Shinran (1173–1262), the founder of Jodo Shinshu (“True Essence of Pure Land Teaching”) had a universal vision of Buddhism’s liberating power for all people. But because Shin Buddhism (another way of referring to the Pure Land school Shinran founded) has been such an important part of Japanese culture for 800 years, that all-inclusiveness isn’t always noticed by people outside of the tradition. I think that many Buddhists in North America see Shin more as an expression of Japanese culture than as a form of Buddhism meant for each and all.

The Shin philosopher Kaneko Daiei (1881–1976) can help us understand Shinran’s vision. Kaneko, a professor at Otani University in Kyoto, Japan, who was highly critical of how materialistic his Buddhist lineage had become, was excommunicated from the denomination for 10 years. In his writings, he occasionally used the term “inner togetherness,” by which he meant the natural bonds that we share with other beings. There is an emotional quality to this feeling of “fellowness” with others, so that when someone else is suffering, we too suffer. Troubled by the suffering of ourselves and others, we look to see what its cause is. We look at the real situations of actual people in their everyday lives, rather than focusing on an ideal of how we ought to be in order to avoid suffering. This approach is very much a part of the Shin path, as it looks to ordinary beings instead of monastic ideals. The monk Ryokan (1758–1831) wrote a poem about the buddha of the Pure Land, Amida Buddha, which expresses this process very well:

“When I think about the misery of those in this world, their sadness becomes mine. Oh, that my monk’s robe were wide enough to gather up all the suffering people in this floating world. Nothing makes me more happy than Amida Buddha’s Vow to save everyone.” –trans. John Stevens

Kaneko says that in realizing that we and others are fellow beings bonded by an inseparable inner togetherness, we seek a solution to our misery that will be adequate for all. The answer, according to Kaneko, is the Primal Vow—Amida Buddha’s oath to bring all beings to oneness, which embraces all beings just as they are. This great vow provides the nembutsu (the recitation of Amida Buddha’s name, Namo Amida Butsu) as an easy practice that anyone can perform.

This is about as far as Kaneko took his idea, but I want to expand on this concept of inner togetherness. To me, it is emblematic of what is best about Shin Buddhism. In my understanding, the concept arises from the truth of interrelatedness. Interrelatedness, or interdependence, is the central insight of Mahayana Buddhism. It means that nothing exists separate from all the other things in the universe. Every person lives only by relying on the support of others. No matter how far out you trace the web of relations, there is always more that can be said about it: it is infinite and total, and only a buddha can truly perceive its full extent. Indeed, in the Mahayana tradition it is often said that comprehension of this totality is what precipitates buddhahood or is buddhahood itself. Thus while I seem in my deluded mind to be one individual person struggling in the world against others, in fact from the Buddha’s viewpoint there is no separation between self and other. In traditional language this is often called emptiness, because we are empty of independent existence. But “inner togetherness” is a uniquely Shin term for this understanding, which stresses the positive side of connection and the fellowship aspect without losing sight of the interrelatedness that informs the basic concept of emptiness.

Full size image of Buddha covered with faces
Illustration by Robert Neubecker for Tricycle

There is no separation between self and other, and my life exists only because of others. It is the power of others, the power-beyond-myself, that sustains my entire existence. We say there is no self, but another way to express it would be to say that when you have a near-death experience, the entire history of the universe ought to flash before your eyes. This vision is embedded in Shin within the story of Amida’s Pure Land, a representation of the liberated peace and bliss of nirvana. In Pure Land Buddhism we say that we wish to be born together with all beings in the Pure Land, so again we see the emphasis on togetherness. We seek a common destination that will be acceptable to all people. In this life, we have separations and disputes with other people based on our deluded egos: this is a fact of living that we cannot fully overcome. The story of the Pure Land upholds our greatest values, confirming that even though we are imperfect, we are embraced by great compassion, and even though we are unable to get along now, our goal is total reconciliation and togetherness.

Shinran expressed this well in A Record in Lament of Divergences, when he contrasted the Pure Land path with that of the sages. He said that the path of sages is to have pity and look down toward other beings. Sages are great Buddhist saints who by their own efforts have achieved freedom. But because they have separated themselves off to reach freedom, they cannot feel the pains of ordinary beings: they look down with pity upon the rest of us. The path of the Pure Land, by contrast, is to be born together with other beings into nirvana, the Pure Land, and then to immediately return to help others forever and ever. This Pure Land type of compassion keeps the practitioner in constant relationship to others, not separating him off as a saint.

There is no separation between self and other, and my life exists only because of others. It is the power of others, the power-beyond-myself, that sustains my entire existence.

We may try to become holy, pure, or good enough to qualify to enter heaven or achieve buddhahood, but life is hard and we are weak, and few people can measure up to the standards set by religion. Worse yet, if we do manage to make some progress, that itself turns into an obstacle. The holier we get, the more puffed up our egos often become, and this removes us from fellowship with other ordinary people. I’ve experienced this myself. In the quest to kill the ego, we feed it ever more food and tell ourselves that we are becoming truly spiritual. But if you become a saint, you are different from suffering beings and can no longer relate. Thus from Shinran’s perspective the arrogance of the saint represents a type of failure.

A story in “Notes on Oral Teachings,” an account of teachings given by Shinran, provides another example of the Pure Land view of compassion. The story may not be accurate, but it reflects Shinran’s spirit well. In it, Shinran is recorded as saying that if someone loses a loved one and comes to you in distress, you should not get on your high horse. Instead, you should briefly teach them the dharma, Shinran said, and then drink with them. When they can smile and forget their pain for a little while, you leave them be. I don’t know whether or not this is the best response, and as I said, the story may not be true, but it points to the feeling of Shin. You don’t deliver an abstract lesson about why people shouldn’t be attached to anything because all things arise and pass away: you just get right down there with the person who’s suffering and share their sorrow, drinking together and cheering them with your companionship. This is acting from the recognition of inner togetherness, a recognition that brings you toward others rather than removing you from the everyday world.

Related: Pure and Simple Practice

In Buddhism we talk about how we seek to go over to the other shore, to nirvana, the Pure Land, buddhahood. But in the Shin tradition we don’t have to ferry ourselves all the way across the vast ocean of delusion. Instead, the other shore is constantly coming over here to us. In his most celebrated work, Kyogyoshinso (The True Teaching, Practice, and Realization of the Pure Land Way), Shinran says: “There has never been any separation: Amida’s vast vow always, of itself, grasps and holds beings. This is the necessary way of its working.” It is when we relax and trust that we are transformed.

When he wrote to a follower in one of his letters, Shinran pointed to Jodo Shinshu’s unique emotional quality of gratitude: “Signs of long years of saying the nembutsu and aspiring for birth [in the pure land] can be seen in the change in the heart that had been bad and in the deep warmth for friends and fellow-practitioners.” Deep warmth for others is the sign of nembutsu coming to fruition in one’s life, not detachment. The true and real practice of the nembutsu does not beg for salvation, create good karma, focus the mind, or bring about any of the benefits that we vainly chase after. Instead, when we realize how we are benefitted just as we are, gratitude arises from within and we express it by saying nembutsu with joy and humility. Nembutsu, therefore, is a grateful expression of thanksgiving: it is an end, not a means. The path has already been accomplished for us, and our part is simply to relax, trust, and say “Thank you,” Namo Amida Butsu.

Inner togetherness is also a vision of totality: All beings will be born together, all are embraced. In The True Teaching, Shinran quotes the Nirvana Sutra (Mahaparinirvana Sutra) as follows: “All sentient beings without fail ultimately realize great shinjin (the trusting heart of awakening).” This vision of Shinran’s was so expansive that elsewhere he said that 10 billion maras (demon-like beings in Buddhist mythology) were liberated when the Moon Matrix Sutra was preached, and that in the Sun Matrix Sutra the king mara (i.e., Satan himself) was converted to Buddhism and worshipped the Buddha. That’s an incredible concept. If even Mara will be liberated, that means that all beings, even those we hate, will be freed. And it means that even the aspects of ourselves that we hate the most will nonetheless be released in the end. Shinran doesn’t stop there, however. In Notes on “Essentials of Faith Alone,” Shinran proclaims that “this Tathagata [Amida Buddha] pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain buddhahood.”

Related: Jodo Shinshu: The Way of Shinran

Given that religion so often focuses on dividing the world into some version of the saved and the damned and on proclaiming how other people are justifiable objects of our suspicion and even hate, Shin’s all-embracing teaching is, I think, radical. Because we are used to confirming our prejudices, it can also be an uncomfortable one. If you take a moment to think of two or three people you dislike, you’ll see what I mean. Perhaps it’s a coworker, a politician, a neighbor, or even a family member—the Shin teaching says that that person is valued just as much as you, and that they too are destined for the Pure Land. You can’t get away from them, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton included.

When we awaken to our togetherness with others, our experiences give rise to gratitude. And gratitude, in the Shin tradition, is expressed through nembutsu. Shin theory usually involves emotional expression rather than dry assent to beliefs and doctrines. We are at our best when we are moved by the dharma, and the emotional feeling of inner togetherness with others can help us to expand the circle to encompass all of North American society and beyond.