma friend. I will begin work on the final letter here. In it I hope to make two points crystal clear:

  • WHY I say Shinran is definitely not a fundamentalist in the sense Karen Armstrong uses the word – and might well label him, based on his unambiguous dogmatism.
  • WHY I also say that it is important to the sangha to return to the True Teaching of Shinran – where we take his plain teaching for plain people at face value – rather than as Shin Semiotics – as Karen Armstrong and too many modern Shin scholars would encourage us to do.

Best regards,


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