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Guest Post: Shin Buddhism, by Jeff Wilson

A couple of weeks ago, I put up a guest post discussing Nichiren Buddhism from the point of view of a practitioner of that sect. This week is a similar to that, but this time, our guest will discuss Shin Buddhism.If you would like to write a short essay or article explaining “your” version of Buddhism, e-mail me what you want to do and we’ll work on it. I’d like to see several more denominations represented here, so topics are still very much wide open.

Jeff Wilson is the author of Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness (Wisdom Publications, June 2009). He is also a Contributing Editor for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

Shin Buddhism, by Jeff Wilson

Jeff Wilson

Jeff Wilson

As a Shin Buddhist, my primary practice is not meditation, Sutra study, ritual, or precepts. All of these can be valuable of course, but in our school of Buddhism our main focus is the practice of gratitude.

About 800 years ago, a Japanese monk named Shinran founded a new Buddhist school with his wife, Eshinni. After twenty years spent at the center of Buddhist studies in Japan, Shinran’s insight was that meditation, precepts, and other rigorous practices have a tendency to subtly reinforce our egos. As we become better at sitting still for long periods of time, we may start thinking “man, I’m a great meditator, too bad all the other poor slobs out there don’t have my capacity.” A glimpse of emptiness leads us to believe we are more enlightened than normal people. And when we manage to adhere to strict precepts, we tend to slip into thinking “I’m a good person, and those people who don’t stick to the precepts are bad, they’re a bunch of weak-minded, self-indulgent losers.” Indeed, Shinran found these sorts of attitudes in himself, and in his fellow monks. I’m guilty of this too. Meanwhile, despite a lifetime of efforts, it seemed as if there were few if any monks that Shinran could look to who were reaching genuine levels of attainment akin to those described in the Sutras.

The solution that Shinran hit upon was to flunk out. If traditional Buddhist practice so often reinforced self-attachment and created divisions between people (even as practitioners believed that they were making spiritual progress), then the way out of the trap was to stop practicing. Or rather, to stop striving egoistically. Instead, Shinran turned away from self-power (since the self is a delusion anyway) to power-beyond-self, using a Buddhist theory with a long history in India, China, and Japan.

For Shinran, Amida Buddha (the name means Infinite) was the embodiment of power-beyond-self. Hundreds of Sutras attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha describe Amida and his Pure Land, as well as his helpers Avalokiteshvara and Mahastamaprapta. Pure Land motifs and practices are part of virtually all Mahayana schools of Buddhism, whether in Japan, China, Tibet, or elsewhere. Amida is described as infinite light and life, symbols for unlimited wisdom and compassion. Tibetan monks visualize Amida Buddha, Zen monks chant his name during funerals, and Foguangshan nuns seek to create the Pure Land here in this life.

Shinran taught that Amida is actually reality in its true, liberated nature, and the Pure Land is a poetic description for nirvana. Putting the insights of Mahayana Buddhism into narrative format, he talked about how Amida embraces all beings no matter how bad or good, and liberates them from their greed and delusion. In fact, this liberation is something that has been accomplished in the primal past (i.e. it is always naturally present), and so we should stop endlessly chasing after attainment. Instead, when we give up attachment to our ego-laden efforts to become enlightened, and relax back into the embrace of inconceivable wisdom and never-abandoning compassion, we are freed from our anxieties and pettiness. Our practice, then, stops being about getting Buddhahood for ourselves, and instead is refocused to be about expressing gratitude for all that we have received, spiritually and materially.

Shinran’s daughter founded a temple in his memory, and this helped keep his teachings alive. Over time, the Shin school grew to be the largest form of Buddhism in Japan. Much of its appeal came from the fact that anyone could be involved, even people who were traditionally excluded from advanced Buddhist practice, such as women, peasants, fishermen, hunters, soldiers, outcastes, prostitutes, and others who were not allowed in the monasteries. Shin Buddhism today is the school with by far the most adherents in Japan (the second largest is the Pure Land school of Honen, Shinran’s teacher), and it came to Hawaii and North America in the late 1800s. There are about a hundred temples, many of them over 100 years old, in the United States. They include people who are fifth- and even sixth-generation Buddhist Americans. During that long Western history they have often been at the forefront of developments in American Buddhism, from giving Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac their first taste of living Buddhism, to founding the first Buddhist seminary in the West, to pioneering Buddhist prison ministry.

For me, Shin practice is about humility, gratitude, and service to others. And also good food and dancing, since Shin temples are true communities, with many activities for all ages and lots of yummy Japanese cooking. Our mid-summer Bon festivals give us an excuse to hold Buddhist parties, including traditional folk dancing that itself can be a vehicle for expressing our thankfulness through pure joyous motion. And happily, our festivals have participants from all sorts of Buddhism, as well as Christians, Jews, atheists, and others. We can all celebrate together and appreciate one another’s diversity.

None of us are deluded about our level of attainment-we are ordinary people, prone to foolishness. But everyone, Shin Buddhist or otherwise, exists within an inconceivable network of support from all things, an ever-changing matrix that provides us with nourishment, shelter, love, and, if we don’t let our egos get in the way, pushes us on toward final liberation. Awakening to this inner togetherness which we all share helps us to get a perspective on our karmic limitations, and this engenders humility, patience, and a sense of humor about our shortcomings and those of others. When we wake up to how power-beyond-self is always nurturing and supporting us, we often say the nembutsu in gratitude. Nembutsu is a phrase, Namu Amida Butsu, that expresses our happiness and thankfulness. It isn’t a mantra or a prayer-it doesn’t accomplish anything other than letting out that bottled-up gratitude in a joyful utterance.

People have all sorts of karma, so I don’t expect that everyone will find Shin Buddhism to their liking. Luckily, there are lots of options for people in the West these days. But for those who can’t seem to meditate, or have trouble following strict precepts, or who are looking for a Buddhist path that says “just as you are, you are affirmed and included,” Shin Buddhism can provide an ancient Buddhist tradition adapted to their situations. Regardless of what path you take, Shin Buddhists believe we will all be born together into Pure Land-liberation-and become bodhisattvas who work to care for any beings who suffer and need help. I’ll end this with a selection from Issa, the famous Japanese haiku poet and Shin Buddhist priest. It nicely illustrates the attitude of all-embracing trust and compassion that characterize Shin Buddhism:

tossed in cold autumn wind
trusting in Amida. . .
little butterfly

15 comments to Guest Post: Shin Buddhism, by Jeff Wilson

  • Chris from Texas

    Awesome article! Now can something help me with identifying the differences between Shin Buddhism and Pure Land?

  • Jeff Wilson

    Glad you liked it, Chris. Your question is easily answered. Pure Land is a broad stream of Buddhism, including many different specific Buddhist schools. It is like Zen, which includes Soto, Rinzai, Obaku, Sanbokyodan, and so forth, or Tibetan, which includes Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya-i.e. it is an umbrella term with many subdivisions underneath it.

    Shin (more formally, Jodo Shinshu), is one school of Pure Land. It is the largest school in Japan and is further subdivided in to 10 basic sects, the largest of which (Nishi Honganji), has flourished in the West since the late 19th century. Another large school of Pure Land is Jodo Shu, which is the second biggest Buddhist school in Japan (after Shin). It’s presence in the West is very small compared to its size and historical importance in Asia. There are yet other Japanese schools of Pure Land Buddhism, as well as other schools in China, Korea, etc. And beyond formally Pure Land-based schools, there are large influences of Pure Land practices and motifs on other forms of Buddhism, including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.

    In other words, your question is like asking the difference between Presbyterianism and Protestant Christianity: just as Presbyterianism is a type of Protestant Christianity, Shin is a type of Pure Land Buddhism.

    Hope this helped!

  • Wendy Haylett

    Thank you for this article! I am a “born-again” Shin Buddhist, with my Dharma commitment reenergized by a realization similar to Shinran’s. I will soon be inducted as a Lay Minister in the Bright Dawn Institute School for American Buddhism (Rev. Koyo Kubose / Rev. Gyomay Kubose). My ministerial mission is to spread the “good news” of the relatively invisible Shin Buddhist perspective to non-Japanese Americans who think Buddhism is Zen meditation and Tibetan visualization practice. I am always delighted to see intelligent popular coverage! Thanks again!

  • Jeff Wilson

    You’re very welcome, Wendy. Congratulations on your upcoming lay ordination, may you be a bright ray for the unlimited light of awakening.

  • Chris from Texas


    Could you possibly send me your email address? I’d like to ask you some more questions about this particular school of Pure Land, in which I am very interested. Are their specific books and/or authors one should consult to learn more?


  • Jeff Wilson

    Hi Chris, I’m happy to make some reading recommendations. Shin Buddhists in America have been publishing here for about a century at this point, and there are many different viewpoints and approaches to Buddhism represented over that time period. But I’ll specifically recommend some books that you’ll be able to get easily, such as through Amazon.

    First, I would recommend three books that are suitable for the beginner in Shin Buddhism, but also quite good in their own right, and available in cheap editions:

    Taitetsu Unno, “River of Water, River of Fire.” (Image, 1998)

    D.T. Suzuki, “Buddha of Infinite Light.” (Shambhala, 2002)

    Taitetsu Unno, “Shin Buddhism.” (Image, 2002)

    After that, if you want something a little more advanced, I would recommend:

    Alfred Bloom, “The Essential Shinran.” (World Wisdom, 2007)

    Of course, you might find my latest book useful as well. It will be out from Wisdom very soon:

    Jeff Wilson, “Buddhism of the Heart.” (Wisdom, 2009)

    You can get all of these from Amazon or through your local bookstore, they are all still in print.

    As for my email, I’d rather not post it since inevitably spambots will pick it up and start sending me junk mail. Instead, you could send a note to Brian (the host of Daily Buddhism) and ask him to forward it to me, that way I’d get your contact info and be able to respond to you directly.

  • Jami

    Interesting article. A social aspect, linked to doctrinal shift or stress, is what moves many religious reformation(s). Since, Chris, you mentioned the social forces at work in the birth of Shin, is it possible that the movement’s rise faced opposition from traditional practioners?

    If so, what School and for what reasons? Implied, or hinted at, is the idea that ‘Shin’ are more egalitarian. As if the Shin Buddhist, like East Asian Non-Conformist, were Quakers within the Pure Land tradition. I’m assuming, kindly, that this movement was a extreme understanding of traditional doctrines.

  • Jeff Wilson

    Hi Jami. As a matter of fact, Shin did (and still does) have a very definite social aspect. The Buddhism of Shinran’s time was mainly confined to the elites: the royal family, the nobility, and the rich. Most of Japan didn’t fit into those categories and most of Japan was therefore viewed by them as inferior, including as incapable of practicing Buddhism. Shinran and other Pure Land thinkers of his time were revolutionaries who developed traditional methods such as nembutsu into forms that could be practiced by anyone, in any situation. This brought huge numbers of peasants, women, etc into Buddhism who had always been discriminated against. Naturally, this provoked a huge backlash among the elite, who wanted to keep Buddhism for themselves–if they were the gatekeepers of religion, then the masses were dependent on paying them for rituals and obeying their orders. Shinran was stripped of his robe, branded a criminal, and sent into exile in the wilderness to die. But, as it turned out, going into the far provinces allowed him to teach Buddhism to people who were completely excluded, and the liberating teachings they found in Shin led them to form community organizations and resist the tax collectors and warlords associated with elite Buddhism (mainly Tendai and Shingon in Shinran’s day, tending more toward Zen a little later on). Remember, Shinran offered a completely lay-oriented interpretation of the tradition that did away with the need for monks and the Buddhist bureaucracy altogether. In fact, Shin groups were able to develop quasi-democratic communities that threw out the warlords and for many years ruled their own self-autonomous towns and even whole provinces, until finally they were crushed by the shoguns (who were a more elite, warrior class, and thus more associated with Rinzai Zen Buddhism).

  • Jami

    Thanks Jeff for the informative detail. Apparently, Conservative forces have a tendency in most traditions to blunt the original founders intentions. That is why reform can be looked at as an inescapable & healthy mechanism.

    Buddha himself, in one opinion,was a great reformer within the Hindu Tradition. Luther’s
    polemics, Voltaire’s sarcasm, taught the Church on the dangers of forgetting the Gospel. And the Mitnagdin of Lithuania were met with the charismatic tide of Bal Shem Tov,which gave a new impulse to the words Hasidism and Judaism. But, as side note, it would be nice to know if modern Shin, since its numerical success, has negated any dynamic contemporary issues-for exmple, the issues of racism or social inequaltiy in today’s Japan.

  • Jeff Wilson

    Hi again, Jami. You’re right that religions routinize, and eventually (if they remain vital) produce reformers who try to return them to something closer to the spirit of the founders. As for modern-day Shin, it’s funny you ask that question now since I just received an announcement of a lecture in Kyoto next month dealing with Shin’s relationship to the former outcastes. Although they are legally emancipated, they still suffer quite real discrimination in modern Japan, as do Japanese of Korean background, newer immigrants, and the Ainu (Japan’s indigenous population, racially distinct from the dominant group we think of as “the Japanese”).

  • Jami

    Outsiders raise an ethical argument, always. The test is to respond to them fairly. I’m not sure, Jeff, if any society has survived without having its ‘In’s’ and ‘Out’s’.

    Including the marginal raises high stake politics.Regional loyalties, cast or class affiliations can, as you know, vye with noble truths. In regard to any belief, I usually test the vitality of the doctrine by asking who’s In & whose Out. If there are too many ‘Outs’, I think something is wrong.

    It is nice to know that modern Shin are not adverse to an ‘activist buddhism’. Given what you said, it is possible that the Ainu and third generation Koreans are open to Pure Land Buddhism.

  • dkf

    very nice article, thank you very much. i am jodo shinshu (BCA) myself and it’s very rare to see anything about it in ‘mainstream’ buddhist publications.

    was this sentence, in paragraph five accidentally truncated? “Our practice, then, stops being about getting Buddhahood for ourselves, and instead is refocused to be about expressing gratitude for all that we have received, spiritually and”


  • “…was this sentence, in paragraph five accidentally truncated?”

    Yes, sorry. The last word in the paragraph was “…spiritually and materially.” I don’t know where that went 🙂

  • A bill lindeman in Qinghai Tibet mentioned a Jeff Wilson who showed him materials about Tibetan rugs.
    ARE you one and the same?

    Thank you and enjoyed your article as it gave me more enlightenment on shin.

    Paul Shaper

  • mlt

    Hi. I’d like to know if Jeff Wilson does lecture tours around the country and if so how to keep posted on his events? I wd love hearing him in person.