The SHINRAN Manifesto: Concerning Shin Semiotics #1 - Introduction

This is the first of four posts that I am writing to answer a question posed by a dharma friend named Ray on the Yahoo! egroup SHINLIST.

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.

This introductory letter, and the three that will follow it, are my answer to his question.

In a broader context, these posts 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 -

I’m going to respond in detail to your question as to why I say that the modern and post-modern approach of Mythos and Symbol - as applied to Shin Buddhism - is a large and lamentable divergence from Shinran’s teaching. It’s not the first, certainly - but truly it needs to be looked at critically just as Shinran, and his true students, have historically done with all such divergences.

My response will be in three parts: three posts that together will answer your question fully, honestly and without mincing words. It will address the perspective of Karen Armstrong that you offer, as well as the perspectives of modern and post-modern Shin teachers that are publicly available either in the bookstore or on the internet.

A dharma friend who is on SHINLIST has questioned whether it is a good idea to quote passages and name the teachers whose perspective I am challenging. He is concerned that it may seem disrespectful somehow.

My own perspective on that question is that Shinran himself named the names of those whom he disagreed with (and agreed with) freely in his letters, and his discussions with his students, such as Yuien.

While I have no intention of being disrespectful of anyone’s personhood, I am unwilling to speak in veiled or indirect terms on a subject that I consider the most important in the world. If what I say is simply wrong, then let it be deconstructed by you or others as part of our dialogue. If you disagree with my contentions, that’s fair game for your responses (or anyone’s) as well.

My bottom line: an honest dialogue, honestly persisted in, is of utmost value in exploring Shinran’s dharma gate.

Why? Because in Shin Buddhism there is simply no other practice than MONPO -listening deeply. Through such dialogue, we can explore WHAT we are listening to, WHO we are listening to, and HOW we are listening to it.

My own belief is that as a result of that kind of exploration, there are a LOT of people who will move from their current confusion to settled SHINJIN - the same SHINJIN as Shinran had, and transmitted by the same method of direct discourse to the entire world.

For any honest and open-minded student of Shinran, that’s PRICELESS.

The basic content of my three post response to you will be as follows:

Post #1 will recount my personal and subjective experience: what happened in my own life that has brought me to the perspective I am sharing. To do that, I will publish the introduction that Professor Eiken Kobai invited me to write for the re-publication of his book “Understanding Jodo-Shinshu”.

Anyone who wants to know more about him is invited to do a search on KOBAI on the SHIN UGLY Blog. You will find posts that give critical excerpts of both his pristine teaching and his bio as a scholar of the highest rank in the Hongawaji. Ken - the translator of Kobai’s books - and I are currently collaborating to make PDF ebooks of his two translated books available at no charge to the Shin Buddhist community. I’ll let the online Shin community, including folks on Yahoo’s Shinlist, know when they are available on the SHIN UGLY website.

Post #2 will be a deconstruction of the “Mythos and Symbol” position of Karen Armstrong you asked me to read. It’s not a difficult deconstruction to do, frankly.

Why? Because the Shinran and Honen were BOTH Buddhist monks and scholars who renounced the scholarly approach of the Path of the Sages in favor of the simplicity of the Path of the Pure Land.

For that reason, their ideas are much more nuanced than Armstrong’s blunt either/or broadside against what she considers the memetic “enemy” of fundamentalist thinking.

By listening deeply to the response I offer, I hope that the concerns of a number of folks who worry about me or anyone else being an “Amida Thumper” will be adequately answered, even as I continue to thump away (smile).

In this post I will also deconstruct the Shin specific version of Armstrong’s mythos and symbol approach, which I call “Shin Semiotics“, just to give it a name for discussion’s sake.

My own research has convinced me that Shin Semiotics is has taken over as the dominant memetic matrix in the Western Shin Sangha.

In my view, it is the unexamined reason why the Shin Sangha is sick and dying, while other sects that have not devolved into a reductionist deconstructive semiotics approach - such as Tibetan Buddhism - are doing well in making their dharma gates widely available to hungry western hearers.

A real part of the problem is that when most people come to Shin Buddhism in the western Shin Sangha, they don’t even REALIZE that Shin Semiotics is the dominant matrix that has been consciously chosen by the scholars and clerics in today’s leadership. As Shin Newbies they simply SWALLOW it.

It’s invisible, mostly - like the water in which a fish swims - just like the matrix in the movie of the same name.

For that reason, people who are trying sincerely to listen to the teaching don’t even get the opportunity to RECOGNIZE the divergence for what it is, much less do the critical “compare and contrast” exercise between the Shin Semiotics memetic matrix and Shinran’s memetic matrix.

Post #3 will discuss texts from Shakyamuni Buddha, Honen, Shinran, Yuien and Rennyo that illustrate their PRESCIENT rejection of Shin Semiotics - focusing particularly on the modernist perspective of Amida Buddha as merely a symbol rather than a person who became a Bodhisattva and finally a Buddha, just like Shakyamuni Buddha.

In this post I will include texts that provide kindly and at the same time quite blunt directives from our foundational teachers as to how people ought to listen to Shin Buddhist teachings in order to get the CRITICAL benefit that they each and all considered ESSENTIAL.

That ESSENTIAL benefit is none other than the same SHINJIN as Shinran experienced and spoke about over and over again: the TRUE ENTRUSTING that leads to the TRUE PRACTICE of TRUE NEMBUTSU - the Nembutsu of simple gratitude rather than calculated thought or self-powered effort through meditative and non-meditative Nembutsu practice.

Establishing others in the same SHINJIN is the singular reason for everything our founding teachers each and all said and did. I’ll cover that ground as well, in this post, and review - at the risk of repeating myself - the reason that this is the single most important topic to consider deeply alone and together as a sangha community - online or offline.

I’ll close the circle as I opened it: by explaining why coming to the settled SHINJIN of Shinran is the critical heart of Shin Buddhism - in terms of my own family’s personal and subjective experience. An intellectual dharma tract is absolutely INADEQUATE for those of us who are grappling with the reality of our own endarkenment, and are trying to come to grips with what it means to entrust ourselves completely to the Other Power of Amida Buddha and His Primal Vow. Without a profound personal narrative, there is no point in even having a discussion.

I’m going to make only one request, Ray - of you and anyone else who might want to question or challenge my perspective: wait until I have unpacked all three posts - because your question/challenges might well be answered in them. The first post is ready to go, more or less, because the Intro to Kobai’s book has been written, and approved already. The second and third will take a bit of time, so bear with me.

In closing:

A few paragraphs up, I said this: Together, we can explore WHAT we are listening to, WHO we are listening to, and HOW we are being taught to listen. For any honest and open-minded student of Shinran, that’s PRICELESS.

Ken - the translator of Kobai’s work - who has known him for over 30 years, and is a sincere person of Shinjin - has been a great support to me personally as I have embarked on this vocation of articulating the SHIN UGLY position - the plain talk of Shinran for plain people. The other day, in one of our long conversations, Ken told me some wonderful things about what Rennyo actually DID to make Shin Buddhism the pre-eminent Buddhist school in Japan, after it had dwindled to pretty much nothing at all in the 200 years after Shinran’s death.

When Rennyo took over as the eighth abbot, he literally walked across Japan, from one moribund Shin temple to the next. In each temple he visited, he would establish DISCUSSION GROUPS that he would initially lead.

His concern was always and ever to unpack the CONTENT of Shinran’s plain teaching so that plain people could hear it and understand it - and respond without any ambiguity to Amida Buddha’s call - and thereby become settled in the same Shinjin as Shinran, and himself.

It was, in a word, the Shin Ugly approach: sharing the simple, precious dharma of Shinran, without the scholarly discussions that Shinran had engaged in in the KyoGyoShinShu (The True Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way), in order to answer his scholarly detractors in other Buddhist sects who said his teaching wasn’t even Buddhism at all.

As Rennyo shared the plain teaching plainly, it revived the dying Shin sangha like water on parched, dry ground. People flocked to the sangha. That’s how it became the dominating spiritual force in Japan for centuries to come.

As an old man, Rennyo gathered his sons around him, and showed them his feet. They were literally scarred from his walking those many miles in his sandals.

The point of all this? It took a single-minded persistence back then, to cut through all the fog - the doctrinal fog, the mystical fog, and the philosophical fog, and get back to the to the bare metal of Shinran’s Shin Buddhism, once again. The karmic result was incalculable benefit for countless beings.

It will take no less today - and it just needs to be done.

Why? For the same reason: the sake of many who will find in Shinran’s teaching the salvation they have been seeking -but not finding - in the many and varied self-powered paths, Buddhist or otherwise.

Same as it ever was.


Paul R.

WordPress database error: [Table 'netpaul.wp_comments' doesn't exist]
SELECT * FROM wp_comments WHERE comment_post_ID = '81' AND comment_approved = '1' ORDER BY comment_date

Leave a Reply