The Letters of Shinran

Shinran Shonin’s teaching is very straightforward and easy to understand. Yet many people have the impression that it is otherwise. I was very lucky that the first of his writings that I read was Hymns on the Pure Land (Jodo Wasan). Not long afterwards, I read the first volume in the Shin Buddhism Translation Series, the Letters of Shinran. Both of these books teach the nembutsu way with eloquence and clarity.

I still remember the morning that I first opened the Hymns of the Pure Land. From then on it has been clear that Shinran’s way is a religion of pure light, joy, and truth.

The effect of the pure light of truth is to see your self in vivid relief; to realise that, of necessity, you have no choice but to accept the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, manifested as the Name – Namo Amida Butsu. This can be a slow development through careful listening and reflection on the teaching. For some it is a sudden and dramatic change of direction.

In his Hymns and Letters, Shinran is speaking directly to you and me. His words are full of the sound of Amida Buddha’s light, power and compassion. In them lies the distillation of a vast tradition–from the Primal Vow, through Shakyamuni Buddha, and the Dharma Masters of India, China and Japan–that lives and moves in the world, and the hearts of millions of people. Such is the nembutsu life of Shinran’s friends and fellow travellers of the way, even now.

For about sixteen years, I have been writing about Shinran’s Hymns. Now I would like to turn to the Letters. Right from the first encounter with them, it becomes crystal clear that Shinran is someone you can trust with your life.

Before I begin, I think it is worth remembering that there are some traps that we can fall into if we are going to share with others our deep appreciation of Shinran’s teaching, whatever vehicle of this we choose to explore. The first is that it has nothing whatever to do with the philosophical and religious systems of Europe, east or west. These are interesting and sometimes inspiring, but they bear no relation to Shinran’s teaching, which is truly universal in its relevance. It delves beneath the camouflage of status, and all other cultural, ethnic, moral, intellectual and national categories.

Secondly, Shinran’s concern, to the exclusion of everything else, was the salvation offered by the Buddha Dharma. With every ounce of his being he was a disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha, and he declined every other option. His heart and mind were focused only on immeasurable light and life – Amida Buddha. It is to this life that he warmly invites us.

For the rest of this year, I will share with you some of my favourite passages from the Letters of Shinran.