Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Reflections on the Writings of Kanai Tada

In recent weeks I have begun to sit down from time to time with Rev. Umezu at the BCA Headquarters. Sensei reads Kanai Tada's work in the original Japanese, translates it into English for me and then we discuss what he has read aloud. What will follow in the weeks and months to come are my impressions and understanding of what we have discussed in those brief sessions, as reflected in my notes and in my memory, such as it is. All that I write then should be taken with a grain of salt, any confusion attributed to me and not to Tada or Umezu Sensei.

Umezu Sensei and I come together to study. My writing is an extension of that effort, a personal rehashing and further digesting of the materials. Offering my writing to all of you is intended to be yet another extension of the study and learning opportunity afforded in these meetings. Please let me know if you do not want to receive these e-mails; and, please let me know what you may be thinking about as we move forward.

It is not my intention here to create a polished presentation. Rather, I want to share and explore Tada's thinking in an informal way. I'd like to present things to you in the way we might engage in a conversation on a street corner or on the bus during a chance meeting-this means that although I will do my best to be faithful to what Tada is trying to convey, the line between his thoughts and my own will likely become blurred, sooner rather than later. Let's see where this takes us.


Reflecting on his own children saying the nembutsu, Tada begins by telling us that he has been a nembutsu follower virtually all of his life. He was a very well respected teacher and very well known for his book, Shoshinge Kowah, or lectures on the Shoshinge, which he was very proud of, feeling that it expressed the true intent of Amida's Vow. He was very proud, that is, until he came to the sobering realization that what he had written was, simply, wrong, so wrong that he told all of his friends and acquaintances not to read the book. What followed was his Shoshinge Hongi, or True Essence of the Shoshinge, which is the work we are studying.

Tada opens the work by addressing the kinds of people that can receive guidance from the Shoshinge:
those with no complaints, not a lot of suffering, but who feel that something is lacking in their lives; those who have suffered loss through sickness or failure and see no hope for themselves, can't even seem to die, but don't know where to turn for light; those who used to think that they were right, who others still respect, but who now see themselves as fakes for whom prayer does not work; and, those who are seekers, see themselves as evil and do not want to continue living such a life, are unable to change and simply do not know where to turn.

Most of us no doubt can find a place for ourselves in this list-the point Tada is making - and Tada declares the Shoshinge to be the bread of salvation for those who are hungry, warm shelter, protection and refuge for those who have nothing to count on, light for those who are lost and the source of a fountain of pure spring water for all.

For Tada, the Shoshinge is the song in praise of the correct entrusting of the nembutsu. He says that just as the moon gives us the light that we need to see the moon itself, Shinran's Shoshinge is meant to confirm that Amida's Vow and the Pure Land masters who have given us the teaching of the Vow, give us the light to see the light that is not only the very essence of their lives, but the essence of ours as well. Tada emphasizes that Shinran is not someone different or separate from us. As Umezu Sensei says, Shinran should not be left in the compound of the Hongwangi, the cold and lifeless statue of a Saint; Shinran faced what we face and what we need to face; the life he discovered is the life we need to discover. Without Shinran, Tada felt we cannot live fully.

After years of study, Shinran grappled with a single question: what am I going to do with this self, this most precious, one and only self? People today are constantly on the run, the mind always engaged with family, work, world affairs, incessantly intense, day after day, facing a seemingly inexhaustible array of irresolvable problems; but we never seem to have time to look at the root of these problems, which is facing the incessant fickle nature of the self and its impending death. Without resolution of this, none of the other problems will ever truly be resolved or truly faced. It seems particularly ironic in a time when outlandish self-aggrandizement is the accepted norm that we do not tend to our self's well-being, which in Tada's view means to raise the self to Enlightenment.

And it is here that the universal appeal and importance of Shinran's life and effort comes through, for his issue is really our issue, his problem is the problem of all mankind. For Tada, Shinran is not just some guy who lived in Japan, he is not 'Japanese,' he is just like us, not a Saint, not capable of being a Saint, just and simply an ordinary person. His karmic life was lived in Japan, at a certain time in history, under the conditions of that time (just as we find ourselves here, now); but inside, his inner life was the same as ours, his illusions the same as our illusions, his spiritual illness the same as ours. Therefore the cure he found is the cure that will save us as well.

Tada feels that to know another person, truly, thoroughly, we must listen to their words with the same intensity that we would to listen to and feel their pulse, their very living; listening and hearing in this way, we uncover the shared nature of human life. Tada is telling us that we, each of us, for ourselves, needs to find a way to lift Shinran out of the compound of the Hongwanji, strip him of the sainthood that he himself would have rejected, that serves only to distance him from us, and make him 'my' Shinran. For in Shinran's life we will find our own.

I would like to close this initial set of notes with a poem I recently wrote:

Old dirt wisdom,
he said,
turn to old dirt wisdom
for guidance
to discern the trail.
Sweeping aside accrued debris
to glean hard-won certainty,
emergent only of clarity of vision,
seek only to seek
what the Masters sought.
Scratching and scraping
to find Shinran's heart,
I find my own.

The basic question for Tada, and perhaps for ourselves, is when we find ourselves unable, that is, find ourselves without the ability to either advance or to move beyond our own tangled and frustrated desires ( i.e. we suffer), where can we turn? His answer is Shinran. And Shinran, as we know, turned to Honen and found that Honen was not teaching about being saved in heaven, nor about being saved by a savior, nor by prayer, nor by doing good works. What Honen taught was more like a child/parent relationship, where everything in the relationship comes from the parent's side, where the parent is ever and always in motion, moving toward the child, without ever asking anything of the child.

In the face of a child's suffering, a Mother is never still, never satisfied until the child is well. The same is true for Amida, who, in the face of the suffering of the world, is never still. Placing the whole of his existence, the entirety of his concern, practice, wisdom and compassion into his Name, Namuamidabutsu continuously fills the universe, moving throughout all times toward all beings, carrying all to Enlightenment, easing the suffering of all beings. This is the Great Practice, which is transferred to us through the three Pure Land Sutras and the Masters who teach the Vow.

Tada sees the source of the teaching as the Vow, the essence of which is embodied in the Pure Land Sutras, which essence was handed down through the masters and taught by Honen, and, again, embodied in Shinran's Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, the essence of which is his Shoshinge, the movement always and forever from the Vow to sentient beings. The Pure Land Sutras, Kyo Gyo Shin Sho and the Sho Shin Ge, then, are the movement of Amida to us, asking that we take the medicine it offers for our cure, a cure already realized, asking us to come home and participate in its wondrous activity.

Shinran's understanding of the Other Power of the Vow leaves no place for the ego-centered self to stand, neither his ego, nor ours. From the very first lines of the Sho shin ge, the only meaningful movement, the only effective practice is the constant movement of Amida toward us. Although the Shoshinge opens with Shinran's declaration of entrusting, of bowing down, taking refuge, none of this implies Shinran's doing; rather it is all the entrusting given him through Amida:

Kimyo mu ryo ju nyo rai (I take refuge in the Tathagata of Immeasurable Life).
Namo fu ka shi gi ko (I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light)

Namo is the Indian root for the Chinese word, kimyo, both of these terms indicating shinjin, the mind of entrusting (specifically meaning Amida's mind entering our mind). So, in these opening lines, Shinran is not declaring that he entrusts, but that he is made to entrust; he is celebrating the mind of entrusting (shinjin) which is given to us. Tada clarifies the essence of this entrusting, taking of refuge or bowing down, as completely spontaneous and completely devoid of any self power. He says that the Tathagataha, the 'thus come' one, stands up from the seat of Enlightenment, makes a Vow and moves toward us in everywhere possible, does everything he can for us, creates all the causes for our enlightenment. When we really and truly hear this Vow, accept this Vow, we can't help but respond; when we are touched by Amida's whole existence coming to us, touched by Amida's heart and mind, our spontaneous response is Kimyo, or Namo. It is not me taking refuge, but Amida's heart and mind coming into my existence, causing my head to lower, spontaneously, the movement of Wisdom and Compassion to and in me causing my natural movement toward the Pure Land. This is a new way of living, one characterized by a sense of gratitude.

And this new life is not forced and not contrived, nor created by anything we do or can do; it is the natural reaction, the natural consequence of the one-way relationship of the Buddha working on us and in us to deliver the truth, through the Name. We can see then that Namo, or Kimyo is the heart of Shinshu, the highest form of reverence, not tainted in the least by ego.

Tada also explains that the Pure Land Sutras are the truth in that they embody the intent of the historical Buddha.Unlike most sutras, the Busetsu at the beginning of the PL sutras means that they were expounded by the Buddha, that these sutras are the words of the Buddha, containing the truth of the Buddha's message to us. To be clear, it is not the words themselves that are the truth, but the Buddha's intention in speaking them that is the truth. Tada cautions that to trust in the PL sutras does not mean trusting the words themselves, but the intent behind them. The PL sutras are the truth, not as we are used to thinking, that is as skillful means, not a matter of the sutra as a finger pointing to the moon; the sutra is the moon light coming to us. In the end, it's not a matter of what we think about truth or what we do, it's here in the sutra. All we need to do is listen. For, as Tada says, there is no need for a match when you are under the sun.


The enormity of Amida's concern and effort for us is a constant theme for Tada; he states that the 53 Buddhas are named in the Larger Sutra to show the eons of ongoing preparation for the huge work of saving all beings. Dharmakara listened to and received the teaching from the Buddha Lokesvararaja, stored it, took it in, and then began to project the Vow, the primal intent which has been there and working even since before the first Buddha. The love and sincerity that is the heart of the Vow extends all the way back, before time. And as sentient beings, it is our suffering and pain Amida responds to, we are the cause of the Buddha sorrow feels and the reason for the great working of wisdom and compassion.

Amida makes three wishes, or Vows: to become Buddha, so he can fulfill his world; to complete the Pure Land, because we cannot complete it ourselves in this world, which we create out of our karma, which is not pure-ours is a world of suffering; so, disregarding our karma, Amida uses his go give us a place where we can become whole and complete; after five kalpas of contemplation of all Buddha worlds, these Vows are made again and Namu is given to us, Namu being the karmic seed given to us, the Buddha's body and mind given us in the Name and spread throughout the ten quarters.

Tada references Shantao, who says you should say the Name and the Vow is fulfilled; Tada says there is no mistake here, as Namu is enlightenment itself coming out of the Vow, eons and eons of work, not just a magical wave of the hand, but eons and eons of effort and concern, just to save us. Again, there is no mistake on Amida's part, but there is on ours; we think we have the seed. This is the mistake. The Name is the seed, is the cause for our liberation, and behind that is Amida's Vow and behind that 53 other Buddhas, going back to before the beginning of time. Shakyamuni came in order to teach this and the Pure Land masters too, hand the teaching down, a continuous stream of effort, leading to each of us, carrying the infinite light and life that is Amida, which, when encountered, will soften our minds and bodies and relieve us of the burden and suffering associated with greed, anger and foolishness.

Shinran describes the twelve different attributes of the light that is Amida's essence: light that transcends time and space, obstacles of any kind, light that is incomparable, the king of light, pure light that comes from purity and purifies, light and wisdom brought to us, ceaseless light beyond our human ability to conceive, light brighter than the sun and the moon. These praises were composed and written originally by T'uan L'uan and copied by Shinran to show the continuous praise of Amida, stretching back beyond T 'uan L'uan, past to the Vow through him, to Shinran, to us. Think about this carefully, says Tada, and see that this shows that our encounter of the Dharma of the Vow is due to five kalpas of Light, guiding us all the while. How extraordinary then to have heard this teaching. No matter what we do, the light is there, guiding and nurturing; in every instance in my life I am surrounded by and imbued with the guiding light of the Wisdom and Compassion of Amida, through the Name.

It is as if we are nails and the Name is a magnet, pulling us, but pulling us by moving toward us, calling, pulling, making no distinction between the beautiful or the rusted out wrecks, pulling all equally, the Name being the sound of the command to come. Ours then is to listen, listen actively, trying to understand the intent of the Buddha's words, turning the teaching over and over, while all the while living our lives in the ever and always presence of the Name, living our lives in the calling of the Nembutsu, Amida's calling to us through the Name and our calling in response with the Name.

Hon Gan myogo sho jo go (The Name embodying the Primal Vow is the act of true settlement) Shi shin gyo gan i nin (The Vow of entrusting with sincere mind is the cause of birth)

Tada devotes an entire chapter in discussing the two lines above. He speaks of the two meaning of true settlement: 1) The selection of the Name by Amida settles the selection of the cause of our liberation; 2) the settlement of the settlement of our liberation. Amida selects, therefore the karmic seed for completion is there and is certain. Shinran speaks of the Name and the Entrusting Mind, which are the cause or the seed. These are inseparable, one and the same thing. Hearing means to truly understand the Name and the Vow and why they were selected by Amida. The Name is the crystallization of Amida's wisdom and compassion. There is no Name without entrusting mind and entrusting mind comes to us through the Name. Talking of Nembutsu without the Vow is incomplete. It is all one way, all of it. Entrusting mind means complete surrender to Amida's call.

The sole reason for the Vow is Amida's desire to save us. Just as a doctor's presence is not enough to cure the sick person, just as the medicine needs to be delivered and the patient made to take it, what wee need to understand and accept is Amida huge heart and mind, his sincerity, wisdom and compassion, all of which is compressed into his Name for us to see, hear and accept.

Namo means 'take refuge in me.' Amida Buddha is the Enlightened One's Infinite Life and Light as sound, so it is not like an ordinary name; it is the Primal Vow, reaching back eons and moving forward into time as Great Practice. Like fire and burning, the Name is the working of the Buddha, in motion toward all beings. Amida cannot stay separate, is always moving toward us, his Name the gift that saves us, the gift of his sincerity. Without us praying, or asking, or doing anything to earn this, from his side, he is always moving toward us.

The Name is the karmic seed that brings us to the Pure Land, the result of all those kalpas. We must strive to find the Buddha's heart and mind. The law of causation is the ground of all existence in this life-no one can escape it. It moves like a train on a track: ignorance moves to suffering and Enlightenment moves to Enlightenment. Amida examined this in order to determine how to save us , all of us, knowing that the movement to bridge the two tracks had to come from his side.

No movement from the side of ignorance will make it all the way. So the Vow moves toward us, the movement of constant negation of the self, self being subsumed into the movement of Wisdom and Compassion toward us. It moves toward and at the same time negates my conception of my self, of Buddha, etc. Every incident of my life, moment to moment, is the Buddha moving toward me, telling me to listen, to surrender and accept. The Name contains the essence of the Buddha, but is not it. The essence cannot be extended except through the Names; they are separate, but the same. Buddha extends his Name to us through innumerable worlds and times, to us, asking patiently, all the while, that we simply take it.

The Buddhist poet, Nelson Foster, says in his 'Guessing toward Clarity,' 'Every name that comes I feed / to the fire I need to see by.' This is echoed by Honen and Shinran, who both tell us that Other Power is 'no self working,' meaning that any thought we ever have concerning Amida's Vow is not it.

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