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BSTC6012 Japanese Buddhism: history and doctrines

Name: Tan Huilun Ron

University No.: 3035251749

Essay title:

A Critical Discussion on Shinran’s Pure Land


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Shinran (1173 – 1262 C.E.) is the founder of the Jodo Shinshu Pure Land tradition
in Japan during the Kamakura period (1185 – 1332 C.E), where it gained a popular
following during a period of political instability after the Minamoto warrior clan
took over governance from the ineffective Taira Clan. The growth of Pure Land
Buddhism flourished in Japan during this period, and even becoming the largest
Buddhist sect in Japan, with increasing followers up till this day globally.

According to Bloom (2007), the Kamakura period produced many great thinkers
who once studied Buddhism at Mount Hiei. Contextually, Japan was in a state of
upheavals and turmoil while these learned individuals emerged from the Tendai
school, (re)interpreting Buddhist philosophy, doctrines and practices and became
the founders themselves of their own schools. They include Honen (1133 – 1212
C.E.) in the Pure Land tradition, Dogen (1200 – 1253 C.E.) in the Zen, and Nichiren
(1222 – 1289 C.E.) who focused in the Lotus Sutras. The common reason of these
founders leaving Mount Hiei, as seen in their hagiographies, pointed towards the
dissatisfaction of the Tendai teachings of not meeting their spiritual ideals and
expectations. Shinran, too, left Mount Hiei and became a disciple of Honen in the
Pure Land tradition. When both Honen and Shinran were exiled and separated to
different locations in Japan, Shinran became a more independent thinker, and
further developed Pure Land teaching with “more philosophical and
psychological depth” (Bloom 2007, p. 7).

It is therefore my intention in this essay to discuss Shinran’s contributions to the

philosophy and doctrines of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. First, I will explain
Shinran’s original insight from the Mappo theory and the primal vow of Amida. I
contextualize Shinran’s idea that man can be saved solely through faith in Amida
(Amitabha) as a deviation from Honen’s initial doctrines of the Pure Land. Next,

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I explore the central concepts of reliance on ‘other-power’ and ‘true entrusting’ in
Amida for the salvation of the inner self. Then, I discuss how the Jodo Shinshu
teachings spread easily and appeal to the masses of not only Japan, but the world
today. Many scholars accrue the popularity of Jodo Shinshu’s Pure Land Buddhism
due to it being an ‘easy-practice’ compared to other traditions of Buddhism, and
I critically discuss if such an assertion is valid.

The Mappo Age and the Vows of Amida

As mentioned earlier, Shinran was trained as a Tendai monk and lived through
the upheavals during the transition between the Heian and Kamakura periods.
Bloom (1964) painted Shinran as a monastic who had a lot of ‘spiritual anxiety’
(p.120) and it was this failure and sense of sin that enabled him to truly appreciate
Honen’s teachings and further develop the Jodo Shinshu sect. The idea of sin is
based on the ideological concept of Mappo, the Buddhist theory concerning the
last stage in the degeneration of the Buddhist doctrine. According to this theory,
it was impossible to attain enlightenment in this period due to the age of
degeneration fueled by desire and ignorance. Pure Land teachings thus enabled a
path for salvation, where reliance on Amida is the method to do so.

Shinran, trained as a Tendai monk, was able to analyse the meaning of existence
through meditation, as well as being familiar with the Lotus Sutra. As seen in his
confessional writings, Shinran consistently spoke about his failure in keeping to
monastic discipline and the inability of purifying himself (Ingram, 1968). His
personal experiences and subscription to the Mappo theory thus served as the
basis in his belief on total reliance on Amida.

Honen and Shinran based their soteriological doctrines upon three Indian Pure

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Land Buddhist sutras – The Larger Sukhavati-vyuha (Daimuryojukyo), The
Smaller Sukhavati-vyuha (Amidakyo), and The Amitayur-dhyana–sutra
(Kanmuryojukyo). Of the three, The Larger Sukhavati-vyuha was the most
important text (ibid.). In this sutra, it is mentioned that Amida made forty-eight
vows and resides in the Western quarter of the universe that he created out of the
infinite merit he acquired by achieving enlightenment. For Honen and Shinran,
the eighteenth vow of this sutra was the most important, which states:

If, O Blessed One, when I have attained enlightenment, whatever beings in

other worlds, having conceived a desire for right, perfect enlightenment and
having heard my name, with favourable intent think upon me, if when the time
and moment and death are upon them, I, surrounded by and at the head of my
community of mendicants, do not stand before them and keep them from
frustration, may I not, on that account, attain unexcelled, right, perfect
enlightenment (ibid.).

It is on the basis of the eighteenth vow that Pure Land developed its doctrines. For
Honen and Shinran, calling upon the name of Amida during death will enable one
to attain ojo, a rebirth into the Pure Land of Amida and a salvation from the world
of suffering (ibid.). The invocation of Amida’s name is called nembutsu. For
Honen, the most important thing to enter Pure Land is to have full trust in
Amida’s eighteenth vow, and one needs to develop betso no anjin, or “particular
setting of the mind” anchored on joshin (sincerity), a steadfastness and devotion
to Amida; jinshin, meaning devotion to Amida only, and not to any other
Bodhisattva, Buddha or divinity; and eko hotsugan shin, the desire to transform
the merits which one has earned by leading a morally good life into the rebirth in
the Pureland. Furthermore, Honen taught the four disciplines in ensuring one’s
karma to be reborn into Pureland: 1) honour Amida through recitation of the three
Pure Land sutras, 2) single-minded devotion to Amida only, 3) continuous
recitation of nembutsu and 4) perseverance in those disciplines. Therefore,

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Honen’s position is that one still needs to strive and maintain discipline before ojo
can be granted by Amida. There is still a strong focus “self-power”, or jiriki, where
one has to strive in the four disciplines in order to receive ojo.

Shinran’s concept of faith

Shinran accepted all of Honen’s teachings, but deviated when he taught that one
can be saved by faith alone. Shinran does not subscribe to self-power, but believed
in “other-power” instead, where even faith itself is a “gift given by Amida despite
man’s moral, intellectual and spiritual condition” (ibid., p. 241). Such faith,
according to him, is supported by three elements: 1) the three attitudes (sincere
mind, trustfulness and desire for rebirth into Pure Land) presented in the
eighteenth vow, 2) the achievement of Buddha Nature and 3) the absence of doubt.
Shinran propounds that Amida’s vow is non-discriminatory – an infinite attitude
to save all beings or not accept final nirvana. The devotion from the followers of
Amida thus arises from his all-encompassing great compassion.

In terms of Buddha Nature, Shinran’s view is that it is never possible to realise

one’s true Buddha Nature unless one is in total union of the Amida’s wisdom and
compassion. One can only realise his true Buddha Nature when he has full
unshakeable faith in Amida, which can also be interpreted as a true realization of
non-self in relying on the power of Amida in achieving “psychological egoless-
ness” (ibid., p. 243). Therefore, man places full trust in Amida’s power in granting
him ojo when the believer is able to perfect the three attitudes as mentioned
earlier. To Shinran, faith is the root cause of ojo.

With faith being the absence of doubt, it appealed to two types of individuals –
one that does not believe that he is good enough to be saved and the individual

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who has confidence that he can gain Enlightenment through his own efforts. For
the former, Shinran views that no one is too evil for Amida to save because his vow
is without discrimination; and for the latter, in believing that one can gain
enlightenment by his own power, one will always be hindered by pride.

Shinran also developed a theory based on the seventeenth vow in which it is

promised that Amida’s name would be sounded through the universe by all the
Buddhas of the Cosmos. This universal recitation of the name was viewed as the
manifestation of the subjective aspect of faith in beings. According to Bloom
(2007, p. 171), “Shinran taught that through the fulfillment of his Vows, Amida
Buddha became embodied, or ‘incarnated’ (a metaphor), that is, spiritually
present, in the name”. Bloom noted that Amida is not a “specific being”, but an
“inconceivable reality” and hence Shinran emphasized the aspect of Amida
manifesting as light in the “form of no form” (ibid.). Therefore, the nembutsu
practice is an “inner aspiration and inspiration as the reality revealed through the
experience of entrusting…through hearing and reciting the name, (one)
encounter(s) reality itself which frees and transforms the reality of (his) being”
(ibid.). To Shinran, the nembutsu practice serves as true devotion, personal
spiritual transformation and also to contribute positively to the world. Bloom
surmised that Shinran’s universalism suggest a “true entrusting in the world”
because of the nembutsu being the cause of awakening one’s true self, one will be
of benefit to others, which is compatible to Mahayana Buddhism (p. 183).

Shinran’s Other-power – is it extremism?

Unlike Honen, Shinran’s radical and absolutist view of Other-power is totally

dependent on faith alone. This is also evidenced in his interpretation of Buddhist
texts where he believes that the transference of merits is not an act of human
beings, but belonging to the work of Amida. Bloom (1964) inspected Shinran’s

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“grammatical and linguistical method of interpreting traditional texts” and
concluded that “the central point of his teaching was not only the primacy of faith
in salvation, but also that faith is not the result of human resolution to believe nor
the cultivation individually of a sense of dependence” (p. 140). This is a clear
difference from Honen’s idea of faith, as well as other forms of Buddhism of all
periods that premised faith as a precursor for one’s spiritual discipline.

Suzuki (1997) explains that while Other-power “does everything by itself”, one
must “become conscious of Other-power doing its work” (p.57). He even goes a
step further to suggest that “the realization of the worthlessness of self-power may
also be Amida’s work” (ibid.). It is only through Other-power that one can
transcend the relative way of thinking and let Amida’s prajna work through one’s
non-conceptual mind. Suzuki terms the recognition of Other-power as a religious
experience: “As long as we try to avoid and long for the Pure Land, or think that
we must abandon self-power, we are in the realm of power” (p. 77). Hence, Other-
power is about engaging the non-conceptual mind, a refusal to engage in
conceptual proliferations with regards to moral thinking, but to rely totally on the
power of Amida.

As such, while some scholars argue that Pure Land ideas deviate from the original
principles of Buddhism such as taking the middle path (as opposed to absolutism),
perfecting moral conduct and striving through one’s meditation, I argue that
Other-Power cannot be understood as an extremist or absolutist form of reliance
on an external power. On the contrary, I agree with Suzuki that the reliance on
Other-Power is in fact philosophically compatible with Mahayanist tenets, as it
discards dualistic thinking and enables one to experience the nondual state of no
self. The practice of nembutsu requires one to engage single-pointedly with one
mind and faith, and thus it can be argued that it is another form of meditation in
its own right because it is also requires concentration and focus.

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It is also important to note that Shinran was influenced by Tendai teachings before
he became Honen’s disciple, especially having knowledge of the Lotus Sutra
where ‘skillful means’ is very much expounded in the sutra. In Shinran’s insistence
on absolute reliance on faith in Amida, does that mean that he rejects all other
teachings as some scholars have implied? I do not think so. Instead, I suggest that
Shinran was using skillful means to realise one’s true Buddha nature, which is
compatible to the very core of Mahayana. Moreover, it was never Shinran’s
intention to discredit all the other schools, but rather, his exposition of pure faith
is a skillful means to arrive at a more esoteric understanding of emptiness and

Pure Land Teachings – an “easy-practice”?

When we make a comparison between Honen and that Shinran’s treatise on Pure
Land teachings, it is without a doubt that the latter is an easier form of practice,
as Honen still stressed very much on perfecting moral discipline. If we compare
Pure Land doctrines that is centred on faith and nembutsu, it also appears to be a
relatively less complicated and more approachable method for lay Buddhists to
take it up as a lifelong practice. Many scholars have debated that Pure Land
Buddhists appeal to the masses because of the ease of its doctrines and Amida’s
non-discriminatory compassion towards all beings. However, it appears to be an
“easy-practice” only at the superficial level. I will explain why.

First Shinran mentioned that faith is difficult to attain for two types of individuals.
In one of his commentary as quoted in Bloom (1964):

For evil men with pride and false views

Faith in the Nembutsu of Amida Buddha’s Original Vow

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Is extremely hard to accept.

Nothing exceeds this most difficult among the difficult.

(p. 133, my emphasis)

Shinran considered both the evil and good person to experience difficulty in
arousing true faith in Amida because of one’s conceptual mind. To believe in one’s
impurity or one’s positive effort for perfection of conduct are both faults according
to Shinran, because they are all symptoms of the ego-self. Indeed, I subscribe to
the view that one’s faith in Amida is not self-generated, and that itself makes it
difficult. Philosophically speaking, if one is to believe that faith is self-produced,
it would then confirm Shinran’s argument that it is still an attachment to the self.
However, if one truly realizes emptiness, faith is self-arising, and thus can be
viewed as a form of Other-power. The realization and experience of pure faith in
Pure Land Buddhism, in my opinion, is harder to achieve than what most may
think of it as a simple practice as it requires oneself to transcend beyond dualistic
conceptual proliferations.

Secondly, Shinran’s method of the Pure Land is not an intellectual assent, but an
act of true entrusting in Amida, which he describes such entrusting as “diamond
like: never defeated, never decaying, never rent” (Bloom 2007, p. 139). The act of
entrusting, as some scholars have put it, is akin to a leap of faith. Such leap of faith
surely cannot be an easy feat for anyone. We cannot underestimate the difficulty
of cultivating faith, one of which cannot be discriminated intellectually but to be
aroused spontaneously.

Lastly, “other-power” and “easy-practice” are mere “rhetorical and often dualistic
labels… (that) have been accepted unreflectively by scholars interpreting
historical developments” in Buddhism (Ford 2002, p. 98). Ford argues that there

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is a gap between heuristic rhetorics of it being an “easy practice” and the reality in
the practice of Pure Land Buddhism. To him, classifying one form of Buddhism as
an “easy practice” is not a legitimate analytical category in analyzing the depth
and profundity of any Buddhist sect.


I have discussed the salient characteristics and Shinran’s philosophy of Pure Land
Buddhism, as well as contrasted his (re)interpretations from Honen’s treatises. I
argued that Shinran’s focus on absolute faith are not teachings of extremism, and
demonstrated how Other-power cannot be understood from one’s conventional
binary understanding of salvation. I then examined critically how the
appropriation of Shinran’s Pure Land teachings as an “easy-teaching” is a
misguided view, arguing primarily from the position where true spontaneous faith
is even harder to achieve non-conceptually as it requires one to truly practice non-

Shinran’s understanding of Buddhism is all-embracing and comprehensive,

offering a way of life and a religious experience that can be accessed by all people.
It affirms ordinary everyday life, and requires the practice of “deep hearing” and
self-reflection that enables the individual to discover meaning and depth to arrive
at self-understanding using skillful means.

~ end ~

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Bloom, A. (1964). Shiran's Philosophy of Salvation by Absolute Other Power.

Contemporary Religions in Japan, 5(2), 119-142.

Ford, J. L. (2002). Jōkei and the Rhetoric of “Other Power” and “Easy Practice” in
Medieval Japanese Buddhism. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies JJRS, 67-106.

Ingram, P. O. (1968). Hōnen's and Shinran's Justification for Their Doctrine of

Salvation by Faith through "Other Power" Contemporary Religions in Japan, 9(3),

S., Bloom, A., & Habito, R. L. (2007). The essential Shinran: A Buddhist path of
true entrusting. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom.

Suzuki, D. T., Unno, T., & Suzuki, D. T. (1997). Buddha of Infinite Light. Boston:
Shambhala Publications in association with the American Buddhist Academy.

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