The way of reading

When you read the scriptures, there is no use just passing your eyes over them. Rennyo Shonin advised, ‘Make a point of reading the scriptures over and over.’ Also, ‘there is a saying, “If you read a passage a hundred times, its meaning becomes clear by itself.” Remember this. The passages of the scriptures should be understood as they are. After that, you can refer to the master’s personal instructions and orally transmitted teaching. Arbitrary interpretations should never be applied. (Thus I Have Heard from Rennyo Shonin, 89, tr. Hisao Inagaki)


This passage from Rennyo Shonin dismisses the idea that Jodo Shinshu is merely suited for illiterate people. Since the time of Shinran Shonin literacy in Japan was probably higher than the rest of the world. Rennyo disseminated the dharma widely in the form of letters to be read at daily observances, as they still are. Shin Buddhist temples provide reading material widely. In our own times one of the great triumphs of our tradition is the publication of Shinran’s collected works by Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha. In today’s world almost everyone is able to read and if not, you can listen to documents being read aloud on a computer.

Whatever our situation along the path may be, Rennyo strongly commends repeated reading of our sacred texts. He also provides a clear process for hearing the dharma in this way. In constant reading there are two ultimate objectives. The first is to awaken to Amida Buddha’s shinjin and to teach others.

But–remember Rennyo’s words: ‘The passages of the scriptures should be understood as they are.’ Yes, we struggle with them sometimes but eventually–from repeated reading–we understand them for ourselves. We should read them ‘at face value’,  understanding the meaning exactly as it stands.

But what ‘scriptures’ are best for this process?

I suggest the writings of Shinran in particular because he was able to draw on the full, mature teaching of the Pure Land school, from its inception at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha to the life and works of Honen Shonin. During these one thousand five hundred years, the teaching was put into practice by millions of followers and their experience recorded in the writing of the Dharma Masters down through the ages. Shinran’s careful interpretation is drawn from these resources as a whole–and in the light of his own shinjin.

Rennyo does not tell us exactly what scriptures to read but, as basic texts, I think Shinran’s Hymns (CWS, p. 321-447) are best, or for more detail of his sources, The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation.

Then Rennyo tells us that after we have understood the scriptures ‘as they are’ we can refer to ‘the master’s personal instructions and orally transmitted teaching’. I suppose we could take this to mean a number of resources but I think ‘the master’s personal instructions’ refer to Shinran’s Letters and his commentaries (CWS, pp 451-584). ‘The master’s … orally transmitted teaching’ is A Record in Lament of Divergences.

So, here we have three sets of reading. The first are those scriptures that Shinran compiled by direct reference to the sources of the tradition: the Sutras and the Commentaries of the Dharma Masters. Then these works are refined by reference to the Letters and Shinran’s commentaries. And, finally, A Record in Lament of Divergences ensures that our understanding is qualified by the experience of a second person who heard and understood the teachings directly from Shinran. In following this approach, as Rennyo says, ‘Arbitrary interpretations should never be applied.’

In most schools of Buddhism one meditates and seeks to amend one’s behaviour by following precepts. In Jodo Shinshu we go about ordinary busy lives but make time to read. In addition, it is pleasant to join with other nembutsu followers, if we can, to pay respects to the Three Treasures and to share the joy of nembutsu in each others’ company.

Author: George Gatenby