The SHINRAN Manifesto: Repairing Shinran’s Bridge to Buddhahood


You are pretty consistent in stating why you are contributing your views to this forum and running your blog which has a lot of content.

However, I still don’t know what views are being expressed here or eslewhere that your consider divergences. Could you share a few examples?



Hi Larry -

Here’s the short answer - a prelude of the divergences I am committed to examining on the SHIN UGLY Blog.

Doing this examination takes significant time and effort to unpack in blog articles, etc. So please bear with me.





1. Who is Amida Buddha? There is a major divergence in modern thought from Shinran’s teaching. I’m about to write the third and final article on that subject, giving another example of modern teaching, and then Shinran’s teaching by way of contrast.

2. The “Shin Semiotics” approach to Shinran’s teachings. This is the idea of considering Shinran’s words - and by extension Shakyamuni Buddha’s words in the Larger Pure Land Sutra - as merely mythic rather than as literally true. Clearly Shinran considers them as the latter. One place where this is critical, in terms of divergences, is in asking “What is the Pure Land?”.

In this regard, there is the whole issue of mistakenly appropriating what is a zen-pure land concept from the Path of the Sages teaching that “Pure Land Is Pure Mind”. The truth is that this teaching only makes sense if you are a TRUE Buddha or TRULY non-retrogressing Bodhisattva.

For the rest of us it is not true at all, first because we simply lack Pure Mind, as beings filled with BONNO, blind passion. Kobai does a precise job of deconstructing this one in his book, which is available as an ebook on the Shin Ugly Blog.

3. The de-emphasis - and sometimes outright denial - of Buddha’s basic teaching of Karma and Rebirth. This is such a critical idea behind Shinran’s teaching that de-emphasizing it from the foundation of Shin 101 (aka Shin Ugly) leaves nothing but a new age husk, rather than the dharma that can cause plain people to end suffering at last and become buddhas.

I recognize that there are plenty of Buddhists today who take Stephen Batchelor’s “Buddhism Without Beliefs” approach. I’m not telling them that they shouldn’t, if that’s the best they can do with the light that they have.

But if we’re going to talk about coming to the end of suffering at last - Batchelor’s perspective is going to fail us. Batchelor’s views simply can’t help us deal with the karmic burden that we carry from life to life, strapped to the wheel of re-birth. And such views certainly do NOT reflect Shinran’s thought, even a little bit.

4. The clouding up and obfuscation of the clear path to settled Shinjin laid out by Shinran, and confirmed in Rennyo’s many letters. The result is that people come to the sangha and remain untaught what Shinran wants to teach - and instead focus on the forms and rituals (which are secondary) while simply not getting the left brained content needed to provide the firm foundation for right-brained MONPO, or deep hearing.

Honen and Shinran, both scholars trained in the Path of Sages schools, said over and over again that to hear deeply one had to let go of their existing knowledge base and come to the dharma as though one were a “village idiot”. This is VERY hard for us to do, once we have had either a grad school education (formal or informal) or a background in Path of the Sages Buddha-dharma. I know, because I have both - and can see how they both can keep a person from the simplicity that allows DIAMOND-LIKE SHINJIN to emerge.

5. The belief that we can’t really understand Shinran, unless we are assisted by “extensions” being offered by modern Shin Buddhist teachers. These extensions include emphasis on Dharma teachings from the Path of the Sages, as well as teaching derived from western philosophy and theology - including existentialism, marxism (in Japan more than here), process theology, etc.

Recently someone wrote to me, declaring in all sincerity, that by rejecting these modern and post-modern extensions, that “there is much to Shinran you simply cannot understand”. He also said to me that “relying simply on the words of Shinran, who could not have conceived of the world in which we live, is dangerous and delusional”. See his letter HERE.

This is one of the most problematic of the many lamentable divergences that need to be catalogued. It’s just a 21st century spin on one of the oldest plagues Shinran had to deal with. You probably know that as a very old man of 86, he had to disinherit his own son Zenran, for going around telling people exactly this: that Shinran’s plain public teaching was somehow incomplete and obsolete (a “fading flower”), and that he (Zenran) had been made the custodian of a “higher” teaching.

6. The mixing of practices from the Path of the Sages with the singular practice of Nembutsu of Gratitude by a person who simply experiences a thought moment of total and true entrusting. This was so explicitly rejected by Shinran that it amazing to me that it is now getting mainstreamed in the Shin Sangha. If Sensei Ogui wants to teach “Zen-Shin” that is of course his right - and I am happy for those who find such teaching of benefit, in whatever way. But someone with that approach is NOT a suitable candidate for leadership of the Shin Sangha - if we are going to transmit Shinran’s dharma. This approach to the dharma that combines meditation as praxis with Shin praxis is now widening in the Shin sangha: The IBS - the organization that trains ministerial candidates for JSS temples, has just hosted a conference on the subject.

7. The lack of clarity in teaching and learning about “salvation in the present” - which is the very foundation of Shinran’s unique thought - and the establishment of settled Shinjin. For details, see my blog post HERE, or read Prof Eiken Kobai’s eBook HERE.

8. The misplaced emphasis on mystical “feeling” in the current moment - which is exactly what SHINJIN is not. Shinran himself talked openly about how few sunny days he actually had - metaphysically speaking. He was brutally honest about the fact that in this life he lived under under the clouds of his own cravings and aversions even as he was grateful for Amida Buddha’s salvation. He spoke movingly that hell was his only home, and that BEST he could do was stroll on the roof of hell, picking flowers.

As someone of the same SHINJIN who lives with the ineradicable sadness of seeing my daughter lying on a gurney, grey and cold, with a tube down her throat which they would not remove because of state autopsy requirements -after she had tried so hard to climb out of the pit into which she had fallen after living a productive life - I understand entirely what Shinran was speaking about. As grateful as I am, I may not have another mystic moment for the rest of my life. If I thought this had ANYTHING to do with settled SHINJIN I’d be lost right now. Happily I know better - because I know what SHINJIN is and isn’t about from listening to my TRUE teacher Shinran.

For the person of SHINJIN, feeling good is irrelevant, and so is being a myokonin. It’s wonderful if it works out that way, in an individual life - but it has nothing to do with being grasped, never to be abandoned. Holding this state -or this kind of person - up as some kind of “goal” for Shin Buddhists, or “gauge” of one’s life, is a great divergence from Shinran’s teaching.

Because of this misplaced emphasis on mystical feeling (which actually is a critical signpost for many of the path of the sages teachings, to show that one is attaining “clear mind”, etc) people don’t recognize that the instruction about SHINJIN - which is the thought-moment that seals us for rebirth in the Pure Land - is to deal completely with doubt - eliminating doubt altogether.

The work of a TRUE teacher of Shinran’s dharma gate is this: helping a hungry hearer to expose and eliminate ALL doubt, so the hearer can have that one-thought moment of entrusting EVERYTHING about his karmic burden to Amida Buddha.

By continuing to emphasize this - as Shinran did, and Rennyo did, and Kobai does - a clear channel of true entrusting remains open to the light and life of Amida Buddha - however it unfolds -entirely apart from any self-calculation or concern on the part of the helpless small self - “namu”.

That’s the CRITICAL purpose for the sangha’s existence - to help people hear deeply, and eliminate ALL doubt as they do. If that is not being done, continually as the basis of all sangha experience, people are left holding the bag of their karmic burden, rather than receiving the freely transferred merit of Amida Buddha.

Setting up, and leading, just this kind of discussion was actually what Rennyo did, going from temple to temple. As people heard, and understood, they because grateful that their insoluble problem was solved by Amida’s Vow - and thus the experience of Shinjin “took” -and the True Nembutsu -the Nembutsu of gratitude - simply came forth.

Doing THIS is the primary work - not the teaching of forms and rituals - as Rennyo himself said.

Now, that is not to disparage ritual - but ritual for Shinran and Rennyo makes sense - just like Nembutsu recitation makes sense - on the FAR side of SHINJIN. On the NEAR side (before SHINJIN) they too easily serve as a distraction.

I’m NOT saying that a person shouldn’t be taught such ritual before SHINJIN - but there needs to be a true teacher communicating CLEARLY to the seeker - so that the person doesn’t mistake ritual for reality - as so often happens.

That (for example) is why the sanghas are emptying out: the young native born Japanese-Americans have done ritual without reality - so once they come of age, they don’t come to temple anymore. They don’t GET it. They’re not people of SHINJIN. The BCA has found that when many of them look for a spiritual home, they go to the Christian Church.

9. A de-emphasis, and often an outright ignoring, of an idea that is CRITICAL to Shinran’s perspective - that of MAPPO - of us being in the third age of the dharma, the age of dharma decline, where the 84,000 gates of the Paths of the Sages just don’t work anymore.

Without this critical understanding, Shinran’s life work makes no sense at all. He did what he did because he believed that for him - and for us ALL - there was literally no other way OUT of the endless loop of suffering and rebirth - not just because of his own personal endarkenment -but because of our CORPORATE endarkenment - the result of living in the current age of Dharma Decline.


I’ll stop here, Larry. And of course these words remain generalities - and thus need to be unpacked with real examples - the critical compare and contrast exercise so that people can SEE the difference between what our original dharma teachers taught - and what is being taught (or not taught) today. This is clearly not not very visible to most people (you are a good example). At one time it wasn’t very visible to me either.

What I do reject - unequivocally - are the ad hominum attacks of some accusing me of being divisive, irresponsible, etc. for raising and pursuing this discussion. I won’t answer one ad hominum with another. I’ve got enough of my own BONNO to last me the rest of my life - and living in my own glass house of BONNO it’s idiotic to throw stones just because some verbal pebbles are lobbed my way. I’m going to keep the discussion on point, and we’ll all get over it, and have a good laugh someday - if not here, then in the Pure Land.

A number of folks have tried a softer ad hominum approach using more subtle tactics - advising me that I am not grounded enough in Shin Buddhist teaching to engage in a discussion with those who are my elders (and by implication my betters). Attaching a parental tone of pseudo-Buddhic kindness is not a legitimate response to clear and reasoned critique - regardless of whether it comes from a layperson like me, or a scholar like Kobai.

Why would people need to do that, rather than engaging in a deep and honest exchange of views on this critical topic? Only because they feel threatened inside. That’s what happens when any of us react - when we have some hidden craving and aversion, some egotistical skin in the game.

So when people behave this way, I try to discount their immediate angst, and listen to their content anyway - and respond to it. That keeps us on point, and actually advances the dialogue.

One thing I have noticed - in some of the email that has come my way: this is not about me, really - but about Shinran and his completely radical POV.

One woman I spoke to, who is actually a Pure Land Buddhist who knows little or nothing about Shinran’s thought went so far the other day to offer her opinion that Shinran was a person of evil karma for stating plainly that none of the other dharma gates work in this age t lead people to Buddhahood.

She thought that Shinran was “condemning” other dharma gates, and thus causing division in the Sangha. She advised me - sincerely enough - to stop repeating what she labelled as “blasphemy”.

The only way to correct such profound misunderstanding of SHINRAN is by being willing to remain in dialogue. Since she is sincere, I did. And one of the things I advised her was that in order to have any kind of a dharma dialogue, she was going to need to hear Shinran for herself. Otherwise she was fighting a “straw man” of her own devising.

Doing that may not convince her that Shinran is correct in his dharma teaching - but it does open the door for her to listen to Shinran objectively, rather than through the subjective lens of her mis-understanding. And that is all I am given to do in her case. Actually convincing her of anything isn’t my job - it’s Amida Buddha’s job.

Same with all these points which I raise above about the many critical divergences from Shinran in the modern Shin Sangha. I believe it is our COMMON work to examine them openly and honestly. How do I know. Because that has been a critical part of the common work in the Shin Sangha since Shinran was a student of Honen.

Why is it a critical part? Because of our common Bodhisattvic impulse: namely that IF indeed Shinran’s dharma is the only guaranteed path to Buddhahood in this day, THEN it is critical to keep it clean, clear, pristine and available for those who are karmically ready to listen deeply and accept the gift of diamondlike shinjin that Amida Buddha offers - the gift of salvation in the present, and Buddhahood in the Pure Land after this life is over.

And when I say it is our COMMON work - I mean that it is the work of ALL the sangha - not the work of the clerics and scholars only.

Indeed, for many of them it might be harder to do than it is for you or me - because they have been deeply immersed in the matrix they inhabit - and find it impossible to step outside of it in the moment. That is a problem among thinkers and academics of all disciplines.

I close with this, Larry.

When something is designed by an engineer, like a bridge, or an automobile engine - it must be built according to spec in order to do it’s job. There are, of course, tolerances built in, because it is the nature of being human that nothing we do is perfectly in accord with the blueprint. Those tolerances are the acceptable level of deviation - or divergence - from the spec in order to get a bridge that doesn’t fall down, or a car engine that reliably runs.

Exceed them - and we’ve got a problem.

Same thing with Shinran’s dharma, in my view. There are technical details that frankly, I don’t yet have a full handle on, that a Shin scholar like Kobai studies for 40 years. The transmission of Shinran’s dharma can probably stand up to us not knowing all the fine print of his teaching - and perhaps even getting it a LITTLE bit mixed up.

Shinran’s dharma “bridge” to Buddhahood can still stand strong, even with the small deviations from the original engineer’s spec.

HOWEVER - when those tolerances are exceeded - when Shin clerics and scholars start deviating on the big critical hunks of Shinran’s thought (such as I have listed above and will continue to unpack on the Shin Ugly blog) - the bridge of dharma transmission leading to the same SHINJIN as Shinran is compromised, and in danger of falling down all together.

It is not HUBRIS (as some have said) to say this - or to raise these critical questions for examination and deep hearing - alone or together. It is, in fact, HUMILITY - the humility to accept that my own views, and the views of anyone I might draw upon as a teacher, need to be compared to the views of the those who are the reliable TRUE teachers of the TRUE Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way.

This is not an ego-driven exercise - but an exercise that keeps our COMMON egotism in check - so that we don’t screw this singular bridge up altogether. It’s not a matter of I’m right and you’re wrong - or vice versa. Rather it’s a matter of listening deeply together to what our common teachers all say - and understanding not only WHAT they say, but WHY they say it.

If we haven’t - as a sangha - been doing this kind of listening for a long time - but been saying and doing other things entirely - however sincerely - it is going to be a painful process, particularly at the beginning.

The honest challenge is going to be perceived as an attack. People’s reputations - and perhaps even their legacies - are going to be under review. It will be no less difficult here than in any secular field of endeavor:

  • such as the just completed review of why the CIA was so wrong about Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction
  • such as the deconstruction that’s happened over the past 20 years of all the child abuse experts who were fooled by false memory syndrome - convicting many whose convictions have been overturned
  • such as the apology by Pope John Paul II - 2000 years overdue - for the institutionalized anti-semitism in the church
  • such as the 60 year overdue apology by President Clinton for putting Japanese-Americans in camps during WWII
  • such as the belated apologies by the Zen Master in Japan for his predecessor’s teaching the Japanese Army how to rape Nanking as an act of aesthetics, as though it were a flower arranging exercise - as documented in Zen Soto Priest and scholar Dr. Brian Victoria in Zen At War and Zen War Stories
  • such as the repentance of people in the South of the USA for institutionalized segretion for 150 years after the end of slavery
  • such as the admission in South Africa that institutionalized apartheid was a crime against humanity

I could go on and on - and am overdelivering on examples deliberately - just to help loosen the grip of misplaced certainty that we are ALL subject to - particularly when our mistakes have become INSTITUTIONALIZED.

Confronting such mistakes, for the good of ALL - requires that we abandon our passivity and actively engage in looking hard, and in listening deeply - without the reflexive denial that is nothing more or less than a manifestation of BONNO.

That people make mistakes - including lamentable divergences from the True teaching - is unavoidable. We are all frail, all subject to 84,000 delusions. We are, each and all, unable to see what we just can’t see - until the light of Amida Buddha shines upon our darkness.

What IS avoidable is ostrich-behavior - or circling the wagons - once such a critical issue has been raised.

At that point we have a choice: to consider - or not to consider - what is being questioned, challenged, critiqued. We can either try to shut it down - using hard or soft squelching techniques - or we can deliberately stand there and be open to evaluating - honestly - the content of what is being said.

I tried to begin this discussion a year ago, Larry - because I had the material already in my awareness that I am sharing now - though I hadn’t yet found a reliable confirming voice as I now have.

But I simply wasn’t ready to start and sustain the discussion on the internet, in the so-called Shin “cyber-sangha” at that time - because my sense of pain from my own losses was too overwhelming.

Now I am ready, willing and able, to begin, and to sustain, this discussion here on the SHIN UGLY blog - and invite others to consider the questions and challenges I am raising.

As I’m having this discussion - I am very conscious of my own need to be responsible in what I say - and clear as can be - direct and even blunt - in how I say it.

I am also very aware that saying something ONCE is totally inadequate. All of us need to hear information over and over again - in order for it to penetrate us deeply enough to be heard as MONPO.

That is especially true when we have pre-existing matrices of thoughts and beliefs that form a natural barrier to hearing clearly.

That’s why Shinran and Rennyo wrote the same kinds information in their letters, poems and discourses over and over again. That’s why in his book Kobai says “I seem to be repeating myself”. It takes both TIME and and repeated exposure to the same material to begin to hear - and finally to hear clearly -cleanly - deeply.

And nowhere is such repeated exposure MORE important that with Shinran’s plain talk, for plain people, about suffering and the END of suffering - at last.

Namu-Amida-Butsu. I take refuge in Amida Buddha - utterly and entirely.


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