Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Gregory G. Gibbs

Preliminary remarks on personal Identity

As the 20th Century draws to a close, the nature of personal identity remains a unclear. This would not be a surprise to Shakyamuni Buddha. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, apparently cautioned against the puzzles which emerge if we claim that there is a self as well as discouraging us from taking the nihilistic view that there is no self.'[1] The former mistake is considered 'eternalism' and the latter 'annihilationism'.

The pristine Buddhist logic of 'whatever you say is wrong' is not helpful to anyone who is not a meditative adept. If one is skillfully applying oneself to meditative practices many hours each day the 'not this, not that' approach which Buddhist practice shares with some forms of Hindu yoga may be adequate. That is to say, If I abandon the notion that I have a self and also reject the notion that there is no self the reality of the present remains. Without the background of meditative practice and the context of powerful mindfulness, this is not the case. An individual is merely left puzzled, confused by the impression that whatever he or she thinks is wrong. I suspect that this is generally also the case for the skilled meditator when he or she has been away from the meditation cushion for more than a few hours.

There is a theory of personal identity presumed by Vedanta which is rejected by Buddhist tradition. This is the theory that what underlies the various changes we go through and constitutes our individuality is an atman. An atman is a soul which is non-material, permanent, unchanging, uniquely self same and a spark of the Divine Nature. This sort of soul is rejected by Buddhism.

Obviously there is, in some sense, a self. It is not permanent or unchanging as the Brahmanical tradition came to suppose. On the principles of Mahayana Buddhism, it cannot be uniquely self same. There is a mystery which surrounds the notion that I have or am a self, but it is not uniquely self same. By reference to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra it can be established that the existence of such a self is the mature position of Mahayana Buddhism. By the time the Mahaparinirvana Sutra was compiled, the notion had emerged that Nirvana is our True Self in all its purity, bliss and permanence. I often elaborate this point by saying that the True Nature of all persons places and events is a luminous, deathless, utterly free and magically empty, universally interpenetrating, non-substantial Oneness. One could say that we each are the Great Ocean of Life. This more pastoral way of phrasing it is quite Buddhistic but fails to honor the uniqueness of each person sufficiently. The metaphor is often pressed to the point of obvious truncation by saying that we are each a wave of this Great Ocean of life .... that the Ocean exists only as waves .... that the waves each return undiminished to the Ocean with their 'death' only to return again and again in all their uniqueness.

Whether through such metaphors or through the bald assertion 'Emptiness exists in and as forms', to go only so far in recapturing the stability of common sense about the self is not adequate. How are we to harmonize (a) an understanding of all things as that non-substantial dynamic of inseparable forces which Buddhist philosophizing posits with (b) a genuine respect for the distinctiveness which pertains to individual persons ? I do not have a solution to offer to this dichotomy stress (a) or stress (b). If we emphasize the uniqueness of individual persons, how can we equally stress that they are part of One Great Ocean of life or empty of separative existence ? This problem cannot be solved at a philosophical level but we must acknowledge the existence of the problem and its recalcitrance to conceptual solution in our philosophical reflection as Buddhists. I have heard scholars raise this problem on occasion but it is often presumed to be obvious that an emphasis on the emptiness of personhood goes along with our subject matter being True Reality. Talk about the unique value of individual persons is relegated to expedient means (upaya). Some of our scholars might even consider it the domain of other, perhaps less developed, religions. Even so, I believe that there is some movement in the USA towards bringing such a discussion into the area of Buddhology. In 1988, Anne C. Kjein urged us to see the future as demanding that 'Buddhism will have to begin taking personal history more seriously than it has in the past.' [2] Another Buddhist scholar who has recently been urging that Buddhist scholars and priests approach the question of the status of personhood more respectfully and with a more concerted effort is Professor Musashi Tachikawa. At the conference, 'Toward a Contemporary Understanding of Pure Land Buddhism,' held by the Institute of Buddhist Studies in September 1996, Professor Tachikawa expressed concern about the apparent lack of a developed notion of a person in Buddhist thinking:

At present, a human being is grasped as an irreplaceable individual, and it is only through relations among individuals that the formation of the individual can be understood. Buddhism ... must find its true practitioner in the present. When it has established a relevant understanding of the person, the concept of the bodhisattva will take on meaning as belonging to our own age. [3]

This need to develop a more concrete and multi faceted notion of what a person is lies in the background of my current topic, Shinjin as a transformation in identity. Buddhist tradition has the resources necessary for the evolution of a more full understanding of what a person is. Persons are of the essence of our concern. After all, only persons awaken to become Buddhas. It is only because they effect the liberation of other persons that those whom we refer to as Buddhas are of profound value.

Shinran's religious experience

Shinran Shonin clearly established Shinjin, the encompassing heart and mind of true reliance, as the cause of birth in Amida's Pure Land. Shinjin and Nembutsu are taught by Shinran to be absolutely inseparable. Thus the religious experience in which Shinjin is received is always associated with the reverent voicing or thinking upon the Nembutsu, a verbal phrase combining the Name of the Buddha. Thus Shinran, while being an exemplar of religious experience, advises us to practice the Pure Land way:

Just say the Name and be saved by Amida, nothing else is involved. [4]

Shinran adopted this focus on the saying of Amida's Name, the Nembutsu, after an efficacious retreat at Rokkakudo had led him to experience the Bodhisattva of Compassion speaking to him directly and encouraging him to pursue a non-monastic approach to Buddhism. From his earliest writing, the first draft of the Ken Jodo Shinjitsu Kyo Gyo Sho Mon Rui which he completed in his early fifties, through his late work, the Jodo Wasan which was written in his mid-eighties, he taught that one who says the Nembutsu is surrounded by such nurturing spiritual personages at all times.[5] Nonetheless, Shinran's impact on Buddhist thought comes in large part from his articulation of Shinjin as the centerpiece of religiosity in Pure Land Buddhism. His impact on Buddhist practice is the result of his sharing his religious experience and thereby being an exemplar for the ongoing realization of Shinjin by millions of people world wide. Trust in the compassionate acting of Amida Buddha and confidence in the reliability of saying the Nembutsu, what might be called faith, emerge from this experience of being taken into the Buddha's heart and mind. However, understanding Shinjin solely after a model of faith obscures this aspect of Shinran's leadership. Faith is not always a matter of an instantaneous religious experience, but Shinjin is such a reality. In other places, I have stressed the need to understand Shinjin as a religious experience of the Nembutsu and the importance of understanding Shinran as an exemplar of such transformative religious experience.[6] In this place, I wish to stress the implications of such religious experience, of the receipt of Shinjin, for the issue of personal identity. To receive Shinjin is to enter, albeit momentarily, into the heart and mind of Amida Buddha as our own true home. What this means is that the nature of our identity is transformed from that moment on. This means that a model of transformation of identity must be added to the religious experience model and the faith model to properly illumine the nature of Shinjin.

Shinjin as the establishment of a new center of self

A new center of self is established in the one though moment of Shinjin. That new center is the activity of Amida Buddha, the Awakened One of immeasurable Wisdom light and Life. Amida's heart mind encompasses our finite selves and becomes the basis for our reliance upon the path of saying the Nembutsu. Two models are necessary to elaborate the transformation in identity which occurs with the first receipt of Shinjin.

The self as de-centered through an entry into the activity of universal liberation

The new center of self, the true locus of our identity, is the activity of Amida Buddha to save all suffering beings. Thus we might say that the self has been de-centered, its essence comes to be in a vast trans personal project of universal liberation (Hongan). At the moment of first receiving Shinjin, when one is first struck forcefully by the fact that one's voicing of the Nembutsu is the compassionate activity of Amida, one's true identity becomes centered in the ongoing project of leading all sentient beings to Awakening. When we receive Shinjin, we discover a vast surrounding Self within which our finite self finds its real home, its deepest meaning and its true identity. Shinran compares this transformation of identity to a stream entering into an Ocean and becoming of the same essence with that greater reality into which it is absorbed:

When ordinary people and sages as well as those who commit the gravest offenses and abusers of the Dharma are taken into the vow, They become one in spiritual attainment, just as many rivers become of one taste upon entering the sea. [7]

Shinran's student, Kyoshin, is using this universality centric model of transformation of identity when he describes awakening to Enlightenment in Amida Buddha's Pure Land:

The statement, 'one will realize nirvana' means that when the heart of the person of true and real shinjin attains the fulfilled Buddha Land at the end of his present life, he becomes one with the light that is the heart of the Tathagata, for his reality is immeasurable life and his activity is inseparable from immeasurable light.

While this view is implicitly praised by Shinran and does illumine half of the matter of one's transformed identity, it is not the whole story. If this were all there was to say about the Awakening which is guaranteed in the first thoughtmoment of Shinjin it would be indistinguishable from a loss of self. The self is de-centered through the receipt of Shinjin insofar as it is inseparable from immeasurable light but this does not mean that one's individuality is sacrificed. Understanding the transformation which occurs through awakening to the encompassing heart and mind of true reliance, Shinjin, in this way only will lead to the one sided transcendence which Hee Sung Keel ascribes to the religious vision of Shinran:

... those who are born (ojo) in the Pure Land will completely shed their finite and impermanent forms, their individualities, and be one with the formless Dharmakaya as suchness. [8]

This model of transformed identity, one which highlights the aspect of Universality, gives only half the picture of the change which comes through the receipt of Shinjin. In order to understand the establishment of a new center of identity, we also need a more concrete and personal model. The re-centered individual self as the locus of liberation.

The receipt of Shinjin does not merely make us one with Amida's salvific activity. It also paves the way for our careers as individuals who work to liberate those with whom we have and will come in contact. Of course this fulfillment is fully realized only in the next life but it is established as a fact about our identity in the first moment that we open our hearts to the saying of Amida's Name, viz. when we receive Shinjin. Because we have encountered Amida's salvific working in and as the Nembutsu, viz. received Shinjin, we will go to Amida's Pure Land at death. There we will awaken to thorough going Enlightenment, and then return to this world to liberate others. According to this model, we are distinctive, individual Buddhas after our Enlightenment. This second conceptual model, one which highlights individuality, can be seen in many writings by Shinran, but is especially clear in his oral teachings as recorded in Chapter Six of the Tannisho:

If one simply abandons self power and quickly attains enlightenment in the Pure Land, he will be able to save all beings with transcendent powers and compassionate means, whatever karmic suffering they may be sinking into in the six realms and the four modes of birth, beginning with those with whom his life is deeply bound. [9]

This very human way of seeing the matter of transformed identity through Shinjin is also necessary to clarify the reality of the path of saying the Nembutsu. A transformation in our identity is effected by Amida's compassionate working (Hongan). This transformation is an opening out into the Bodhisattva project as concretized in the Vows of Amida Buddha. It is also the fulfillment of our deepest potential as individuals and the very human need to return and help those we love. This is not just some abstraction like immeasurable light. Rather, it is the very intimate matter of resolving the problems in our personal histories, alleviating the pain and bringing true and lasting happiness to those individuals with whom 'our life is deeply bound.' The nature of individual identity remains a mystery here but is incorporated in Shinran's vision of Awakening. The individual self is like a role we play in a story. For the time being, I play my role and you play yours. At the same time, when we Awaken thoroughly we will realize that all the roles in the play are our own, not just the one we act out at present. Although 'the play is the thing' for Buddhas. For those of us who are quite a ways short of Enlightened, the role we play now is the thing. Shinran's teaching incorporates both sides of this situation. The notion of becoming one with Amida's compassionate working is consistent with 'the play's the thing'. At the same time, the notion that we will, as individual Buddhas, save those with whom we have a close connection is consistent with the common sensical view that I am this person with this particular history, this role to play. It is this re centered individual Buddha who will be the locus of liberation for his family, for her loved ones.

Transformation of the self in this life through the receipt of shinjin

The instantaneous transformation in identity which comes with the awakening to Shinjin, which is established as a condition of identity in this life but realized in its fullness in the next, does not involve a total change in the person here and now. I am claiming that the identity condition is established with Shinjin in this life; we are not the same persons whom we were before our hearts opened profoundly to the saying and hearing of the Nembutsu. Although the ultimate transformation into a Buddha dedicated to liberating all beings takes place in the next life, it is decisively settled in the one thought moment of Shinjin. My understanding of Shinran's vision, of Jodo Shinshu, is that the nature of our personhood, specifically the ultimate basis of our identity, is changed in the instant of receiving Shinjin. This is the matter of most supreme religious significance. However, there are concrete signs of the transformation in our day to day living. Even though we are not fully Awakened Buddhas in this life, such moments of inspiration, moments of Shinjin, do give us strength, hope and conviction to act in the world. It takes time for this transformation in identity to occur and for these experiences of Shinjin to inspire concrete changes in behavior. Nonetheless we can, if we allow the Nembutsu to work in our lives, gradually turn away from selfishness and toward caring for others. Allow me to quote passages from two of Shinran's letters wherein he emphasizes this ongoing transformation of character which comes through opening one's heart profoundly to the Nembutsu.

There was a time for each of you when you knew nothing of Amida's Vow and did not say the Name of Amida Buddha, but now, guided by the compassionate means of Shakyamuni and Amida, you have begun to hear the Buddha's Vow. Formerly you were drunk with the wine of ignorance and had a taste only for the three poisons of greed, anger and folly, but since you have begun to hear the Buddha's Vow you have gradually awakened from the drunkenness of ignorance, gradually rejected the three poisons, and come to prefer at all times the medicine of Amida Buddha.[10]
Signs of long years of saying the nembutsu and aspiring for birth can be seen in the change in the heart which had been bad and in the deep warmth for friends and fellow practicers.[11]

This concrete change in behaviour is also part of the transformation in identity which a person goes through upon receiving Shinjin. The influence of karmic forces in a particular individual's life might make this change almost invisible to others. That is, the transformation in the center of our identity which comes through Shinjin, and the inspiration which is drawn from those moments in which Shinjin is experienced [12] will lead to a 'change in the heart' if their influence is not totally overpowered by negative karmic formations such as physical and mental illness and addiction to substances. This aspect of receiving Shinjin has been deliberately obscured by most Hongwanji ha philosophers over the past century and a half. This change of heart is a transformation which occurs very gradually over a period of many years.


I have been trying to illumine the fact that Shinjin involves a transformation in identity. It is standard Jodo Shinshu doctrine, axiomatic in interpreting Shinran's thought, that birth into Amida's land and Enlightenment are not attained until the next life but that they are established in this life with the one thought moment of Shinjin. I am claiming that this means that the conditions for our identity have been established in this life. This is perhaps what Shinran was suggesting with his oft-repeated insistence that the person of Shinjin is 'equal to Maitreya', a bodhisattva who has fulfilled the conditions for becoming a Buddha in his next lifer. Just as it is a fact about Maitreya now that he is a person who will be a Buddha in his next life, Shinran reminds us that this is true for those of us who have received Shinjn. [13]

Adopting this way of speaking about Shinjin helps to clarify why we cannot simply identify Shinjin and faith. Faith in most other religions, and certainly in Christianity, would never be considered to make us equal to our Ultimate Concern. But this is precisely what Shinjin accomplishes. The transformation in identity which occurs for the person receiving Shinjin must be understood in terms of a model which highlights individuality as well as with a model which emphasizes universality. In the first case, we conceive of ourselves as awakening to become specific Buddhas in the particular Pure Land of Amida through the unique pathway of uttering the Nembutsu in a spirit of Shinjin. Thereafter, we return to the realms of form, formlessness and desire to liberate those with whom our life is 'deeply bound.' I have tried to share my feeling that there is a warm and human side to Shinran's teaching which is lost if we only use the universality centric model of becoming one with Amida Buddha's Compassionate acting. There are various ways in which the tradition presents models of Awakening as merging with Universality. I gave the example of Kyoshin's gloss on birth in Amida's Land as becoming 'one with the light that is the heart of the Tathagata'. This is a beautiful way of phrasing half the story. I believe that it is currently useful to stress the other, perhaps more human side according to which I return utterly free and totally happy to lead those I care for to the same liberation. It may be, in part, my work as a temple minister which gives me a preference for stressing the importance of the person. More than this factor is a distrust which I have for the dominance of the categories of medieval Buddhist tradition on our thinking and our practice of our religion.

I have also suggested using the concept of 'religious experience' to elaborate the implications of Shinjin. Shinran was an exemplar of religious experience and one for whom a transformation of identity did occur with Shinjin. Shinran was a person with a particular history and unique experience. The Jodo Shinshu tradition has never been seduced into valuing categories of analysis ,e.g. the skandhas or heaps a person was said to be constructed from, above the experience of persons. A person has the same integrity as an organism, as for instance, his or her own body. Each is an active unification of sub-processes which demand mutually inconsistent priorities. I look forward to critiques of my ideas and the development of new perspectives on these concerns by others. Medieval scholastic notions of conceptual analysis have long dominated our understanding of the self, of persons. These monkish intellectual preferences replaced the middle path of the historical Buddha. Spiritual and theoretical balance call for a serious focus on the nature of the person and of the dynamic transformations in identity which come through Buddhist religiosity. I believe that Shinran's elaboration of the transformative realization of Shinjin may prove to be one resource for this return to balance in Buddhist theorizing and to a concrete, embodied, human approach to living our lives as Buddhists.


1. See Samyutta nikaya, IV, Pali Text Society, 1979, London, pages 400 401
2. Anne C Klein, presentation on Buddhist Feminist Dialogue, at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, under the auspices of the Graduate Theological Union, October 20, 1989.
3. Musashi Tachikawa, 'World and Amida', Toward a Contemporary Understanding of Pure Land Buddhism, Edited by Dennis Hirota, Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley California, 1996, page 139.
4. Shinran's verbal teaching as quoted in the Tannisho, See Tannisho: A Primer translated by Dennis Hirota, Ryukoku Translation Center, Kyoto, 1991, page 22 23.
5. For a list of the benefits which come from saying the Nembutsu see the Jodo Wasan, Ryukoku Daigaku Translation Center, Kyoto, 1965, page 133.
6. See 'Radicalizing and Existentializing Shinran's teaching by Repositioning the Center of Mahayana', The Wheel of Dharma, February 1996, cover article, Buddhists Churches of America, San Francisco.
7. Shoshinge, as translated by Hisao Inagaki, The Way of Nernbutsu Faith, Nagata Bunshodo, Kyoto, 1996, page 167.
8. Hee Sung Keel, Understanding Shinran. Asian Humanities Press, Fremont, California, 1985, page 181.
9. Tannisho: A Primer translated by Dennis Hirota, Ryukoku University, Kyoto, 1982, page 25.
10. Letters of Shinran, Volume One, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Hongwanji International Center, Kyoto, 1978, page 60.
11. Letters. page 58.
12. While Shinjin occurs in the briefest instant of time, it is not always experienced even by those who receive it. Even so, it would usually be experienced and in fact the only explanations of receiving Shinjin which Shinran gives are in terms of hearing, which is definitely an experience. Understanding of Shinran's elaboration of 'hearing the Vow' is that the Nembutsu is heard as the Fundamental Vow of Amida, viz. Namo Amida Butsu, or some such phrase is heard and recognized to be the compassionate working of Amida Buddha in one's life. This would be a serious problem for my view if I were identifying Shinjin with 'religious experience'. Shinjin is inconceivable according to Shinran and eludes definition. I am suggesting that the categories of 'religious experience' and 'transformation of identity' be added to the conceptual tools which we use to unlock, partially, the mysterious identity of Shinjin and Nembutsu.
13. See, for instance, Letters of Shinran, pages 26 27.

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