Jinen Honi: Made to Become So

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, out of the larger branch of Pure Land Buddhism, has some interesting innovations that I sometimes find compelling and yet challenging at the same time. To me, one of the most interesting is the concept of jinen hōni (自然法爾). I’ve touched on it before in an old post, but I wanted to explore it more here.1

The concept of jinen-honi is translated to things like “made to become so, by virtue of the Dharma” or something along those lines. It is explained in several of Shinran’s letters and writings, but in particular, I liked the explanation in the “Notes on Essentials of Faith Alone” or yuishinshōmon’i (唯信鈔文意).

This is a commentary by Shinran on another text, the “Essentials of Faith Alone” (yuishinshō 唯信鈔) composed in 1221 by a contemporary named Seikaku (聖覚, 1167-1235).2 Both Seikaku and Shinran were originally monks of the Tendai sect, but later left, and became a disciples of Honen. Seikaku’s text speaks from standpoint more familiar with Jodo Shu Buddhism (practice of reciting the nembutsu, the Three Minds, etc), so Shinran made commentaries on Seikaku’s text providing his own viewpoint.

Of particular interest is the following paragraph, which is translated here (kanji added for clarity):

Ji [自] also means of itself. “Of itself” is a synonym for jinen, which means to be made to become so. “To be made to become so” means that without the practicer’s calculating in any way whatsoever, all that practicer’s past, present, and future evil karma is transformed into the highest good, just as all waters, upon entering the great ocean, immediately become ocean water. We are made to acquire the Tathagata’s virtues through entrusting ourselves to the Vow-power; hence the expression, “made to become so.” Since there is no contriving in any way to gain such virtues, it is called jinen [自然]. Those persons who have attained true and real shinjin are taken into and protected by this Vow that grasps never to abandon; therefore, they realize the diamondlike mind without any calculation on their own part, and thus dwell in the stage of the truly settled. Because of this, constant mindfulness of the Primal Vow arises in them naturally (by jinen). Even with the arising of this shinjin, it is written that supreme shinjin is made to awaken in us through the compassionate guidance of Sakyamuni, the kind father, and Amida, the mother of loving care. Know that this is the benefit of the working of jinen.

The idea here is that through completely entrusting oneself to the vow of Amitabha Buddha to rescue all beings, the virtues of Amitabha help to transform a person without any calculation by the person. It seems like a totally foreign concept in Buddhism, though when I think of the Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2) in the Pali Canon, the idea is not so far-fetched, because the idea is that self-power alone is not enough: even monks depend on others to advance on the path. It’s a question of whom and how.3

Anyhow, something interesting I wanted to share. :)

1 I’m surprised that old post is 7 years old! Time flies. :p

2 Interesting bit of historical trivia, Seikaku was also the grandson of Fujiwara no Michinori.

3 It’s also why the sangha (community) is one of the three treasures of Buddhism.

Osechi-Ryori: Japanese New Year Food

Japanese Osechi-ryori

One tradition that’s pretty universal in Japan during the New Year is eating osechi-ryōri (おせち料理). The individual foods might be eaten throughout the year, but for New Year they are arranged in a more special way to symbolize hopes for an auspicious year to come.

I’ve posted before about osechi-ryori, but strangely, I don’t think I ever actually explained it (if I did, I can’t find the post). So, this article is an example of what osechi-ryori might look like. Different families will do different things, depending on how much effort they want to put into it, and available resources.1

The presentation my wife did this year is pretty typical of our home, but again may be somewhat different than other families.

The first dish here is a baked snapper or tai (鯛):

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Baked fish is a common dish in Japanese culture, but I grew up eating deep-fried fish and chips, so I never really tried regular baked fish until recently. Snapper isn’t my personal favorite (baked mackerel is good), but my wife did a nice job here. There hardest part of baking fish is how to deal with the smell. In Japan, they have special ovens for baking fish that can siphon the smell away, but we have an older, American oven and so the main trick is to bake in a little bit of water. If the fish gets to dry, the smell worsens.

The next dish, using a Mickey Mouse-shaped bento box we bought in Japan, is nimono or stewed vegetables (煮物):

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Nimono is a common winter dish, but it’s really yummy because you can make it with all kinds of vegetables. Here we used chicken, lotus root (which looks like little wagon wheels), carrots, burdock root, and konyaku which looks like black jello, but is actually made of sweet potato. I love my wife’s nimono. It’s great.

Also, my wife made ozōni soup:

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Ozoni soup is something you might enjoy any time during the winter, but it’s often served during New Year’s Day as well. Here you can see my wife used chopped spinach, mochi rice cake which melts nicely in the soup, chicken and a slice of the pink and white kamaboko (see below).

Finally the pièce de résistance:

Japanese Osechi-ryori

This is the main osechi dish and includes the following (clockwise from upper-right):

  • Black beans or kuromamé (黒豆), sweet.  According to wikipedia the name “mamé” is a synonym for health.
  • Chestnut paste or kurikinton (栗きんとん).  This too is kind of sweet and tasty.  The golden color also implies wealth and happiness.
  • Stir-fried burdock root and carrots, julienne, or kinpira (キンピラ).  These are slightly spicy, and one of my favorite winter dishes.
  • Pink and white fish cakes or kamaboko (蒲鉾).  The name doesn’t sound appetizing, but they’re actually quite good, especially in soup.  The colors are festive, and the round shape looks like a rising sun implying the new year.2
  • Wrapped konbu (昆布) rolls.  Again, this is similar to the word yorokobu, the verb to enjoy something.  Konbu seaweed is thicker and chewier than nori seaweed, but still good.
  • Salmon roe eggs, or ikura (イクラ).  Popular in sushi, but also good over rice with soy-sauce.  But since they’re very salty, don’t eat too many or you’ll get indigestion.
  • Shredded daikon and carrots with vinegar (?).  More of a salad-type dish, but very tasty.
  • In the middle is herring roe or kazunoko (数の子), which is also a word-play for kazu (number) and ko (children).  This implies a household with many children.3

This page in Japanese has a more comprehensive explanation of different osechi dishes and their meaning, and the Wikipedia article is pretty helpful too.

If you buy the fancy, catered ones, the dishes will be much more elaborate, and in nice bento boxes (like the ones we enjoyed in Japan in past years), but this year my wife wanted to make it herself, and keep it fairly simple so we don’t have a lot of wasted food sitting around for days.  This year the amount was just right, and was almost gone by the 2nd.

In the past, I’ve seen big elaborate osechi dishes, and the “good” foods get picked clean very quick, but the less appetizing choices tend to linger for days.  So, sometimes less is more.  ;)

Anyhow, that’s a brief look at osechi-ryori.  :)

1 We know some Japanese wives who live overseas in places where these ingredients are pretty hard to obtain.

2 We bought some fancier kamaboko that had pictures inside. This photo, taken a few days later when my wife made leftovers, shows a slice of kamaboko with a picture of an umé (plum) branch.

3 People have been asking if we are going to have a third child, and although we would like to have a third child, I don’t think we can realistically afford one. Plus we’re getting old enough that it’s not such a good idea anynore.

Happy New Year 2016

Hello Dear Readers,

This is my first post written in 2016 (my last post was actually written in late 2015 ;p ).  I’ve been missing the blog lately and wanted to write a little bit about the New Year’s celebration.  First we did mochi-making (お餅つき) at the same house as last year.  We were hosted by the same local artisan and mochi-making expert featured here in this newspaper article.

Mochi Making 2015

You can see me here helping my son to pound mochi rice.  Daddy did most of the work. Here my daughter decided to try too:

Mochi Making 2015

A few days later we enjoyed New Year’s Eve or Ōmisoka (大晦日) in Japanese with some friends.  Lots of good food:


New Year's Eve 2015

And as usual we watched the yearly Japanese special Kohaku Uta Gassen. Little Guy seems to enjoy watching the Japanese girl idol groups.

Idol Groups and Son

This might be AKB48, but I can’t recall. Plus, there are so many similar groups: HKT48, NMB48, etc. I can’t keep track anymore. Also, I was pretty sick that night:


However, I did enjoy some delicious toshi-koshi soba (“End of Year Soba”) before going to bed:

Toshi-koshi soba

Finally, the next day, my wife had osechi-ryōri ready, which I will talk about in a later post.  We did not do hatsumode this year at the usual temple because I am a minister’s assistant now with a specific temple, so it seemed a bit strange to go visit other temples instead, plus I had to help lead the service that day.1

Anyhow, it was a nice end to a very nice year.  During 2015, I got to become a minister’s assistant with the Buddhist Churches of America, and got a new job, which I like much better than my old job with a certain company that sells things online.  Finally I took the JLPT N1 exam for the first time.  I’ve definitely gotten over the long “funk” I had for a few years, and am looking forward to another year of blogging fun with you all.

Happy New Year Everyone!


1 Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is somewhat against the practice of omamori in Japanese culture, so naturally I didn’t get one. I might pick up one or two when I visit Japan this summer though. Even though it’s kind of a superstition, I just like collecting them anyway.


From the Sutra of the Ten Stages, which is chapter 26 of the massive Flower Garland Sutra (華厳経):

If the beings I see by my enlightened vision
Were saints equal to Shariputra,
And one should honor them for millions of ages,
As many as the sands of the Ganges River;
And if someone honored an individual illuminate
Day and night, cheerful,
With the finest garlands and such,
And thereby created excellent virtue;
And if all were individual illuminates,
If one honored them diligently
With followers and incense, food and drink,
For many eons,
Still if one made even one bow to one buddha
And with a pure mind declared obeisance,
The virtue would be greater than all that.

What interests me about this quote is how praising an enlightened Buddha is much greater virtue than a famous monk or saint. There are a lot ways to interpret why, but anyway I just thought it was interesting. It’s hard to find good quotations from the Flower Garland Sutra anyway since it is so long and dense. ;-)


Yet Another Definition of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

Over the years, as I try to make sense of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, or “Shin” Buddhism as all the teenagers say nowadays,1 I have tried a number of different ways to understand and explain it to others.2 However, I wanted to share an explanation that really opened my eyes.

I was recently perusing the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, which I received a while back (and regularly use) as a sample copy.  I was looking up some information on Zhiyi, the famous Chinese Tian-tai Buddhist monk which I then used to rewrite the Wikipedia article on the Five Periods and the Eight Teachings.  But having finished that, I decided to then lookup the entry on Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, and this passage caught my attention (emphasis and links added):

Shinran refers often to the single utterance [of Amitabha Buddha’s name Namu Amida Butsu] that assures rebirth in the pure land.  This utterance need not be audible, indeed not even voluntary, but it is instead heard in the heart as a consequence of the “single thought-moment” of shinjin, received through Amitābha’s grace.  This salvation has nothing to do with whether one is a monk or a layperson, man or woman, saint or sinner, learned or ignorant.  He said that if even a good man can be reborn in the pure land, then how much more easily can an evil man; this is because the good man remains attached to the illusion that his virtuous deeds will bring about his salvation, while the evil man has abandoned this conceit.  Whereas Hōnen sought to identify the benefits of the nembutsu [reciting the Buddha’s name] in contrast to other teachings of the day, Shinran sought to reinterpret Buddhist doctrine and practice in light of Amitābha’s vow [to rescue all beings].  For example, the important Mahāyāna doctrine of the Ekayāna, or “one vehicle,” the buddha vehicle whereby all sentient beings will be enabled to follow the bodhisattva path to buddhahood [full enlightenment], is interpreted by Shinran to be nothing than Amitābha’s vow.

The top-half of this quotation is pretty standard Jodo Shinshu teaching.  I’ve read this before, and share it here more as a background reference.  What gave me pause was the second-half where it talks about how Shinran interpreting Buddhist doctrine in light of the Buddha Amitabha’s vow to rescue all beings.  In all my years of learning about Jodo Shinshu, I simply never noticed that.  I admit I’ve always approached it the way Honen did: finding a way for Pure Land teachings to fit within the greater Buddhism, but Shinran’s approach is kind of radical in a way.

The Lotus Sutra teaching of Ekayana is a great example of this, because I do consider myself a devotee of the Lotus Sutra, but it never occurred to me that his would be an expression of Amitabha Buddha’s compassion toward other beings.  Usually the Lotus Sutra describes itself as the king of all sutras, the pinnacle teaching, and much of Buddhism tends to follow this line including me.  In such a framework, the Pure Land sutras and practices are part of the overall “vehicle” preached in the Lotus Sutra. However, Shinran turns this on its head.  It kind of blew me away.  For example, the verses in chapter five of the Lotus Sutra, when seen in the light of Amitabha’s compassion take on a whole new meaning for me.

I found this passage last week, and I’ve been mulling it over since then, appreciating the implications.  I may explore this again in future posts.  Stay tuned.  ;)

1 Just kidding. I just wanted to sound like a cranky old man. ;)

2 I know I have more posts buried somewhere in the last 8 years of blogging, but I didn’t have the time to search. Thankfully there’s Google! ;)

Just As You Are


There’s a famous Japanese poem that you will often see in Jodo Shinshu Buddhist literature usually translated as “Just Right” or “Just As You Are” or “Sono-mana”. Rev. Taitetsu Unno, who passed away a couple years ago, translated the poem in one of his books, and it has been popular since among English-speaking Shin Buddhists.

Recently, I remembered this poem, and tried to find the original in Japanese, and when I did, I realized that there were some problems with the English translation. Nothing serious, but worth sharing.

The actual name of the poem in Japanese is 仏様のことば(丁度よい)or hotoke-sama no kotoba (chōdo yoi), which means “The Buddha’s Words (Just Right)”. It was composed by one Maekawa Gorōmatsu at the age of 93.

Here is the original poem in Japanese (source here):


In English, the translation is usually this (source Spokane Buddhist Temple):

You, as you are, are just right.
Your face, your body, your name, your surname,
they are, for you, just right.
Whether poor or rich, your parents, your children,
your daughter-in-law, your grandchildren
they are, for you, just right.
Happiness, unhappiness, joy and even sorrow,
for you, they are just right.
The life that you have walked
is neither good nor bad.
For you, it is just right.

However, when you look at the Japanese, that’s only about two-thirds of the original poem. Here is a rough-translation of the rest:

No need to take pride in anything, no need to be humble either.

If there’s nothing above, there’s nothing below either.

Even the day and time of your death is just right, too.

A life hand in hand with the Buddha

Isn’t supposed to be wrong for you.

Rather, when you hear that it is just right for you,

Enduring faith [confidence in the Buddha] is born.

Namu Amida Butsu
(Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light)


Something for the Holidays

Hi Everyone,

Ive been writing this blog for seven years now and have had many readers and visitors since then. Recently I found this old, old post I wrote in 2008 that I wanted to share for the holidays:


This is a fake Buddhist sutra about Santa Claus that I wrote by mixing several real sutras and rewriting the text for Santa. It was a fun excercise in making the holidays more “Buddhist”. 

Please enjoy and happy holidays!

Creating Our Worst Nightmare


A wise man1 named Ultron once said:

“Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war. Invaders create Avengers. People create… smaller people? Er… children! I lost the word there. Children. Designed to supplant them. To help them end.”

With all the conflict going on in the world, this quote seems all the more true.

1 Just kidding, of course. I did enjoy the Avengers movie quite a bit, though. :)

Gone, Gone, Gone to the Other Shore

Cloudy day at river shore


As a celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment on Bodhi Day, I wanted to share this little-known, but interesting quote from the Dhammpada:

179. By what track can you trace that trackless Buddha of limitless range, whose victory nothing can undo, whom none of the vanquished defilements can ever pursue?

Compare with the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra:

The Thus Come One [the Buddha] has already left
the burning house of the threefold world
and dwells in tranquil quietude
in the safety of forest and plain.

Happy Bodhi Day!

P.S. Title of this post comes from one possible translation of the mantra used in the Heart Sutra.