The SHINRAN Manifesto: Intro to Prof. Kobai’s Book

Here’s the introduction Professor Kobai invited me to write to the next edition of his wonderful book, UNDERSTANDING JODO SHINSHU.

It’s not about Professor Kobai, ultimately. And it’s certainly not about me. It’s about the clarion call to the Shin Buddhist community, that I have called “The SHINRAN Manifesto”:

Return to the TRUE Teaching of Shinran, Our TRUE Teacher.

Here it is:


If you have a personal interest in the teachings of Shinran - known as Shin Buddhism or Jodo Shinshu - you need to know about Professor Eiken Kobai.

Why? Because he is a Shin Buddhist scholar that I can recommend without reservation as a GOOD TEACHER of Shinran’s teaching.

You might ask: Is the input of a GOOD TEACHER that important to the transmission of SHINJIN - the state of TRUE ENTRUSTING that leads to rebirth in the Pure Land at the end of this life as a Buddha - and the end of suffering at last?

No, it’s CRITICAL.

That was the opinion of Rennyo, known as “Rennyo the Restorer”, because he restored Shinran’s teaching to a Shin Buddhist community that had lost it’s way.

Here’s what Rennyo said:

“Pertaining to the conditions existent towards the realization of rebirth, I (Rennyo) shall establish the Five Conditional Steps here:

  1. The culmination of related past conditions and circumstances leading one to the Dharma.
  2. A “Good Teacher of the Dharma.”
  3. The Light of Amida Buddha.
  4. Faith - ‘Shinjin’.
  5. Amida’s Name.

It appears to me that without the presence of ALL the conditions in these five steps, one will NEVER obtain rebirth.

Therefore, a “Good Teacher of the Dharma’ is a bearer of the message, “Place your reliance on Amida Buddha!

If conditions materialize where there is a culmination of related past conditions and circumstances without the meeting of a “Good Teacher of the Dharma,” rebirth will not be realized”.

Why does Rennyo insist that a GOOD TEACHER is one of the five critical components? Because in Shin Buddhism, there is no practice except for listening deeply. Therefore the CONTENT of what is being taught is critical, in order for rebirth to be assured, just as Rennyo says.

So- if you’re SERIOUS about Shin Buddhism, don’t be naive about ANY teacher or teaching just because it’s LABELLED as Shin Buddhism. Line it up against what Shakyamuni and Shinran say in THEIR teaching.

The story of how I found Professor Kobai’s teaching, and the man himself, is a perfect illustration of why a GOOD TEACHER is one of Rennyo’s five critical conditions for teaching Shinran’s teaching about Amida Buddha’s salvation.

I share it with you here:

Overwhelmed with grief after the suicide of my daughter, I contacted a nationally known Shin Buddhist teacher whose writings I had read. He was kind enough to enter into an email dialogue with me, as I sought for a way to handle the great suffering I was experiencing. He also sent me some books that informed his own thought. To this day I remain grateful for his time and his efforts.

Looking for comfort, for light, for light in my darkness, I was re-reading the Tannisho (Lamenting Divergences) one day. The following passage leaped off the page, as though our teacher Shinran was speaking personally to my situation - and to me:

“There is a difference in compassion between the Path of Sages and the Path of Pure Land. The compassion in the Path of Sages is expressed through pity, sympathy, and care for all beings, but rare is it that one can help another as completely as one desires.

The compassion in the Path of Pure Land is to quickly attain Buddhahood, saying the nembutsu, and with the true heart of compassion and love save all beings completely as we desire.

In this life no matter how much pity and sympathy we may feel for others, it is impossible to help another as we truly wish; thus our compassion is inconsistent and limited.

Only the saying of nembutsu manifests the complete and never ending compassion which is true, real, and sincere.

I, Shinran, have never even once uttered the Nembutsu for the sake of my father and mother. The reason is that all beings have been fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, in the timeless process of birth-and-death.

When I attain Buddhahood in the next birth, each and everyone will be saved.

If it were a good accomplished by my own powers, then I could transfer the accumulated merits of Nembutsu to save my father and mother.

But since such is not the case, when we become free from self-power and quickly attain the enlightenment of the Pure Land, we will save those bound closest to us through transcendental powers, no matter how deeply they are immersed in the karmic sufferings of the six realms and four modes of birth”.

Here was Shinran - my teacher - speaking to the very heart of my grief:

  • I couldn’t help my beloved daughter as I wanted to, even though I had tried. She had succumbed to a downward spiral of depression, and nothing I did could pull her out of it. My pity, sympathy and care were real - but I was LIMITED because I am just not a Buddha. As Shinran says, I simply couldn’t help her as completely as I desired.
  • More than that, accepting Buddha’s fundamental teaching that we go through endless lives of suffering, and our karmic actions in one life determine our rebirth in the next, I was overwhelmed with concern about the karmic ramifications of her action in taking her own life.

Now, my teacher Shinran had provided me with the dharma antidote for the terrible poison of such anguished thoughts and feelings:

  • At the end of this life, as a person of SHINJIN - of true entrusting - I would take rebirth in Amida Buddha’s Pure Land, and become a Buddha, at last.
  • As a Buddha, I would have all the transcendental powers only a true Buddha has, to find my beloved daughter and to save her, no matter how deeply she might be immersed in karmic suffering in one of the six realms of rebirth.

As the power of this dharma truth settled in my head and my heart, I felt a great shift. Of course, I was still a grieving father. But here was the answer to my existential despair arising from my all too human sense of HELPLESSNESS in the face of such tragedy.

In my next letters to the teacher I had been corresponding with I wrote with real joy about this new awareness of just HOW I was going to fulfill my heart of compassion to my daughter, who was now beyond my reach, having taken rebirth in some other life - in one of the six realms - where I did not know.

Talking at the same time to another Buddhist, a woman who had just lost her husband to suicide, I conveyed the same message of Great Compassion - the compassion of becoming a Buddha in the Pure Land - and then helping those we had loved and could not help as plain people in this life. Though she had never even heard of Shin Buddhism before, she too began listening deeply, finding comfort and hope in the message of Shinran.

Now: here’s where the difference between TRUE teachers, and FALSE teachers, reveals itself:

When I talked with this Shin Buddhist teacher, he said to me that I shouldn’t take these words of Shinran LITERALLY -that they were SYMBOLS pointing to something else entirely.

I was STUNNED by his words.

Hardly in the place for theological or philosophical discourse in this most terrible time of my life, I tried feebly to point out that this was simply what Shinran the man had taught, and his student Yuien was conveying, sometime after his death.

Their audience was essentially laypeople like me - not very educated - and it didn’t seem possible that Shinran would say such things if he didn’t believe them to be true - literally true - himself.

In fact, Yuien said specifically that he was conveying Shinran’s teaching SPECIFICALLY to dispel the hearers’ doubts and confusions:

“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“.

At that point, my conversation with this teacher broke down - very quietly. As I said before, I am grateful for his time and attention - and his sincere attempts to be helpful, during my time of crisis.

But I knew - because I have read Shinran’s writings, more than once - that he was NOT teaching Shinran’s teaching accurately when he told me not to take Shinran’s plain words as simply true in the plain way Shinran said them.

When I had first come in contact with Shinran and Shin Buddhism, I had read many teachings on the internet in an attempt to understand what Shinran was talking about - in addition to reading his own writings, and those of his followers like Yuien and Rennyo.

Now I went back with fresh eyes, and the suffering that life had brought, and was sensitive because of my experience to the differences between what Shinran was teaching, and what this Shin Buddhist teacher was teaching.

Like Shinran’s student Yuien, I couldn’t help noting divergences from Shinran.

And I couldn’t help wondering why there weren’t more experienced Shin Buddhists - particularly Shin Buddhist scholars - doing what Yuien did to lament the divergences in plain, honest language to help a Shin Buddhist layperson such as me.

It was during this internet research that I found Professor Eiken Kobai’s website.

It was mostly in Japanese - but had a few sections with English translations - including one long page with an unformatted draft of the book you are holding in your hand. (The unformatted version is available HERE).

As I read it, I was struck by the CLARITY and POWER of Kobai’s writing as a GOOD TEACHER of Shinran:

  • First, Professor Kobai was committed to making Shinran’s words and ideas the PLUMBLINE for his own. He clearly was humble enough to know that it was his VOCATION to explain accurately what Shinran believed and taught. To do that, he illustrated his teaching with passage after passage from his lifetime of study of Shinran’s work to VALIDATE everything he said. The purpose of his scholarship was not to advance HIS ideas - but SHINRAN’S ideas.
  • Second, just like our dharma heroes Honen, Shinran, Yuien and Rennyo, Professor Kobai was bold enough to make the distinction between true teachers, and true teaching from FALSE. Once again he was fulfilling the role of a GOOD TEACHER - helping me with his honest scholarship to distinguish what Shinran did say from what he didn’t say. He actually had the courage to say what Honen said (in Yuien’s recounting): that people who taught such divergent teachings were not of the same SHINJIN as Honen and Shinran - and thus not to be trusted as GOOD TEACHERS of Shinran’s teaching.

I had found someone whose lifetime of dedication to scholarship could provide me, a layperson, with a strong platform on which to discuss with others in the Shin Sangha my own concerns about the many divergences I was seeing from the TRUTH that Shinran taught.

Of course, these divergences - false teachings propagated by false teachers are not a new problem.

False teachings were a confounding problem during Shinran’s lifetime - indeed Shinran’s own son was such a false teacher, and Shinran had to disown him on that account.

False teachings were a confounding problem after Shinran’s death, prompting his student Yuien to write the Tannisho, dipping his brush in his own tears (as he said) to make the distinction.

False teachings were a confounding problem when Rennyo began his great work of restoration, calling Shin Buddhists to return to Shinran’s teaching in his his own preaching and writing.

And false teachings - divergences from Shinran’s teachings - are a confounding problem today.

Why are true teachers, whether Shinran, Yuien, Rennyo or Kobai, so concerned about TRUE teaching - and distinguishing them from false teaching? Because false teachings confound the great purpose - and the great compassion - of Shakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha both. Why? Because there is no practice in Shin Buddhism other than listening deeply to the true teaching and reflecting on its meaning in our lives.

Unlike other types of Buddhism - there’s just nothing else we need to DO. Indeed, one of Shinran’s most basic ideas is that there is nothing else we CAN do to deal with our suffering in a full and final way, because of the age of Dharma Decline in which we live.

All we can do is open ourselves up to listen honestly, openly, willingly. Amida Buddha must do everything else. He must take on the burden of our transformation to Buddhahood entirely. We simply can’t get there - to the far shore of full awakening - from where we are right now in any other way.

That’s why a GOOD teacher - a TRUE teacher - invites us to listen with true intention - deeply - with our both sides of our brain:

  • By listening with our rational left-brain we learn the content of the TRUE teaching - which is the CRITICAL place to begin - according to Shinran and his true students - such as Rennyo the Restorer - and Professor Kobai, too. Shin Buddhism isn’t mushy mysticism - there is CONTENT that must be understood, and digested, and finally accepted as Buddha’s TRUTH.
  • By listening with our emotional right-brain we experience our hearts opening to to the primal felt sense of our own need - and the calling of Amida Buddha to entrust ourselves to HIM entirely.

When both are present together - our felt desire for the end of suffering, and the clear understanding of what Shinran taught as he taught it - we are able to respond to Amida’s Light and Life by entrusting ourselves completely to Him, His Vow and His work. And thus, as Professor Kobai stresses, we experience the same SHINJIN - the gift of Amida Buddha - that Shinran did.

Here’s the bottom line:

Few in the West will care about Shin Buddhism as an obscure Japanese sect of Buddhism. Few will care about Japanese culture. Speaking plainly - I have no intrinsic interest in either.

But what I am interested in - and care deeply about - is what Buddha focused on, always and ever: the fundamental questions of suffering, and how to end suffering at last.

There are literally MILLIONS of people who are seeking answers to these, life’s hardest questions, just like me.

There are MILLIONS who are seeking to understand the problem of suffering - both personal suffering and global suffering.

There are MILLIONS who are looking for the end of suffering at last - enlightenment - Buddhahood - by whatever name it is called.

For those MILLIONS of plain people - the dharma gate of Shinran offers a guaranteed path - an easy path - and in this age of Dharma Decline the ONLY path - to answer their questions and to meet their deepest need - and mine.

That is why - just as Rennyo said - we need GOOD teachers -TRUE teachers - in the Shin Sangha - teachers like Professor Eiken Kobai - who will use their scholarly vocation to present Shinran’s teaching just as Shinran would present it himself.

For me, a lot of what I read in Professor Kobai’s book was confirmation of what I had read in Shinran’s works already.

But I personally want to thank him, publicly in this introduction, for making clear to me Shinran’s plain teaching about SALVATION IN THE PRESENT.

As Prof. Kobai points out, THIS is the very heart of Shinran’s unique contribution to Pure Land thought. It is Shinran who teaches unequivocally that even one moment of thought of entrusting Amida Buddha FULLY puts each and every one in the “rightly established group” of those who will take rebirth in the Pure Land at the end of this life.

Professor Kobai explains this with a clarity that made Shinran’s TRUE teaching come alive for me with even greater power than before. And that is what a true teacher does, whether ancient or contemporary, Japanese or American, scholar or layperson.

I also want to thank him for his COURAGE - for being willing to point out - based on his lifetime of scholarship and knowledge of the history of the Shin Sangha - the kinds of FALSE teachings that have come up, over and over again.

Once again, he is HUMBLE enough to look to our common teacher Shinran to refute false teaching - and to declare BOLDLY, just like Honen and Shinran did, that a person of the same SHINJIN as they would never make such foolish and misleading statements.

In speaking out so clearly, he reminds me of Yuien’s words in the Tannisho, recounting Shinran’s conversation with his teacher Honen:

“I feel that the preceding views (the false teachings Yuien had just described) all arise due to differences in the understanding of SHINJIN (true entrusting).

According to our late master Shinran, it was the same at the time of his teacher, Honen.

Among his disciples, there were only a few people who truly entrusted themselves to Amida. This was once a cause of debate between Shinran and fellow disciples.

When he claimed, “Shinran’s entrusting and Honen’s entrusting are identical,” Seikan, Nenbutsu, and others strongly refuted this, saying, “How can you claim that our master’s entrusting and your entrusting are identical!”

To this Shinran replied, “Our master’s wisdom and knowledge are truly profound and to say that our entrusting to Amida are identical is preposterous. But as far as true entrusting, leading to birth in the Pure Land is concerned, no difference exists at all. Both are the same.”

Still they continued to press Shinran, challenging him by saying, “How can that be possible?”

They finally decided to settle the argument once and for all by going to Honen, relating the details. When Honen listened to their respective views, he said, “The true entrusting of Honen is a gift granted by the Tathagata, and the true entrusting of Shinran is also a gift from the Tathagata. Thus, they are the same. People whose entrusting is different will probably not go to the same Pure Land as I.”

Such was the case in earlier times, and today it seems that among the followers of single-hearted nembutsu there are some who do not share the same entrusting as that of Shinran.

Although I may sound repetitious, I want to put all this down in writing”.

“Such was the case in earlier times”, Yuien says, remembering the days when his teacher Shinran was still alive. And, Yuien continues, it seemed the same still at the dusk of his own life, after his teacher’s death.

And such was the case, 200 years later, when Rennyo found the Sangha in disarray, and did the work of preaching and teaching to restore the Sangha by returning it to the TRUE teaching of our teacher Shinran once again.

And such is the case TODAY.

That is why I consider Professor Eiken Kobai’s voice so important for us all to hear - and recommend his work without reservation. He models, by his example, how we ALL need to teach and what we ALL need to learn in order to restore the Shin sangha - so that as a Dharma COMMUNITY we are prepared to offer countless hungry listeners the True Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way.


Paul Roberts

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