Who’s Shinran, Anyway? Why Listen To Him?

A dharma friend writes me (in part):

Who is or was Shinran? He was one interpreter of the sutras, the sukhavati sutras in particular, among many others.

Well, the sutras are there for whoever wants to read them. I don’t see why Shinran should have the last word at all.

There’s Honen, there’s Shan-tao, and more important, there’s you, me and whoever takes the time to read by herself or himself.

You have chosen Shinran as the authority to interpret the sutras related to Amida. OK, your choice. Still you have to say, Why him? Not from a sentimental point of view, but why him scholarly?

Thanks for writing. Here’s my answer.

I have a history in the dharma, as do you. And a history on the path before I came to the dharma, as I imagine you do as well.

I don’t disagree with your intellectual assertions about my ultimate oneness with Amida Buddha, or yours, or Adolph Hitler’s either.

But I have a certain experience that you don’t have: life became difficult beyond what I could bear, and in that moment all those understandings failed me altogether.

Up until now, you simply have not had the same experience. I know that, because if you did, you’d understand Shinran, and embrace his dharma.

The way that the Buddha teaches the dharma is not just to toss off intellectual propostions - which highly educated westerners with lots of money for books, retreats, etc. can scarf down like soda pop.

No - the way that the Buddha teaches the dharma is to provide the means that can enable a person to end his or her suffering -through countless lives - at last.

Whatever it is people are doing to end their suffering just won’t work. So Shinran teaches, so I have come to believe.

The only thing that can work - Shinran teaches - is listening deeply to the dharma teaching of Jodo Shinshu (Shin Buddhism).

It was Shinran’s karma to be the MASTER teacher of this dharma gate.

Shinran - and not another.

That perception - first that Shakyamuni Buddha is the reliable source for ultimate truth, and second that Shinran is the custodian of the only dharma gate that will work in this age to turn each and all of us into Buddhas - comes both from my PERSONAL experience and my STUDIED observation about the human condition generally.

Of course, you are entitled to disagree. It’s not my job to convince you - or anyone. Shinran said that it wasn’t his job either. That’s Amida Buddha’s job.

Shinran’s job was to assert, unequivocally, that there is no way, in this age, for any of us to use any of the other various paths to bring ourselves to the end of suffering.

Shinran’s job was to explain, completely and thoroughly, why and how Amida Buddha can bring us all to Buddhahood at last - entirely through HIS power - and not even a little bit through our own.

As I listened deeply to what he said, I decided based on my experience and my observation that he was 100% right.

Differences in our our fundamental beliefs about Shinran inevitably
affect our approach to the primal question of Buddha about suffering and the END of suffering.

Because I believe that the ANSWER to that question for us in this age is found in Shinran’s teaching, I will pay much more attention to what Shinran teaches and preaches than you.

I’m ok with that. You’re on your path, and I am on mine. You’re honest about not looking to Shinran as your Master Teacher, and I accept your judgement and choice as sincere.

My great concern - as I have said many times - is that Shinran’s teaching is presented as Shinran meant it to be: clearly, accurately and without mixing it up with any other teaching - whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist.

This was Shinran’s sincere wish - and he put feet on that wish for 60 years. There are profound dharma reasons for him wanting it that way.

So when traditional Pure Land Buddist, or other Buddhist teachers teach from the many teachings on the Path of the Sages, I am not concerned. That’s just part of the reality of a Buddha’s 84,000 dharma gates being available for people to try, even if the ultimate outcome of trying is failure to attain the total liberation or nirvana Buddha speaks of - in other words, true Buddhahood.

People need the freedom to try - for however many lifetimes - to finally come to checkmate, failure, endgame on the 84,000 paths of the Sages - before they can listen deeply, and attain true liberation.

When countless sages and scholars who are not Buddhists teach from the perspective of any one of what Shinran calls the 95 non-Buddhist paths, I am not concerned. That’s just the way it is in this world we live in - the world of samsara.

People need the freedom to explore - for however many lifetimes - to finally come to checkmate, endgame, on the 95 non-Buddhist paths - before they can listen deeply, and attain true liberation.

Here is my concern: Shin Buddhist clerics and scholars teaching - in Shinran’s name - what Shinran never would.

This was Shinran’s singular concern as well: to make sure that the dharma he had been made custodian of - the True Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land way - would be presented clearly - in his day, and after his death.

Why? So that people could find the end of suffering - nirvana - Buddhahood - at last.

What kind of people?

People like Shinran himself - and people like me, too.

What kind of people?

People caught between their sincere yearning for Buddhahood and their anguished recognition that they just didn’t have “the right stuff” to self-cultivate true virtue, karmic merit and full transformation - no matter how many lifetimes of effort were involved.

For people like me, Shinran spoke and wrote - for 60 years so that we could find a sure path - a guaranteed way that does not depend on our merit, our power, our intellect - anything whatsoever from our side of the table.

The wonderful news that Shinran brings- unlike any other dharma Master from any of the many paths of the Dharma, and even his own teacher Honen, is that it was more than OK if we were failures as Buddhists.

In fact, Shinran asserts, our recognition of our failure IS the critical pre-requisite for people to listen deeply - and then embrace - Shakyamuni’s final dharma gate for this age of Dharma Decline.

Only those who know they are utter failures in their quest for liberation are ready to let EVERYTHING go - and simply entrust themselves to the person and the work of Amida Buddha.

This is true entrusting. This is SHINJIN.

As Eiken Kobai says with such pristine clarity HERE, this experience of SHINJIN is salvation in the present AND Buddhahood in our next life, when we awaken in Amida Buddha’s Pure Land.

Everything Shinran ever said and did had ONE purpose: to help people who yearn for the end of suffering to expeience this state of SHINJIN - of true entrusting.

This state - in which there is no human calculation, no human effort, and no working whatsoever - goes entirely against the grain of other Buddhist teaching in the many and varied paths of the sages.

All other Buddhist schools (including the other Pure Land schools) call people to study and practice in some way.

All other Buddhist schools call people to self-cultivate in some way.

All other Buddhist schools call people to try to NARROW the perceived gap in some way - the gap between where we are and where we ultimately want to be as fully liberated, fully awake beings - just as Shakyamuni was fully liberated, fully awake.

Shinran, uniquely, does the OPPOSITE.

Shinran pushes his listeners to recognize that the gap is in fact an unbridgeable gulf.

To most Buddhists this goes against EVERYTHING they have learned - because it SEEMS a profoundly DUALISTIC teaching.

Shinran’s teaching is SO confusing to other Buddhists that it has caused many of them to assert that Shinran’s teaching isn’t Buddha-dharma at all.

On the other hand - this dualistic approach of Shinran’s - where I am NAMU - an impossibly foolish being beset by endless blind passions - looking entirely to Amida Buddha - greatest of all the Buddhas - for complete and utter salvation - is wonderful news.

It was wonderful news to “the village idiots” in Medieval Japan, who couldn’t even understand the dharma of the Paths of the Sages, much less practice it.

It’s wonderful news for me, too - a fairly literate person who has studied and practiced - and come to the end of his rope and recognized his HOPELESS condition - in 21st century America:

Here, at last, is the END of 21st Century sophistication:

  • I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up.
  • I’m stuck in hell - the hell of samsaric birth - and I can’t find the way out.
  • I have many moments of anguish when I can’t even put two thoughts together, much less do anything resembling Buddhist meditation.
  • I simply need to be saved.
  • Can anyone show me the way, for me who HAS no way?

This is the ground of Shinran’s dharma. But you won’t see it featured in the glossy Buddhist magazines, because Shinran says that all the various practices and philosophizing in them is USELESS when it comes to attaining the singular goal of full and final liberation.

Shinran asserts that his dharma will only make sense when we have come to the end of our own rope - regardless of how pretty that rope might be.

It will only make sense when we are at last in a state of real hopelessness about our long term prospects for sustainable progress on the path towards Buddhahood.

This is what is SO hard to accept, for so many sincere people - Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike.

This is the paradox in calling Shin Buddhism “The Easy Path to Buddhahood”.

This is why the “Easy Path” is, in fact, the hardest path of all.

Why? Because it can take many, many lifetimes of rebirth into suffering, going up and down the six realms, to come to the naked awareness that Shinran came to, that prepares us to drop EVERYTHING - and listen deeply.

The hard parts are:

  1. Awakening our aspiration to Buddhahood, and then
  2. Acknowledging our inability.

Once the veil of our delusion is actually pierced, Shinran’s dharma truly emerges as the Easy Path that it really is. It is then, and only then, that we come to rely completely on Amida Buddha.

When that happens, in your life, you will have the answer to your question, “Who is Shinran, anyway…and why should we listen to him?”

Best as ever…

Paul R.

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