Shinran’s Gospel of Pure Grace

Shinran’s Gospel of Pure Grace,  by Alfred Bloom: 1965, Association for Asian Studies:  Ann Arbor, Michigan: Eighth Printing, 1991.

I have many nice things to say about this classic of Shin Buddhism, and scarcely know where to begin, so I will simply discuss the book thematically, in chapter order.

Dr. Bloom sensibly begins his Prologue with a brief biography of Shinran, concentrating on Shinran’s conversion to the Pure Land sect as taught by his master Honen. This Bloom calls Shinran’s “period of discovery”:

“It symbolized the rejection of the decadent, aristocratic, confusing religion of the time…  Shinran long remembered the event and in the epilogue of his work Kyogyoshinsho he stated,

‘But I…Shinran, in the year 1201, abandoned the difficult practices and took refuge in the Original Vow.'”

(I always find it heartening in studying religions to have origins pinpointed so sharply…)

Bloom next  moves on to describe Shinran’s exposure to the Pure Land scriptures and to the teachings of the lineage’s great sages, “the Seven Patriarchs”, especially those disseminated by Patriarch Master T’an-luan. Concerning this teaching, which was to figure so largely in Shinran’s later re-interpretation of Honen’s theories (Blogger’s italics) Bloom writes:

“We can rephrase T’an-luan’s view to point out more clearly the fallacy he saw in the self power approach to enlightenment. The self power attitude is based essentially on a dualistic view of reality. The devotee believes that through religious practices he can build a bridge to infinity, i.e., to purify himself to the degree that he can attain unity with ultimate reality. Relying on his virtue, he may manifest arrogance and pride. Although he claims to be doing away with ego-clingings, he is actually cultivating them. The Other Power attitude is based on non-dualism. Pure Land devotees believe that they stand on, or in, infinity and whatever concrete efforts they make to reach the goal are really efforts in which infinity itself participates.”

Shin sees ultimate reality as a compassionate, providential “Other Power” that provides grace without human effort; and views the human participation in it as non-dualistic.

Borrowing G.R. Lewis’s (Sensei of Buddhist Faith Fellowship of Connecticut), Shin seen in this light might be interpreted as a form of panentheism – the universe as viewed as existing “in” the divine. Of course since Buddhism contains no deity in the Western sense, Lewis suggests the term “panenDharmism” (which could be further refined as “panenAmidism”) to describe the universal presence of Amida Buddha’s Vow and grace.

Just because this omnipresence and omni-sufficiency of Amida’s grace renders self-effort toward salvation useless, Shinran happily took up T’an-luan’s view that the self-effort theory of the “Holy Path” schools of traditional Buddhism ought to evaporate in the radiant heat of Amida Buddha’s impenetrable light.

Bloom notes that Amida’s omnipresent, life-bestowing “Name” is “never separate or apart from beings, but intertwined in their existence…as the manifestation of faith in mind, word, or deed… what is spoken of as apparently existing objectively [Amida, grace, “the divine”]… is, in reality, to be discovered within one’s consciousness.”

Because of this insight, Shinran was necessarily opposed to self-power practices, even as they occasionally survived in Pure Land schools:

“What [interested] him was the attitude of devotees who engaged in the performances of religious exercises. To him it seemed that these individuals believed that somehow they were doing a good act and that this good act was the basis of their salvation. He perceived that such persons were in error from two points of view. On the one hand they failed to take seriously the depravity of beings, and on the other hand, they did not recognize the true meaning of the need for Buddha’s assistance in attaining salvation… from this standpoint, it can readily be seen that religiously there can be no such thing as a ‘good deed.'”

Bloom summarizes:

“Within Shinran’s interpretation there are two aspects that are coordinated. On the one hand, he saw a great gulf between mortal life and the Buddha which was impossible to span from the side of beings. On the other hand, the fundamental unity that he saw between mortals and the Buddha…Shinran claimed came completely from the side of the Buddha through the gift of faith as the transfer of [Amida Buddha’s] qualities of mind. In other words, it was by the Buddha’s act of compassion that one attains Buddha nature.”

This may sound familiar to Western readers, particularly Christians:

“This new way of life which grew out of Shinran’s thought has sometimes been termed ‘naturalism’ The Japanese term for it is Kono Mama, and perhaps the words of the Christian hymn, ‘Just as I am’ depict the sentiment behind the term. Because one is accepted as he is by the compassionate Buddha, one can take life just as it is, as one finds it, and in the midst of this life find the ultimate reality.”

Bloom emphasises Shinran’s insistence that salvation and participation in Amida’s pure realm is a facet of our life lived in the present world, not simply the devotee’s final goal. Shinran envisioned being embraced by Amida as supplying “entrance into the company of the truly assured” of gaining spiritual enlightenment, which is also “the stage of nonretrogression” (the stage of no longer returning into the paths of evil birth or karma).  Since Amida alone saves beings, and there is nothing that beings can do to save themselves, their primary response to Amida’s grace is gratitude. It is in gratitude that saved beings pray and chant the Nembutsu or “Namu Amida Butsu“. This is Shin’s chief practice, and like all of Shin’s few practices, the Nembutsu is not a means of salvation. Rather, it is a means of expressing gratitude for salvation. Bloom notes that Shinran kept this ancient Pure Land practice, but changed its meaning from a salvation-granting “work” to an “other power” expression of gratefulness.

Additionally, the Nembutusu functions to remind those who practice it of Amida’s grace, of their participation in it now as well as in the future, and it helps them to recall, and center themselves in, the spiritual reality which is Amida. (As the New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg has said, a major part of the spiritual life is paying attention to our relationship with God, in a similar way that we (ought to) pay attention to our other relationships. Shin Buddhism’s Nembutsu can be seen as a powerful means of “recollection” in the religious sense of the word.)

Shinran seems not to have denied spiritual “birth” and at least a modicum of helpful spiritual practice to those outside the circle of his novel “Way”: He maintained in fact that there are two such births, but that the new Way’s”third” birth is the highest and most complete. Bloom charts Shinran’s three “births” as:

1. “Birth under the twin Shal trees,” these trees being the ones under which the historical Buddha was said to have died in India. Shin regarded this traditional path of practice and spiritual destiny as a birth in a transformed state or “land”, but as only a temporary or provisional path. It has the merit of appealing to certain “striving” kinds of seekers; and it arouses their desire for enlightenment.

2. The “Incomprehensible Birth,” namely, the birth resulting from Pure Land self-power practice of Nembutsu recitation which Shinran kept but transformed into a thanksgiving to Other (Amida) Power. Shinran called this the birth in the “Palace of Doubt” (doubt in the complete power of Amida to save), or the “Embryo Palace” (embryonic because the devotee’s faith has not yet matured into the Other Power mode). Yet –  since after all this birth is based nevertheless on Amida Buddha’s “Name” – Shinran grants that this birth is wonderful and mysterious – in fact it is “the incomprehensible birth.”

3. The “Most Incomprehensible Birth,” the birth resulting from absolute abandoning of self power practices wherever they exist in any-and-all forms of Buddhism, including Pure Land. Bloom explains that this mode of rebirth “refers to the entrance into the company of the truly assured in this life and birth ultimately in the True Recompense Land where Nirvana is experienced”.

To conclude this post:  At 106 pages, Bloom’s book is a pithy and succinct primer of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism as well as a streamlined introduction to Shinran and his place in Japanese religion, as well as his implications for global spirituality. I experienced only two negatives in reading this publication:

1. On one page, Bloom seems to indicate that he views Amida Buddha as a mere symbol of one’s subjective process of salvation and enlightenment. Yet on other pages Bloom indicates that Amida Buddha is a real, dynamic spiritual force, if not a personality or a deity. So I am not sure just how Bloom envisions the “panendharmic” implications of Shin. In addition Bloom shows no awareness that this exact issue  – whether Amida is an objective “Something” somehow working within human subjectivity or a mere symbol of a purely internal psycho-spiritual process – is a question currently being hotly debated in Shin communities. However, the book was first published in 1965, perhaps before the debate got into full swing.  Perhaps editions subsequent to my 1991 copy have been updated to include the debate.

2. The edition I own has some unfortunate typos, suspect grammar and a lack of gender-sensitive language – all of which could easily be corrected in a revised edition.

I highly recommend Shinran’s Gospel of Pure Grace for all students of religion, but especially for Buddhists who may have little familiarity with Jodo Shinshu and its central teacher, Shinran Shonin.

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