Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Harold Stewart


The earlier teachings of Ippen Shonin (1238-89), the founder of the Ji school of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, also involved some assimilation of the Other-Power doctrines of Jodo, and Shin to the self-power of Zen. It has recently been claimed that it was Ippen 'who placed the lintel on the twin pillars erected by Honen and Shinran' but this view seems untenable for several reasons. The foundation-stone of the Mahayana Metaphysic is nonduality, which requires a pair of terms that are one and at the same time two, for only thus can unity be transcended. To cope with this problem, Nagarjuna developed his Madhyamaka dialectic as a criticism of the inadequacy of both philosophical monism and monotheology. When such exponents of ultimate unity speak of the One, they should be asked the Zen question: 'When the many are reduced to the One, to what then is the One reduced ?' A possible Zen answer to this koan could be: 'Mu!'-that is to say, 'To None, to Nothing, to Emptiness'. But as this answer might be mistaken for nihilism, it would be safer to reply: 'To the Not-Two'.

Ippen Shonin's saying: 'In the invocation the invoker and the invoked are one' shows the influence of Zen, but in this unity what then becomes of the very real difference between the pure Amida Buddha and the defiled human bonbu, who are worlds apart? To be effective in practice, the religious life requires a dynamic tension between these two opposites, the ki and the ho, the sentient being and the Dharma. In Ippen's attempt to eliminate both Buddha and bonbu, so as to arrive at a 'purer' Nembutsu, he has merely succeeded in reducing nonduality to unity again. So when he says: 'The Nembutsu repeats the Nembutsu', the Name is left without either Caller or called, and Shin is turned into Zen. But Ippen really draws a distinction without a difference, because Amida is his name, so that 'The Nembutsu repeats the Nembutsu' is tantamount to saying: 'Amida calls to Amida' through the devotee - which is precisely what Shinran had been teaching all along. Ippen has in fact added nothing new, and it remains true that it was Shinran who developed the Pure Land doctrines to their ultimate point.

Ji means time, for it was by instituting set times each day at which his followers were obliged to call the Nembutsu that Ippen's new sect, the Jishu, received its name. But by this requirement, Ippen was really returning to some degree of self-willed effort and moral striving on the part of the devotee. This may have been why Ippen could receive the approval of the Roshi Kakushin, because the Nembutsu of the Ji sect accorded with Zen Jiriki rather than with the thoroughgoing Tariki of the Shin sect.

The judgement of history was decisive: Ippen's initial success in converting so many to his views while he lived did not continue, and his sect gained little popular support after his death. It is perhaps because he foresaw this that he himself said that his teachings were for his own lifetime only, and it may explain also why he burnt all his written works shortly before his death, so that today he is the most unjustly neglected of the Pure Land leaders and almost unknown outside of his own country. In contrast, Shinran's teachings were destined to flourish after his death and expand throughout Japan, until Shinshu had gained the largest following of any Japanese Buddhist sect.

Reflections on the Dharma - Harold Stewart

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