In the story of Shinran’s life, we talk about his twenty years at Enryaku-ji, the Tendai monastery on Mt. Hiei, one of the great temple complexes in Japan at that time. When Shinran realized he wasn’t receiving the Buddhist teachings that were essential for him at that institution how was he able to find a group that focused on the teachings without all the elitist trappings and tacked-on paraphernalia?
At the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference in Vancouver last year, Mark Blum spoke about the groups flourishing in the margins of society led by “hijiri,” free-lance priests whose religious leanings weren’t exclusively Buddhist. Would Shinran go exploring around Kyoto to sit in on the various hijiri groups? I don’t think so – he was still too much of an aristocrat and not one to go “slumming” among the paupers and laborers. What attracted him to Honen was Honen’s reputation. Honen wasn’t one of these fly-by-night preachers from who-knows-where. During his thirty years as a Mt. Hiei monk, Honen was respected for his outstanding scholarship. When he left the monastery to start the new Jodo sect, the monks were probably scratching their heads wondering why this eminent priest left behind his high status on the mountain to dive into the unwashed hordes of the city. Even though Honen left Mt. Hiei before Shinran joined the monastery, Shinran probably heard about this respected priest who dropped out and must be propagating some very watered-down version of Buddhism that the uneducated people could believe in.
Honen (pictured above) had a name for himself and Shinran could relate to him as a fellow aristocrat and longtime monastic. I could imagine Shinran making his way through the crowd to see Honen, holding his breath and moving carefully among Honen’s diverse followers to avoid smelling or being touched by them. I don’t think he would’ve stepped out of his comfort zone for just any old no-name hijiri.
The point I’m trying to make is I think there may be many seekers currently in North America who are like Shinran, disenchanted with an established religious group and looking for one that speaks more directly to them instead of just repeating “the party line.” The teachings of Shinran may be exactly what they need to hear but how would they find a Jodo Shinshu temple? Our temple like many others in North America has a name that says “Buddhist temple” and the city name, but other Jodo Shinshu temples have more obscure names such as “Ekoji” or “Senshin” and referencing “Honganji” (“Hongwanji” in the old Romanization). Even if one finds oneself stepping into one of those temples, it may seem too much like a club just for ethnic Japanese. And even the handful of non-Japanese members are liberally using Japanese terms and sounding like Christian evangelists, substituting “Amida Buddha” for “Jesus Christ” as the only one who can save us sinners.
It may be that every temple member (and not just the ministers) needs to get their name out in public and be the ones to let people know that Jodo Shinshu is not another form of fundamentalism (“do as we say and no one will get hurt” as it said on a church sign I saw in a cartoon) and it has an emphasis that makes it distinct from the Buddhist groups that are more well known. All Buddhists speak of the ideal of equality of all lives but in practice various sects have set up hierarchies and step-ladder processes to separate the adepts from the undeserving. The more we get the message of Jodo Shinshu out in the media, on-line and in our personal relationships, the more likely the desparate seekers will find Shinran, despite the intimidating ethno-centric settings of many Shin groups.
What Shinran saw in his first encounter with Honen was the heart awakened to the wholeness of life, embracing all lives as worthy. The “come as you are” slogan of Jodo Shinshu expresses that requirements are totally unnecessary – no one is too ugly, too evil, too weird, too poor, too insane, too unwell – for being received into the path of awakening. While it is comforting for each of us to feel embraced by unbounded compassion, it is not always the case that members of Jodo Shinshu temples put this into practice by regarding their fellow beings as equally embraced in the same Jodo (realm of the flowingness of life). Shinran also struggled with that dual view – I’m relieved that I’m not judged, but I think I’m still (smart, moral, refined etc.) enough to have the privilege of judging others. It took not only the six years he spent with Honen and the Kyoto group to break down his aristocratic snobbishness but he needed that exile to the countryside of Niigata to learn how to stop seeing the common people as “others” and appreciate their identification with him in true fellow-feeling.
The Shinran that I honor during this season of his memorial, Ho-on-ko, is the man who kept confessing his snobbishness yet the accounts by others show he had become the one who warmly accepted each person he encountered without any airs of superiority or defensiveness. I myself don’t want to be “too” famous, but I’m willing to get out in print and travel here and there – to the local high school or to an international conference abroad – to get the word out about Shinran and what I like to call his “ultimate Buddhism,” taking Shakyamuni’s teaching of equality to its extreme expression in our day-to-day life. Not setting ourselves up in the garb of “wise sage” looking down on the crowd, but like Shinran, seeing ourselves as just “one of the guys” sharing the wondrousness of life with them in every moment.