One of my favourite Shin Buddhist teachers is Professor Kosho Yamamoto, who translated Shin Buddhist texts and wrote many books. He was a professor at the University of Hawaii for a while; otherwise, I know very little about his personal history. I wish I did.
Today I would like to tell you about one of Yamamoto Sensei’s Shin Buddhist ‘stars’, as I call them – or ‘heroes’, perhaps. This is a man, whom Yamamoto refers to as ‘Rev S’, a temple priest from an unnamed village in Kyushu. Yamamoto holds Rev S in such high esteem that he relates his story in two of his publications. I have read this brief account several times and can remember its salient details. I will relate it to you, mostly in my own words.
Rev S was unusual for a Jodo Shinshu minister. He retained his tonsure, his head always shaven, and he wore the black robes of a priest all the time. He retreated to the quiet of his village and his home every month but otherwise he was out-and-about in the public domain.
Mostly, he could be found at Tokyo Railway Station, a tall man, who always smiled, greeting passersby in a warm and friendly manner. It seems that he was at the station during the rush-hour and during the day he visited prisons, hospitals, and borstals. He sought out the oppressed and disadvantaged, including, it seems, ladies of the night, whose ‘secret hearts’ he kept entirely to himself.
Rev S became well known and many people came to him for solace and advice. But the most striking feature of Rev S was his passionate and radiant devotion to the nembutsu way. He was so imbued with the embrace of Amida Buddha, that his ‘Amida mind’, as Yamamoto calls it, was palpable.
One time, Yamamoto took Rev S to task for his monthly retreat from his field of evdeavour on behalf of the compassionate Buddha. Clearly an eccentric fellow to many bystanders, while those who took refuge in his radiant compassion loved him, many ridiculed and jeered at him. He told Yamamoto Sensei, that he needed a break from it all and time to refresh his heart and mind. But Yamamoto pleaded with Rev S to stay the course and maintain his post as Amida Buddha’s ambassador in the big city, accusing him of cowardice.
Rev S responded that his was the Middle Way. He could only do what was possible and he knew that after his death he would become a Buddha with a powerful capacity to endure it all and to hold all in his compassionate embrace.
‘ “Oh! please do not say the next world or eternity,” pleads Yamamoto Sensei, “Limit your talk to the Amida-mind that works in this world!” ‘
Rev S responds that ‘now’ and ‘eternity’ are one, and that, more importantly, self-made compassion will not do, ‘What we need is that which comes from above.’
I would love to have met Rev S. Undaunted by the jeers of skeptics he ploughed on as a disciple of the Buddha. But he was still unenlightened and frail, recognising his frank limitations, and took a moderate course, which included taking care of himself, looking forward to the time when his compassion would become, through the working of the Primal Vow of Other Power, the pure compassion of the Buddha.
I think there is a natural tendency to an outward demeanour of joy and compassion for many people who have been long in the nembutsu way. But we are all still frail and must live with our blind passions. Better times will come, but, for now, we do our best.
‘… all people of the present, whether monk or lay, must take measure of their own capabilities.’ (Shinran, Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, VI)
I do not think that Yamamoto Sensei entirely agreed with Rev S, however much he admired him. In his 1963 translation of the Tanni Sho Yamamoto Sensei omitted the fourth chapter, which emphasises that ordinary human beings are limited in their capacity to practice compassion.