The SHINRAN Manifesto: Exploring the Differences

The SHINRAN Manifesto says, “Return to the True Teaching of Shinran, our True teacher”.

Not everyone agrees that this is a good idea. In this conversation with “Joe”, his sincere reasons for disagreement becomes very clear.

I’ll give Joe’s entire message in one piece, so his position is clear in context. Then I’ll reply to what he says, point by point, to share my views, and compare them to his.

Paul: If you tell me that a teacher says THIS or THAT - I’m going to insist that their understanding needs to yield to Shinran’s - if indeed Shinran says something else entirely.

Joe: And this is where we diverge paths, Paul. I consider many of today’s advanced Shin thinkers to be extending Shinran, not undermining Shinran. We need visionary thinkers like Hisao Inagaki or Al Bloom or Taitetsu Unno to guide us through the doctrinal pitfalls of living in a religiously plural world. Relying simply on the words of Shinran, who could not have conceived of the world in which we live, is dangerous and delusional. What you are doing, pitting the words of Shinran against the words of contemporary Shin thinkers, is divisive and narrow. Is it your intention to cause division in the larger Shin sangha? If so, you are off to a running start.

I don’t think you really want a dialogue, Paul, contrary to your claims. You want to convince people to come over to your narrow-constructionist views of Shinran. There is much to Shinran of which you have no conception. You are using a few phrases from Shinran to supposedly refute and defeat modern Shin thinkers against whom you seem to have a personal vendetta. Dr. Eihen Kobai doesn’t seem to be a bad person, but if he is encouraging you in this path then he too is guilty of fostering division in the sangha. You are really shutting yourself off to profound and creative thinkers who have a much deeper understanding of Shinran than you will ever have as a Shinran thumping fundamentalist.


Below is my response to Joe on a point by point basis. Regardless of your own opinions, it’s worth reading just to get a clear sense of the differences in our views:


Hi Joe -

I agree that this is exactly where we diverge.

This business of “extending” Shinran is something he explicitly spoke to - or rather spoke AGAINST.

You can visit and read his thoughts for yourself - anytime - in so many places.


Joe: We need visionary thinkers like Hisao Inagaki or Al Bloom or Taitetsu Unno to guide us through the doctrinal pitfalls of living in a religiously plural world.


You THINK we need them for that purpose.

Respectfully, I do not agree with you.

I’ve lived in the modern world for over 50 years, and am familiar with a number of systems of thought, ancient and modern - metaphysical, philosophical, psychological.

I find no doctrinal pitfalls to worry about in that regard, even if you do. Nor does Professor Eiken Kobai - a lifelong scholar of Shinran and Shin Buddhism.

That, once again, is where we differ profoundly.


Joe: Relying simply on the words of Shinran, who could not have conceived of the world in which we live, is dangerous and delusional.


Once again - this is what you THINK.

Once again - respectfully, I disagree.

There are sincere Buddhists who THINK the same thing about Buddha - that HE couldn’t conceive of the world we live in, and therefore his teaching is archaic and needs to be fixed up by modern thinking and thinkers.

I disagree with them as well - respectfully, but profoundly.

Relying simply on the words of Shinran, or Shakyamuni, or BOTH (as I do) for matters concerning suffering and the end of suffering is not dangerous - not for me, and as far as I can see, not for anyone.

You just THINK it’s dangerous.

It’s not delusional, either.

You just THINK it is delusional.

And that’s exactly why I’m having this discussion: to expose the differences in THINKING - the different memetic matrices - behind our divergent positions. By exposing the underlying memetic structures, we can ALL listen more deeply than we would otherwise.

If you think relying on Shakyamuni and Shinran alone is dangerous and delusional - and I don’t - then of course we will make different choices in terms of who we listen to, and what we accept as true teaching.


Joe: What you are doing, pitting the words of Shinran against the words of contemporary Shin thinkers, is divisive and narrow.


You THINK it is divisive and narrow.

I assert the opposite - respectfully but firmly.

I think it is the only chance that the Shin sangha has to recover its true mission, and do its rightful work of sharing Shinran’s True teaching in our samsaric world.

By diverging from Shinran’s plain teaching, many contemporary Shin thinkers make the most fundamental mistake possible.

This concern about divergence is the thrust of so much of Shinran’s writing, and Yuien’s, and Rennyo’s that it is self-evident to anyone who reads their words without the a priori modernist bias you acknowledge above.

You make those statements sincerely, because you believe them to be true and important. I accept your sincerity - and the sincerity of the modern JSS teachers. I just THINK that you - and they - are gravely mistaken right here.

The fact that I disagree profoundly doesn’t mean that I am divisive. Once again, that’s just what you THINK.


Joe: Is it your intention to cause division in the larger Shin sangha? If so, you are off to a running start.


No, it’s not. That’s just what you THINK.

It IS my intention to INVITE the larger Shin sangha to look at the divergences from Shinran’s teaching, and ask the questions I am asking, such as:

  • Does Shinran have a position?
  • If so, what is it?
  • If he has a position, is it archaic thinking that needs revision by modernist JSS teachers, or is it thinking that is just as useful today as it was 800 years ago?
  • And, most profoundly: why does he say what he says?

These are CRITICAL questions, but surely not DIVISIVE questions.

Why do I say that these questions are CRITICAL? Because I know that preaching and teaching Shinran’s dharma as he did can produce the desired outcome of salvation in the present, and Buddhahood at the end of this life, just as Professor Kobai preaches and teaches, just as Rennyo preaches and teaches.

I also know that preaching and teaching otherwise has the tendency to obscure Shinran’s dharma and cause the Sangha to decline. The history of the Shin Buddhist sangha has shown that clearly enough. Because Shin Buddhists are no better than anyone else at learning from past mistakes, we are repeating that history today here in the West.


Joe: I don’t think you really want a dialogue, Paul, contrary to your claims.


Once again, that’s what you THINK, and frankly I can’t help it that you do.

Just because I have a cogent position that challenges your views doesn’t imply that I don’t want a dialogue. Clearly, if you read this post, you can see that I not only WANT a dialogue, but I am HAVING a dialogue.

In fact, as I said to you, and others, any number of times, I believe THIS dialogue is THE critical dialogue in the Shin Sangha right now.

That’s why I am initiating it, and sustaining it. My real hope - as I mentioned to my best friend last night, as he listens deeply and reads the Shin Ugly blog - is that this dialogue will reach a critical mass, causing a wider discussion and deeper reflection than we have had in the Shin Sangha so far.

My hope is that a lot of people will join it - in spite of the few who might try to squelch it.

That’s totally appropriate, because Shin Buddhism, unique among all dharma gates, is a layperson’s sangha. No one has an inside track; no one owns the dharma discussion, regardless of whether they have an M.Div. or a Ph.D or a place in the hierarchy of clerics or scholars.


Joe: You want to convince people to come over to your narrow-constructionist views of Shinran.


Once again, that’s just what you THINK.

I am fully aware that I can’t convince anyone of ANYTHING. That’s Amida Buddha’s work.

My primary goal, which I have stated explicitly, is to see Shinran’s plain talk for plain people offered openly to any who want to hear Shinran’s plain teaching clearly. When his True Teaching is presented plainly, and openly, each person gets the opportunity to decide its worth for his or her own life.

My secondary goal is to make sure that it is clear to plain people who come into the Sangha that there is Shin Buddhism 101 - which I call Shin Ugly - and there are all the various accretions, divergences and extensions - which you think are helpful and I don’t. I want people to be able to distinguish clearly one from the other.

My tertiery goal is to enocourage dialogue around the idea that perhaps - just perhaps - all this modern divergence (whether you call it an “extension” or something else) is actually the disease for which Shinran’s undiluted, unmixed, unadulterated teaching is the cure.

Shin Buddhism 101 is what’s made all the difference for me - and for my daughter as well. That’s the dharma legacy I want to leave for my other daughter. That’s the dharma legacy I want to make sure is available for my friends - and for people who I don’t even know.

Right now that plain “101″ dharma of Shinran’s is not being disseminated very clearly - or very often. People throw all kinds of spin around it - for all sorts of reasons. That causes a lot of people who are hungry to simply be confused about Shin Buddhism as Shinran understood it, and taught it.

And - speaking plainly - I want to make sure that next time someone in my position of immediate and great suffering is told that they shouldn’t take Shinran’s words at face value, they have some kind of counterbalancing voices who say that they can, and indeed they should if they want to - whether Kobai’s or mine or someone else’s is besides the point.

Why? So that the person who is suffering, and finding dharma medicine in Shinran’s plain teaching doesn’t simply give up in despair as some post-modernist teacher says - however sincerely - that even though Shinran says one thing, he really means another.


Joe: There is much to Shinran of which you have no conception.


Your words here reveal something very important: you THINK there is an “inner teaching” or “higher perspective” here that you are privy to, and I am not.

This is one of the BIGGEST divergences at all between us - and one of the most important to expose to the light of day, for a clear and deconstructive examination.

My own experience - both as a layperson, and as someone who found a bona fide teacher of Shinran in Prof. Kobai - is that even though I don’t have a full grasp on ALL the details of Shinran’s thought - I haven’t misunderstood Shinran any more than the simple people of his day, and of Rennyo’s day, misunderstood either of them.

Because I’ve heard the big plain chunks of Shinran clearly, I’ve been able to become a person of the same SHINJIN. Had I yielded to the confusion of that modern teacher who advised me not to take Shinran’s plain talk literally, I would have been lost in my sorrow - with no dharma medicine for my terrible heart sickness.

Of course I don’t have the depth of knowledge that someone like Professor Kobai does. Compared to a lifelong scholar my undersanding is obviously very limited.

I don’t speak the original languages, and obviously understanding everything about Shin and Shinran hasn’t been the work of my life for 40 years. I’m just a plain layperson.

Nonetheless, I understand Shinran, and I understand Kobai too.

My left-brained content matches up with theirs, and provides me the platform to hear Amida Buddha’s call clearly - and deeply.

Because I have the yearning for Buddhahood, and the realization that I have no capacity to attain it, Amida Buddha’s salvation offered freely in his Primal Vow speaks DIRECTLY to me and my need.

Because I entrust myself completely, Shinran’s same settled diamondlike Shinjin is my Shinjin too.

Is there ANYTHING more that foolish beings like us need, or can find TRUE benefit from, in terms of the ULTIMATE problem we ALL face: coming to the end of suffering at last?

Shinran teaches that this is IT - this same settled Shinjin. The merit of Amida Buddha has been transferred to me.

No calculation is needed, Shinran says.

No working is required, Shinran says.

Complete dependence on Amida to fulfill his promise is the beginning and the middle and the end, Shinran says.

Shinran says this, over and over and over again. It’s not hard to understand - even for a plain person like me.


Joe: You are using a few phrases from Shinran to supposedly refute and defeat modern Shin thinkers against whom you seem to have a personal vendetta.


I have no personal vendetta against anyone. Once again, that’s just what you THINK.

I recognize that we’re all doing the best that we can - you and me included. That doesn’t make what any of us say or do necessarily correct - nor useful - to come to settled SHINJIN.

For every person in the West with the capacity to even understand modernist and post-modernist thought, there are so many more who simply don’t. Those plain people won’t EVER get Shinran’s plain teaching that way - but could get Shinran’s teaching and become people of the same SHINJIN if only Shinran’s words were presented without accretion, dilution, or divergence - without any calculated thought whatsoever.

That’s what counts - and that’s ALL that counts.

How do I know? Because Shinran says so himself, very plainly.

So what you frame as a “personal vendetta” is something entirely different.

It’s neither PERSONAL - directed against any person - nor a VENDETTA.

Rather, it’s is an honest critique of the direction of the modern western Shin sangha - and an honest challenge to return to the True Teaching of Shinran, our True Teacher.

It’s no different than the honest challenge of Yuien, or of Rennyo, or of Kobai.

And of course it’s not MY challenge, but the challenge of any of us who think that Shinran is better off left intact as is: not improved upon by the extensions, changes, additions, subtractions and modifications of modern and post-modern JSS thinkers.


Joe: Dr. Eihen Kobai doesn’t seem to be a bad person, but if he is encouraging you in this path then he too is guilty of fostering division in the sangha.


First, you won’t know what Kobai says unless you read his books. I’ve just published an eBook version of his first tranlated book HERE, and will publish the second shortly. You are invited to read it.

Second, what you frame as “fostering division” he frames as teaching Shinran’s teaching accurately - without admixture or syncretism.

And yes, he is very bold in teaching Shinran’s thought clearly - and in deconstructing divergences with a scholar’s precision.

He does it without personal animus - as do I.

As I have said openly, it was his writing that convinced me personally that I was neither unreasonably narrow, or delusional, in my perspective. Kobai makes the distinction between true and false teaching by using Shinran as his plumbline - and so do I.

And I recommend without reservation that we all do the same.


Joe: You are really shutting yourself off to profound and creative thinkers who have a much deeper understanding of Shinran than you will ever have as a Shinran thumping fundamentalist.


There’s an old saying I am reminded of right here:

“The fox knows many things - but the hedgehog knows ONE THING”.

I freely admit: I’m a hedgehog in this discussion.

Because of my life experience there’s only ONE THING I am interested in here: Amida Buddha’s salvation in the present that leads to the end of suffering, becoming a Buddha, at last, at the end of this lifetime.

As a corollary, I am interested in helping others who want the same end of suffering to find the same salvation in the present - the one dharma gate that can fulfill THEIR deepest yearning to become a Buddha at last, also.

I freely admit: I’m not particularly interested in profound and creative thinking anymore - nor profound and creative feeling.

I’ve experienced plenty of both, already, in my 53 years of this life.

I can tell you honestly that both are entirely transitory - and neither can sustain a human being when life becomes a horror.

As a reluctant subject matter expert on the topic of horrific suffering, I can tell you that when life started blowtorching my face off, neither profound and creative THINKING, nor profound and creative FEELING, Buddhist or otherwise, were worth anything whatsoever.

In fact, there is neither teaching nor practice, Buddhist or otherwise, that is equal to that level of suffering in this age of dharma decline - whether mine or anyone else’s.

Given enough blowtorching, anyone and everyone will simply crack like an egg - including the most mature Buddhist in any school of Buddhism. In this age of dharma decline, not a one of us is capable of the non-retrogression of an advanced Bodhisattva - certainly not me - and certainly not you either.

That was Shinran’s plain teaching, because that was Shinran’s PERSONAL experience - what led to his leaving monastic life and seeking help from Honen. That’s my PERSONAL experience too.

Having no way of escape from the hell of self-driven life, we each have taken refuge, as have countless others, in the salvation Amida Buddha offers.

If we’re going to begin with Shakyamuni’s perspective - the only place to begin as far as I am concerned - that is the critical dharma FACT regardless of whether we’re living in 12th century Japan, or 21st century America.

We - all of us - are entirely at the mercy of our individual and corporate blind passion, our endless cravings and aversions, our ineradicable egotism. When it comes to the end of suffering, and the enlightenment of Buddhahood - we just can’t get there from here - not a one of us.

That’s why I’ve given up being fox - a man who knows many things - and am finally a hedgehog - a man who knows ONE THING.

That ONE THING is Shinran’s plain teaching for plain people about suffering - and the end of suffering.

There may be 10,000 other interesting things, fascinating things, creative things, profound things - Buddhist or otherwise - to dabble in, explore or embrace as study or praxis.

But having lived through what the literature on suicide describes as an experience equal to being in a Holocaust - twice in sixteen months - the ONE THING I am interested in is the guaranteed path that leads inexorably to the of suffering at last, at the end of this lifetime.

It all boils down to this: I simply don’t want to endure another birth as a non-Buddha. I want off of the terrible karmic wheel to which I have been strapped forever - even though I can’t remember my prior lifetimes.

Nothing else - neither thought nor feeling, no matter how creative nor how profound - matters compared to that reality. I’m offering both a critique and challenge - because there are lots of people out there - how many I can’t possibly know - who are interested in that same ONE THING as I am, for the selfsame reasons.

Shinran chose to abandon being a fox - a man of many things - and having met his master Honen became a hedgehog - a man of that same ONE THING as well - for exactly the same reason.

Because of his karmic capacity, he became the benchmark, the plumbline and the MASTER of the final teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha for plain people in this age of dharma decline.

Shinran is the Master of the True Teaching, as far as I am concerned. Not any other modern Shin Buddhist teacher - nor ancient teacher of any one of the 84,000 self-power paths either - nor any of the countless teachers of other non-Buddhist ideas and philosophies.

From my perspective Master Shinran (if you will) was, is and will remain the completely reliable TRUE teacher of the only dharma gate that truly does provide plain people -whether people of the 12th century or people of the 21st century - an easy and guaranteed path to Buddhahood.

At the same time, Master Shinran says that this easy path he preaches and teaches is the hardest path of all - because letting go of EVERYTHING ELSE is the hardest thing for each and all of us to do.

It’s human nature - human egotism, more accurately - to want SOMETHING we can call our own - whether its a special practice or a higher understanding or an extension to Master Shinran’s teaching - even though he explicitly tells us to avoid such things and KEEP IT SIMPLE.

My “advantage” over some is that I was “fortunate” enough to be exposed to Shinran during the time of having my face blowtorched…so I couldn’t help but let go of EVERYTHING else. I didn’t have the luxury of intellectualizing - even though I have the IQ and the background to do it. I didn’t have the luxury of experiencing mystical feelings of samadhi - even though I have had many moments like that in my life.

I couldn’t have held onto anything even if I had wanted to. I was simply helpless - completely wiped - unable to do anything at all except entrust myself entirely to OTHER POWER - the PERSON, PROMISE and PATH of Amida Buddha - the path of the foolish that Amida Buddha created for me, alone.

The truth is that there is no suffering in the world greater than experiencing the suicide of one’s beloved child. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, ever, for any reason.

It’s so unspeakable, really - that I can’t be bothered to pretend to a lofty Buddhist atttude in the aftermath. I can’t possibly find it inside to feel any gratitude for having endured it in this lifetime, nor any equanimity about it either.

If I ever do feel that way, it will HAVE to be the work of Amida Buddha, because such gratitude and equanimity is entirely beyond my capacity as a being living with blind passion.

Shinran speaks about his own blind passion as a continual plague of snakes and scorpions in his own mind. The images and memories I carry are truly my most poisonous snakes and scorpions - seared in my skull - that I will live with until I leave this earth, unless Amida Buddha’s light and life removes them before I die.

And seeing that Shinran lived with his snakes and scorpions his whole life, and clearly taught that we are not delivered from our karmic burden until we leave this world and take rebirth in the Pure Land at last, I don’t have any particular expectations around my snakes and scorpions not being part of my karmic baggage for the remainder of this - my last life as a non-Buddha.

What I AM grateful for - beyond what words can say - is that ONE THING has been given to me - the incomparably priceless opportunity to listen deeply to Shinran’s plain teaching: to HEAR, and to UNDERSTAND, and to ACCEPT the salvation of Amida Buddha - the guaranteed and easy path to the end of suffering - at last.

And I am even more grateful for is that before my dear friend and beloved daughter died her terrible death, that she too heard, and understood, and accepted that same salvation - given to her by the same Amida Buddha - as well.

I am grateful beyond words that after her death, as a transformed being - a Buddha at last - she manifested herself in a way that was unmistakable to both my other daughter, and my daughter’s friend. Neither of them are Buddhists - and their experience of Jessie’s presence that they had is not explainable by any other means.

Many Buddhists would say I’m foolish for talking this way.

Several have, including a friend who is not a Shin Buddhist - but a syncretic Pure Land Buddhist teacher who doesn’t understand Shinran very well at all.

Some time back, when I was still entirely overwhelmed, he told me - trying to be helpful, and speaking according to the light that he has - that if I didn’t get over my grief I wouldn’t be born in the Pure Land at the end of this life.

Why did he say this?

Because even though he is learned, that teacher simply doesn’t understand Shinran’s plain teaching that once we have had even a single thought-moment of true entrusting - we are grasped, never to be abandoned by Amida Buddha.

He simply doesn’t understand that Amida Buddha is entirely committed to fulfilling his Vow in our lives.

He simply doesn’t realize that even if I was to go insane from my grief (as my daughter did, with depression psychosis) it means NOTHING from Amida Buddha’s perspective.

He simply doesn’t understand that regardless of what happens next, I’m still grasped, and will NEVER be abandoned, by Amida Buddha.

No matter what, my salvation is a settled issue. I WILL be delivered at the end of this life to the Pure Land, where there is no suffering - not even a WORD for suffering - and transformation to Buddhahood is easy, quick and assured.

How do I know this? Because, once again, this is what Shinran teaches plainly enough, regardless of what anyone chooses to believe.

How does Shinran know this? Because Shakyamuni Buddha teaches it plainly enough, in the Larger Pure Land Sutra.


When I shared the story of my older daughter’s post-death manifestation with Professor Kobai’s translator Ken, he immediately recognized the reality of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow at work.

His response was immediate, and spontaneous:

Namu-Amida-Butsu, the true Nembutsu of gratitude, came out of his mouth, just as it had come out of mine - just as it has come out of the mouth of so many who have entrusted themselves, completely and entirely, to the Buddha we call Amida.

Namu-Amida-Butsu - Shinran’s true nembutsu of gratitude - the nembutsu of no calculation whatsoever - of no complicated thought whatsoever - of no secret teaching whatsoever - no modern or post-modern extensions, improvements, additions, subtractions, restatements or redactions whatsoever.

Just Namu-Amida-Butsu. Thank you Amida Buddha - for your promise, and your performance of what you have promised.


I truly appreciate the dialogue we have had up to this time.

By staying in dialogue - even for a short time - you’ve given me the opportunity to listen to the memetic matrix that undergirds your words, just as I have given you the opportunity to listen to the memetic matrix that undergirds mine.

WHAT you think and WHY you think it is now clear and explicit, where before it was hidden and implicit. And that - in my view - is a helpful step forward to support the dialogue in the larger sangha - regardless of your current opinion of me as divisive.

Here’s a recap of what I understand to be your memetic matrix, based on what you have SAID in this letter:

  1. You THINK that these modern JSS teachers improve upon Shinran, who couldn’t possibly understand our dharma needs in this modern, religiously pluralistic world. These modern teachers extend Shinran - thus making his otherwise archaic teaching more relevant to us and our situation.
  2. You THINK that it is dangerous and delusional to approach Shinran directly, without the intervention and guidance of modernist and post-modernist JSS teachers to direct and assist us.
  3. You THINK that there is something hidden in Shinran’s teaching that can’t be apprehended, nor even seen, by a layperson such as me without the guidance and “extensions” that these modern JSS teachers teach and preach.
  4. You THINK that dissemination of these modernist and post-modernist teachings will fulfill the mission of the sangha more effectively - which is to teach the dharma that allows people to end their suffering at last, and become Buddhas.

I hear you. I understand you. I believe you are sincere in what you say.

And I disagree - respectfully, but profoundly.


Paul R.

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