Dharma talk for Shinran Shonin’s birthday, 2017

(This is a transcript of my dharma talk for the celebration of Shinran Shonin’s birthday (Gotan-e) at the headquarters of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia on 14 May 2017.)

‘The fundamental intent for which the Buddha appeared in the world
Was to reveal the truth and reality of the Primal Vow.’
(Shinran Shonin – Hymns of the Pure Land)

‘Shakyamuni Buddha reached the Supreme Enlightenment’ (Image by International Association of Buddhist Culture.)

Today we are celebrating the birthday of our Founder Shinran Shonin, who was born eight hundred and forty-four years ago next Sunday. In this passage from his hymns, Shinran reminds us that the person who originally appeared in this world to tell us about the Primal Vow – about the Nembutsu – was Shakyamuni Buddha, who was born in India about two thousand five hundred years ago.

There are countless Buddhas but Shakyamuni is very special because he brought us the teachings, the Dharma – that we can live and die by. His disciple, our Founder Shinran Shonin, is special too. Today we are meeting to thank him for being born and bringing us his message that he received, handed down through many centuries from Shakyamuni Buddha.

Because they were both dedicated followers of the Dharma the events of their lives are in some ways similar. But, as heir to the throne, Shakyamuni was born into a life ease. He was protected–until early adulthood–from the evils that people suffer and he had to go out of his way to find out about them. His disciple, who lived some one thousand and five hundred years later—Shinran–, was born directly into strife. He lost his mother and his father; the society that he lived in was beset by wars and killing; and the natural world was cruel and harsh: famine caused terrible suffering.

Shakyamuni Buddha discovered how cruel and unfair life could be and left his palace at thirty years of age to seek the way for deliverance for himself and all other suffering beings. After six years of struggle he discovered the Fourfold Noble Truth; and later, too, he revealed the all-embracing compassion of Amida Buddha. Shinran Shonin left home to seek the way to save suffering beings when he was nine. He spent twenty years seeking the Dharma, and–at first–he failed! He could not find the way to help suffering beings on his own.

Shakyamuni found the Dharma by himself. Shinran Shonin found the way to become a Buddha and save others by seeking the help of Honen Shonin, who became his teacher. He also had the wonderful teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha to rely upon, and he could benefit from the guidance of many Dharma masters.

The going was not easy for either Shakyamuni Buddha or Shinran Shonin but they both sought and found the same thing: how to deliver people who were in need of a way of understanding, which would lead to inner peace and awakening. Shakyamuni became a Buddha. But, living in the light of Amida Buddha–the life of the Nembutsu–Shinran Shonin came to see that he was exactly the opposite to a Buddha. He was, like us, in his words, ‘a foolish being full of blind passions, with scant roots of good, transmigrating in the three realms, and unable to emerge from this burning house.’ (Teaching, Practice and Realisation III)

That is why, for me, Shinran Shonin is so close to our hearts. Shinran sits with us on the same ground. We are also foolish beings. If we turn to Shinran with our questions on the teachings he has left us, he speaks to us about Amida Buddha and ourselves – just as we are. Speaking personally, I am quite certain that there is no way that I could possibly follow Buddhism without the teaching of Shinran.

Shakyamuni looked up to only one thing – the Dharma – and Shinran Shonin looked up to that one thing, too. But it was the Dharma embodied in the form of Namo Amida Butsu. While Shakyamuni taught for wise people, Shinran was one disciple of the Buddha who helped Shakyamuni to speak the truth to foolish beings like us. The enlightenment of Shakyamuni has come down through the ages so that we can hear and receive its light and truth, too, thanks to Shinran Shonin.

Shinran Shonin chose the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha that are especially for us. And he passed them on to us. This teaching is: that through the working of the Primal Vow, which we experience as complete, unconditional trust in Namo Amida Butsu, we also become Buddhas at the end of our lives. It is at that point that both Shinran Shonin and we become what Shakyamuni Buddha became sitting silently under the Bodhi tree all those centuries ago.

So I would like to say a special thanks to Shakyamuni and Shinran for showing us the way to become Buddhas for the sake of others and ourselves. The teaching that Shinran Shonin left us is succinctly summarised in The Essentials of Jodo Shinshu – My Path, and I would like to finish by reminding you of it.

‘Attaining the “entrusting heart”—awakening to the compassion of Amida Buddha through the working of the Primal Vow—we shall walk the path of life reciting Amida’s Name (Namo Amida Butsu). At the end of life, we will be born in the Pure Land and attain Buddhahood, returning at once to this delusional world to guide people to awakening.’

Namo Amida Butsu

Author: George Gatenby

Rev Jokyo George Gatenby is a Shin Buddhist priest, and lives in South Australia