Woody’s Hard Time With COMPLETE Other Power Teaching


I have a hard time with complete other-power teaching considering that Shakyamuni himself in the Pali Canon said over and over again that there expectations of both monks, nuns and laypersons.

If “true entrusting” is all there is, what about the vinaya pitaka? What about the 5 and 8 precepts? Is there no call to morality and goodness? Is there no room for these things in true entrusting”?

Just some thoughts. Your blog is very good. I’d be interested in any responses.


Woody Cox

Hi Woody -

Your question is a profound one, and worthy of a serious answer. I’ll do my best to provide one. To do so, I’ll need more than one blog post. So…I’ll begin the answer in this post, and continue it in the next one.

I’ll begin with an excerpt from the book Understanding Jodo-Shinshu by Professor Eiken Kobai. I (and others) consider Eiken the foremost teacher of Shinran’s TRUE teaching in the world today. I am privileged to have come to know him a a dharma mentor. I commend a serious reading of his books to you - and to ANYONE with a sincere interest in the Buddha’s fundamental objective: to lead people to the end of suffering at last.

In this excerpt I’ve chosen, Eiken is describing misunderstandings of the True Teaching, in the context of Shinran’s own life story. You will see that it addresses questions about both morality and anti-nomianism (preaching lawlessness) that have been raised ever since Shinran and his teacher Honen first began advocating a life based ENTIRELY on true entrusting in the other-power of Amida Buddha.

This life of abandoning oneself entirely to Amida Buddha - the life of true entrusting - is called the life of SHINJIN. The teaching of SHINJIN is the heart and soul of Shinran’s teaching.

My experience and observation parallels Eiken Kobai’s: most people don’t really understand Shinran and his teaching of SHINJIN - even when they say that they do.

  • I will assert, as Shinran does, that this teaching reflects accurately as no other teaching does the full and final intention of Shakyamuni Buddha when considering us who live in an age when NO ONE becomes a Buddha by praxis, precepts or good deeds.
  • I will assert, with Shinran, that Shakyamuni Buddha preached the Larger Pure Land Sutra with specifically with us in mind.
  • And I will assert, with Shinran, an even bigger, BOLDER statement: To preach this Sutra - with us in mind - is the reason that Shakyamuni Buddha came into the world.

This teaching is admittedly unlike ANYTHING else in the entire canon of the Buddha-dharma, which is exactly why it seems so strange for the reasons you mention in your sincere comment above. Shinran knew it, and he declared it - plainly, even bluntly. (More on this in my next post.)

For now, let me begin with this excerpt, and then continue later with more detailed discourse. As the discussion unfolds, I welcome your further sincere comments and/or questions. May the light of Amida Buddha illuminate our minds in accordance with Buddha Shakyamuni’s intention.

Excerpt from Understanding Jodo-Shinshu: Part One - Shinran Shonin’s Life by Professor Eiken Kobai

The one great disappointment of the Venerable Master’s later years must have been having to disown his son, Zenran. This came about because misunderstandings of his teaching began to grow among the people who remained in the Kanto area.

One of the misunderstandings was that since Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow states that everyone (except those who commit the Five Perversities) who recites the Nembutsu will be born in the Pure Land, i.e., that as long as you recite the Nembutsu, it is all right to even commit wrong deeds. The technical term for this wrong attitude is zoaku muge.

Another misunderstanding is just the opposite of zoaku muge, and that is, although the Primal Vow assures our birth in the Pure Land, that does not mean we need not do anything to be born there. Rather, it means that we must continually endeavor to do good. This misunderstanding in the opposite direction is referred to as senjukenzen.

When the Venerable Master was about 80 years of age, he sent his son Zenran to the Kanto area in order to correct these misunderstandings. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a very difficult task, and the work did not seem to go forward smoothly.

As time went on, it seems that Zenran developed the ambition to gain control of the organization in the Kanto area. In order to increase his influence and authority, Zenran began promulgating what is now known as the secret tradition of the wrong views (mitsuden igi).

Zenran told the people in the Kanto area that he was taught by his father secretly late one night, and that he was the only person in the Kanto area who knew the true teaching. This was, of course, completely untrue, for the Venerable Master always taught the same thing openly to everyone.

The actual teaching that Zenran claimed to have learned from the Venerable Master is not known; however, the letter that the Venerable Master wrote to disown Zenran contains the following passage: “…you say that the 18th vow, the Primal Vow, is nothing more than a faded flower that must be discarded…”.

This indicates that Zenran denied the saving power of the Buddha-centered power (zettai tariki) of the 18th Vow, and that he seems to have said that we must concentrate on performing good acts, which is the error of senjukenzen.

In other words, rather than relying on Buddhacentered power, Zenran seems to have urged self-centered effort to attain birth in the Pure Land.

Sending Zenran to straighten out the misunderstandings among his followers in the Kanto area did not seem to have much effect. Rather, it seems to have resulted in disturbances breaking out among his followers. When the Venerable Master learned that the leader of those who misunderstood his teaching was his own son Zenran, we today probably cannot begin to imagine the Venerable Master’s disappointment then.

In a letter addressed to Zenran dated the 29th day of the 5th month during 1256 AD (8th year of Kencho), when the Venerable Master was 84 years of age, he expressed his sorrow in the following words: “With the deepest of regrets, I no longer consider myself to be your father and you to be my son. Sorrowfully, I state this before the Three Treasures (of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha).”

There are many scholarly opinions regarding the reason or reasons for the Venerable Master disowning Zenran. Many believe it was because Zenran conspired to gain power over the Kanto followers, but I do not consider that to be the primary reason.

In the letter in which the Venerable Master disowned Zenran, he wrote: “I regret that those in the Rokuhara and Kamakura areas have heard that I disowned you like this. But (the fact that I have to do so) is something that cannot be helped. What is much more important is that you have mislead those in the Hitachi and Shinozuke areas regarding the importance of birth in the Pure Land of Ultimate Joy.”

Here, the Venerable Master says that while it is regrettable that those in the Rokuhara and Kamakura areas learned that he disowned his son, that happens frequently in this world and so cannot be helped. Misleading others, however, is truly regrettable. Even more than conspiring with those in authority, the main reason Zenran was disowned seems to be because he twisted the most important teaching of birth in the Pure Land of Ultimate Joy.

I believe that here where he went so far as to disown his own beloved son in order to preserve the true teaching we have a glimpse into the Venerable Master’s truly sacred mind and heart. Although he encountered heart-breaking sorrow such as having to disown his own son, the Venerable Master spent his entire life spreading the precious Nembutsu teaching.

I used Eiken’s wonderful biographical text, deliberately Woody (and all) - because I want to put a human face on this most difficult decision that Shinran made for the sake of the Triple Gem. It is meant to get your full attention - and (hopefully) open you to the possibility that there is something of great urgency going on in this historical account of a Dharma Master making perhaps the most difficult decision of his life. It is so important that it compels us to investigate it FULLY, with open hearts and minds.

In the context of that investigation, Woody, I will reply more extensively to your letter in the next blog post. Meanwhile, I invite you to listen deeply - with your left-brain and your right-brain - to the Dharma that is now being brought squarely to the center of your attention through this blog dialogue - as much as it seems “difficult” to you in some way to accept it.

Your own karma is that you come to this moment as a person who has taken ALREADY refuge in the Triple Gem of Buddha, Sangha and Dharma. So I speak with you as a dharma friend.

And as a dharma friend I want to invite you to consider deeply with me this one question - a question I would ask of EVERYONE who reads this blog post:


Master Shinran’s karma was to spend his entire life answering that question - in the starkest and simplest of terms for the illiterate, and in the most erudite scholarship for those well-versed in the Buddhadharma. It was his karma to be made the custodian of an answer unlike anything else that has emerged in the 2500 years since Shakyamuni - the one we call “The Buddha” - walked this earth.

I’ll use that question, “What is the purpose of the dharma?“, to frame my specific response in my next post.


Paul R.

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