What is Shin Buddhism?

by Rev. Nobuo Haneda

The more ripe a cluster of rice becomes, the lower it bows down its head.
A Japanese proverb

Shin Buddhism, or the teachings of Shinran (1173-1262), teaches us the importance of humility, the most important universal virtue. Many people think that the ultimate goal in Buddhism as well as human life is to become good. But according to Shinran, it is to become humble. Being good is not good enough; we must become humble persons. We must know our evilness, the existence of our ineradicable egoism. We must know our ignorance, the limitations of our intellects. We must become humble persons who can say, “I’m evil and ignorant.”

In order to explain that Shin Buddhism teaches us the importance of humility, let me first discuss the two stages of life that Shinran experienced. 

Two Stages in Shinran’s Life 

The most important event in Shinran’s life was his meeting with Honen (1133-1212), the founder of the Jodo School, when Shinran was twenty-nine. This event divided his life into two stages: the period before the meeting was the first stage and the period after it was the second stage.

When Shinran met Honen, Shinran realized that he had had a shallow view of Buddhahood. His thoughts on the subject went through a total transformation. Before Shinran met Honen, Shinran thought that a Buddha was a “good” and “wise” person—a holy person who was possessed of wonderful virtues. In order to become such a Buddha, Shinran attempted to purify himself by eliminating evil passions. But he could not attain Buddhahood. Not only was he unable to become a Buddha, he was feeling more and more depressed and miserable. His goal of Buddhahood seemed far away. He could not understand what was wrong.

When Shinran met Honen, Shinran saw a Buddha in him. But the Buddhahood that he saw in Honen was totally different from what he had anticipated. More than anything else, Shinran was moved by the fact that Honen was a humble student. Honen identified himself only as a student of Shan-tao (613-81), a Chinese Pure Land master. Honen said that the only important thing for him was to learn from his teacher. This way Honen embodied the spirit of a Buddha by the name of Namu Amida Butsu (Bowing Amida Buddha). Namu (Bowing) is a part of the Buddha’s name. The Buddha’s name symbolizes the humblest human spirit. Before Shinran met Honen, he had thought that a Buddha was a teacher, a respected and worshipped person. But now, having met Honen, he realized that a Buddha was actually a student, a respecting and worshipping person.

Further, before Shinran met Honen, he had thought that a Buddha was a “good” and “wise” person. But now Shinran realized that such an understanding of Buddhahood was a shallow one. He realized that he had been seeing Buddhahood only objectively, from outside. He had not known the subjective reality of Buddhahood—what a Buddha would say about himself. Although people would see a Buddha from outside and describe him by saying, “He is good and wise,” a Buddha would describe himself by saying, “I’m evil and foolish.” Having met Honen, who had deep insight into his own evilness and ignorance and said, “I’m evil and foolish,” Shinran realized that the true essence of Buddhahood was humility—deep insight into one’s own evilness and foolishness.

Thus in the first stage, i.e., before he met Honen, Shinran thought that a Buddha was a “good” and “wise” person and Shinran made efforts to become such a Buddha. But in the second stage, i.e., after he met Honen, Shinran realized that the essence of Buddhahood was humility—studentship and insight into evilness and ignorance.

Thus, having been moved by Honen’s humble spirit, Shinran also became a humble student. He recognized that he had ineradicable egoism at the basis of his being and that he had no goodness that he could rely on as the basis of his liberation. Thus he stopped his practices designed to transform himself into a holy person. He realized that a wonderful Dharma tradition had already been given to him and that the only thing necessary for him was to listen to it. This realization was his liberation. 

Growing and Maturing 

Let me further discuss the two stages, calling the first stage “the growing stage” and the second stage “the maturing stage.”

Human beings must grow up first; we must learn and experience all kinds of things. We must strive to be good, better, and best; we must pursue infinite possibilities. But when our growing stops, we must enter the maturing stage. We must reflect upon ourselves, know our evilness, ignorance, and ineradicable egoism, and become humble.

The growing stage is the stage of self-betterment and self-enhancement; it is a stage of self-affirmation. Whereas, the maturing stage is the stage of self-reflection and self-understanding; it is a stage of self-negation.

Shin Buddhist teachings concern the maturing stage. Shin Buddhist terms such as “evil” and “foolish” are all connected with the discovery of our ineradicable egoism, with our becoming humble. Terms such as “evil” and “foolish” should be understood only within the context of our individual self-understanding. They should be used only within the grammatical context of the first person singular, as in “I’m evil,” or “I’m ignorant.” The evilness or ignorance of other people is not an important issue in Shin Buddhism.

The essence of Shin Buddhism is the discovery of the evilness, ignorance, and ineradicable egoism in our beings. In the sphere of religion people usually believe that they deserve liberation or salvation and seek it. But Shin Buddhism teaches us that we, being helplessly egoistic and having no goodness as any basis for liberation, cannot possibly deserve any liberation.

Having discovered ineradicable egoism in his being, Shinran said, “As I am incapable of performing any religious practice, Hell is my only home.” (Tannisho, Chap.2). He also identified himself as an icchantika (one who is totally devoid of any good). However, the discovery of his impossible reality was his liberation. This experience of liberation is a paradox that can be described only with the expression, “No liberation is liberation.” When Shinran recognized that he had no “goodness” that he could rely on as the basis of his liberation, his religious self-reliance was totally shattered. This total negation of self-reliance, however, was actually his liberation. Now he became a totally humble person, which was his liberation. Rev. Haya Akegarasu (1877-1954), a Shin teacher, described this paradoxical experience of liberation in his article ‘The Last Person Remaining”: “Our liberation does not exist in our becoming liberatable and liberated; it exists in our knowing that we are totally unliberatable.”

In his article, “Self-Despising and Self-Respecting,” Rev. Manshi Kiyozawa (1863-1903), another Shin teacher, described the liberation of the humble person by saying, "The person who has entered the gate of religion sees ‘zero’ value in himself. Far from slighting or respecting the self, he does not recognize any value in the self. Generally speaking, our anguish and grief exist because of our sense of self-importance. If we have already lost our sense of self-importance, we do not feel anguish and grief, if we have already lost it, we do not mind whether others despise or honor us, or whether they slight or respect us. We can do all things calmly, leaving others to respect or despise us as they like.”

Once a Dharma school teacher asked me, “Can Dharma school children comprehend Shinran’s deep self-awareness?” I answered, “No, I don’t think children can fully comprehend Shinran’s deep self-awareness, because it belongs to the maturing stage. Children are still in the growing stage.”

Growing must come first. We must let children grow up first. It is only after they finish growing up that they start to mature. When they enter the maturing stage, they can understand what Shinran says about himself. It is exactly the same with academic education. No matter how important graduate education may be, we cannot skip grammar school and junior high school. Thus Shinran called the growing stage the “Necessary Gate (yo-mon).” It is a preparatory stage. It is only after we go through the growing stage that the maturing stage can begin.

Another Dharma school teacher asked me, “Is it all right for children to have ambition? Should we Dharma school teachers encourage or discourage children’s ambition?” I answered, ‘1’here is nothing wrong with children having ambition. It is important that they have ambition.”

Let children have as much ambition as possible. Let them pursue whatever goals or ideals they have. Let them strive to become great scholars, scientists, artists, and sportsmen. If, after having pursued their ambition and become adults, children start to reflect upon themselves and see their limitations, then their maturing stage has begun. While they are attempting to realize their ambitions, their arrogance will grow, too. But if they start to recognize their own arrogance, then their maturing stage has begun. Let them grow up first. Let them grow up as big as possible. We should not make bonsai trees—miniature Shinran trees—out of children. In a photo such a bonsai tree may look like a huge Shinran tree. But it is not the real Shinran. Shinran was a gigantic tree. In his growing-up stage, Shinran grew up to be a huge tree. If a ten-year old boy says, “I’m evil and ignorant,” there is something wrong with him. If Dharma school teachers are attempting to make children say that, they are creating monsters.

Then, what can Dharma school teachers do for children? The only thing they can do is to prepare children for the maturing stage in their future. The teachers must tell them that becoming good is not good enough—that the ultimate goal in human life is to become humble. They must tell them that humility is the most important universal virtue and that only a humble person can have the greatest happiness and joy.

More than anything else, Dharma school teachers themselves must learn to be humble; they must learn to gain insight into the pettiness of their being and have deep respect for the Dharma. If Dharma school teachers simply attempt to teach ideas and concepts to children, they fail to be good teachers. But if they can manifest humility, deep respect for the Dharma, they are good teachers. Children will eventually forget most of the ideas and concepts that their teachers have taught them, but they will remember the humble attitude and respect that they have seen in their teachers.