The Jodo Shinshu Tradition


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

The Expression of Faith, Joy, and Gratitude

The spiritual liberation offered in Shin teaching manifests itself in a deep level of joy and gratitude. Clearly, however, Shinshu is not in essence a sentimental faith whose appeal is to the emotions. There is a starkness about Shinran's thought. Things we normally might not perceive are illuminated by a new insight into ourselves and life as it is. However, this starkness does not mean Shinshu has no relation to sentiments, attitudes, and feelings. Sentimentalism merely reacts to conditions. Moralism is apt to be sterile and inhumane. Shinshu provides a balance between pure sentimentalism and rationalistic moralism through the deep feelings of joy and gratitude that are the accompaniment of faith, feelings that permeate the individual who has made the leap into spiritual freedom.

In understanding the joy and gratitude in Shinshu, it is important not to confuse these feelings with the situation in contemporary religion where, for many people, the criterion for the truth of a religious view that they hold is that it makes them happy. There is a happiness cult today that claims satisfaction and contentment as the primary qualities offered. We often hear it said, "It satisfied me," "I am happy." Now we would not say that such conditions, if they exist, are bad. It would be nice if all could be happy. However, if that happiness and satisfaction are at the expense of blinding oneself to the reality of suffering in the world and our own relation or complicity with it, then it cannot be a true value. It is egoistic.

Further, if the achievement of satisfaction and contentment depends on social relations, we may say that it is a social quality, but not truly religious. The inner qualities of religion must produce community and bring people together, but study of the great religious figures, particularly those that suffered persecution and isolation in exile or even death, shows that these qualities were founded in deep inner reality and were not dependent on external circumstances. Thus the qualities which express the deepest aspects of religious existence are not superficial qualities or values which can be induced through a variety of manipulations by religious leaders. Rather, they are states of being which arise from the individual's inner awareness of his true self and its relation to the Reality which undergirds all life.

In their deepest sense, the qualities of religious existence are existential and, if we use a rather technical term, we would say they are ontic -- in that they reflect the nature of one's being. They reflect a deep transformation in the evaluation of life and meaning within the person and are predicated on a commitment, a reorientation, essentially a conversion of the person, a process which Shinran speaks of as Turning through the Vows and which he describes as being accomplished by the transcendence of the "crosswise leap" (ocho). This is a technical term which Shinran employed from the Sutras to refer to the immediacy of the moment of faith. It may be compared to the sudden enlightenment that is emphasized in Zen tradition. It symbolizes the absolute Other Power basis of deliverance in Shin Buddhism.

We should understand, in relation to Shinran, that he underwent a decisive conversion to which he testifies in his reflection on his life with Honen. It appears in all the events that led up to his meeting with Honen. His later determination to withstand all criticism which his wife noted, and which he also asserted, indicate that transforming commitment whereby he stood on his own being. Despite the pressures and difficulties of his life, Shinran constantly expressed his joy and gratitude at the salvation offered to him through Amida Buddha. But in speaking thus of joy, we are not speaking of happiness! In the modern situation, happiness is defined as the absence of problems and difficulties. I know of no religion that speaks of happiness as the highest attainment of life, but many speak of joy, which is a quality that arises within the sufferings and problems of life. Joy is the perception of truth within the experience of ambiguity and doubt.

In the quest for truth, the deepest level of sentiment should be pursued. Religion is always more than emotion and feeling. It must be rooted in perception of truth. Shinran's thought eloquently reinforces that perspective. Because of Buddhism's rigor in discipline and its association with funerals and afterlife, it is rarely perceived as a religion of joyfulness. Many Christian religious groups try to discover the basis for celebrating life even within the midst of a dark world. Buddhism also has reason to celebrate life, and to affirm it with joy and gratitude at awakening to the sources of meaningful existence, the absolute certainty of our acceptance, just as we are, by that which we respond to and recognize as true, real, and sincere. The institutions of Shin Buddhism rarely provide ways to express this Buddhist joy, either in worship or in forms of social community. I believe this is an area that deserves exploration and study. Joy in living (or life affirmation) and gratitude even for the very simple fact we have been given the gift of life, establishes a foundation of ethical existence that, in Shinshu, goes beyond moralism and egoism to a profound existential and spiritual level. Like joy, gratitude gives structure to the Shin way of life.

The realization of joy which is grounded in Amida's unconditional embrace which never abandons us gives rise to the response of gratitude which establishes the foundation of Shin Buddhist ethical existence. Shinran's teaching rejects the traditional mainstays for controlling behavior either through threats of punishment or lures of reward through performances of socially-approved actions.

When traditional behavior control mechanisms are removed, what style of life emerges for believers? The ordinary person generally conceives religion to be strictly moralistic, concerned only with doing good deeds and avoiding bad ones in order to win salvation. For such a person, religion is like a commercial transaction, based on fear. But with Shinran, all such appeals have been set aside. No transaction is urged or recommended. On the enormously difficult "easy path," the only basis of religious action for Shinran is the expression of gratitude. He asserts:

"Only by constantly reciting the Tathagata's name can we repay the grace of the Vow of great compassion."


"Though our bodies are (ground) to powder.
The grace of the masters and teachers also we must repay,
Though our bones be crushed."

In a more personal and perhaps intimate way he declared:

"When I consider well the Vow upon which Amida thought for five aeons (I reflect) it was for me, Shinran, alone. O how grateful I am for the Original Vow which aspired to save one who possesses such evil karma."

As, at the end of the "Kyogyoshinsho," he reflected on his faith and its source, he wrote:

"What a joy it is that I place my mind on the soil of the Buddha's Universal Vow, and I let my thoughts float on the sea of the Inconceivable Dharma. I deeply acknowledge the Tathagata's Compassion and I sincerely appreciate the Master's benevolence. As my joy increases, my feeling of indebtedness grows deeper.

Such was the centrality of the theme of gratitude in Shinran's religious life, a theme stressed in succeeding teachers to the degree that it is still a centrality in Shinshu life. Of course, Shinshu is not unique in its expression of gratitude. Other and earlier Buddhist teachers stressed this element, and it was a major component in Confucian thought as well. The important new aspect of this expression in the case of Shinshu is that for Shinran, gratitude becomes the central expression and indeed the main function of the religious life -- displacing utilitarianism, magic, legalism, and the expectation of egoistic benefits from religion.

Shinran's stress on gratitude and its centrality and function, leads beyond the simple practice of recitation of the Name (Nembutsu) to affect other areas of life and become the basis of a quite new approach in ethical orientation and human relations. Shinran cautions his followers against defaming the gods and Buddhas from whom we have received benefits:

"Through the long ages we were exhorted to the Way by all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and we are now blessed with meeting the Vow of Amita Buddha. Should we forget all that we owe and speak ill of all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, this will be to forget the great obligation." [20]

For Shinran, the awareness of gratitude, our indebtedness to Buddha, directly affects our attitude to the world about us. Had he expressed himself in a specific detailing of rights to be cultivated and wrongs to be avoided, his system would have ended in the kind of legalism that he had escaped. He gives no clear definition of right and wrong. Rather, Shinran's ethical orientation aims instead at the formation of positive attitudes toward people and situations based on a deep sense of gratitude. This sense of gratitude is grounded in the awareness of one's own potential for evil and the boundlessness of Amida's compassion which embraces good and evil without discrimination.

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