Pure Land Buddhism is one of the most widely practiced forms of Buddhism in East Asia, and in Japan, Shin Buddhism—a development of Pure Land—is particularly popular. Can you describe the core practice of Shin Buddhism? Jodo Shinshu—or Shin Buddhism, as it is known in the West—is actually the largest school of Buddhism in Japan. The heart of Pure Land practice is chanting the name of Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light: Namu Amida Butsu, a practice known as the nembutsu (literally, “mindful of the Buddha”). The name comes from Sanskrit, the classical language of Buddhist India: Namo Amitabha Buddha. In China, this becomes Namo Amitoufo, and in Japan, Namu Amida Butsu. Namo comes from “namas” as in the Sanskrit phrase Namaste, which means “I bow to you.” Bowing is an act of humility on the part of the ordinary human being who is filled with attachments and delusions. Amitabha Buddha signifies the “awakening of infinite light,” the illumination of emptiness and oneness that arises from the deepest reality of the true self. Thus, in Shin Buddhism chanting Namu Amida Butsu means “I, this foolish being filled with attachments and blind passions, entrust myself to the awakening of infinite light, the boundless compassion that arises from the oneness of reality.”

Meditation is a core practice in many schools of Buddhism, but in Shin Buddhism it is not regarded as a necessary practice for attaining enlightenment. Is any meditation considered to have spiritual value?  In some traditions, such as Zen, silent seated meditation is the primary practice and chanting is an auxiliary practice. In Pure Land Buddhism, it’s the other way around—while there may be some silent meditation, chanting is the primary contemplative practice.

Most Buddhist schools combine regular repetitive practice with insight practice. From earliest times in India into the present, there has been a balance of samatha and vipassana—single-minded concentration and deep insight. Thus, in Zen meditation, practicing sustained concentration through regular repeated seated meditation alone is insufficient. Similarly, insight into the nature of reality—or in Zen, the recognition of ultimate emptiness or oneness—is by itself insufficient. It is the combination of body-mind practice, concentration with insight, that is the foundation of practice.

So, too, in Pure Land Buddhism it is not enough to simply repeat the chant Namu Amida Butsu. One must realize the depth of one’s foolishness, one’s blind passions, with the simultaneous unfolding of great compassion. The foolishness of the ego-self is illuminated and dissolved by the truest, deepest reality of the self: emptiness, oneness, boundless compassion.

Honen, founder of the Jodo-shu Pure Land school, and his disciple Shinran, founder of Shin Buddhism, are two of the most important figures in Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. What are the differences between them and their schools of Pure Land practice? The difference between Shinran and Honen lies in their emphases. Honen emphasized repetition as the foundation of practice: chanting Namu Amida Butsu over and over, continuously. Shinran, on the other hand, emphasized the depth of awareness: realizing one’s foolishness simultaneously with the awakening of infinite light arising from deep within.

Ultimately, the chanting does not come from the conscious self, the ego-self. It arises from the deepest reality of the self: emptiness, or the formless dharmakaya, buddhanature beyond form, beyond words. When we chant Namu Amida Butsu, continuous practice and deep realization merge. It is like learning to play the violin: When one truly devotes oneself to practice, repetition and profound, inspired performance go hand in hand. There is the experience of the music flowing through one. Rather than being conscious of oneself as the musician, or the subject manipulating the object, subject and object—musician and music—become one. The poet T. S. Eliot writes of “music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/ While the music lasts.” This is also true of the practice of chanting Namu Amida Butsu. When one is truly steeped in the practice, it occurs not through conscious effort but arises spontaneously from the deepest self, the self of emptiness and great compassion.

The goal of Shin Buddhism is to bring all beings to liberation. The chanting of Namu Amida Butsu signifies this with the realization that I am already embraced in boundless compassion; however, I have yet to realize this in practice. Already, but not yet: “All beings are one with me in the deep flow of oneness. Therefore, I am moved to become one with all beings.”

“Chanting does not come from the conscious self, the ego-self. It arises from the deepest reality of the self: emptiness, of the formless dharmakaya, buddhanature beyond form, beyond words.”

Can you describe the relationship between Shin Buddhism and Shinto beliefs and practices? In Japan, religion began as integral to the project of nation building. Many strands were brought together to create Japan’s national narrative, including the creation of a Japanese “state religion” that combined elements of Confucianism for governance and social organization, Daoism for the story of creation and some deity names, and Buddhism for an overarching framework of principles (“This world is an illusion, only the Buddha is true,” stated the 7th-century prince Shotoku) and the afterlife, along with continued worship of native Shinto deities, or kami.

During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), many monks began to reject the idea of Buddhism as part of state religion, among them Honen and Shinran, the founders of the rising Pure Land schools. They both declared that one need not worship the kami and that the practice of invoking the great compassion of Amida Buddha alone would be sufficient. At the same time, they did not tell their followers to attack or disregard the kami. All sentient beings were included in the larger community, including the kami. Most of the other schools of Japanese Buddhism included worship of the kami and placed Shinto shrines within the Buddhist temple precincts. Shinran did not include this practice, and so Shin Buddhist temples do not include Shinto shrines even today.

Are the teachings and practices of Shin Buddhism different from those found in Chinese Pure Land Buddhism? In China, chanting the name of Amida Buddha originally developed separately from Chan Buddhist meditation (which later became Zen meditation in Japan). There were masters who taught at temples that primarily emphasized nianfo (Chinese for nembutsu), the practice of the name, or “mindful chanting.” There were also masters who primarily emphasized Zen meditation. However, by the Song dynasty era (around the 12th century), Pure Land and Zen had fused in China so that both practices were taught in the same temple. In Japan, there was some intermingling of Zen and Pure Land practice early on, but during the Kamakura period, Zen and Pure Land became major movements and arose as separate schools or sects. Thus, while in China they came together, in Japan they developed separately, and that continues to be the case today.

Early Buddhism emphasized self-reliance; but the focus of Shin Buddhism is reliance on Amida Buddha for one’s salvation—an external source. Can Shin Buddhism even be considered a form of Buddhism? In Shin Buddhism, practice based on the conscious ego-self is called “self-power” practice. Practice that is realized from the depths of emptiness or oneness, which is beyond ego calculation, is called “other-power” practice. But “other power” does not refer to an external being, like a god. It really means “other than ego.” The foolish being filled with blind passions is the calculating ego, the karmic self. Amida Buddha as the self-expression of emptiness, oneness, and boundless compassion, the deepest reality of the self, is the “Amida self,” as it were. For this reason, Shinran states that “true entrusting is buddhanature.”

The foolish being who entrusts the self to the awakening of infinite light does not do so with ego-intention. Letting go of the ego and entrusting oneself to the flow of reality that arises from deep within occurs from the true self beyond words—one’s own buddhanature. Yet this is true for all schools of Mahayana Buddhism. As the Zen master Dogen, founder of the Soto school, states of the nature of practice, “One throws oneself into the realm of the Buddha, and true practice unfolds from the side of the Buddha.” In esoteric Buddhism (Zhenyan in Chinese, or Shingon in Japanese), there are five cosmic buddhas who all lend the practitioner the cosmic power of their “added realization,” or kaji. Yet these cosmic buddhas also turn out to be manifestations of buddhanature, emptiness, and oneness: that is, the true nature of the self.

Photograph by Cliff Etzel

Taking refuge in the three jewels—the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha—is a practice common to many schools of Buddhism. Does it hold the same significance in Shin Buddhism? Besides chanting the nembutsu, Shin Buddhism includes many other practices such as taking the three refuges, bowing, offering incense, and so on. At the same time, nembutsu is said to contain all other practices; so if all one can do is to practice the nembutsu, that is sufficient. Shinran thus states that the nembutsu is “the basis of all good, all virtue.”

Although Shin Buddhism is non-monastic, there are Shin priests, like yourself. Can you speak about Shin priesthood? How does it differ from monasticism in other forms of Buddhism? Does the concept of sangha take on a different meaning in the context of shin? Shin Buddhist priests are usually married and have families, so it is a “lay priesthood.” This has been the case since the time of Shinran himself. Shinran had a wife named Eshinni, and together they had seven children. For thirty years they lived as partners in ministry among the farmers and ordinary laypeople in the countryside. Both Shinran and Eshinni are always depicted wearing priests’ robes, and “Eshinni” is itself a name that reflects her ordained status.

Although the Shin lay priesthood is unusual in Buddhism, it actually reflects the foundations of Mahayana Buddhism, which as a movement shifted the focus away from monkhood and toward the community of all sentient beings.

This is why, when we look at the “three baskets” of Buddhist sacred scripture—Sutra (teachings of the Buddha), Shastra (treatises or explanations of the Buddha’s teachings), and Vinaya (monastic regulations)—we see that when Mahayana Buddhism emerged, entirely new sutras and shastras were created; yet there is no special Mahayana vinaya that is exclusively focused on renunciant monks and nuns. Laypeople are even featured as the protagonists of Mahayana sutras, such as the layman Vimalakirti in the Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra and the queen in the sutra The Lion’s Roar of Queen Shrimala. So while the sangha of early Indian Buddhism is the community of monks and nuns, the sangha of Mahayana Buddhism is the cosmic community of all sentient beings. In Zen Buddhism, even trees and grasses are said to be enlightened.

Shinran famously stated: “I am neither monk nor layman.” This means that on the path of Shin Buddhism and boundless compassion, there is no distinction between lay and monastic. At the same time, this statement by Shinran can be understood as a reflection of his own self-realization: “As a foolish being, I am not qualified to call myself a good layman or a good monk. I simply entrust myself to the awakening of infinite light.” Both readings can be true, and both can be seen in the practice of the name: Namu Amida Butsu, “I, this foolish being, entrust myself to the awakening of infinite light.” Or as the modern Shin Buddhist poet Saichi states, “How wonderful, how wonderful!/ In the cosmos utterly empty/ All are buddhas/ I, too, am included/ Namu Amida Butsu.”

What do you regard as the major relevance of Shin Buddhism for the world today? Until the 20th century, the highest attainment of bodhi, or awakening, was reserved primarily for the ecclesiastical class—the ordained—and only a small percentage of laypeople practiced seated meditation or went on extended meditation retreats. While increasing numbers of people have engaged in meditation and other contemplative practices since the latter half of the 20th century—first in the West, then in Asia and elsewhere—they often lack the support and teachings that are relevant to facing the complex challenges of the modern world. Shin Buddhism arose specifically for those of us who live in the world of attachments and blind passions, so that the deepest realization of the dharma is made available to all of us. I often share the path of Shin Buddhism with people who have never heard of it, yet it seems to speak to them immediately as relevant to their own difficulties and spiritual quests. I feel that this interview is another wonderful opportunity to share the Buddha Way. How wonderful! Thank you. Palms together.

This interview is adapted from “The Essence of Shin Buddhism” by Mark Unno, originally published in Eastern Horizon 66 (May 2022), and is reprinted by permission of Eastern Horizon.