What is the most important thing

Shinran Shonin - Statue. Photo by Mark Healsmith
Shinran Shonin – Statue. Photo by Mark Healsmith

As I humbly reflect on the past [when the late master was alive] and the present in my foolish mind, I cannot but lament the divergences from the heart of true entrusting that he conveyed by speaking to us directly, and I fear there are doubts and confusions in the way followers receive and transmit the teaching. (A Record in Lament of Divergences, Second Edition, A Translation of the Tannisho, Shin Buddhist Translation Series, 2005. [Tannisho])

We return to the opening words of the Preface to the Tannisho.

Since a person by the name of ‘Yuien’ is mentioned twice in the text of the Tannisho, scholars generally assume that he is the author of the book itself. There is really no longer any contention about this. Yuien was one of two people with that name in the list of Shinran’s disciples. But the author of the Tannisho is most likely to be Yuien of Kawada, who was known to be a very eloquent exponent of Shinran’s teaching. He was also considered to be very perceptive and intelligent.

Here Yuien is setting out his motive for writing this short book, which expounds the true Pure Land teaching he had received from Shinran.

Among the very early books on Jodo Shinshu that I bought and read in the 1970s was one called Perfect Freedom in Buddhism. Published in 1968 by ‘The Tannisho Study Group’, it appears to have been written by a number of young people who had no particular religious affiliation. In fact, the book relates the content of the Tannisho to both Buddhist and Christian ideas. Even so, members of the study group are careful to acknowledge its Buddhist origins.

In those days, the Tannisho was widely read by people with all kinds of religious backgrounds, and none. Indeed, the book itself refers to a commentary on the Tannisho which uses it as a resource for training business people to be more effective in their work. How people made that connection is difficult to fathom.

As things stand now, we are privileged to have a number of translations and commentaries in English. Since there are so many of these, it is hardly necessary to add to this wealth. But I think that many of the commentaries do not really focus on the stated problem that Yuien sets out to address.  In one of his letters, Shinran writes about the way that the contentions in some parts of the Shin Buddhist sangha were developing into fruitless arguments.

That the Tathagata’s Primal Vow is spreading is indeed splendid and gladdening above all else. In this, however, there must never be any arguing, person with person in each locality, while adhering to one’s own view. (CWS, p. 559)

Yuien is gentle and persuasive in his tone. He does not seem to wish to be a participant in the arguments that we read about in the record of those early days. In fact, all he seeks to do is to use his eloquent powers of expression to leave a record for future generations. And we know, by comparing Yuien’s words with the writings of Shinran, that he is thoroughly accurate in his retelling of Shinran’s teaching.

Yuien clearly states his purpose in his opening statement. There is a risk that the contention and argument will serve only to cause doubt (utagai) in the minds of nembutsu people. Doubt is such a serious matter that, four years before his death in 1263, Shinran composed the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages. Twenty-two of these address the problem of doubt, and they emphasise its gravity.

There is an overriding idea in the Tannisho. We have seen in my original survey of the Tannisho earlier this year that people were forgetting the overarching reality of Other Power. But the most urgent single personal problem that each of must confront is the problem of doubt. Doubt means only one thing:  not having the ‘heart of true entrusting’. It is the most important issue facing all of us.

The Tannisho is designed to open the way so that we resolve the hindrance of doubt and discover the ‘heart of true entrusting’ for ourselves.

Author: George Gatenby

Shin Buddhist priest