For more than a hundred years, American Pure Land Buddhists have been publishing sutra commentaries, dharma talks, and personal reflections. Indeed, those affiliated with Jodo Shinshu—literally “the true school of the Pure Land,” often called Shin Buddhism—have produced far more Buddhist works in America than any other sect. Why, then, are this venerable Buddhist publishing tradition and the many small presses that support it relatively unknown outside Pure Land circles? Most Tricycle readers are probably familiar with Wisdom Publications and Shambhala Publications, but how many have heard of Buddhist Study Center Press or the Nembutsu Press?
There’s a Catch-22 here. The Pure Land community is large enough that it’s never had to court mainstream bookstores; the widespread network of Shin temples and periodicals ensures that new books will get attention from a built-in audience. Many of these books were never intended to turn a substantial profit anyway—they are seen as offerings of the dharma, not commercial enterprises. Yet the relative lack of need for outreach by the Pure Land communities—some of which are nurturing their fifth and sixth generations of American Buddhists—means that their publications are often eclipsed by those of smaller and more recent imports, such as Tibetan Buddhism and Vipassana. These traditions, along with Zen, have actively marketed themselves to a white, affluent American audience that often encounters Buddhism in the bookstore, rather than in a traditional temple.
The net effect is that, despite the regular appearance of new books on Pure Land Buddhism, the wider reading public is aware only of the one or two books produced annually by mainstream presses. The most recent of these is The Essential Shinran: A Buddhist Path of True Entrusting (World Wisdom, 2007), edited by Alfred Bloom. With The Essential Shinran, Bloom—a scholar and Shin priest influential in Buddhist circles since the 1965 publication of his Shinran’s Gospel of Pure Grace—attempts to deepen the West’s appreciation for Shinran, the thirteenth-century founder of Jodo Shinshu and one of Japan’s most important religious thinkers. As Bloom describes it, Shinran’s “Pure Land teaching is an inclusive, human faith. It is non-authoritarian, non-dogmatic, egalitarian, non-superstitious religious faith. Through deepening religious understanding it liberates people from religious intimidation and oppression, which trade on the ignorance of people and their desire for security. Shinran’s teaching does not encourage blind faith at the expense of one’s reason and understanding.”
To counter common misconceptions of the Pure Land tradition, particularly among Western convert Buddhists, Bloom takes care to point out Shinran’s vigorous opposition to superstition and ignorance. Pure Land Buddhism has some superficial similarities to monotheism, which sometimes leads to ill-informed characterizations of Jodo Shinshu and related traditions by disgruntled ex-Christians. However, any similarities between Pure Land and Christianity are far fewer than overlaps between Vajrayana and Hinduism, for example, or Zen Buddhism and Confucianism. If anything, we could say that Pure Land takes advantage of the strengths of a rather Unitarian quasi-monotheistic religious approach but does so within a context of Buddhist insight into emptiness and liberation.
By Shinran’s time the vast pantheon of Mahayana Buddhism had multiplied to the point where there was a Buddha or spirit under virtually every stone, all demanding veneration through prayer, ritual, and (sometimes expensive) offerings and ceremonies. Pure Land’s focus on Amida Buddha—a single figure representing wisdom, compassion, and nirvana—was a way of cutting through the pomp and superstition surrounding Japanese Buddhism and returning to core principles, while at the same time maintaining a devotional practice for ordinary laypeople who couldn’t hope to meditate at length or adhere to hundreds of monastic precepts. In The Essential Shinran, Bloom elucidates the thoroughly Mahayana Buddhist foundation of Shinran’s ideas about reliance on Amida Buddha:
Though this teaching may appear similar to ideas in Western religion, there is a world of difference resulting from its root in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. Mahayana teaching distinguishes between conventional thought and belief and the truth of the absolute realm. The level of conventional thought denotes thinking based on naive realism and objectivity. Such knowledge informs our egocentrism and perpetuates our ignorance of our true nature and of the world. The absolute truth, while inconceivable and inexpressible, exposes the unreality and distortions created by our delusory, self-centered knowledge and interests. The Mahayana perspective on religion rejects the literalism, dogmatism, objectivism, and moralism found in many religious traditions. Mahayana Buddhism recognizes that all people are at different stages of spiritual development and affirms people as they are. It is a more accepting, compassionate teaching.
The dialectic between truth in its ultimate nature and in its form adapted to our current capacities is the engine that drove Shinran’s quest for an authentic Buddhist spirituality available to everyone, not just monks and members of the elite. This distinction between absolute and conventional truth appears in his core teachings, as numerous passages of The Essential Shinran demonstrate. For example, Shinran wrote: “Supreme Buddha is formless, and because of being formless is called jinen (naturalness). Buddha, when appearing with form, is not called supreme nirvana. In order to make it known that supreme Buddha is formless (emptiness), the name Amida Buddha is expressly used; so I have been taught.” Shinran and his school understand Amida to be a symbol for the Buddha-nature that all beings are universally endowed with. Because Amida’s light embraces all beings and never abandons anyone, all creatures without exception will be liberated from suffering and ignorance.
The Essential Shinran is not a straightforward exposition of Jodo Shinshu doctrine and practice but rather a masterfully organized reference tool that collects and arranges key ideas from Shinran’s voluminous writings. In some ways it is a map of The Collected Works of Shinran, a groundbreaking translation of Shinran’s complete writings published in 1997 by the Hongwanji International Center. The importance of The Collected Works becomes clear when we consider that there is no similar collection in English for any of the other major founders of Japanese Buddhism: Dogen, Eisai, Saicho, Honen, Nichiren, and Kukai. Nor do we have such a comprehensive collection for comparable great thinkers from other parts of Buddhist Asia, such as Nagarjuna, Buddhaghosa, and Tsongkhapa.
Of course, having such abundant riches as are provided by The Collected Works presents its own challenges. Shinran’s life encompassed ninety years of one of the most pivotal eras in Japanese history, and his writings range from profoundly abstruse sutra commentaries for fellow scholars to colloquial letters intended to be read aloud to illiterate peasants. A mine of ideas like this requires well-informed guidance, such as Bloom offers in The Essential Shinran.
Bloom has organized The Essential Shinran along the lines of Shinran’s magnum opus,Kyogyoshinsho (“Teaching, Practice, Faith, and Realization”), a collection of quotations from sutras and commentaries on various topics with Shinran’s interpretive notes. For The Essential Shinran, Bloom has taken extracts from Shinran’s own words and provided short introductions or annotations that are clear and helpful. (He provides full citations so that readers can go to The Collected Works and explore the context of the quotes.)
The Essential Shinran also includes substantial biographical information. Shinran’s life is easily one of the most interesting of any historical monk: ordained at age nine, he practiced for decades in the greatest monastic school of Japan. His convictions led him into the new Pure Land community, for which he was persecuted by the emperor, who was acting on behalf of the Buddhist establishment, which saw the egalitarian Pure Land approach as a threat. Shinran endured exile, humiliation, and governmental cancellation of his ordination. But even in the far provinces where he was sent to die, he held on to his faith in Amida and developed a new Buddhist path suited for the peasants and fishermen he encountered. He married and raised a family, and spread the Pure Land way in parts of Japan and Japanese society ignored by the mainstream Buddhist schools of the day. His teaching that Amida embraced the lowly led to the formation of peasant associations that threw off the shackles of provincial landlords and to self-governing, utopian Buddhist societies—some of which lasted for nearly a century before being destroyed. Shinran’s relevance continues today: his status as “neither monk nor layperson” offers one possible model for householder Buddhists in the West.
For those who are looking to go deeper into Shinran’s thought but are intimidated by the complexity of works like Kyogyoshinsho, The Essential Shinran is a highly useful tool, particularly for understanding how Shinran approached specific topics, such as Buddha-nature, the Pure Land, and practice. Bloom has lined up everything Shinran wrote about each topic, eliminating the need to hunt through his extensive writings for relevant passages. Thus the reader can discover, for example, the nuances of shinjin—the mind that awakens to the falsity of the ego and relies instead on power beyond the self, leading to Buddhahood. As Bloom’s quotes make clear, shinjin is neither a dogmatic adherence to faith nor a dry acknowledgment of no-self but a deeply transformative moment of overwhelming joy, leading to a fresh approach to religion through the practice of gratitude and humility.
Like The Collected Works, Bloom’s Essential Shinran has the potential to dramatically increase Western appreciation of one of the largest, yet least understood forms of Buddhism. As such, the book ranks among the most important publications on Pure Land Buddhism of the past decade, valuable to scholars and Buddhist practitioners alike.
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