Shin and Zen: Bitter Rivals

Hoonji Temple

There is a famous statue of Shinran at the age of 63. It is at Hoon-ji in Tokyo. It depicts Shinran with the nenju and fly-wisk (hossu). How is this possible? Aren’t Zen and Shinshu bitter rivals in the religious politics of Japan? Perhaps the two masters knew something we don’t.

If they, Shinran and Dogen, exchanged nenju, as the tradition in Hoon-ji says, then Dogen also carried a Pure Land nenju. This is something that the rivalry between Zen and Shinshu would not permit today. In fact, if a Zen master wore the costume of a Pure Land priest, or if a Pure Land priest wore the costume of a roshi, there would most likely be serious disciplinary action by the authorities in the respective traditions. The chanting of the Heart Sutra is strictly forbidden in Jodo Shinshu temples, as it the chanting of Pure Land material in Zen temples. And what of our founders? Can we retroactively forbid them to do what they did centuries ago? So what is this statue trying to say to us? Why does is exist at all?

Shinran said that the Vow of Amida was for him and him alone. This reflects a deep feeling that he was settled in his spiritual quest, he had found and was found by the nembutsu. Ideally, a person searching for a Way within the Buddha Dharma can find the form of Buddhism that liberates him/her from the Three Poisons of Ignorance, Hatred, and Greed, leading to nirvana and Buddhahood. For Shinran this was the Way of the Nembutsu he learned from his teacher, Honen. The Pure Land is, according to Shinran’s wasan, the Ultimate Absolute, asamskrta—the Great Stillness/Calm that undergirds all being. A wasan also states that those in the Pure Land have bodies of pure emptiness. The kanji used is the same as the kanji for emptiness in the Heart sutra!! The Pure Land itself is the Dharmakaya, out of which Amida arises to offer all beings the embrace of loving compassion and insight and infinite life. Not everyone can go swimming in the Void, the Dharmakaya, naked and unafraid as is required by Zen, especially as interpreted in the Western World. Therefore, we limited beings who exist due to the interdependence of all life often require a medium through which to pass on our way to final liberation. In Zen the medium is the roshi, whose enlightenment has been documented and approved of by other roshi. This guide for Pure Landers is the Vow of Amida, often depicted as the “boat from the other shore.”

In the Heart Sutra, we supposedly become one with the other shore through meditational reflection. The basis of The Other Shore is the Dharmakaya. What is forgotten, however, and again particularly by Zen practitioners in the West, is that Kannon delivers the sutra, not the Buddha!! She is the bodhisattva of infinite mercy and compassion. ( Her headdress has jewels all reflecting Amida. Shinran is regarded as a manifestation of Kannon.) Thus the whole sutra is couched between Kannon and the mantra recitation at the end. This fact is often overlooked or regarded as unimportant. But including it in our reading of the Heart Sutra leads one to see the sutra as strangely similar to some Pure Land thinking, although the nembutsu strictly speaking is not a mantra. This implies that the Jodo Shinshu tariki has some important insights to teach us about the Heart Sutra. Maybe the Pure Land teachings can help us better understand the Heart Sutra in its total meaning? Maybe the Zen teaching of emptiness can give us insights into the Other Power as no-self in action emerging out of universal mercy (Kannon)? But this direction demands that we overcome the emotions surrounding sectarian loyalties. Is holistic thinking really a sign of disloyalty, or even ignorance?

My interfaith work has let me see that all religions are plagued by this question. Seeing the boundaries between religions, or religious sects, as permeable is regarded as a sign of a traitorously weak faith. But is this true? I purpose the following for consideration and reflection: Dogen: to understand the Dharma is to understand the self. To understand the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things (dharmas). [NB This is actually a wordplay on the use of the words Dharma/dharmas.] Pure Land Buddhism(based on ryogemon and gobunsho]: To understand the Dharma is to understand the self. To understand the self is to abandon the self. To abandon the self is to be embraced by Other Power. To be embraced by Other Power, which enlightens all things, is to recite the nembutsu in gratitude. [NB The Other Power, Amida and the nembutsu all arise from the Dharmakaya, the Other Shore!] My faith journey, by the way, has brought me to the Way of the Nembutsu.

Thus our thought comes full circle to settle in a place represented by the statue of Shinran in roshi garb. This is highly contentious. It gives rise to all the emotions and indignations present in every sectarian rivalry in every religion. For example: between, the Christians and the Jews, the Protestants and the Catholics, the Shiites and the Sunnis, Jews and Muslims, Zen and the Pure Land, and so it goes on and on. Thousands of people have died over such rivalries. Many have been shunned, or even condemned. Thus believers are often led to attitudes and acts that the founders would never have approved.

Will it ever end? Can we reach a place where such boundaries are seen as part of our delusions from which both masters offer us freedom? Or perhaps they are ways of offering us that freedom according to our conditions and unique, personal needs? The statue of Shinran at Hoon-ji in Tokyo beckons us.

Sensei Ulrich

October 26, 2005