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from Shin Buddhism in Modern Culture
an online course by Dr. Alfred Bloom

Faith and Practice: Shinran's Perspective

The topic we are to address in this section is religious experience as a process of growth and development. I want to discuss this issue because people generally view religion as some thing fixed, static or rigid. In many cases in our society, a person's religious understanding and insight reflect what he or she had gained by adolescence when they probably stopped going to Sunday School. I have been in situations in the academic world where people with very mature views in education, etc. held rather childish views of religion. Their spiritual growth had stopped at some point in their life.

On the other hand, there are people who are anxious because there remains so much to learn and experience in religion. They doubt themselves. It appears an unending quest.

Consequently, as a teacher of religion, I am frequently confronted by childish complacency in religion or by a baffled uncertainty in the face of the depth of religion.

In my study of Shinran, it has been a matter of great interest that he experienced a process of growth and development in his religious experience. Shinran's life and faith were not static and closed. Rather, he moved through several phases of religious insight until he reached mature, confident faith.

This should not appear so striking to us because we know from ordinary life that we go through stages of physical and mental development. We pass from childhood to youth to adulthood, to old age and finally death. In most societies there are rites of passage which highlight these important stages of life. When it comes to religion, however, it becomes a problem to think in these terms because we have rather narrow views about what religion is.

If religion is about life, it will reflect the development of our life. As we mature in life, our religious understanding should also mature. Further, if we understand that religious faith is a process of growth, it will influence our approach to religious education. In our school system, we have graded material to accord with the intellectual development of the child. In a similar way, we must develop educational materials within our temples that harmonize with the intellectual and social levels of our people from childhood to the adult years.

When I began to study Shinran's thought in detail in the light of his own religious experience (so far as it could be determined or understood from his writings), I was greatly struck by his interpretation of the Original Vow of Amida. It appeared to me that the system he portrays has philosophical as well as religious significance and gives further evidence of Shinran as a creative religious thinker from whom we might all benefit.

In order to perceive the distinctive way in which he treated them, it is first essential to make some observations about the Vows which are given in the "Larger Pure Land Sutra." Though in other ancient texts the number varies, in that sutra they number 48 Vows and represent the fullest development of ancient Pure Land mythology. Each Vow has its own specific character of which the totality is intended to describe the ultimate possibilities of the character of the Pure Land, its beings, and the modes of gaining entrance there. The Bodhisattva selected for these the highest and best of all aspects of religious aspiration. Being thus a composite of all religious ideals for gaining entrance to the Pure Land, the Vows of the "Larger Pure Land Sutra" are not strictly organized nor do they have, as they are given, any implicit relation between them except as varied aspects of the goal of Pure Land.

The feature of the appearance of Buddha at the moment of death, the recitation of the name of Buddha and the aspect of faith and the number of recitations implied in the 19th, 20th, and 18th Vows were fused to provide the basis for popular Pure Land practice. In China, where it developed earlier, Pure Land teaching was widespread and during its long history it was mostly regarded as a subsidiary doctrine, a hoben -- a teaching device to give hope to the suffering masses who could not carry out the rigorous practices of the monastic orders. Pure Land was thus a doctrine which all schools of Buddhism would teach.

Later, those exponents who began to look upon it as a more basic and central truth of Buddhism for the last age, formulated systems of distinctions such as easy path versus difficult, self-power- Other-Power, Pure Land gate versus Sage path, correct practice versus mixed practice. By the Kamakura period in Japan, the trend in Pure Land was gradually focusing on the centrality of the vocal Nembutsu as the main means of salvation for the last age. This tradition came to its logical conclusion when Honen taught the Senjakuhongan Nembutsu or the Senju Nembutsu -- the select and sole practice of Nembutsu as the way to birth in the Pure Land. From a doctrinal and practical point of view, Honen brought to final clarity the centrality of Nembutsu for ordinary people. However, he did not go beyond the traditional concepts in explaining and defending his position.

While we have frequently mentioned the impetus given to Shinran's thought through his own experience, coincidental and of equal importance with this as an impetus was the impact upon his thinking of recent developments in the understanding of Buddhism. In his 20 years on Mt. Hiei, Shinran studied in a Tendai background. According to the Tendai system, in the final stages of Buddha's teaching in the world, he would teach without hoben. He would give the direct truth without mediation.

In addition, Shinran, perhaps, learned the hongaku-hommon theory. This term refers to the Primordial Enlightenment and original teaching taught in the "Lotus Sutra," according to Tendai doctrine. It is the teaching of the Eternal Sakyamuni and regarded in Tendai as the final ultimate teaching of Buddha. All other teachings are approximations of truth or helps (hoben) to the truth.

Shinran absorbed this view and applied it to the interpretation of Amida Buddha and his Vows. For Shinran, the Pure Land teaching was not the highest teaching merely because of ease of practice or the degenerated last age, but because it represented the expression of the true mind of Amida who is ultimate reality. Against the background of the pluralism of his age, Shinran had to discover an absolute basis for Pure Land thought and faith. His own religious experience, the influence of Tendai thought and reflection on the Vows led him to the conclusion that Pure Land faith was designed to offer the profoundest and most certain assurance to the troubled humanity not only of his time, but of all time.

It is for this reason that Shinran's system of "turning through the three Vows" has religious and philosophical importance. As evidence that Shinran developed this theory on the basis of his awakened religious consciousness, we must observe that he presents a series of stages of which the first two are preliminary and instrumental for reaching the third. One must travel through the 19th Vow, which is characterized by emphasis on cultivating roots of virtue -- presumably morality -- and being granted a vision of Buddha at one's death moment. The 20th Vow appears to envisage the recitation of the name as well as moral cultivation and transferring the merit to bring birth in the Pure Land, while the 18th Vow speaks of the sincerity and faith, and ten thoughts (or recitations) which bring birth. If one were to believe that the Bodhisattva had foreseen this process which Shinran depicts, when he made his Vows, the order might have been 18 to 19 to 20 (See study helps). Rather, we go 19 to 20 to 18. This reordering suggests that Shinran's interpretation was not already implicit in the Vows themselves, but was brought to them by him. Previous thinkers only fused them all into a common religious view for which the Vows justified some element.

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