Why Shinran? Why try to recover this obscure failed Tendai monk from medieval Japan, the founder of what is now the most conservative and least active of Buddhist sects, a Buddhist sect, moreover, that the majority of even long-term Buddhist practitioners in the West have still never heard of? Surely if we want to find the true transmission of Buddhism we should turn to Shinran’s contemporary, Dogen. Or else return to the ancient texts of the Pali Canon to find the true, original Buddhism?
I’m going to make the argument that Shinran’s Buddhism is the most radical approach we could take today to reducing human suffering.
Because so few Western Buddhists are familiar with Jodo Shinshu, I’ll begin with a brief sketch of Shin Buddhism and Shinran’s thought. I will then delineate what I take to be the core universal truth in Shinran’s rereading of Buddhism, the truth his practice is meant to force into appearance for all of us. In the words of Pierre Macherey, “all authentic reading is in its own way violent, or it is nothing but the mildness of paraphrase” (113). Shinran offers an authentic reading of the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism, attempting to recover, to remain faithful to, a truth. I hope to offer an equally authentic reading of Shinran, to remain faithful to that same truth in our very different world. Once I (re)orient Shin Buddhism toward this truth, I will describe the practices Shin demands of us. Shin Buddhism is often called the “path of easy practice,” with the only practice being to say the nembutsu: Namu Amida Butsu. I will argue that it is in many ways the hardest practice of all; furthermore, I will claim that there are really two stages of Shin practice: the practice to attain shinjin, and the practice from within the mind of shinjin. The former is perhaps more difficult, even though the latter requires much more effort. Read the rest of this entry »