Although Jodo Shinshu, or True Pure Land School, is the largest Buddhist denomination in Japan and one of the largest—as well as one of the oldest—in North America, it is commonly viewed in a skewed manner. Misconceptions about Shin Buddhism, as it is often known, abound not only in the West but in Japan as well. As the noted Buddhist scholar Shizuka Sasaki of Hanazono University in Kyoto has written, for example, “[Shin Buddhists] teach that what we must do is to simply rely on and surrender ourselves to the power of Amida Buddha [see sidebar, p. 79]. Shinran’s teaching is undoubtedly superb as a religion and provides an extremely comforting support for those who are unable to make any self-effort, but this is a completely separate thing from the ‘Buddhism of Shakyamuni’.”

If Shinran (1173–1263), the founder of Shin Buddhism, were here with us today, he would certainly be disheartened by this account of his tradition as merely a popular form of religious devotion that has little to do with authentic Buddhist teaching and practice. Shinran himself regarded his approach as the “consummation of Mahayana Buddhism.” His reasoning for this bold claim rests in part on his conviction that the Pure Land teachings are a fulfillment of the Mahayana vision of universal liberation for all beings. If Mahayana were to be true to its name as the “great vehicle” for enlightenment, it must, for Shinran, enable all beings, regardless of their capabilities, to find a welcoming place on that vehicle.

In Shin Buddhism, liberation rests on the seeker’s experience of the spiritual transformation called shinjin, which is available to anyone who seeks it sincerely and diligently. Shinjin literally means “faith” or “trust” (shin) and “mind” or “heart” (jin). It is most commonly rendered into English as “true entrusting,” “entrusting mind,” “entrusting heart,” or “faith.” But while “entrusting” and “faith” express impor-tant dimensions of shinjin, they fail to capture the full picture of this multivalent term. In fact, one reason that the translation team of the Hongwanji Branch of Shin Buddhism did not translate shinjin into English in their Collected Works of Shinran (CWS) was the complexity of the concept

The multivalent nature of shinjin becomes readily apparent in Shinran’s description of shingyo, a term he treats as synonymous with shinjin:

Entrusting (shingyo) is the mind full of truth, reality, and sincerity; the mind of ultimacy, accomplishment, reliance, and reverence; the mind of discernment, distinctness, clarity, and faithfulness; the mind of aspiration, wish, desire, and exultation; the mind of delight, joy, gladness, and happiness; hence, it is completely untainted by the hindrance of doubt. (CWS)

Here we find terms whose meaning aligns with “entrusting,” such as “reliance,” “reverence,” and “faithfulness.” However, there are other terms—“discernment,” “clarity,” and so forth—that are associated with Buddhist wisdom and realization. Indeed, an entrusting mind is one that is “full of truth, reality, and sincerity.” In experiencing shinjin, the seeker awakens to dimensions of life previously never experienced. This clearly entails realization and wisdom, as well as “delight, joy, gladness, and happiness.” Furthermore, shinjin leads to such characteristics of accomplishment on the path of the bodhisattva as the overcoming of doubt and the awakening of the aspiration to seek complete enlightenment, or Buddhahood. Shinjin is thus the experience of awakening in Shin Buddhism, comparable to the terms satori and kensho in Zen Buddhism.

If Shinran were here with us today, he would certainly be disheartened by this account of his tradition as merely a popular form of religious devotion.

Perhaps the best way to challenge the common misperception of Shin Buddhism as a deviation from “real Buddhism” is to focus on the realization dimension of shinjin. In his magnum opus, The True Teaching, Practice, and Realization of the Pure Land Way, Shinran quotes Shandao (613–681) of Tang China, the fifth master in the Shin lineage:

Deep mind is true and real Shinjin. One truly knows (shinchi) oneself to be a foolish being full of blind passions, with scant roots of good, transmigrating in the three realms and unable to emerge from this burning house. And further, one truly knows now, without so much as a single thought of doubt, that Amida’s universal Primal Vow decisively enables all to attain birth [in the Pure Land]. (CWS)

Amida’s Primal Vow is part of the mythic narrative found in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, a text originating in India in the first century CE. Amida is the compassionate Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life, whose workings manifest Oneness, the ultimate reality referred to throughout Mahayana Buddhism, which is expressed in such terms as dharmakaya and dharmata. In the sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha himself reveals Amida Buddha to be the savior of all beings. Amida, like Mahayana’s other transcendent buddhas, is a personified form that makes it easier for us humans to relate to and appreciate the qualities the buddhas manifest.

Amida’s Primal Vow symbolizes the working of universal compassion. According to the scriptural narrative, Amida, while in his bodhisattva stage of working toward buddhahood, vowed to liberate all beings through the realization of shinjin. It is through shinjin that one is guaranteed birth in the Pure Land, which constitutes another feature of the mythic representation of ultimate reality.

In realization, Shandao tells us, the seeker comes to “truly know” oneself to be bombu, an imperfect, foolish being full of afflictions, but also comes to realize that one can attain birth in the Pure Land through the workings of compassion as expressed as Amida’s Vow. To “truly know” —and not just “know” but “truly know”—is deeper than mere knowledge; it is “true and real” understanding and wisdom. Hence, deep mind—yet another rendering of the term shinjin—involves gaining realization of both the truth about one’s foolish and imperfect nature and the truth of the presence of Amida’s compassion as represented in the Primal Vow.

Here it is important to clarify what is entailed in realizing that one is a bombu. The Shin seeker is not deemed foolish in comparison to one’s friends or next-door neighbor. It’s not that kind of foolishness. One is a foolish being when compared with the enlightened buddhas, who have fully overcome the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance and exhibit unmitigated compassion to others. This realization actually fosters a sense of relief. Since in the course of striving on the Buddhist path we invariably find ourselves incapable of overcoming the three poisons, we can relax and not judge our imperfections so harshly.

Further, if the object of realization were confined just to our foolishness, we would be spiritually unfulfilled and even devastated. Fortunately, we are also capable of awakening to Amida’s Primal Vow, which enables all to attain birth in the Pure Land. In shinjin, then, we come to realize that we are “one big mess” embraced in Oneness.

The faith of shinjin is not merely devotion to, say, one’s teacher or the basic teachings of a tradition. According to Shinran, shinjin is comparable to the first level of awakening as found in early Buddhist teachings and actively taught today in the Theravada tradition, where it is called the level of the sotapanna, or Stream Enterer. It also is comparable to the first stage (bhumi) on the cultivational path in Mahayana Buddhism, the Stage of Joy. In both cases, reaching the first level of awakening assures the seeker of the eventual attainment of full enlightenment.

The qualities achieved by Stream Enterers include the overcoming of doubt, the overcoming of the belief in the efficacy of rituals, and the overcoming of one’s attachment to a substantial self (the belief that the self is unchanging and not dependent on others). In my estimation, one can see upon careful examination that these qualities are also achieved by the persons of shinjin. I’ve already mentioned the overcoming of doubt as one of the characteristics of shinjin. For an example of overcoming a belief in the efficacy of rituals, we can look to Shinran’s own life. Shinran was a man who rejected the attachment to what he considered superstitious beliefs and rituals performed to attain one’s soteriological goals. Today, the school he founded stands out among the various schools of Japanese Buddhism for actively rejecting any rituals and practices that seek worldly benefits such as better health or success at school or work. This may surprise many who harbor the perception that Shin should be dismissed as a “popular,” or folk, religion.

Shinran’s words express a realization of Oneness beyond the limited, substantial self:

How joyous I am, my heart and mind being rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and my thoughts and feelings flowing within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension! (CWS)

The attainment of both the level of Stream Enterer and of the Stage of Joy assures the seeker that one will no longer backslide on the path. The Stream Enterer is also assured of attaining the level of arhat, the highest goal. The seeker on the Mahayana path of the bodhisattva, upon reaching the Stage of Joy, similarly achieves a state in which full enlightenment is guaranteed. This assurance is found in shinjin, where, according to Shinran, one has awakening in this life and is thus guaranteed full enlightenment immediately upon death, upon birth in the Pure Land.

The idea that Shin is simply a devotional popularization of true Buddhism goes along with a notion that Shinran taught only the peasantry. Recent scholarship tells us otherwise. Among Shinran’s own direct disciples were aristocrats, members of the samurai class who had taken ordination, estate stewards, and Shinto priests. In other words, most of his direct disciples were literate at a time when the vast majority of people in Japan were not. The learned qualities of Shinran’s own letters to his disciples confirm this. This is not to discount the appeal of Shinran’s teachings among the less privileged, but it does correct the impression that his teachings were for them exclusively.

In speaking of shinjin, it is clear that no one translation is sufficient. But given the prejudices about Shin Buddhism, I think it good to emphasize shinjin’s wisdom dimension to help in dispelling  misconceptions. Along with​ “true entrusting,” persons of shinjin also experience “true realization.” With that in mind, we can then say that shinjin means “true realization and entrusting” that one is indeed “one mess” embraced by Oneness.

Amida’s Buddha-field

Amitabha, or Amida Buddha, is one of the most widely worshiped of the so-called transcendent Buddhas. The power of Amitabha’s primal vow gives life to the western paradise of sukhavati, or the Pure Land, a buddha-field of infinite merit beyond the bounds of this reality and full of bodhisattvas on their path toward complete enlightenment. For Shinran, the possibility of rebirth in Amitabha’s realm was determined during one’s life.

In this passage from the shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra, the Buddha Shakyamuni describes the host of beings in the Pure Land to Sariputra, one of his main disciples.

The Bhagavan Tathagata Amitabha has an immeasurable sangha of sravakas [disciples], who are all pure arhats [beings who have achieved nirvana]; their number cannot be easily expressed. The sentient beings born in this buddha realm are all pure bodhisattvas who will not regress and are bound by only one more birth. One cannot express the total number of bodhisattvas except to say that they are immeasurable or countless. This buddha realm is beautifully adorned by such displays of the excellences of buddha realms.

Sons and daughters of good family should completely dedicate all roots of virtue in a respectful manner to be born in that buddha realm. Why? Because by doing so, they will be able to meet holy beings similar to themselves. One cannot take birth in the realm of Amitabha merely with minimal roots of virtue.

If those sons and daughters of good family hear the name of Amitabha and keep it in mind unwaveringly for one, two, three, four, five, six, or seven nights, when the hour of their death arrives, they will depart in an undeluded state. After they have passed away, the Tathagata Amitabha will stand before them, entirely surrounded by a sravaka assembly and honored by a congregation of bodhisattvas. These sons and daughters of good family will be born in the Sukhavati world, the buddha realm of Amitabha.

Adapted from a translation by the Sakya Pandita Translation Group for 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha,

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