Jodo Shinshu: Freedom and Personal Responsibility
The following article was written by the late Rev. Philip Karl Eidmann who was a Jodo Shinshu minister for many years in California. He was one of my mentors while I spent ten summers as a student at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in the early ‘70’s. I also spent two summers as a guest student. That meant I could attend the lectures and events I wanted with free time to study on my own. Each summer I had the privilege of spending time with Rev. Eidmann and his close friend, Rev. Kusada.
The following article is designed to help the students at IBS learn about the Hongwanji’s historical attitudes on a problem many institutions face, namely the conflict between maintaining a consistency in both the content and the presentation of a teaching throughout history. On one hand, the necessity of personal freedom and on the other, responsibility. In fact, both personal freedom and responsibility make for fertile ground out of which creativity in turn can guarantee further participation in the thread of history. There is often a great tension between these two: the consistency of dogma and individual freedom. In many traditions they are mutually antagonistic forces.
Rev. Eidmann’s explanations of how the Hongwanji solved this conflict to allow for both creativity and consistency within its organizational structure serves well as the basis for pride in the uniqueness of this tradition. This is a difficult task presently when trust in organized religions has fallen on hard times.
The article was written in 1957. It was given to me as a gift by the author. I believe it is time to share it with the general public, especially since Buddhism has grown in popularity in the Western world. The fact that the West is struggling to put its own face on Buddhism makes the information in this article very timely indeed.
The Hongwanji as a Guardian of the Spirit of Freedom
Few religions are the equal of Buddhism in their insistence upon individual responsibility for the actions in one’s life. This idea of individual responsibility is the very heart of what later came to be called democracy. Responsibility for one’s own actions is the cornerstone upon which Buddhism is built.
Buddhists through out the world strive to express their sense of responsibility in their every-day lives. Unfortunately, both in the past and the present, there are countries which live little room for individual thought and action. Even under such adverse conditions, however, Buddhists try to keep alive the flickering flame of freedom. The heritage of freedom has been handed down through the long centuries of tribulation by Buddhists, as individuals and as organized schools.
No country, anywhere in the world, has been spared its trials, and Japan, in its two thousand years of history, has many times seen its light burn low. One of the few places, however, where even in the most difficult days where democratic ideals were preserved in Japan was within the Hongwanji sect of Buddhism. The Hongwanji today, an international body with followers throughout the world, is founded upon the teachings of Shinran.
This Japanese saint, who lived in twelfth century of the Common Era, had tried to find peace of mind in the monastic life. Shinran found himself unsuccessful in his spiritual discipline and withdrew from the monastery. In Buddhism, however, the vows of a monk are not perpetual, and Shinran’s actions did not mean he was abandoning Buddhism. After returning to lay life, Shinran even increased his piety, and he attained peace of mind. Thereafter, Shinran spent his time teaching the great truths of Buddhism to all who were interested.
Shinran was a cultivated gentleman, a great scholar. He was, in fact, a distant relative of the Emperor. However, he came to the common people as a common man. He took as a model the scriptural sentence, “Equal in….the thought of the Buddha because there is neither separation nor discrimination. All in the four seas are brothers.” Shinran always denied that he had any disciples; he only had friends and fellow-travelers on the path.
These friends of Shinran organized themselves into little groups called montos. In these tiny congregations all were equal, and all shared in the responsibility of maintaining the teachings of the Buddha. The followers of Shinran met regularly with the monto to which they belonged. Such meetings were held in meeting houses (dojo) which were often only the house of one of the members.
The congregationalism started thus remains today one of the distinctive features of Shin Buddhism. Indeed throughout much of its history, Shin was called The Sect of the monto congregations. To this day the affairs of the Shin congregations are conducted with the consent and consultation of the individual members. However it is not merely in its organization that Hongwanji seeks to preserve its heritage of democratic freedom.
In Japan, since the early days, there was a class of outcast called Eta. Near the end of the last century the Japanese Emperor decreed these outcasts free of their age-long restrictions. However, social discrimination dies slowly and the descendants of the Eta are still looked down upon. Nevertheless, within the Hongwanji these people have always been regarded as equal. For generations the majority of the Eta were followers of the Shin Sect, though of course only a small percentage of all the members of the monto-congregations were Eta. As Shin followers these people were not regarded as inferior by their fellow believers. They were admitted freely into the monto as equals. Indeed, only recently the Hongwanji took emphatic action to preserve this equality.
A clergyman of another school of Shin Buddhism was invited to lecture in a Hongwanji lecture-hall. During the course of his lecture, this clergyman said that the Eta really were inferior to other people. The Hongwanji immediately asked the speaker to apologize, and it made a formal protest to the See of this clergyman’s branch of the Shin sect. In its handling of this unfortunate incident, the Hongwanji reaffirmed that all men are by nature equal.
It is according to Buddha’s teaching deeds and deeds alone that make a man noble or an outcast; and none of us is so wise that he may safely judge another.
This high ideal is clearly set forth in two unique documents preserved I the Hongwanji scriptures. One of these is the Seventeenth Article Constitution of Prince Shutoku. The other is a compact in seven articles signed by Honen and his disciples. Both these documents occupy an important position in the Buddhist heritage of freedom.
Prince Shotoku’s Constitution is, in fact, one of the great democratic documents in world history. Shotoku was Prince Regent of Japan at the beginning of the seventh century of the Common Era. Shotoku’s Constitution was administrative directive which laid down the principles upon which he hoped to build his nation’s future.
“Banish wrath and give up angry countenances,” begins the tenth article. “Be not resentful when others dissent form us, for everyone has his own mind and each mind has its own tendencies. I may regard as wrong what another holds to be right; he may regard as wrong what I hold to be right. I am not assuredly a sage, nor he assuredly a fool. Both of us are simply ordinary men.”
The fifth article of Shotoku’s article declares even the poorest person is to have equality before the law. The seventh requires honest and intelligent officials, and notes: “When wise men are entrusted with offices, the voice of praise arises. When corrupt men hold offices, disasters are multiplied. There are in the world few endowed with inborn wisdom. Through earnest aspiration one may become a sage.”
The eleventh article requires that merit be rewarded, crime be given punishment suited to it. The twelfth article criticizes arbitrary and excessive taxation which will impoverish the nation. The eighth article requires officials to present themselves for work early and only go home late after all affairs have been handled.
The fifteenth article officials put the public interest before their own in carrying out their duties. “When one is moved by private motives, he is necessarily resentful. When he cherishes a grudging feeling, he fails to cooperate with others. When cooperation fails, the private obstructs the public.
“Decisions on matters”, declares the seventh article, “should not be done by one alone, but they should be discussed with many. As minor matters are of less consequence, there is less necessity of consultation. In the case of important matters, the fear is that there may be errors, so they should examined together by the many. Then the deliberation will arrive at the truth. “
Shinran saw this document as an important heritage for Buddhists everywhere, and he transmitted it to his followers so that its ideals would be preserved for future generations. Another of the important writings which Shinran entrusted to his followers is a declaration in seven articles written by Honen.
Honen was the friend and teacher of Shinran, and it was at this sage’s feet that Shinran art last found spiritual peace of mind. Honen on one occasion drew up a formal compact giving seven rules for disciples to follow. Nearly two hundred disciples, Shinran among them, pledged themselves to practice these rules of their spiritual master.
The first article forbade Honen’s disciples, in their devotion, to adversely criticize the principles of other sects and schools.
The second says that the ignorant must not get into angry disputes with those who differ from them in the theory and practice of religion.
The third reads, “You must not foolishly nor narrow-mindedly insist that people of a different faith and practice from your own give up their distinctive religious practices. Never jest them. “
The fourth requires Honen’s disciples never to encourage anyone to break the precepts laid down by Shakyamuni Buddha.
The fifth, in part, declares, “ You must not lead the ignorant astray by getting into quarrelsome disputes with them, which can only bring upon you the derision of the learned. “
The sixth cautions against teaching doctrines through ignorance of the scriptures and thereby influencing the ignorant for the worse.
The final article reads, “You must not set forth your own opinions contrary to the teaching of the Buddhas, wrongly calling them the views of your teachers.”
Here is part of the heritage of freedom which Shinran has transmitted to modern times. The Hongwanji has guarded it devotedly through the centuries to protect it from decay and destruction.
There have been many tomes in history, however, when those who seek to be the guardians of freedom have been the most intolerant and bigoted. There is always danger that, in Freedom’s name, freedom and personal responsibility will be crushed to earth. It is, therefore interesting to observe the way the Hongwanji guards itself from error.
Naturally, as a church body, the Hongwanji must have some means of bringing to account those who misuse its name to teach false doctrines. There is a system of ecclesiastical courts whose extreme punishment is excommunication. However, the Hongwanji‘s respect for individual responsibility is so great that hardly once in a generation is there an excommunication.
Cause for excommunication is to teach in the name of the Hongwanji any doctrine which all Hongwanji followers have not traditionally accepted.
However, any Hongwanji clergyman is perfectly free to preach whatever he wishes. He may freely teach in his temple the teachings of any sect; he may, if he desires, even Christianity or Islam. The Hongwanji would take no action, and even his congregation would not complain unless his talks were boring. The teachings which the minister includes in his sermons are his own personal responsibility.
However, if he even once said that the unorthodox subject matter in his sermons is Hongwanji doctrine, then he would be called to account. Daily for his whole life a clergyman could preach that black was white, and there would be no question of his right to speak. But even if once he says that the Hongwanji says that black is white, he would be asked to explain his actions.
Called before the ecclesiastical courts, the erring clergyman be asked to present his proof that that this is correct Hongwanji doctrine. If after several years of discussions, he can not convince the court, he would be asked to admit that this is a personal view. If he accepts this position, he will agree that the statements are made on his individuality. This will end the matter.
It will be seen from this that the basis for excommunication for the Hongwanji is quite different from most religions. The question is not really of truth of falsity of doctrine.
The Hongwanji has supreme confidence that truth will conquer error, and it will introduce no inquisition to aid the battle. Where truth is, error is not; and no goading from witch-hunters can drive out error if it does not disappear naturally before truth.
Thus the sole cause for excommunication is the Hongwanji is refusal to accept personal responsibility for personal views. The entire matter for heresy in the Hongwanji resolves into a question of responsibility. This in turn brings back a statement of Honen, “You must not foolishly nor narrow-mindedly insist upon people of a different faith and practice from you own giving up their distinctive religious practices… You must not set forth your own opinions contrary to the teachings of the Buddhas, wrongly calling them the views of your teachers.”
If, however, someone insists upon placing the responsibility for some wrong doctrine on the Hongwanji, he will be excommunicated. But even after excommunication he may still be invited to speak in Shin congregations.
Excommunication means merely that the Hongwanji accepts no responsibility for the orthodoxy of the man’s teachings. It does not deny him the right to continue to speak on his own responsibility. When an excommunicated preacher lectures in a Shin temple, the people know that they must carefully weigh the value of his every word; but they do not fear him, nor reject him unheard.
Beyond this, no institution can ever really protect its followers from error. No censorship can prevent error from being spread. The only real solution, the solution the Hongwanji advocates, is to encourage people to fully accept the full responsibility for their actions and thoughts. This solution will not make for unity on small matters, but there will be a greater unity on important points. There will be a unity in the acceptance of the ideals of freedom, responsibility and the attainment of truth.
Such unity does not make for political or temporal power. The very ideal of responsibility will make a difference of opinion on how these ideals may be realized in everyday life. It is upon the honest respect for such differences of opinion that democracy is based. “Be not resentful when others dissent from us”, charged Prince Shotoku, “for everyone has his own mind and each mind has its own tendencies. I may regard as wrong what another holds to be right: he may regard as wrong what I hold to be right. I am not assuredly a sage, nor he assuredly a fool. Both of us are simply ordinary men.”
This is the spirit of freedom which the Hongwanji has guarded through its long history. It is the basis of freedom, not just in ordinary life, but in a higher, spiritual sense as well. Spiritual freedom -salvation - is simply the absolute perfection of ordinary, everyday freedom. The Hongwanji’s task in the world is to aid its followers to attain this perfect freedom. The fact that many such followers do attain this perfect spiritual freedom may be taken as proof of the success of the Hongwanji in the fulfilling its obligations as a guardian of the spirit of freedom.
Article found in the “Lion’s Roar”, Oct. 1957
By Rev. P. K. Eidmann
In gratitude, copied and preserved with the author’s permission
by Rev. Ulrich, Manitoba Buddhist Temple
September 1, 2009
Rev. Philip Karl Eidmann
January 3, 1924 to May 12, 1997
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