What is Jodo Shinshu?

The path is easy, it is said of Shin Buddhism, “but few are those who take it.” The late Taitetsu Unno explores the history of Jodo Shinshu and its core practice of reciting the Name of Amida Buddha.

By Taitetsu Unno

A Nenbutsu Gathering at Ichiya, Kyoto. The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art. Accession Number 1975.268.35

The question most frequently asked of a Shin Buddhist is, What is your practice? The obvious answer is the practice of compassion. As Buddhists, our task is to manifest compassion in everyday life, beginning with members of our own family and extending it to all of society. But when one really tries to practice compassion, expressing care, concern, empathy, and love, all the while respecting the autonomy and dignity of the other, one encounters a huge obstacle. And that obstacle is never the other but one’s own self-centered ego. This awareness is the starting point of the Shin Buddhist path.

Among the many branches of Buddhism, the better-known ones in North America are today represented by various forms of Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and Vipassana practices, but there are many other branches that are found in the Asian landscape. One of them is the Pure Land branch of Mahayana Buddhism, whose deep roots go back to the South Asian world that produced many scriptures, including the Pure Land scriptures, in the first century B.C.E. A major offshoot of this branch that emerged in thirteenth-century Japan is Jodo Shinshu, or Shin Buddhism.

While Theravada Buddhism venerates a single buddha, the historical Shakyamuni, Mahayana Buddhism has many buddhas who play principal roles in the different scriptures. They include such names as Akshobya Buddha, Maitreya Buddha, Vairochana Buddha, Bhaishajyaguru Buddha, and Amitabha or Amitayus Buddha, who is the buddha in the Pure Land scriptures. 

The obstacle is never the other, but one’s own self-centered ego. This awareness is the starting point of the Shin Buddhist path.

The two primary scriptures of Pure Land that originated in India are called the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra and the Smaller Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra. Sukhavati-vyuha means the “adornment of the realm of bliss.” A third scripture of Central Asian or Chinese origin, dating from about the fourth century C.E., is the Kuan wu-liang-shou ching, or the Contemplation Sutra. These three are called the Triple Sutra of Pure Land Buddhism.

The Larger Sutra describes the career of a bodhisattva by the name of Dharmakara, who makes forty-eight vows before a buddha, known as the Sovereign Monarch of the World. The vows promise to relieve the sufferings of people and replace them with peace and comfort. When Dharmakara fulfills and completes all the vows, he attains buddhahood and becomes Amida Buddha. 

The Smaller Sutra is a highly imaginative portrayal of the realm of enlightenment in very concrete terms: bejeweled railings, nettings, trees; bathing pools lined with golden sands and with steps of gold, silver, lapis lazuli and crystal; pavilions covered with exquisite jewels built on the earth made of gold.  The atmosphere is filled with celestial music, rare and exquisite birds, and a subtle breeze blowing through jeweled trees which produces a harmonious chorus. This rich and gaudy description is said to be a manifestation of emptiness (shunyata) that expresses itself freely in any way it chooses. Since reality is empty of permanent being and all things are in flux, it can take any form. 

The Contemplation Sutra begins with the tragedy of Rajagriha, which occurred during the time of the historical Buddha. Prince Ajatasatru, incited by Devadatta, a cousin and rival of Shakyamuni, imprisons his father, the king, and later his mother, the queen. In distress, the queen calls for Shakyamuni Buddha to counsel her. The Buddha shows countless Pure Lands, among which she selects the Pure Land of Amida and aspires to be born in that land. The Buddha describes sixteen forms of meditative and non-meditative contemplations by which birth in the Pure land is assured.

The Pure Land scriptures were popularized in China and various lineages of practice evolved. Important commentaries and studies began appearing in the fourth century C.E. When these scriptures were introduced into Japan in the sixth century, they did not attract much attention, but gradually they inspired monks and nuns among the six schools of the Nara Period (710-794) to pursue Pure Land practices.

It was in the Heian Period (794-1191), however, that Pure Land beliefs began to have a major impact on some of the monastic institutions and the general culture. It became an inspiration for art and architecture, as well as for poetry and literature, producing, for example, the major narrative The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki, in the eleventh century. The two Buddhist schools of Heian, known as Shingon and Tendai, also embraced aspects of Pure Land teachings, but it is the Tendai practice known as the Samadhi of Constant Practice that is significant for our purposes. This practice, originally conceived by Chih-I (538-597), the founder of the T’ien-t’ai school in China, was a ninety-day circumambulation of the image of Amida Buddha, constantly reciting the Name of Amida with almost no rest or sleep.

In 1175 a charismatic figure by the name of Honen, a monk of the Tendai order, appeared and proclaimed the founding of a separate and independent Pure Land school, called Jodo-shu (Jodo means “Pure Land” and shu is “school”). His basic tenet is summed up in the phrase, “In the path of Sages one perfects wisdom and achieves enlightenment; in the path of Pure Land one returns to the foolish self to be saved by Amida.” The basic practice that Honen recommended was the single-hearted recitation of nembutsu, the Name of Amida Buddha: Namu-Amida-Butsu.

Among Honen’s many followers, it was Shinran (1173-1263) who followed in his footsteps to penetrate the inner dynamics of intoning the nembutsu, rejecting mechanical repetition and clarifying its source as the boundless compassion that is Amida Buddha. Thus, the saying of nembutsu is received basically as a call from Amida, but simultaneously it is our response to that call.  Being a devoted student of Honen, Shinran disclaimed any following, but his lineage kept alive his memory and teaching, which eventually became recognized as another Pure Land school, known as Jodo Shinshu (shin means “true and real” and shu here means “tenet”). Although Shinran used the term Jodo Shinshu to mean “the true and real tenet of Pure Land (as taught by Honen),” today it is used as the name of an independent school, widely referred to in the West as Shin Buddhism. 

Buddhism is a path of supreme optimism, for one of its basic tenets is that no human life or experience is to be wasted, abandoned, or forgotten, but all should be transformed into a source of vibrant life, deep wisdom, and compassionate living. On the everyday level of experience, Shin Buddhists speak of this transformation as “bits of rubble turn into gold.”

This metaphor comes from Tz’u-min, the Chinese Pure Land master of the eighth century, who proclaims the working of boundless compassion called Amida, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life, as follows:

The Buddha, in the causal stage, made the
universal vow:
When beings hear my Name and think on me,
I will come to welcome each of them,
Not discriminating at all between the poor and
and the rich and well-born,
Not discriminating between the inferior and
highly gifted,
Not choosing the learned and those upholding
pure precepts,
Nor rejecting those who break precepts and
whose evil karma is profound.
Solely making beings turn about and
abundantly say the nembutsu,
I can make bits of rubble change into gold.

When we are made aware of the neglected aspect of ourselves, hidden in darkness, which hinders our practice of compassion on a consistent, thoroughgoing basis, we are already being touched by the light of boundless compassion that is Amida Buddha. This light not only illuminates our darkness, it transforms it, so that we try our best to be compassionate with a sense of humility and gratitude, mindful of our karmic limitations. We are grateful for the boundless compassion that inspires us to act with a new and vigorous appreciation for life.

All this is contained in the saying of nembutsu: Namu-Amida-Butsu. It consists of two parts integrated as one: the being of self-enclosure and deep egocentricity, symbolized by namu, illuminated and transformed by boundless compassion, amida-butsu.

The nembutsu is the flowing call of the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life, coming from the fathomless center of life itself, as well as our response to that call without any hesitation or calculation. Thus, it is not a petitionary act, a mindless, mechanical repetition, or a mantra with magical powers.

This calling of nembutsu awakens us to a liberating power that sanctifies all life, because it comes from beyond the small-minded self that is always engaged in calculating life only in terms of gain or loss, winning or losing. Sooner or later we will respond to this call, if we are ever to know a sense of security and well-being. If I were to translate nembutsu into English, it would be the “Name-that-calls,” for it calls us to awaken to our fullest potential to becoming true, real and sincere human beings.

The nembutsu path has no requirements except the recognition of an indisputable fact: The problems in our daily life can be ultimately transmuted into sources of self-knowledge and received wisdom.

What is essential, then, is not the number of times voiced, nor even the purity of heart involved, but simply the deep hearing of the Name-that-calls to which we want to respond. The goal of deep hearing is to bring about a fundamental change in one’s life, such that one realizes liberation and freedom in the midst of worldly entanglements, daily responsibilities, and constant agitations. This path is for everyone, especially lay people, in our contemporary world, because the nembutsu path has no requirements except the recognition of an indisputable fact: The problems in our daily life can be ultimately transmuted into sources of self-knowledge and received wisdom.

The process of deep hearing culminates with our birth in the Pure Land, but the Pure Land is not the ultimate goal. It is a mere way station from which we return to our world of samsara. Now endowed with wisdom and compassion, the welfare and salvation of all beings become the ultimate concern. The return, however, is inseparable from the going, both made possible by the centrifugal force of boundless compassion. Such is the ultimate expansion and deepening of the bodhisattva ideal, which breaks through conventional notions of time and space.

According to Shinran, religious awakening is the realization of timeless time in each moment of temporal activity. The ultimate dimension breaks into the historical dimension, the timeless penetrates time. In his words, “One thought-moment is time at its ultimate limit, where the realization of shinjin takes place.”

The “one thought-moment” underscores the irreplaceable, ultimate value of the here and now. It is the moment that vertical time breaks through into horizontal or linear time, the absolute penetrating the relative. In Buddhist discourse it is also the moment of formless reality, called dharmakaya, appearing as the Primal Vow of Amida in human consciousness.

Such an experience of time was the basis of Shinran’s reinterpretation of “birth in the Pure Land,” changing its original futuristic connotation into a radical affirmation of the here and now. He interprets the scripture that states, “Then they attain birth,” to suggest an immediacy not apparent in the original. Thus, in his commentary, Shinran states: “Then means immediately; ‘immediately’ means without any passage of time, without any passage of days.”

Historically, for over a thousand years, the Pure Land symbolized various ideals of religious life. Foremost among them was the representation of the perfect realm to pursue the path of enlightenment, unobstructed by the din, commotion, and entanglements of our samsaric world. It was also the place to which the dead would be welcomed by Amida Buddha. In fact, a deathbed ritual was developed in medieval Japan to ensure successful birth into the Pure Land. A folding screen with a painting of Amida Buddha looking down from mountain peaks was placed above the bed of the dying person. A string attached to the heart of Amida would be extended and firmly grasped by the dying so that there would be no chance of getting lost on the way to the Pure Land.

Shinran rejected this popular deathbed ritual as causing greater anxiety about death and dying, as well as revealing a lack of trust in the Primal Vow. He states:

The idea of Amida’s coming at the moment of death is for those who seek to gain birth in the Pure Land by performing religious practices, for they are the practitioners of self-power. The moment of death is of central concern for such people….The person of true shinjin, however, abides in the stage of the truly settled, for he has already been grasped, never to be abandoned. There is no need to wait in anticipation for the moment of death, no need to rely on Amida’s coming. At the time shinjin becomes settled, birth too becomes settled; there is no need for deathbed rites that prepares one for Amida’s coming.

There is no need for such a deathbed ritual because birth in the Pure Land occurs in the awakening to shinjin here and now. Shinjin is a kind of trust where doubt is nonexistent and assertion of any kind is unnecessary. It is different from the popular notions of “faith,” which contain a vast range of meanings, mostly based on a dualistic view that focuses on an object outside of oneself. We believe that it is more appropriate to use words taken from ordinary life to translate shinjin into English, words such as “trust, confidence, steadfastness, certainty,” that do not involve any kind of duality. Since it also has nothing to do with the fickle mind of human beings, I translate shinjin as “true entrusting,” an entrusting that is made possible by that which is true and real, namely, Amida Buddha.

For the beginner, both Amida and Pure Land are regarded as objects, dualistically conceived, but for the mature practitioner they become an integral part of a fundamental awakening.

The primary goal of Shin Buddhism is life lived in mature engagement with the buddhadharma. The ultimate goal of deep hearing is not satori or enlightenment but true entrusting. In the words of Shinran,

For the foolish and ignorant who are ever sinking in birth-and-death, the multitudes turning in transmigration, it is not attainment of the unexcelled, incomparable fruit of enlightenment that is difficult; the genuine difficulty is realizing true and real shinjin.

The “genuine difficulty” comes from our deep-rooted self-clinging that will not open up to “true and real shinjin” that is the unconditional gift of boundless compassion.  Shinran describes true and real shinjin variously: as diamond-like, because it is not dependent on the ego-self and hence is indestructible; as the settled state, because it is not subject to our emotional upheavals; and as non-retrogression, because there is no backsliding into confusion and darkness. Toward the end of his life, Shinran called shinjin a state equal to the Tathagata or Buddha; that is, it is not identical with buddhahood but equals it, since supreme enlightenment will be attained necessarily as its natural consequence.

In carefully interpreting the writings of past masters of the Pure Land tradition from his own experiential reading, Shinran concluded that the three basic attitudes stipulated in the Eighteenth Vow—sincere mind, joyful entrusting, and aspiration for the Pure Land—can be unified as the single heart-mind of Amida working in foolish beings to bring about true entrusting.

When we think that we have attained some kind of wisdom, it is nothing but arrogance, and as such, it poisons ourselves and those around us.

Shinran frequently uses the expression “returning to the ocean of the Primal Vow” for shinjin. He likens it to the great ocean that does not discriminate between good and bad, young and old, men and women, noble and humble. Nor does it differentiate between practitioner and non-practitioner, sudden and gradual attainment, right and wrong contemplation, once-calling and many-calling. The working of shinjin is “inconceivable, inexplicable, and indescribable. It is like the medicine that eradicates all poisons. The medicine of the Tathagata’s Vow destroys the poison of our wisdom and foolishness.”

When we think that we have attained some kind of wisdom, it is nothing but arrogance, and as such, it poisons ourselves and those around us. Only the medicine of nembutsu can eradicate such a toxic condition. But just as an ordinary person does not know the base chemicals in a prescription medicine yet derives good from it, so likewise the practitioner of Shin cannot fathom the depth of nembutsu life, yet receives inconceivable benefits from it.

The Shin Buddhist path makes no undue demands on its followers, physical or otherwise, except one: the giving up of the ego-self. Consistent with the original teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, Shin regards the ego-self as another human construct but with such deep roots in one’s karmic past that it is impossible to give up. Hence, sometimes it is called karmic self, but since it creates suffering for oneself and others, it is also the self of karmic evil. Because of its deep roots in countless lives past, becoming free of the ego-self so that true and real personhood might emerge is not an easy matter. This is where the working of boundless compassion in the form of the Primal Vow comes to nullify the ego-self and transform it into its opposite. Since all the work is done by the invisible Other Power, the path of Pure Land is deemed the Easy Path, but to experience this in all its depth and height is another matter. Hence, the scriptures remind us that, “The path is easy but few are those who take it.”

According to the Pure Land tradition, it was the philosopher Nagarjuna (second and third century C.E.) who first characterized the path of Pure Land as the “easy path,” in contrast to the path of Sages labeled as the “difficult path.” While it is burdensome to carry a heavy load on one’s back and travel by foot to reach one’s goal, it is much easier to be carried on a ferry and transported on the waterway to the same destination. Thus, the Primal Vow of Amida, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable Life, is likened to a huge vessel that carries all beings to the other shore of supreme enlightenment. In the words of Shinran,

It is a great torch in the long night of ignorance;
Do not lament that your wisdom-eye is dark.
It is a ship on the vast ocean of birth-and-death;
Do not grieve that your karmic obstructions are heavy.

The Pure Land path may be open to misunderstanding if seen through the popular notions of faith-oriented religion. The problem is compounded by another set of well-known Pure Land terms, “self-power” and “Other Power,” first enunciated by T’an-luan in the early sixth century. While self-power is identified with the difficult path of Sages and Other Power with the easy path of Pure Land, our concern is with the existence of self-power within Other Power. Self-power is the natural inclination to assert the power of the ego-self to reach a goal, but it is necessary to realize that ultimately it is ineffectual and fruitless on the path of supreme enlightenment. Yet at the same time, it is a necessary stage on the path where self-power is also appreciated, in reflection, as the working of Other Power.

The proper relationship between these two terms may be illustrated by the example of sailing on the high seas. In order for the sailboat to catch the wind (Other Power), the sailor must first undertake a variety of tasks (self-power). The sails, of course, must be put up, but countless unseen preparations are necessary: studying the weather forecasts, judging the prevailing wind velocity and the movements of the ocean currents, mastering the use of various navigational tools. All this requires time, effort, and hard work, similar to the preliminary work required on the Pure Land path.

All this preparation, however, will not move the ship. When all preparations have been completed and the sails have been hoisted, one must now wait with patience and alertness for the wind to blow. Such a state of waiting is required, for the wind of Other Power is beyond human control. When the wind does blow, however, the sailboat is ready to cruise effortlessly on the high seas with lightness and alacrity.

Such must have been the feeling of Shinran, who, after twenty years of relentless quest and search as a Tendai monk, abandoned it for the path of nembutsu. His joy is expressed with exuberance:

Now, as I ride on the ship of the great compassionate vow and sail on the expansive ocean of wondrous light, the breeze of highest virtue blows peacefully and calms the waves of pain and sorrow. Quickly shall I reach the land of immeasurable light and attain unexcelled peace and freedom.

When freed of egoistic designs and calculations, life unfolds freely, in spite of unavoidable difficulties. But a new kind of wisdom is bestowed on a person, so that they can negotiate through the labyrinth called life. This wisdom is not something acquired or gained, as in the Path of Sages; rather, it is bestowed or granted to the person of nembutsu who is a foolish being.

As I ride on the ship of the great compassionate vow and sail on the expansive ocean of wondrous light, the breeze of highest virtue blows peacefully and calms the waves of pain and sorrow.

 Shinran never claimed to have a special message, nor did he cry out that he came to save the world. His focus was always on the working of the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life, the luminosity that enabled him to see through the falsities that he himself was subject to as an ordinary human being. In our age of spiritual masters, gurus, and charlatans, it is refreshing to hear the voice of Shinran writing at the age of eighty-six:

Not really knowing right from wrong,
Not really knowing false from true,
I lack even small love and small compassion,
And yet, for fame and name, enjoy teaching others.

But for that very reason, he saw himself as the supreme candidate for transformation by boundless compassion. Thus, he could claim without being pretentious or pompous:

Although I am without shame or remorse
And totally lack truth or sincerity,
The Name of Amida directed to me
Makes virtues abound in the ten directions of the universe.

In the long and grand history of Buddhism, Shinran gives hope that the most foolish being, lost and confused, can be transformed into its opposite, for the power of boundless compassion can make “bits of rubble turn into gold.”

The process of deep hearing culminates with our birth in the Pure Land, but the Pure Land is not the ultimate goal. It is a mere way station from which we return to our world of samsara. Now endowed with wisdom and compassion, the welfare and salvation of all beings become the ultimate concerns. The return, however, is inseparable from the going, both made possible by the centrifugal force of boundless compassion. Such is the ultimate expansion and deepening of the bodhisattva ideal, which breaks through conventional notions of time and space.

This article was originally adapted for the Fall 2002 issue of Buddhadharma from Taitetsu Unno’s book, Shin Buddhism, published by Doubleday.

Taitetsu Unno

Taitetsu Unno

Taitetsu Unno (1929-2014) was a scholar and teacher in the Shin Buddhist tradition, as well as the Jill Ker Conway Professor Emeritus of Religion at Smith College. One of the leading authorities in the United States on Shin Buddhism, his work as a translator has made many important Buddhist texts available to the English-speaking world.