One of my favourite books on the subject of Jodo Shinshu is a slim pamphlet of just twenty-six pages. It is a goldmine of teaching about the nembutsu. Not surprisingly, its title is A Standard of Shinshu Faith. Published in 1963, it was written by the late Professor Ryostesu Fujiwara, who – among other endeavours – also wrote a superb book on the teaching of the fifth Dharma Master of Shin Buddhism, Shan-tao, and a booklet entitled The Development and Practice of Nembutsu. All these books are real treasures. Fujiwara Sensei was also director of the Ryukoku Translation Center’s English translation of The Tannisho, which was first published in 1962.
There are many quite complicated interpretations of Shin Buddhism, which can unwittingly make it seem elusive and difficult to understand. But this little booklet is an excellent and straightforward start. It is structured in a familiar question and answer style, and has the feel of a friendly fireside chat.
In one of his letters, Shinran Shonin remarks that
Even in Kyoto there are people who do not understand and who stray in confusion, and I hear of many such people in the various provinces. And even among Honen’s disciples those who take themselves to be remarkable scholars make various changes in expressing the teaching, confusing others as well as themselves so that all suffer together. (CWS, p. 552)
In approaching the dharma, it is not necessary to get into complicated and overly sophisticated ideas in order to explain it to others. We do not need to pretend to be scholarly or clever. Indeed, one of the best ways to explain any profound religious teaching is to use analogy and parable. Quite often it is easier to grasp the meaning of a story than to try to put it in prosaic terms. A clear example is the parable by Master Shan-tao of the Two Rivers and the White Path.
I recently read a short article, which was a conversation with a Buddhist monk. In the interview he was asked what was his favourite book. He answered that it was the twentieth century novel The Lord Of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkein. The monk then went on to explain that the ring could be seen as our ego, suggesting that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory about the task of getting rid of it.
One of the questions in Professor Fujiwara’s booklet is ‘Is Shinshu meaningful today?’ The answer is very much to the point:
As long as ordinary people exist, Shinshu is meaningful.
He goes on to point out that
Shinshu was not taught for monks and nuns, but rather for the lay[person]. Amida Buddha is not concerned with the sages who can transcend the secular life and attain nirvana by their own power.
Shinshu is for those of who know that they are ordinary people. As long as people like us exist, the call of the Vow of Amida Buddha (Namu-amida-butsu) patiently awaits our reply.
The person depicted in the parable of the Two Rivers and the White Path is the ordinary person for whom Amida Buddha’s Vow was made. He comes to realise that intellect, acquaintances and a life of endless wandering to seek the way will never lead him to deliverance. Only responding to the call of the Vow of Amida Buddha will do so.