It’s interesting to read their letters side-by-side (more or less) because the content is pretty similar. Both talk about the decline of the Dharma (末法), both were exiled, both talk about critics falling into Hell,1 both support women in Buddhism and both talk about how their practice is the answer to help save many people in this declining era.
When I step back and think about it, these Buddhist schools all arose from a specific time, place and environment which researchers call “Kamakura Era Buddhism”. People like to focus on the differences, but really they’re surprisingly similar to one another. The conditions of the time forced people like Honen, Nichiren and Shinran to innovate, but in the light of science and modern historiography, what seemed new and progressive back then looks kind of outdated and anachronistic.2
Interestingly, the only Japanese Buddhist teachers of the time who didn’t follow this model were those who studied and practiced in China like Dogen and Eisai. China was still somewhat stable and prosperous under the Song Dynasty so the sense of panic and decline wasn’t there. Thus, even when they returned to Japan they didn’t talk about it much.3
Stepping back further, I realized that these teachings by Kamakura-era Buddhists just don’t apply as much anymore. Times have changed, people have moved on. I don’t live in 13th century Japan, and I am not even Japanese!
I don’t agree with post-modern Western Buddhist converts, though, who feel that all of it is useless “cultural accretions”, but I realized that I do have to take things with a grain of salt too. One of my favorite ministers at the local Jodo Shinshu temple used to tell me that’s important to understand a tradition before you criticize it. I think this makes sense. Most people criticize without understanding first.
I think the right approach is to appreciate the tradition, but not be bound by it. Also, don’t throw out the tradition just because you don’t like it either.
Anyway, there are plenty of good teachers both here in the West and Asian and there’s enough practices and schools here to choose from. Fixating on medieval Buddhism just isn’t very constructive. I never lived there, and will never really know what it was like, what people really meant, etc.
I think most Buddhists (Asian and Western) eventually figure this out. But, because I am such a nerd, I am slow to catch on. I need to get with the times. :-)
1 Compare Nichiren’s “Letter on Menstration” (月水御書) written in 1264:
You should know that all these people [who slander the Lotus Sutra and befriend Pure Land Buddhists] will go to the hell of incessant suffering.
With Honen’s reply to the “Lady of Tarō Sanehide in Ōgo” (大胡の太郎実秀が妻室のもとへつかはす御返事) written in 1199:
In sum, those who vilify nembutsu [reciting Amida Buddha's name] will fall into the realm of hell and endure suffering for five eons;
Similar, no? :)
2 Reminds me of this old post, hee hee.
3 To be fair, Zen with its focus on “now” also makes Dharma Decline not very important either. The Buddha stressed the importance of focusing on now, too. Still, opinions will vary even among Zen monks today.