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Rev. Kobata Responds to Kawate Essay on ‘Shinjin’

I appreciate Taylor Kawate’s essay in the November 2020 issue of the Wheel of Dharma, and Jon Kawamoto’s decision to publish it. While I don’t know how Mr. Kawate relates to “shinjin”(信心) as a word, concept, or awareness, I do share his concern about the avoidance of any conversations about its meaning in our Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha tradition.


The analogy of karate’s essence as “self-defense,” seems semantically contrary to a basic premise of Buddhism in that there is no “self” to be defended. Nonetheless, I do agree with Taylor’s questioning why any discussion about such a significant expression as shinjin was so abruptly, mysteriously dismissed. I find this especially concerning given the fact that the situation came up during a Buddhist youth retreat. I share his contention, “Teaching and explaining the essence, the purpose of something, is vital because it answers the ‘why.’ It keeps the core values alive.”


I don’t know what the circumstances of the session in question might have been, but when I read the way that the question about shinjin was averted, I wondered, “what’s up with this”? If our Sangha members, regardless of age, aren’t given opportunities, if not encouraged, to raise questions about what the words we hear, read, use mean, during BCA sponsored retreats, services, seminars, etc., what’s the purpose of having them?


As far as the term itself, I’ll offer what it means for me, and suggest that shinjin can be understood and appreciated beyond the word itself. The proverbial “finger pointing to the moon.”


I think that we can hear the teachings without becoming too fixated, dogmatic about particular terminology. Forty years ago, during the decades-long preparation of publishing the “Collected Works of Shinran,” there was a controversy that arose regarding how to translate shinjin into English.


The general consensus of the translation committee was to leave the word in the Romanized form. The opinion was to present it as is, for English readers to come to understand its meaning without translation, like “satori” has come to be appreciated without an equivalent term in English. Additionally, it was intended to try and avoid objectifying the term as something to be “attained” as some indication of one’s spiritual accomplishment, a badge of pride to be grateful for.


Returning to the martial arts analogy raised by Kawate, there’s the misperception of the Japanese term of ”ShoDan”(初段)which has been associated with receiving the “black belt” rank.


As some people have come to appreciate the original meaning of the Japanese term, in the context of the art, and its English translation of “sho” or beginning, “dan” or level or rank. In other words, it identifies the recipient more as a student who is prepared to begin learning the art by teaching others rather than someone who is to be admired as an “expert” in our western culture.


I feel that it may be in this respect we’ve tended not to talk about, or play up shinjin as something to seek. Even though Shinran Shonin’s writings are certainly filled with the term, I read it as his way of expressing gratitude for the awareness, mindfulness, working of Boundless Compassion as the source of his hearing and saying Namo Amida Butsu.


In this sense, I recall a saying:

“To become aware of the Heart (that is Amida Buddha) clear seeing (through listening) is needed. But it is not a state to be attained, made or fashioned for we have our being in it anyway. It is rather a transformation of the obstacles within us which are preventing us from being aware of the Heart.”

(adapted from Irmgard Schloegl’s “The Wisdom of Zen Masters”)


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