Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rennyo Shōnin on Sangha – what can we learn from him?

The following paper was presented by my Dharma friend Emyo Frits Bot from Holland at the 16th European Shinshu Conference (31st August - 2nd September 2012). It was one of the few good papers of the Conference, so I decided to share it with you here. Those of you who live in Holland and are interested in the Jodo Shinshu teaching or who wish to write to him, please do so at his e-mail address:

                                      Rennyo Shōnin on Sangha – what can we learn from him?
                                                                    by Emyo Frits Bot

Emyo Frits Bot
The theme of this conference is “The importance of Sangha”. That Sangha is an important aspect of Buddhism is evident from its place among the Three Treasures, next to Buddha and Dharma. What, however, is especially important about that Sangha, specifically in our Jōdo Shinshū tradition?

When considering this question, I believe we should turn to the masters of our tradition and find out what they have to say on this subject. For this paper, I choose to place special emphasis on the writings of Rennyo Shōnin, as he has been instrumental in making the Jōdo Shinshū community that originated around the teachings of Shinran Shōnin into what it is today.

We shouldn’t study the Dharma alone

Referring to one of Shinran’s sayings on the relationship between teachers and disciples, as recorded in article 6 of tanni shō, Rennyo confirmed:

Thus we are one another’s companions and fellow practicers. Because of this, the master spoke respectfully of “companions and fellow practicers”
- gobunshō I – 1[1]

Rennyo encouraged us to seek out fellow-believers, so we can study the teaching together. This is especially relevant for us here in Europe, where followers of the Jōdo Shinshū are not many in number. Therefore we should cherish the few opportunities that arise for us, such as at our local temple or at a conference such as this one.

You should become well acquainted with fellow-believers and teachers. The Liturgy for Birth clarifies, ‘Not to become acquainted with [fellow believers and teachers] is one of the faults of miscellaneous practices.’ … You should by all means make Buddhist friends. …
- goichidaiki kikigaki 150[2]

The Shōnin said, “To get together, sit around, and talk to each other regardless of different rank and social status is consistent with (Shinran) Shōnin’s remark, “Within the four seas, those who share the same Faith are all brothers.” My sole wish is that if we are sitting together, those who have questions may ask us about the teaching and acquire Faith.”
- goichidaiki kikigaki 40

You lose nothing when you make friends with devout Buddhists. Even if they do strange things or crack jokes, they have the Buddha-Dharma deep in their hearts; in befriending them, you will gain much benefit. So it is said.
- goichidaiki kikigaki 299

A Jōdo Shinshū community isn’t supposed to be an ordinary community, however. The members of this community shouldn’t meet for reasons other than studying the Dharma. That may seem like something obvious, but it surely is for good reason that Rennyo warns us about this several times:

Rennyo Shōnin admonishes, “Speaking about the Buddha-Dharma, people only engage in secular talk. Instead of getting bored by it, you should turn the topic to the Buddha-Dharma.”
- goichidaiki kikigaki 57

… In the meantime, priests and lay people, men and women, have flocked here, but as this appears to be to no purpose at all, I have prohibited their coming and going as of this year. For, to my mind, the fundamental reason for being in this place is that, having received life in the human realm and having already met with the Buddha-dharma, which is difficult to meet, it is indeed shameful that one would fall in vain into hell. Thus I have reached a judgment that people who are unconcerned about the decisive settling of nenbutsu faith and attainment of birth in the land of utmost bliss should not gather at this place. This is solely because what is fundamental for us is not reputation and personal gain but simply a concern for enlightenment in the afterlife. Therefore, let there be no misinterpretation by those who see this or hear about it.
- gobunshō I – 8

For what purpose have there come to be meetings twice each month? They are [held] for the sake of realizing one’s own faith which leads to birth in the land of utmost bliss, and for nothing else. Although there have been “meetings” everywhere each month, from the past up until now, there has never been anything at all that might be called a discussion of faith. In recent years in particular, when there have been meetings (wherever they have been), everyone has dispersed after nothing more than sake, rice, and tea. This is indeed contrary to the fundamental intent of the Buddha-dharma. Although each of those lacking faith (fushin) should by all means raise their doubts and discuss what it is to have faith or be without it, they take their leave without coming to any conclusions. This is not as it should be. You must carefully reflect on this matter. In brief, it is essential that each of those lacking faith (fushin) have discussions of faith with one another from now on. …
- gobunshō IV – 12

All who have come here today to the shrine of Shinran Shōnin are here for the purpose of listening to the readings of the Triple Sutra. However, it appears to me that to attend these gatherings wherever held without the slightest desire to understand the meaning of the Sutras, but attend only for the sake of appearances, is totally pointless. …
- ge no ofumi 2[3]

The purpose of the community to understand and to attain shinjin

If not for worldly purposes, what for are members of the community to meet? Rennyo explains the purpose of meetings very clearly in several of his letters:

… Now, what is the purpose of monthly meetings in our sect?

Lay people, lacking wisdom, spend their days and nights in vain; their lives pass by meaninglessly, and, at the end, they fall into the three evil paths. The meetings are occasions when, even if only once a month, just those who practice the nenbutsu should at least gather in the meeting place and discuss their own faith and the faith of others. Recently, however, because matters of faith are never discussed in terms of right and wrong, the situation is deplorable beyond words.
In conclusion, there must definitely be discussions of faith from now on among those at the meetings. For this is how we are to attain birth in the true and real land of utmost bliss.
- gobunshō I - 12

People who are only listed by name in our tradition as well as those who have been followers for a long time [should realize that] if they do not fully understand what the settled mind is, they must by all means, from this day on, carefully inquire of others about the great faith that is Other Power, so that their birth in the fulfilled land may be decisively settled. Realizing the settled mind in our tradition is simply [a matter of] relying deeply and exclusively on Amida Tathagata. …
- gobunshō III - 1

Now, why is it so important to discuss within the Sangha about faith? Because those who attain faith are part of a very important community. That is the community of those whose birth is truly settled[4]. In fact all members of the Jōdo Shinshū community should aspire to become part of that group. Therefore, it’s very important that there are no misunderstandings about faith among the members of the community, as is evident from Rennyo’s writings:

… You should ask others, time after time, about what you have understood of faith until Other Power faith (anjin) is decisively settled. If you listen but once, there will surely be mistakes. …
- gobunshō IV - 7

Even when you hear a phrase or remark, you are liable to understand the Dharma in your own way. You should, therefore, discuss your understanding of the Dharma with your fellow-believers.
- goichidaiki kikigaki 137

One day, when the Shōnin delivered a sermon at Yamashina, it was such an extremely inspiring Dharma-talk that the audience felt that it should not be forgotten. Six of them left the drawing room and met at the Dharma-hall to discuss what they had heard. They discovered that they had heard the Dharma in different ways. Four of them had heard it incorrectly. This shows how important hearing is. It is possible that one may not hear the Dharma properly.
- goichidaiki kikigaki 49
After a Dharma-talk, Rennyo Shōnin said to his several children, “All of you, even a few, gather together and discuss the Dharma. Since five people are likely to hear and understand the Dharma in five different ways, you should discuss the Dharma well to make sure there is no misunderstanding.”
- goichidaiki kikigaki 119

… There are some people who have not yet undergone any decisive settling of faith (anjin) and should for this reason raise their doubts. They keep these things to themselves, however, and do not talk openly about them. When we press and question them, they just try to evade the point, without saying frankly what is on their minds. This is inexcusable. They should speak unreservedly and thus ground themselves in true and real faith. …

If those in whom faith is decisively settled have frequent discussions of faith with each other when there are meetings for fellow practicers, this will provide the basis on which the Shinshu will flourish. …
- gobunshō IV - 8

These quotations show us one of the most important functions of the Sangha, namely to help each other to understand the teachings correctly and thus attain the entrusting heart. So, even though our tradition is often labeled ‘the easy path’, we certainly shouldn’t literally ‘take it easy’ when listening to the Dharma, but instead listen carefully with our whole heart and use the Sangha to our advantage to find out if our understanding is correct or not.

Personal views and other distortions are to be avoided

Unfortunately, it is my experience that the community isn’t always a place where the members discuss about faith in the Amida’s Vows. One reason for this may be that members have their own ideas about the teachings. Instead of listening to the teachings with an unbiased heart, they instead let their own views prevail over what is taught to us by the masters of our tradition. Or, as I sometimes heard, they are of the opinion that the teachings should be adapted to meet the expectations of those (with a European background) who come to the meetings. However, Rennyo expresses very clearly that this should never happen.

… At present, then, it seems that those who have properly attained true and real faith are extremely rare. When we ask why this is, we find that, because [priests] do not realize the wonder of Amida Tathāgata’s Primal Vow and its suitability for us, they persist in their own thinking in regard to whatever they hear, always pretending that they understand about faith; without really hearing anything, they merely imitate others. In this state, their own birth in the land of utmost bliss seems uncertain. Needless to say, they cannot possibly teach our followers and companions [in the tradition]. In such a frame of mind as this, birth in the fulfilled land in the afterlife is impossible. What a deplorable situation! …
- gobunshō II - 5

 In this province and others, [there are many] these days who are sharply at variance with what our tradition teaches about the settled mind. Each person feels that he understands correctly, and few think of making further effort to attain true and real faith by asking others about views that run counter to the dharma. This is indeed a deplorable attachment. Unless the birth that is to come in the fulfilled land is decisively settled by their quickly repenting and confessing these views and abiding in our tradition’s true and real faith, it is indeed just as if they went to a mountain of treasure and returned empty-handed. …
- gobunshō III - 8

… In various places, there are many who praise rarely-encountered teachings that we do not discuss at all in our tradition; similarly, they use strange phrases not found in our sect’s teachings. This is seriously mistaken thinking. From now on, this must definitely stop.
- gobunshō IV - 8

Nobody - even one person - thinks he is wrong. This, however, is what Shinran Shōnin admonished us about. Unless each one of us reflect and convert our way of thinking, we shall sink deep into hell for a long time. The reason why I say this is that we are truly ignorant of the depth of the Buddha-Dharma.
- goichidaiki kikigaki 58

The afterlife is what is truly important

Why is it, that many people seem to have difficulties simply accepting the teachings as they have been transmitted in our tradition? Apart from being attached to their own views, it also seems to that many people are really attached to this present state of living as an ignorant being in this world of suffering. They think it’s not that bad after all and expect that Jōdo Shinshū will teach them how to make the most out of it. Anything not related to this world seems to be outside the scope for them. However, how can we have faith in vow that will lead to birth in the Pure Land if we don’t even believe in the existence of that Pure Land at all? What does Rennyo tell us about this?

… The way of the world is, above all, that we continue on as if unaware of the uncertainty of life for young and old alike. Existence is as ephemeral as a flash of lightning or the morning dew, and the wind of impermanence may come even now. Yet we think only of prolonging this life for as long as possible, without ever aspiring to [birth in the Pure Land] in the afterlife. This is inexpressibly deplorable.
- gobunshō IV - 2

Rennyo Shōnin said: “Whether upper-class or lower-class, whether young or old, people fail to resolve the problem of the after-life through negligence.”
- goichidaiki kikigaki 110

“The problem of birth in the Pure Land should be resolved by each one of you. Each one of you should entrust yourself to the Buddha-Dharma and be assured of attaining birth in the after-life. To dismiss this problem as unrelated to you is to admit to ignorance of your own self,” so said Ennyo[5].
- goichidaiki kikigaki 171
And in my humble opinion this state of ignorance is truly regrettable indeed! When reading the descriptions of the Pure Land in the Sutras on which our tradition is based, people seem to have no faith in these teachings at all. However, I would like everyone to be aware of the fact that detailed descriptions of many spiritual realms can be found in European history as well. The writings of people like Emanuel Swedenborg and Jakob Lorber are excellent examples of this. It is not the purpose of this paper to quote extensively from their work. However, for people who doubt the reality of spiritual realms, please ask yourself why Swedenborg said:

I am well aware that many will say that no one can possibly speak with spirits and angels so long as he lives in the body; and many will say that it is all fancy, others that I relate such things in order to gain credence, and others will make other objections. But by all this I am not deterred, for I have seen, I have heard, I have felt.
- arcana coelestia 2.68[6]

I strongly encourage those among us who have no faith yet in the reality of the land of bliss after reading the Pure Land sutras to read such works as heaven and hell by Swedenborg or the spiritual sun by Lorber and then to really make up their mind as to where they want to go after this life.

… Vaidehī then said to the Buddha, "O World-Honored One, these buddha-lands are pure and free of defilement, and all of them are resplendent. But I wish to be born in the Land of Utmost Bliss of Amitāyus. …”
- contemplation sutra[7]

... Master Hōnen said: “my entrusting heart has been given by Amida; so has that of Zenshin-bō (Shinran). Therefore they are one and the same. A person with a different entrusting heart will surely not go to the Pure Land to which I will go.”
- tanni shō postscript[8]

I had expected that I would go first [to the Pure Land], but I have been left behind; it is unutterably saddening. Kakushin-bo, who left us last year, has certainly gone [to the Pure Land] and is awaiting us there. Needless to say, I will surely meet them there; it is beyond words. Kakunen-bo's words did not differ at all from what I have said, so we will certainly go to the same place [, the Pure Land]. If I am still alive in the tenth month of next year, it will undoubtedly be possible to meet again in this world. Since your mind of entrusting also does not differ at all from my own, even if I go first, I will await you in the Pure Land. …
- Shinran’s uncollected letters 2

As we have seen, Rennyo Shōnin encouraged us to form a Sangha. That should be a community that gives its members the opportunity to listen to the teachings and discuss about faith, to make sure that there are no misunderstandings. However, he also advised us for good reason to avoid worldly topics, personal views and other distortions to the teachings.
The purpose of a Jōdo Shinshū sangha is for all its members to attain the entrusting heart. I think that we should indeed ask ourselves the question whether we truly aspire for birth in Amida’s Pure Land, or if we have another realm or even a completely different purpose in mind when joining the community.

Those who indeed aspire for birth in that land, should indeed by like “companions and fellow practicers” and help each other to realize that wish.

… Let us realize, then, that what we should earnestly aspire to is [birth in the Pure Land in] the afterlife, that the one we should rely upon is Amida Tathāgata, and that the place to which we go, faith having been decisively settled, is the Pure Land of serene sustenance. …
- gobunshō I - 11

Besides the few passages that have been mentioned in this paper, much more is to be found in the writings of Rennyo Shōnin. Therefore, I encourage all participants to this conference to read his letters and recorded sayings once again when reflecting on the importance of Sangha.

Namu Amida Butsu

[1]  This and further quotes from Rennyo’s letters are taken from:
Rogers, Minor L. & Rogers, Ann T. (1991). Rennyo: the second founder of shin buddhism. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press
[2]  This and further quotes from Rennyo’s sayings are taken from:
Inagaki, Zuio Hisao (Tr.) (1998). Thus I have heard from Rennyo Shōnin: Rennyo Shōnin’s Goichidaiki-Kikigaki. Craiova: Dharma Lion Publications
[3]  This quote from Rennyo’s letters of summer is taken from:
Tri-State Buddhist Temples (ed.) (1978). Shinshu Seiten: Jōdo Shin Buddhist Teaching. San Fransisco: Buddhist Churches of America
[4]  This group of those whose birth is truly settled is mentioned by Rennyo several times, for
    example in gobunshō I – 4.
[5]  Rennyo’s grandson, who compiled the gobunshō in five fascicles.
[7]  Quoted from:
Inagaki, Hisao & Stewart, Harold (The Three Pure Land Sutras: a study and translation Kyōto:Nagata Bunshodo
[8]  Quotes from or attributed to Shinran are taken from:
Hirota, Dennis, Inagaki, Hisao, Tokunaga, Michio & Uryuzu, Ryushin (Tr.) (1997). The collected works of Shinran. Kyōto: Jōdo Shinshū Hongwanji-ha.

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