Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Understanding Shinran
A Dialogical Approach
Keel Hee Sung
Asian Humanities Press, Fremont, California, 1995. 210 pp.

Hee Sung Keel points out that Shinran Shonin had a keen sense of the crisis in his times. For Shinran the mappo era of latter days reflects political and social disorders in public and private lives, and natural disasters; Shinran reveals the true nature of taking spiritual and sacred refuge. Society in the twentieth century may have changed drastically from our origins in medieval Europe, and our perspective of the structure of authority may have nothing in common with 13th Century Japan. Nevertheless, we are interested in the perennial problems of humanity linking us to the age of Mappo, with its wars, pestilence, poverty, flood fire and earthquakes, and material greed. We are attracted to religion for the same internal and external reasons which compelled Shinran to commit himself to Pure Land Buddhism.

Keel enthusiastically approaches his subject of Shinran, and it is easy to see that his study is one of deep admiration. His motivation to come to grips with 'understanding Shinran' is based on his own religious conviction and sensibilities. A reader's appreciation of this volume, however, does not mean that an agreement is imminent nor is it even desirable from this Korean scholar's point of view. He confesses a 'Christian interest' and does not hesitate to expose his back ground and the academic investment he made to pursue this line of inquiry concerning Japan's famous Pure Land personality, who exerted so much 'influence upon later generations.'

Although Keel denies any affinity with cultural relativism, he is inclined to the Christian disposition to engage in a dialogne as suggested by the subtitle, A Dialogical Approach. This leads him to find an identity between some concepts defined by Shinran and some preoccupation with Christian motifs. For instance there is the 'story' of Jesus and various events in the New Testament which make up the foundation for Christian faith, and there is the distinctive Pure Land faith illustrated in the Buddhist 'story' of Dharmakara Bodhisattva, in which all sentient beings are released from the vicious round of birth and death.

I have two basic disagreements with this work by Keel, although I admire the intellectual courage he shows, and the time spent in the exploration of nembutsu religion.

  1. It is naïve to think that the logic of 'identity', (sokuhi) as conceived by Keel is applicable to Shinran Shonin's sense of the unity of worldly convention with ultimate meaning, on the thin argument that Shinran does not define the absolute with strong bold certainty. The dharmakaya structure is not discussed in sufficient detail in this book to grasp the spiritual unity of human beings and Buddha.
  2. It is interesting that Keel takes sides in an internal sectarian dispute of the nature of Honen's teaching concerning the capacity for common individuals to practice their 'faith.' That there are differences between Shinran's absolute reliance and Honen's instruction, can be challenged.

I suspect that Keel has fallen under the influence of those Shin scholars who insist on differences between this Pure Land student and his teacher in order to underscore the uniqueness of Shinran's personality. It is obvious that Shinran's compromise as a 'layman cleric' was a radical innovation and departure from the religious mainstream of his contemporaries, but I think we must look elsewhere for Shinran's spiritual originality.

This study does not balk at playing down the argument that Shinran's thought must be rooted deeply in the Mahayana philosophical vision. Keel's argument is that Shinshu scholars place too much emphasis on the necessity to assimilate Buddhist philosophy before there is the possibility to acquire a true understanding of Jodo Shinshu. He makes the unwarranted declaration that this depreciates the true genius and the original contribution of Shinran. On the contrary, students of Shinran's religion should not confine their study to a biographical point of view by which it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff of legends but must see it in a historical context which does not allow hero worship to get in the way of doctrinal interpretation. In spite of Keel's agenda to wrest Shinran away from Mahayana Buddhism in order for a meaningful Christian Buddhist dialogue to take place, there seems no plausible reason to extricate the scholastic trikaya formulation, and all its 'ontological' implication, which Shinran uses in his spiritual orientation.

This refusal to leave the battleground of Mahayana dialectics and religious metaphysical supposition is perhaps the real reason it is difficult for Buddhists to have significant discussions with representatives of a creation theory, and the kind of secularized piety manifested in western civilization. Another objection by Keel of modern Shinshu scholarship, is the accusation of 'importing' Zen ideas to bolster a sagging ideology; he says, 'I feel it should be pointed out that [in Nishida and Nishitani's religious philosophy] their predominately Zen and sunyata orientation can easily lead to overlooking the infinite qualitative difference between the absolute and relative, the divine and the human.' This kind of criticism is somewhat expected from a Christian apologist. Keel is emphatic in preserving the exaggerated purity of Shinran's conception in order to stay within bounds of a Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, the sense of the distance between God and humans, the sense of the 'otherness' of Other Power (Shinran), cannot be relinquished except at great cost.

There is no justification for assuming that Zen's 'otherness' is dissimilar to Shinran's idea of othemess, nor is it established in this study that emptiness is a doctrine of great interest to Zen people but of little significance for Pure Land Buddhists with special affinity to Shinran's doctrines. Although it is true that there has been internal criticism of too much Zen play in some doctrinal interpretation for the purpose of propagation or 'playing to the galleries.' Yet, it is indefensible to maintain that these two traditions have lived side by side as total strangers. Zen and Shinshu followers have drunk from the same fountain. It is contradictory to imagine a fracture in Japanese Buddhism that pitted Zen against Pure Land traditionalists, and that one of these heirs of the buddhadharma has fallen outside the pale of Mahayana Buddhism and into the loving embrace of Western religious transcendentalism.

The first two chapters of Understanding Shinran are important, for they lay down the ground plan for interpretation. The Easy Path investigates the relationship of Honen and his disciple, Shinran, 'who eventually came to eclipse his master.' Shinran the Bonpu (an advocate of a fearless life style) is a chapter describing a life filled with 'paradoxical experience, joy in the midst of sorrow, hope in the midst of despair.' There is no doubt that Honen's 'selected practice' diverged from the dictates of Japanese religious discipline. It was a radical innovation because of the threat to disassemble the philosophical edifice of a great scholastic tradition in favor of religious principles reduced to a bare minimum.

Contrary to Keel's assertion, it is not clear that Shinran's resolve 'to let go of nembutsu as one's act and leaving everything to Amida, differs from the teachings he learned first hand from his teacher, Honen Shonin. Shinran was closely linked to the community established by Honen. His taking a wife and raising a family must have raised eyebrows. This example raises the question of moral laxity. Other religious personalities may be charged with breaking precepts or hypocrisy; in Shinran's case he is open to an accusation of immoral behavior with pretensions of being priestly, 'there is no evil that it obstructs Amida's Primal vow.'

The remainder of the book consists of two chapters on faith and a wrap up of form and formlessness in which there is a discussion on how Christians and Buddhists can benefit each other by dialoguing, 'the story of Christ and the story of Amida both reveal the deepest nature of reality for the believers.' Although, according to Keel, the Pure Land soteriological never ending drama diverges from the Christian drama of eschatological finality, there is the remarkable parallel of incarnation and manifestation of transcendent reality. Keel compares the concepts of the historical Buddha (manifestation of Amida) with the earthly Christ as the 'one and only incarnation of the eternal Logos.' Such is Professor Keels persistent identification of Christian and Shin Buddhuists perception of unifying earthly vision with the divine.

Although in this book the argument on faith is not based on any new interpretation and falls under the influence of recent Christian Buddhist joint investigation for an 'acceptable definition,' there is nevertheless a helpful and interesting discussion on the faith construction of the Three Fold Mind. Keel was first attracted to Shinran by noticing that Shinran pointed to 'salvation as an unconditional gift which we can only accept in faith and gratitude.' Keel was also impressed with the Japanese construction of the logic of negation, an obscure reference to the inability of fulfillment espoused by Shinran who emphasized infinite compassion for the 'evil person.' Not referred to by Keel, are the knotty problems of 'faith experience' in a Jodo Shinshu context consisting in

  1. knowing how and when shinjin occurs;
  2. authenticity or verification of shinjin;
  3. how shinjin affects our pattern of behavior, and what modes of activity we should reasonably adopt as persons of accomplished faith.

The last problem is of great importance to our contemporaries and has raised a number of responses. Historically, there was always the question of how it is possible for such a clod [in a defiled world] to receive the absolute purity of Amida's realm of compassion. In modern times, however, the ground has shifted to, What can I to do? Or What am I expected to do? Are precepts or moral directives completely meaningless for one immersed in nembutsu practice? Am I a person of no faith for taking an avid interest in domestic and public conduct? The relationship between the state and individual, or the public institution and private citizen is a complicated affair in the arena of political, social, and religious commitment.

Perhaps Christians and Shin Buddhists alike share a common bond by recognizing that faith cannot be limited to a systematic belief without having an experience of some kind. Grace for Christians, and shinjin for Shinshu Buddhists. Yet, Keel does not explore faith definitions of Buddhists and Christians He missed this opportunity! For Buddhists, 'joyfulness' is part of the definition of faith shared by humanity and divine beings. Whereas divine presence for the Christian may be more strictly defined, and joy is merely the result of possessing faith. It may be that Keel, in a dialogical approach with Buddhists, would not want to open the pandora's box by discussing bodhisattvas and pretas, angels and Lucifer, the rebel who fell from Heaven.

The tale of Shinran and his followers is an illustration of the human quandary of having one foot in the world and trying to place the other in the sacred realm. Normal responsibility, in its broad dimension, is looked upon as an enigma by Shin scholars because of the radically held belief in the lack of authentic potential to make any progress in self realizing and righteous behavior patterned after the all embracing power of altruistic compassion. This problem in ethics and morality, to some extent, is alleviated after the experience of the awakening of faith. 'Salvation is unambiguous.' For Keel, the 'Triumph of Faith' is exemplified by St. Paul of the gospels, or Shinran's portrayal of faith experience that overcomes all evil in the Tannisho. The person of faith consciously feels that karmic evil is an individual experience.

Modern Shinshu scholars have also called for nourishing a reflective attitude on evil activity as an involvement and process for adopting proper behavior. Whether there is an awareness or not of repentance in the psychology of Shinshu believers goes unnoticed by Keel. He draws attention to an interesting parallel, 'the deterministic view of karmic evil, like the Christian doctrine of original sin, may explain the deep rooted nature of sin and evil in human beings.' This surrender, however, may not satisfy Buddhist scholars who are not comfortable with a Calvinistic interpretation of karma as a doctrine of predestination, nor able to understand a teaching of 'original sin,' with no apparent precedent conditions. This disbelief does not preclude the idea of evil and its collective toll in the affairs of humanity.

The last chapter in Understanding Shinran, is a reference to the trikaya, 'Form and Formlessness,' in which the logic of negation is seen as Shinran's refusal to give a positive identity to the dharmakaya. This spiritual attitude is considered compatible with ultimate reality posed by Christian thinkers. Both realities, the Christian Absolute, and the Buddhist unthinkable, (acintya) leave indelible traces in the world. Christ is the son of God and Sakyamuni is the manifestation of Amida.

There is much to be valued in reading this book on Shinran. It is not easy to be sympathetic with all its arguments, but at least it is helpful to see how Shinshu is sometimes conceived outside its institutional setting. The question of Shinran's originality is sometimes not clearly understood. The generational theory of history, mappo, belonged to all traditions who inherited Mahayana systematics, and not solely to Pure Land masters such as Shinran. The inseparability of faith and Buddha's realm of Awakening is not a construction peculiar to Shinran and his teachers. Keel, himself, seems to have attributed Shinran with original contributions, that are actually constructions found in Mahayana sources other than Pure Land sutras and commentaries according to Shinran, Amida Buddha appeared with a form fromthe ultimate formless realm in order to save sentient beings wandering in the world of birth and death; hence, he is the 'Dharmakaya as Compassionate means.'

The two chapters on faith lack an in depth analysis of faith as experience, which would help clarify more precisely the original intent and contribution made by Shinshu interpreters. The ideas of religious faith as expounded here are carefully monitored in order to conform to a Christian formulation of the problems of faith. There is no reference to other belief systems in India, China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia, where the buddhadharma is dominant in the expression of human society. Also, the chapter, The Life of Faith could have been enriched by pointing out practices contained in Pure Land Buddhism.

In any case, it is not in Keel's agenda to comment on the dharma outside the borders of Pure Land Buddhism in which Shinran Shonin played an important role. Understanding Shinran is a book with helpful insights and suggestive for dealing with problems in contemporary Shin Buddhism. Sooner or later, followers of Shinran will have to present themselves in a stronger light to meet the challenge of Protestant and Christian theology in a world of shrinking spiritual horizons.

-Elson B. Snow

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