A great generation

yamamotoIn 1954 Kosho Yamamoto first published his translation of Shinran Shonin’s (1173-1263) annotated compendium of selected passages from traditional Pure Land Buddhist sources, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. It was part of his project to translate the entire book of Jodo Shinshu sacred texts: the Shinshu Seiten. Various elements of the Seiten were published as separate units, including the Goichidaikikikigaki, the ‘analects’ of Rennyo Shonin. This latter work was the only translation available in English until quite recently, when Hisao Inagaki’s excellent, annotated translation was published by Dharma Lion Press in Romania.

Yamamoto Sensei’s book, The Other-Power, The Final Answer Arrived At In Shin Buddhism, was a powerful influence very early in my life of nembutsu. I still remember its initial impact at it gave a vivid presentation of the basics of Jodo Shinshu, and – a remarkable quality of Yamamoto’s exegesis, which is unusual in traditional Buddhist writers – acuity and reasonableness. He was able to present ideas by analogy in a systematic, convincing and non-dogmatic way.

I have sometimes pondered how on earth Yamamoto Sensei developed these remarkable talents. Similarly, he had an extraordinary power in the use of words, even though at first glance his writing seems wildly eccentric. Nevertheless, his idiosyncratic phrases are powerful and colourful; they perforce create striking and unforgettable images. Sometimes he uses antiquated or unusual terms terms to brilliant, creative effect.

A case in point is his deeply moving and endearing translation of the finest work of religious literature ever compiled, The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which is now available in a single volume edited by the English academic Tony Page. Yamamoto’s translation is such that the sutra engraves its ideas, imagery and sentiments upon one’s very soul. Some passages bring bitter tears to one’s eyes. His translation of the section of the Buddha’s injunction against eating the flesh of animals is so powerful that one is reduced to a sense of aching sorrow and repentance at the intractability of one’s harsh and barbaric nature.

otani_kozuiOn the dedication page of his translation of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Kosho Yamamoto professes deep devotion to his cherished dharma teacher (zenchshiki): His Eminence Kozui Otani (Kyonyo Shonin), who was the twenty-second abbot (monshu) of Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha from 1903 to 1914. The dedication tells us that this urbane citizen of the world was the harbinger of the light of truth, and the source of true happiness. Was Kozui Otani the inspiration for Yamamoto’s remarkable understanding and compelling powers of exegesis? It would seem so.

Kozui Otani strode the world stage with considerable aplomb. He quickly joined such luminaries as the renowned archaeologist Albert von Le Coq (1860–1930) in expeditions to Central Asia. This part of the world is of immense significance for us, because it is the route of transmission for the Pure Land dharma from Gandhara in North-west India to East Asia: China, Viet Nam, Korea and Japan. Indeed, the earliest known renditions of the Contemplation Sutra emerge from the Silk Road, which links North-west India to China.

Clearly Kozui Otani took his spiritual responsibilities seriously and applied himself to the dissemination of the dharma. If he had not done so, it is hard to see why Kosho Yamamoto would have held him in such high esteem. The monshu, however, extended himself well-beyond his religious activities, writing about China, Manchuria and Indonesia. He was even an expert on Chinese porcelain. But, this remarkable polymath was also flawed. In mounting three costly expeditions to Central Asia he almost brought the Hongwanji undone and endured such inevitable disgrace that he was forced to relinquish his office.

kujo_takekoKozui Otani’s younger sister, Takeko Kujo was another remarkable and towering Shin Buddhist figure of the early twentieth century. Dedicated to a life of nembutsu, her example and fame reached far beyond Japan. Her lyrical meditations on the dharma are a source of repeated reflection and are imbued with the deep appreciation of the working of the Primal Vow. Yet, she is remembered more by remarkable practical accomplishments.

An enduring and worldwide part of Takeko Kujo’s legacy was the Fujinkai, the Buddhist Women’s Association, which continues to thrive in both Japan and the Americas. Even in our times, when temple membership in America is becoming more ethnically diverse, it continues as a lively fellowship in many temples.

Takeko Kujo established one of the first sophisticated modern medical centres in Japan, the Ashoka Hospital in Tokyo. Her work amongst the victims of the Tokyo earthquake in 1922 lent her the aura of a second Florence Nightingale. Tragically, she died while working to help the poor and underprivileged in 1928.

mcgovernWilliam Montgomery McGovern was born just four years before Kozui Otani’s first expedition to central Asia but he seems emblematic of the generations of Shin Buddhists who lived in the early twentieth century. Ordained as a priest at the Nishi Hongwanji in 1917, just after Kozui Otani’s abdication, McGovern is considered to be the model for the fictional character Indiana Jones. He explored hitherto uncharted areas of the world, especially in the Amazon and parts of Tibet. He studied at the Sorbonne and the University of Berlin, and was awarded a doctorate at Christ Church, Oxford.

The most enduring of McGovern’s achievements was his book introducing Mahayana Buddhism. It is an immortal work: succinct, thorough and accurate. In my view no exposition of the Mahayana has been able to eclipse it since. It is a book that rewards repeated reading.