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Incorrect Image and Shinshū Theology

We clearly need a more accurate portrayal of Shin Buddhism to rectify the incorrect image that is prevalent in both Japan and the West.


For example, a German scholar of Buddhism, Heinz Bechert, has remarked, “(Amidism) takes the ideas of the Buddha and, in a way, twists them into their opposite. The most radical spokesman for this approach is Shinran-Shōnin … ”

Even in Japan, a noted Buddhist scholar, Shizuka Sasaki, recently wrote:

“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 completely a separate thing from the ‘Buddhism of Shakyamuni.’ ”


If Shinran were here with us, he would certainly be disheartened, for he saw his own tradition as “the consummation of Mahayana Buddhism.” (CWS, p. 524)


To rectify this misrepresentation of Shin Buddhism, we sought an approach that signals a qualitative departure from the traditional scholarship. Some may regard the term, “theology” as being strange given its association with God, but “theology” carries a broader meaning as advocated by David Tracy, a noted American theologian, who defines theology as, “an intellectual interpretation within a religious tradition,” which can be employed, “whether that tradition is theistic or not.”


Thus, “Shinshū Theology” will allow us to go beyond the framework of traditional scholarship for interpreting Shinran’s teachings. In our view, “Shinshū Theology” contains the following three features: 1) not being limited to traditional methods and perspectives, 2) an openness to a global perspective, and 3) an emphasis on the needs and experiences of the aspirants or seekers.


The first feature is a conscious attempt to go beyond the traditional scholarship. However, in our effort to do so, we do not seek to reject its importance, for they contain approaches and findings that are valuable to our fuller understanding. They provide insights that our Shinshū Theology alone would not uncover. We are, thus, calling for cooperation since what we need is a greater diversity of approaches to the teachings.


The second feature, the need to respond to diverse perspectives demands that we go beyond Japanese language and world view. It has only been in the last 140 years that Shin Buddhism has left the Japanese soil in any significant way, where its teachings have been tested to see if they can take root in the “universal soil.” Consequently, our explanations cannot be limited to Japanese sensibilities but must incorporate a wider global perspective.


The third feature of Shinshū Theology focuses on the experience of the aspirants. The Hongwanji branch has emphasized the ultimate truth perspective (“hottoku-ron”), while minimizing the aspirant-centered perspective (“kisō-ron”). While the importance of the ultimate perspective should not be denied, there is a greater need today for promoting and valuing the perspectives based on the experience of the seekers. Expressed differently, we wish to give greater attention than before to “self-realization” (“koshō”) over “tradition” (“dentō”).


I believe Dr. Unno supported this perspective, for he has written:

“This tradition of self-cultivation forms the unseen background of Shin Buddhist life, which shuns theoretical discussions and encourages people to embody the teachings.” (Shin Buddhism, 41)


With our basic approach laid out, let us now begin a deeper examination of each of the three dimensions of Shinran’s teachings.


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