A Look At Rennyo: The Great Restorer

Hi guys,

As part of my process toward ordination, I’ve been learning a lot about liturgy in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, which I’ve posted about here and here. However, I’ve also come to realize that a lot of the liturgy and the teachings I’ve learned actually were articulated by Rennyo, not Shinran the founder. So, I spent a lot of time this past week researching the life and teachings of Rennyo in particular.1

Rennyo was the 8th “guardian” (monshu 門主) of the Honganji temple and its lineage, and he was a direct descendant of Shinran. Rennyo lived a difficult life, he was separate from his mother at an early age, he was nearly killed a few times during the warfare of Onin War and subsequent collapse of Japanese society. Further, he had five wives and 20+ children, but lost many of them to warfare, disease, famine, etc.

The teachings of Shinran had spread to the countryside over the centuries, but remained a kind of back-water “peasant movement” with different sects and organizations. Early communities usually ran out of people’s homes or small dōjō (道場, “practice halls”).

Rennyo, Shinran’s descendant, had a gift for articulating Shinran’s teachings in a way that was easier to grasp for regular lay-people. His letters to followers, called the gobunshō (ご文章) or ofumi (御文) are still used in Jodo Shinshu liturgy, including the famous Letter on White Ashes. Rennyo’s letters were revered because they could be easily read aloud in remote congregations, and were effective at distilling Shinshu teachings. Shinran is the founder of Jodo Shinshu, but if you read his writings, they’re kind of obtuse. He originally wrote in classical Chinese, and his magnum ops the Kyogyoshinsho, is long and difficult to read. I managed to read it once, but can’t remember what I read.

For example, in one of Rennyo’s more famous letters, he explained Shinran’s teachings like so:

We rejoice in knowing that our birth in the Pure Land is assured and our salvation established from the moment we rely [on the Buddha] with even a single nembutsu (ichinen), and that whenever we utter the Buddha’s name thereafter it is an expression of gratitude and indebtedness to him.

The notion of gratitude was further emphasized by Rennyo than Shinran, while Rennyo was more open to other religious practices common in Japan.

Rennyo also restored the Honganji temple (now divided into Nishi and Higashi Honganji temples) from its minor position as a backwater sect, bullied by other Shinshu sects and warrior monks from other more powerful Buddhist sects into the most widespread and influential Buddhist sect in Japan even to this day.

Surprisingly though, Rennyo is often overshadowed by Shinran, especially those new to Shinshu. After being at the temple for years, I admit I knew almost nothing about him. But having researched him a little bit using Professor Dobbins excellent book, I have a renewed appreciation for his contributions. :)

1 …and then I had another one of my Wikipedia “rampages”, where I go and update lots of articles. I rewrote quite a bit of the Rennyo article, among others. ;)

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu | 3 Comments

The Shishinrai Liturgy

image

Hey guys,

Since I’ve been busy these with learning Buddhist liturgy for ordination at the Jodo Shinshu temple here in Seattle, I’ve been learning a lot about different chants. Some are well-known, like the Shoshinge, while some are obscure, like this one: the Shishinrai (至心礼).

This is a small but very slow, melodic liturgy that is used to express taking refuge in the Three Treasures of Buddhism: the Buddha (teacher), the Dharma (the teachings) and the Sangha (the community):

Shi shin kei rei na mo shou chiu fu
With sincere heart-mind of reverence and obeisance I take refuge in the eternal abiding Buddha.

Shi shin kei rei na mo shou chiu ho
With sincere heart-mind of reverence and obeisance I take refuge in the eternal abiding Dharma.

Shi shin kei rei na mo shou chiu so
With sincere heart-mind of reverence and obeisance I take refuge in the eternal abiding Sangha.

You can hear a sample of this chant here (main page here). This is the only recording I could find online.

The only time I’ve heard it used is in more solemn Buddhist memorial services, but even then it doesn’t seem very common. I can’t even find it in the main Shinshu liturgy book I got from the Nishi Honganji temple years ago (the same book I use to practice for ordination). However, it does appear in our English-language service book, as shown above. I’ve seen a few Japanese sources refer to it, but it appears to be only occasionally used, hence it is not widely found.

Anyhow, this act of Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures is the most fundamental act a Buddhist does. Regardless of their own faults and shortcomings, a person is encouraged to come as they are and take refuge in the Three Treasures away from the turmoil of the world.1 This chant above is one particular expression of this act.

P.S. More on how to read Japanese Buddhist chants.

1 Taking refuge is also how one formally becomes a Buddhist of course. ;)

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu | Leave a comment

Ekoku: Dedication of Merit

Hello,

As I am working towards my ordination in the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple,1 I have spent a lot of time learning and practicing liturgy. One of my favorite bits of liturgy is a small text called the ekōku (回向句) or “verses on dedication of merit”. Sometimes it’s also called ekōmon (回向文).

The notion of dedicating good merit (i.e. good karma) to others is a time-honored Buddhist practice that has existed since the beginning. It takes a variety of forms, but you’ll pretty much find it in all Buddhist institutions in one way or another. The idea is simple: when one does something good and noble such as helping other living beings, reciting Buddhist verses, doing devotional practices, etc, they can share this merit with others. For Pure Land Buddhists, you can also dedicate merit to rebirth in the Pure Land. It doesn’t take the place of reciting the Buddha’s name, but helps that much more so. This is a pretty wide-spread practice.

Anyhow, the particular verses I’m talking about were composed by a famous Chinese Pure Land Buddhist named Shan-tao (善導, 613-681) also known as Zendō in Japanese, and goes like this:

願似此功徳
Gan ni shi ku doku
I vow that the merit-virtue of this truth

平等施一切
Byo do se is-sai
Be shared equally with all beings.

同発菩提心
Do hotsu bo dai shin
May we together awaken the Bodhi Mind,

往生安楽国
O jo an raku koku
And be born in the realm of Serenity and Joy.

You can hear an example of the Ekoku here:

This is the more melodic version, which you often hear at the end of longer, more dramatic chants such as the Shoshinge hymn. There is a simpler, easier version that I often hear during Buddhist services. I prefer this version, though I still get off-key on the third-line.

Anyhow, I think it’s a great verse because it expresses Buddhist good-will and compassion very well, ties back to a venerated Chinese master and is short and sweet.

1 The latest I’ve heard is that I can become a minister’s assistant (essentially a “deacon”) later this year. Full ordination, or tokudo (得度) is still a few years off.

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu | 3 Comments

A Medieval Criticism of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

This is something I read from the book Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan, which is a great book on the history of this school of Japanese Buddhism. Professor Dobbins quotes from a polemical work called the guanki (愚闇記, “Record of Foolishness and Darkness”) that was written in the early 1300’s by a Tendai Buddhist monk living in Echizen Province about the local Shinshu congregation:

At the present time lay men and women of the single-minded nembutsu gather to sing the wasan hymns composed by the exile named Gutoku Zenshin [Shinran, the founder] and to chant the nembutsu at length in unison. In the “Larger Pure Land Sutra,” where it describes the characteristics of the three classes [of sentient beings] born in the Pure Land, there is the phrase, “The single-minded and exclusive Amida nembutsu”. They take this to be the central message [of the sutra]. Pointing out the appearance of the key phrase “single-minded nembutsu,” they refuse to recite the “Smaller Pure Land Sutra,” nor will they perform praise-singing at the six designated times of the day. Rather, when men and women do their religious practices, they exert themselves, chanting the six character [formula of Amida’s] name, and they sing in unison the wasan hymns [of Shinran]. They are not admonished against such impurities as meat eating, nor do they concern themselves with clerical mantle, robes, rosary, for full attire. Even if they put on a robe, they do not drape the clerical mantle across it, and they wear it over their silk narrow-sleeve gown of various colors. They do not setup monuments to offer up religious merit to the dead, and they teach that one should not observe such things as prohibitions or taboos. This is folly. (pg. 126)

When I read this, I kind of chuckled, because many of these criticisms are still used against Jodo Shinshu Buddhists even today by other Buddhists. Even I’m not immune to this. I sometimes get annoyed by the emphasis on Shinran’s hymns and not the sutras, however I didn’t realize until recently that the Juseige/Shiseige was an excerpt of the Immeasurable Life Sutra. This is frequently recited in both Jodo Shinshu and Jodo Shu services, similar to the way that Nichiren services often recite excerpts of the 2nd and 16th chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Further, since I am practicing the Shoshinge for ordination (which includes 6 of the Wasan hymns), I have begun to appreciate its doctrinal value more.1

Similarly, I’ve often been uncomfortable with the eating of meat on the premises of Shinshu temples. People do not eat in the main hall (hondō 本堂) of course, but often you’ll have picnics, fundraising meals, outdoor festivals in the parking lot, etc. People have good intentions I believe, but at the same time, it kind of contravenes the “spirit” of Mahayana Buddhism (of which Shinshu is a part) by turning a blind eye to the practice. On the other hand, lay-based Buddhist sects such as Shinshu, Jodo Shu and presumably Nichiren Buddhism all focus on making Buddhism as “accessible” as possible, because there’s no where to go but up. Further, I realize it’s probably more worthwhile to focus on my own conduct than that of others.

The final criticism though, the narrowness of Jodo Shinshu, is something I still grapple with. The other issues might be a bit annoying, but this one is the toughest issue I think any long-term, dedicated Jodo Shinshu follower will eventually struggle with. Shakyamuni Buddha encouraged a holistic approach to the Buddhist path including:

  • Moral Conduct
  • Cultivation/practice
  • Wisdom

Much of Jodo Shinshu (and Jodo Shu) is based on the teachings of the famous 8th-century Chinese Buddhist Shan-tao (zendō 善導) whose approach was similarly holistic. He taught the importance of seeking rebirth in the Pure Land and the centrality of reciting the Buddha’s name, but he also encouraged “auxilliary practices” such as reciting sutras, devotional practices and moral conduct to help bolster this. Honen, who started Jodo Shu (and by extension Jodo Shinshu) was deeply devoted to Shan-tao but creatively adapted the recitation of the Buddha’s name as being the only practiced that ultimately mattered for rebirth in the Pure Land.

However, over time, I’ve come to terms with this approach for a few reasons. First, I came to view the recitation of the Buddha’s name as a foundational practice. Once the Pure Land approach sinks in and becomes a part of one’s life, it’s sensible to add other practices as one sees fit. Honen seems to have also favored a similar approach. Second, the “restorer” of Jodo Shinshu, Rennyo, encouraged the practice of expressing gratitude in the Pure Land path and that included reciting the Buddha’s name, but also other things as well, such as other Buddhist practices, or just doing good in society. Shinran didn’t talk about this much, but I think Rennyo’s explanation makes a lot of sense.

Finally, after reading Chinese/Vietnamese/Korean Buddhist sources on the Pure Land Buddhism, such as Ou-I’s 17th-century text, Mind Seal of the Buddha or contemporary sources, I realized that there’s many ways to interpret the same practices and the same goal of rebirth in the Pure Land. So, there’s quite a bit of latitude for how one views the Pure Land, Amitabha Buddha and reciting his name, even if the end-goal and practice are the same. This gave me a sense of relief because I don’t have to “conform” to a particular doctrinal view because they all converge anyway.

In any case, I think it’s important to Jodo Shinshu, or any sect of Buddhism, or any religion, to be open to criticism and for each follower to do soul-searching as part of their journey. If a person, or their religion, is so insecure that they can’t accept any criticism, then that makes their beliefs even more suspect. So, I think it’s good to read criticisms like this, because they help me question my own path.

1 Chanting the Shoshinge itself, even the more melodic “gyofu” style isn’t that hard for me. It’s the Wasan hymns I struggle with. I’m not a good singer, and have no musical background, so I frequently get off key, even with dozens of hours of practice. I have improved, but I still need a lot of work. Believe me, I have become intimately familiar with the Wasan hymns. :p

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Religion | 4 Comments

Tolerance

This is another great quote from The Zen Monastic Experience (the other here):

Some months later, after completing four quarters of university study, I arrived in Bangkok, a nineteen-year-old filled with idealized images of Buddhism learned from books. Of course, I was quickly disillusioned. One of the things that immediately irked me was that Thai monks kept asking me when I planned to disrobe [return to lay life]. This question is common in Thailand, since Thais typically ordain for only a few months as part of their Buddhist religion training, much as Protestants might attend Sunday School; they have no intention of being monks permanently. But to me it seemed almost sacrilege to ordain without a strong commitment to your vocation. It took me quite a while to learn to watch myself, not others. (pg. 72)

This is something I still struggle with a lot, not just in religion, but in life in general.

Posted in Buddhism, Theravada, Zen | Leave a comment

On Mosquitoes

Aedes aegypti.jpg
Aedes aegypti” by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook YoutubeOwn work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s summer, and as you know, mosquitoes become a big nuisance. A couple years ago, I was in Japan during the summer, and one morning, I decided to go for a walk at the nearby park. It was a nice, warm morning, so I sat down at a bench, and decided to read a book. While there, I felt something tickling my legs, and I thought it was a breeze, but when I got home, I had 16 mosquito-bites! I was miserable for the next 3 days. ;-p

Anyhow, I wanted to share this essay from Lafcadio Hearn‘s (小泉八雲) famous book Kwaidan (1903) which can be found here:

MOSQUITOES

With a view to self-protection I have been reading Dr. Howard’s book, “Mosquitoes.” I am persecuted by mosquitoes. There are several species in my neighborhood; but only one of them is a serious torment,–a tiny needly thing, all silver-speckled and silver-streaked. The puncture of it is sharp as an electric burn; and the mere hum of it has a lancinating quality of tone which foretells the quality of the pain about to come,–much in the same way that a particular smell suggests a particular taste. I find that this mosquito much resembles the creature which Dr. Howard calls Stegomyia fasciata, or Culex fasciatus: and that its habits are the same as those of the Stegomyia. For example, it is diurnal rather than nocturnal and becomes most troublesome in the afternoon. And I have discovered that it comes from the Buddhist cemetery,–a very old cemetery,–in the rear of my garden.

Dr. Howard’s book declares that, in order to rid a neighborhood of mosquitoes, it is only necessary to pour a little petroleum, or kerosene oil, into the stagnant water where they breed. Once a week the oil should be used, “at the rate of once ounce for every fifteen square feet of water-surface, and a proportionate quantity for any less surface.” …But please to consider the conditions in my neighborhood!

I have said that my tormentors come from the Buddhist cemetery. Before nearly every tomb in that old cemetery there is a water-receptacle, or cistern, called mizutame. In the majority of cases this mizutame is simply an oblong cavity chiseled in the broad pedestal supporting the monument; but before tombs of a costly kind, having no pedestal-tank, a larger separate tank is placed, cut out of a single block of stone, and decorated with a family crest, or with symbolic carvings. In front of a tomb of the humblest class, having no mizutame, water is placed in cups or other vessels,–for the dead must have water. Flowers also must be offered to them; and before every tomb you will find a pair of bamboo cups, or other flower-vessels; and these, of course, contain water. There is a well in the cemetery to supply water for the graves. Whenever the tombs are visited by relatives and friends of the dead, fresh water is poured into the tanks and cups. But as an old cemetery of this kind contains thousands of mizutame, and tens of thousands of flower-vessels the water in all of these cannot be renewed every day. It becomes stagnant and populous. The deeper tanks seldom get dry;–the rainfall at Tokyo being heavy enough to keep them partly filled during nine months out of the twelve.

Well, it is in these tanks and flower-vessels that mine enemies are born: they rise by millions from the water of the dead;–and, according to Buddhist doctrine, some of them may be reincarnations of those very dead, condemned by the error of former lives to the condition of Jiki-ketsu-gaki, or blood-drinking pretas… Anyhow the malevolence of the Culex fasciatus would justify the suspicion that some wicked human soul had been compressed into that wailing speck of a body…

Now, to return to the subject of kerosene-oil, you can exterminate the mosquitoes of any locality by covering with a film of kerosene all stagnant water surfaces therein. The larvae die on rising to breathe; and the adult females perish when they approach the water to launch their rafts of eggs. And I read, in Dr. Howard’s book, that the actual cost of freeing from mosquitoes one American town of fifty thousand inhabitants, does not exceed three hundred dollars!…

I wonder what would be said if the city-government of Tokyo–which is aggressively scientific and progressive–were suddenly to command that all water-surfaces in the Buddhist cemeteries should be covered, at regular intervals, with a film of kerosene oil! How could the religion which prohibits the taking of any life–even of invisible life–yield to such a mandate? Would filial piety even dream of consenting to obey such an order? And then to think of the cost, in labor and time, of putting kerosene oil, every seven days, into the millions of mizutame, and the tens of millions of bamboo flower-cups, in the Tokyo graveyards!… Impossible! To free the city from mosquitoes it would be necessary to demolish the ancient graveyards;–and that would signify the ruin of the Buddhist temples attached to them;–and that would mean the disparition of so many charming gardens, with their lotus-ponds and Sanscrit-lettered monuments and humpy bridges and holy groves and weirdly-smiling Buddhas! So the extermination of the Culex fasciatus would involve the destruction of the poetry of the ancestral cult,–surely too great a price to pay!…

Besides, I should like, when my time comes, to be laid away in some Buddhist graveyard of the ancient kind,–so that my ghostly company should be ancient, caring nothing for the fashions and the changes and the disintegrations of Meiji. That old cemetery behind my garden would be a suitable place. Everything there is beautiful with a beauty of exceeding and startling queerness; each tree and stone has been shaped by some old, old ideal which no longer exists in any living brain; even the shadows are not of this time and sun, but of a world forgotten, that never knew steam or electricity or magnetism or–kerosene oil! Also in the boom of the big bell there is a quaintness of tone which wakens feelings, so strangely far-away from all the nineteenth-century part of me, that the faint blind stirrings of them make me afraid,–deliciously afraid. Never do I hear that billowing peal but I become aware of a striving and a fluttering in the abyssal part of my ghost,–a sensation as of memories struggling to reach the light beyond the obscurations of a million million deaths and births. I hope to remain within hearing of that bell… And, considering the possibility of being doomed to the state of a Jiki-ketsu-gaki, I want to have my chance of being reborn in some bamboo flower-cup, or mizutame, whence I might issue softly, singing my thin and pungent song, to bite some people that I know.

Enjoy!

P.S. Interesting fact: most mosquitoes do not drink blood at all. Only certain species need blood to make eggs.

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Literature, Religion | Leave a comment

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Hello,

This is just a quick post, but I wanted to share this article by the BBC about Pvt. Henry Johnson, and the Medal of Honor he finally earned almost 100 years later.

I wrote about the famous Harlem Hellfighters of World War I before, and as I mentioned in the article, Johnson had been a war-hero and saved his comrade during a night raid by German soldiers. Johnson fought off at least 12 soldiers by himself, and even when he ran out of ammunition, he kept fighting with his knife.

Yet, despite earning a Croix de Guerre in France, Johnson received no medal at all from the US military.

Finally, though, Pvt Johnson gets the recognition he deserves. :)

Congratulations Pvt Henry Johnson!

Posted in General | Leave a comment