True Teachers of the Way

On Feb. 26, I will have the honor of being able to speak about Rev. Haruyoshi Kusada, Rev. Takamaro Shigaraki, and Rev. Jitsuen Kakehashi, three teachers who have influenced the spiritual lives of countless Jōdo Shinshū followers for many years.


Through innumerable causes and conditions, I was also able to meet and learn from these wonderful teachers. I am grateful to the Center for Buddhist Education (CBE) SOFA Series for allowing me to reflect on these three revered teachers and consider how rare it is to meet a true teacher of the Way.


Today, the constant yammering of would-be teachers is almost deafening. We are inundated with a cacophony of voices, all competing for our attention, trust, or dollars. Those eager to pose as religious “masters” are easy to spot. They’re the ones with the big smiles and the clean-cut answers to all of our questions. Or, they’re the ones obsessed with exotic titles or adorned in flowing robes. Would-be gurus come in all shapes, sizes and religious persuasions. They show up everywhere — on television and social media, or in churches and temples.


It’s hard for any of us to know who or what to believe. It’s hard to meet a true teacher of the Way, who will teach us matters of the heart, mind and life without pretense or agenda. Śākyamuni Buddha felt the same way in his day. So did Shinran Shōnin, who said, “It is difficult to meet true teachers/And difficult for them to instruct./It is difficult to hear the teaching well,/And more difficult still to accept it.” (“Hymns of the Pure Land,” CWS, P. 344)

In our modern world that difficulty may have increased 10-fold, maybe 1,000-fold. The shouts of would-be religious teachers are being drowned out by those of the high priests of politics, commerce, or culture.


Conspiracy theorists of all stripes abound. Everyone claims to know the truth or what is right for us. But is anyone really speaking the truth? Who truly cares about us? What can we believe in anymore?

Many Buddhist traditions around the world are based upon the direct transmission of the Dharma from master to disciple. Shin Buddhists might consider Shinran Shōnin to be our master in this sense, even though he died nearly 750 years ago. We could accept his writings as sacred gospel and find truth in every single word he wrote.


However, there is an interesting problem with this approach. It seems that Shinran did not see himself as anyone’s sacred master. “I do not have even a single disciple” (“A Record in Lament of Divergences, 6,” CWS, P. 664), he said.


Instead, his words and life point to a different kind of Dharmic transmission. The truth of the Dharma “flows” from the heart of the Buddha of unhindered light and eternal life. It is “received” by us and experienced as truth within the depths of our hearts. It is experienced as awareness, authenticity and appreciation as it flows from person to person, and heart to heart.

In other words, our encounter with a true teacher of the Way comes about not because of a would-be teacher’s assertions (“Believe in me!”) or our own designs (“I will choose my own teacher!”). Shinran offered the term 値遇 (“chigū”) to describe his encounter with his true teacher, Hōnen.


Chigū has a dual meaning: (1) Through the working of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow I meet my true teacher; it is not through anyone’s doing, but as if by chance. (2) And yet, the teacher whom I encounter in this way is a perfect match for me; my teacher meets me, where and just as I am.


Today, it may indeed be harder to meet true teachers of the Way, and yet, paradoxically, we may also have many opportunities to encounter them — if we listen with open minds and open hearts.


In a world like ours, hearts and minds are as diverse as the many voices of the Dharma. Some are the voices of traditional teachers, such as priests or religious masters. Others may be the voices of our parents, spouses, children, or friends. They may be the voices of the homeless, the disabled, or the oppressed. Or, we may hear the Dharma in the voice of a flower.


If we listen to their voices very carefully and with great respect, they may become our true teachers of the way — telling us, in wonder and joy, of what they have received and experienced. They will not claim us as their disciples. But the awareness, authenticity and appreciation of their hearts will teach us of a Dharma that is true, real and alive.


Rev. Dr. Matsumoto is president of IBS and George and Sakaye Aratani Professor of Contemporary Shin Buddhist Studies. He served as the resident minister of Berkeley Buddhist Temple for many years with Rev. Kusada as a mentor; and is the translator of “Bearer of the Light: the Life and Thought of Rennyo” by Jitsuen Kakehashi; and “A Life of Awakening: heart of the Shin Buddhist Path,” by Takamaro Shigaraki.