Getting it right

Hearing that there were some in the Mutsu Province who caused disruption of the Shinshu teaching, Rennyo summoned Joyu from Mutsu and reprimanded him, saying, ‘How outrageous it is to disrupt the tradition of our founder Shonin (Shinran).’

 ‘Nothing is more contemptible than distortion of the teaching of this school.’ – Thus Have I Heard from Rennyo Shonin, tr. Hisao Inagaki

Rennyo Shonin’s stern rebuke to his disciple Joyu gives us pause. How are we to determine what is authentic Jodo Shinshu teaching?

I have always believed in seeking an understanding of any religious teaching from representatives – priests, scholars and academics – of long-standing traditions. The reason for this is that mainstream and enduring religious organisations have been able to confront and address incorrect and misleading ideas over many generations.

As we see in A Record in Lament of Divergences, incorrect interpretations of the teaching of Shinran were not uncommon during Shinran’s own life-time. Indeed, Shakyamuni Buddha dealt with similar problems, and strange ideas came and went throughout the history of Buddhism. In most cases these misleading teachings came from people who introduced alien ideas from outside the tradition.

In the case of Jodo Shinshu, new converts were inclined to bring ideas that they had learnt from teachers of the school to which they had previously belonged. It seems to me that the same thing happens in our own time. We may inadvertently infuse Jodo Shinshu with elements of western religion or disciplines like psychology and philosophy.

Needless to say, we are all free to adopt the teachings in whatever way we see fit. If we want to bring other ideas into account that is a matter for us. Mainstream religions like Jodo Shinshu are capable of encompassing and addressing a variety of needs, and extending genuine respect to everyone, realising that we are all on the path to understanding and to hear the Dharma. Each of us hears the Dharma in our own way; each of us is unique.

But ultimately it is important to have resources, which have been endorsed by religious authority as sound and reliable. It is then up to us to decide how to use them. I do not think that we should claim that the teaching we expound is authentic unless it is. And we can never be totally correct, so we should be ready to change our minds if we discover that we are mistaken.

However, I think we ought to try to set aside our own ideas and listen carefully to Shinran Shonin himself. I am certain that he found the way to ‘become Buddha through the nembutsu’. He studied the historical teachings of great and trusted enlightened masters from Shakyamuni Buddha through the Pure Land teachers. Furthermore, Shinran actually experienced the truth that they taught and went on explain it to others.

So, I see Shinran himself as thoroughly reliable and trustworthy. The proof of this is that his teaching  has endured for many centuries. It has been cherished, preserved and studied by countless teachers, scholars and thinkers. It has enriched the lives of millions of people and brought them joy and salvation.

Author: George Gatenby

Shin Buddhist priest