A Vision of Shin Buddhism for Today

The Third Dimension of Shinran Shonin’s Teachings


The third dimension of Shinran’s teachings is social engagement. Many people regard Pure Land Buddhism as a path that rejects this world in favor of the Pure Land in the afterlife.


However, that does not accurately reflect Shinran’s understanding, for he valued Shinjin realization, which is attained in this life, and strove tirelessly to help others for 60 years. Regarding the Shin path, Dr. Unno has stated, “ … it’s primary focus is on the here and now” and “underscores our responsibilities in society.”


Despite this, there exist in contemporary Shin Buddhism two factors that discourage social engagement in this life: 1) our fear of self-power and 2) our “perceived” incapability.


Self-power (“jiriki”)


Shinran rejected “self-power,” so some Shin Buddhists have gone so far as to equate self-power with any effort we make. For example, a former graduate student of mine once remarked with a smile on her face that some Shin Buddhists are even afraid to give up a seat in a bus for an elderly person, out of fear that such a deed would be criticized as “self-power.”


Self-power and self-effort are not the same. If all efforts were to be criticized, then we would need to reject even the hallmark Shin religious act of “listening to the Dharma” (“monpō” )!


In actuality, the problem of self-power lies not in the effort itself but in the attitude in carrying out the effort. Such a self-power attitude is seen, for example, in a person volunteering at a homeless kitchen, who sees oneself as being “a superior person” and expects others to recognize him/her for the work. Instead, a Shin Buddhist would be motivated simply as a natural expression of one’s concern for others and the desire “to repay for the received spiritual benefits” (“hōongyō”).


\Such an effort can be seen, for example, in the teaching of “constantly practicing great compassion,” (“jōgyō-daihi”), one of the 10 benefits that a person of Shinjin realizes in this life. The tradition has understood it to mean to just recite the Nembutsu. I, however, feel that its scope needs to be expanded to include social engagement in response to such issues as climate change, racial justice, and income disparity, motivated by the Shin ideals of compassion, equality, and interdependence.


Our ‘Perceived’ Incapability


The second factor suppressing social engagement is our self-perception that we humans are incapable of fully helping others as we wish, as expressed, for example, in the fourth chapter of the “Tannishō.” In it, we are admonished to recite the Nembutsu in order to quickly attain Buddhahood in the next life. Then, as buddhas, we can return to save others freely as we wish.


In my view, this may be appropriate as a message on the pristine spiritual level but not on the ethical and social level. Yes, it is true that we are incapable of fully benefiting others as our hearts desire. Nevertheless, we can do something in this life!


Rather than waiting to become buddhas in the next life, Shin Buddhists can attain Shinjin realization in this very life. Shinran called a person of Shinjin a “white lotus among people.” Even though such people are still limited and imperfect, the endowed wisdom and compassion of Shinjin will not hold them back from caring for others. So, they are like the “blooming white lotus flowers” growing out of the mud. Included within this mud are the many societal problems that await the attention of social engagement by Shin Buddhists, not because they feel pressured or obligated but because they are so moved naturally!


Next: Religion of Awakening and Action




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