Buddhism has spread a lot in Europe in the last fifty years and this is indeed, very fortunate. But in this spreading and in the image that Buddhism has in the West a very important element is missing or is not so well understood. Too many voices are heard in Western Buddhism that support some already established preconceptions like: “Buddhism is a path of Liberation by oneself” and “Buddha is only a teacher or the finger showing the moon”, etc. The established image of a Buddhist is a forever calm and smiling Buddhist monk or practitioner, following a path of self liberation and improvement. This for many is Buddhism, but for Shinran, this is exactly what Buddhism is no more…
His life story and teaching shows another aspect of Buddhism which he considers it to be the real Buddhism: the true Pure Land Teaching or Jodo Shinshu in which Amida Buddha is not the finger showing the moon, but a Savior, - in fact, the best Savior of all the three worlds, with Shakyamuni being His messenger, guiding sentient beings to entrust in Amida. What a dramatic difference in the vision of what the Dharma truly is between Master Shinran and all other schools of self power Buddhism!
We can say that in Shinran’s terms, Buddhism will not be well established in the West until the teaching about Amida’s salvation will be known.
In fact, in the West only the provisional and accommodated teachings of Shakyamuni have spread until now, but not the teaching of His true intent of coming into this world. Thus, it is our mission to understand and transmit correctly the only Dharma of Shakyamuni that is still functioning in this world of the last age. The more we become aware of this truth, the better it is for all sentient beings.
The possibility of attaining Buddhahood in this very life is the essence of the Buddhist schools that are so well spread in Europe. News about famous Buddhist masters and their realizations are many and the number of disciples is growing. Who will not want to see, touch and be around somebody about whom it is said he is an incarnation of an ancient Master or even a living Buddha…
But I myself cannot abstain not to look with suspicion to all the so called spiritual achievements of today’s important figures of Buddhism.
Seeing all these “modern realizations” with the eyes influenced by the teaching of Shinran Shonin about the true capacities of beings in the last Dharma age, I think there are two possibilities about those who seem to attain Buddhahood in our times:
1) They might be Bodhisattvas in disguise who already became Buddhas in the past and come here to keep on the Buddhist path those who can’t yet have faith in Amida but continue to follow other Dharma teachings, or
2) because we are deluded, we think that somebody who shows more calm than us, already attained Buddhahood.
But to become a Buddha means a lot more than always showing a calm face and saying beautiful words of wisdom. Shinran mentioned in Tannisho a few aspects of what it is to become a Buddha and what those smiling Buddhist faces of his day and today, don’t have:
“Do those who speak of realizing Enlightenment while in this bodily existence manifest various accommodated bodies, possess the Buddha's thirty-two features and eighty marks, and preach the dharma to benefit beings like Shakyamuni? It is this that is meant by realizing Enlightenment in this life…”
A true Buddha knows all His previous births and the previous births of all sentient beings, He knows all the causes and their possible effects, thus being able to predict the possible future of any being; He knows perfectly which method is better to be applied to every one meeting Him, and the list of the Enlightened capacities of a Buddha can go on and fill many pages… I think it is very important to understand that a Buddha is not a human being, as the human condition is just one of the many unenlightened states of existence(1).
Inside Enlightened qualities of a Buddha manifests outside and impregnates on His physical body, so both physically and mentally, a Buddha is an extraordinary person, beyond and superior to any being. To become a true Buddha, possessing such capacities as those enumerated above, is something that cannot be done in this age, according to Shinran Shonin. But unfortunately, people often don’t read carefully in the sutras what a Buddha truly is, and instead become easily impressed by anyone who shows more calm than them.
When I myself look to the various Buddhist magazines that are so popular nowadays, I always have the feeling of futility.
So many smiling monks, sophisticated articles, Zen talks about emptiness and how we are already Buddhas and don’t need to worry about anything, practitioners talking about how to overcome anger or jealousy, and many other bla, bla things….I read all those articles and feel like they talk for aliens, but surely not for me.
Who are all those good Buddhists and how can their nice talks be of any help to me? Did the Buddhas came into this world only to teach these nice guys who are always calm and have such fulfilled lives through meditation? Then what am I doing here?
Before coming to Jodo Shinshu I felt like in school when the teacher always talked with the good children and sent me in the back of the classroom with the bad children.
And then…, I found Jodo Shinshu…. which is the only reason why I am a Buddhist. Without Jodo Shinshu, Buddhism is just another nice discourse for the smart and good guys but with no relevance for the real people, living in the real world..
I truly understand now why Shinran Shonin considered that preaching the Larger Sutra was the main reason for Shakyamuni coming into this world. He had the courage to abandon his mask of a good smiling monk and looked deeply into himself and the true human capacities. Shinran didn’t chose to teach the nice discourses of other sutras, but carefully selected the passages that were truly beneficial for himself and this world.
There are teachings and practices preached by Shakyamuni that Shinran chose not to speak about and he did this NOT because those practices are bad, but not truly useful for our attainment of Buddhahood, given our real capacities. He said in his letters that some Buddhist teachings are of limited relevance while others are of universal relevance and that the teaching of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha is of universal relevance. To be of universal relevance means to be useful and effective either for the good and virtuous and also for the evil beings filled with blind passions. Saints and stupid people can be saved equally. It is “the teaching in accord with the times and with beings” as he also said in Shozomatsu Wasan.
Some might think (and I heard such a statement at one of the European meetings) that we should not be so radical as Shinran who says that only faith in Amida can make people attain Buddhahood, because in this way we might offend other Buddhist schools with whom we are engaged in ecumenical talks.
So what can we do? Why should they feel offended when so many other schools also claim they have the best practices and methods? Just look to the statements of the Tibetan schools when they speak about their specific teachings!
My opinion on this matter is that it is extremely important to keep strictly to the explanations of Shinran Shonin and expound them as they were truly said without adding anything to them so as to satisfy the expectations of unenlightened people from other schools, or other non Buddhist religions of this deluded world. This is because in Shinran’s explanations we find the true reason for the existence of Jodo Shinshu.
This wonderful teaching on the absolute reliance on Amida Buddha is not just another Buddhist method in the 84,000 Buddhist teachings (2), but the most important teaching among all Shakyamuni’s teachings.
Shinran said in the second verse of Shozomatsu Wasan:
“…the teachings that Sakyamuni left behind
Have all passed into the naga's palace.”
This means that all other Buddhist teachings are no more effective during these times. To “pass into the naga’s palace” means exactly this – not being effective or being as non-existent.
Shinran is even more clear:
“Although we have the teachings of Sakyamuni,
There are no sentient beings who can practice them;
Hence, it is taught that in the last dharma-age,
Not a single person will attain enlightenment through them.”
“Not a single person will attain Enlightenment through them” is a very strong statement! Not a single one – this should be very well heard and understood. Not a single person can effectively practice the Buddhist teachings other than the reliance on Amida Buddha.
Shinran said it clearly for those who are ready to hear it:
“Without entrusting themselves to the Tathagata's compassionate Vow,
No sentient beings of these times - the last dharma-age, and
The fifth five-hundred year period since Sakyamuni's passing -
Will have a chance of parting from birth-and-death.”
Shinran’s words leave no trace of doubt about what we have to do.
There is no other Buddhist method which can guarantee Buddhahood so quickly without asking anything from the practitioner. All the nice discourses and practices of other schools through which they claim that everybody can become a Buddha in this very life are good in themselves, but they are not effective for this age and people living in it. So they are as good as non-existent – “gone into the naga's palace”.
In this age, any true spiritual practice, (by “true” I mean any Buddhist practice and not the practice of other religions), which asks even a merit as little as a particle of dust from the practitioner is not an effective practice. So we should abandon them because we can’t become Buddhas through them.
If we should abandon all other Buddhist teachings and practices as being as good as non existent or gone into the naga’s palace, so much more we should never follow non Buddhist teachings and practices about which Shinran Shonin talks in greater detail in his KyoGyoShinSho where he states, for example, quoting the Great Nirvana Sutra:
“Good sons, there are two kinds of enlightenment: eternal and impermanent…. The enlightenment of nonbuddhist ways is called impermanent, Buddhist enlightenment is called eternal….. The emancipation of nonbuddhist ways is called impermanent, the emancipation of Buddhist ways is called eternal.”
He makes reference again on non Buddhist teachings in Shozomatsu Wasan about which we are talking now:
“The ninety-five nonbuddhist teachings defile the world(3);
The Buddha's path alone is pure.”
These words are immediately followed by the verses:
“Only by going forth and reaching Enlightenment can we benefit others
In this burning house; this is the natural working of the Vow.”
which if they are compared with the statement about the two types of Enlightenment (eternal and impermanent) quoted by Shinran in his KyoGyoShinSho and presented above, we can easily draw the conclusion that not through non Buddhist teachings, but through the Buddha’s path which is pure, is one made capable to attain Enlightenment.
So, if we live in this last Dharma age with all its defilements and difficulties, we should follow only the path of the Buddha and not the various non Buddhist teachings which are themselves manifestations of this defiled world. More than this, among all Buddhist methods we should select only the teaching of the Primal Vow and abandon the rest as being as good as non existent.
I especially think that these statements of Shinran Shonin about the non Buddhist teachings and other Buddhist practices, are very useful in our days when it became a custom to mix things and find so called synthesis of various religious beliefs. Many spiritual soups are prevalent in our days, mixing elements of Christianity with Buddhism and Hinduism. But also in the Buddhist world mixing things is often met and even in Jodo Shinshu there is for example, the tendency among some followers to make Jodo Shinshu more Zen like in order to accommodate to their personal visions and incapacity to be open to a salvation and faith oriented teaching.
In rejecting non Buddhist views as not leading to Enlightenment and also other Buddhist teachings as ineffective, Shinran Shonin shows he is not interested in satisfying everyone’s ideas or in having a nice and politically correct talk with all doctrines and religious views, but is concentrated in saving people from birth and death, which is the most important thing in this life. In front of the two rivers of fire and water with death and danger waiting to strike at every moment, and the rare chance of having another human life so hard to find, Shinran is interested only in showing us the path to escape. And he clearly sees no other way than entrusting in Amida Buddha. All other methods are not real or they are ineffective.
Shinran calls us to awaken and do not lose the precious time we have. This is a burning house and not a place for unimportant talks and doctrines. He is clear in his explanations like a doctor who prescribes exactly what a patient needs to save his life.
He says something like: “Do you want to escape birth and death? If you do, then this is the way to follow and no other. Entrust in Amida Buddha and in no one else”. It is Shinran’s message to a terminally ill world in the last Dharma age, a world who needs the best medicine ever to be found in the religious history.
For those who come to Buddhism and Jodo Shinshu only for intellectual delights or interesting discussions, the radical attitude of Shinran will always be embarrassing or not so politically correct. But for those whom birth and death is the most important matter and realize their true capacities, the clear message of Shinran and his way of rejecting that which is not true or effective and selecting that which is true and useful, is all they needed to hear.
So, dear friends, make a choice: escape this burning house or remain inside it, spending your time with false or futile practices.
Its your decision.
Namo Amida Butsu
(1) A brahman called Dona encountered the Buddha shortly after his enlightenment and, struck by the Buddha’s serenity, asked Him:
“Sir, are you a god?”
“Are you an angel?”
“Are you a yakkha?
“Are you a human being?”
“When asked, ‘Are you a god?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman…’ When asked, ‘Are you an angel?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman..’ When asked, ‘Are you a yakkha?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman…’ When asked, ‘Are you a human being?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman…’ Then what sort of being are you?”
“Brahman, the defilements by which — if they were not abandoned — I would be a god: those are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palm tree stump, no longer subject to future arising. The defilements by which — if they were not abandoned — I would be an angel… a yakkha… a human being: those are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palm tree stump, no longer subject to future arising.
“Just as a blue or red or white lotus born in water, grows in water and stands up above the water untouched by it, so too I, who was born in the world and grew up in the world, have transcended the world, and I live untouched by the world. Remember me, brahman, as a Buddha.”
(2) Shinran said in Letter 8 of his Lamp of the Latter Ages: “Of the conceivable and the inconceivable dharma, the conceivable comprises the 84,000 kinds of good of the Path of Sages. The Pure Land teaching is the inconceivable dharma-teaching” - so he clearly separated the Pure Land teaching from other Buddhist teachings and practices.
(3) "Ninety-five non Buddhist teachings" (kujugoshu ) originally appear in the Nirvana Sutra and others.
It is said that at the time of the Buddha there were ninety-five kinds of wrong teachings. They are views of the six philosophical masters (rokushi gedo) and those of their disciples, fifteen under each master (Zuio Sensei explanations).
I also think that any nowadays spiritual teaching that contradicts the law of karma as explained by the Buddha, denies rebirth, affirms the existence of a Creator and supreme judge of the world, etc, can be considered in the category of non Buddhist teachings that should be rejected. One cannot be a Jodo Shinshu follower and believe in God, deny rebirth and the law of karma.