Shinran in the Contemporary World

If you are a regular reader of The Udumbara Flower, you may remember a post about an allegorical and pictorial publication from Higashi Honganji called Do You Know What the Roman Glass Is? This is a beautiful book that recounts the story of someone awakening to faith of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha while sitting in the house of an artist friend and watching the patterns formed through the prism of an ancient Roman glass artefact.

This week I would like to commend Shinran in the Contemporary World, a small book of just 134 pages, which I have read twice in recent times, having first encountered it shortly after it was published in English in 1979 – forty years ago – by Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha. It was first published in Japanese in 1973. Taking it up again, I originally wanted to see if the ideas that it expresses still stack up – or, is it already outdated? My conclusion on the first of my readings – after such a long time – is that it is more relevant than ever.

My reason for thinking it is even more relevant now is partly due to the fact that allegiance to Buddha Dharma in the world continues to fall. It seems that the world-wide following of all forms of Buddhism – Theravada, Tibetan and Asian – is now around just 115 million people. But this is an almost universal trend. Greater secularisation means that religious commitment will continue to become a personal, individual choice.

The first thing to say about the English translation of Shinran in the Contemporary World is that it equates the word ‘faith’ with the Sino-Japanese word ‘shinjin’. These days I am inclining to the view that ‘faith’ is quite suitable in speaking of the Other Power faith of Amida Buddha. The most authoritative dictionary of Australian English (Macquarie) gives ‘confidence or trust in a person or thing’ as the primary definition for faith. That seems to me to be acceptable as a translation of shinjin or prasanna citta, which is possibly its Sanskrit equivalent.

Shinran in the Contemporary World begins with an account of the decline of religious authority and commitment in Europe following the ‘enlightenment’ – the rise of reason and science, a greater sense of self and the growing importance of the individual. The book also alludes to the Japanese reticence about publicly expressing religious belief and adherence. Naturally, all these trends tend to cast each one of us as entirely unique and even isolated.

The book suggests that it is here that the experience and teaching of Shinran comes into its own as a resource for modern people. The book addresses each of us as ‘a single one’; an individual who can choose to enter the world of nembutsu-faith and find light and salvation.

This is not to say that religious organisations no longer have any purpose or significance – of course they do. We need them to provide a common community of insight and understanding, and to maintain and preserve the tradition, which we have inherited as individuals. Yet, ultimately, the way to deliverance is a matter for each of us as ‘a single one’ – especially in the world of today.