Another Irony of Shinran

Posted by:

K. Ken Fujimoto

In working on some translations for the Ministers Affairs Committee, I have come to see that the ideal for a Jodo Shinshu minister is based heavily on the image of Shinran Shonin. This may seem natural at first, but I find it ironic since Shinran never intended to start a sect and cultivate a following. Even the Kyogyoshinsho, that is considered to be his major work and provides the cornerstone for his teaching, was written by him to show that his teacher, Honen Shonin’s teaching of the Nembutsu was mainstream of Buddhism and that it was the essence of Pure Land thought. Even his famous statement that he was “…neither a monk, nor a layman…,” reflects his view that he saw his role as something other than that of a minister. Furthermore, throughout his life, Shinran stated that he had no disciples, that everyone was the same in light of Amida’s compassionate vow.

This statement, “…neither a monk, nor a layman…,” can be understood on several levels and can show us how he viewed his life and role. This statement actually reflects a Buddhist view of things and can be seen as embracing seemingly contradictory points and creating an inclusive synthesis of those contradictions.

On a relatively simple level, this statement reflects the reality that he had studied and practiced on Mt. Hiei in the Tendai tradition for over twenty years. This education and experience would never let him be viewed by the lay person as being one of them. It was also a reality that he had been defrocked by the government so he was no longer a monk. During this time, he had taken a wife and started a family, so he had abandoned the vows of a monk, one who had left the family life to travel the path to enlightenment, and would never be accepted as one again. This statement reflected his position as one where neither side would ever embrace him as one of them again.

This may seem a little negative and defeatist, but we can see another aspect of this as well. To be “…neither monk, nor lay…,” also would mean that he was free from the limitations and expectations society may have about the roles of lay and monk. He was free of what people would expect from a monk. He was also free of the limitations society would expect of a lay person. He was not part of that power structure that could deem the actions taken by him and others as not being appropriate for a monk and take actions to defrock, exile and even execute monks. He was not part of that which had to adhere to such rules and conditions. He was totally free to pursue the Nembutsu teaching without any concern for the politics and social pressures that might become obstacles in his quest. He saw this as the working of Amida’s compassion enabling him to seek the life in the Nembutsu.

He saw this status of “neither monk, nor lay” as something that enabled him to become the purest form of seeker, freed from the roles, as seen by society and each group. He only needed to live in the embrace of the great compassion and share what he had found as a natural extension of his life. That his experience has become the ideal or model of a Jodo Shinshu minister today is ironic and makes it truly difficult to define except in the broadest terms.

Such ironies often seem to arise in our human history and make it difficult to create labels and categories. To be a fellow seeker who teaches or guides others as an extension of that personal quest would seem to be the best way to summarize the model he gives us.

© September 22, 2013