Making Shin Buddhism Relevant for Today (Pt. 2)

By Rev. Marvin Harada

This month I would like to continue the topic of making Shin Buddhism relevant for today by discussing some additional key words and terms that might be a source of confusion for many, especially those who are new to Shin Buddhism.

Faith vs. Shinjin – I used to try to avoid as much as possible “loaded” terms that have strong Judeo Christian connotations. One of those terms is “faith.” However, recently I have read a wonderful book by the American Buddhist author, Sharon Salzberg, titled, “Faith, Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.” In her book she writes,

Faith does not require a belief system, and is not necessarily connected to a deity or a God, though it doesn’t deny one. This faith is not a commodity we either have or don’t have – it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.

p. xiv, “Faith,” by Sharon Salzberg.

Her book helped me to see that faith is not a word that I have to avoid, but that it has an important place in Buddhism and in how we express what is Buddhism.

I recall that my Sensei in Japan, Professor Shigaraki, used to explain faith in the following manner. Faith is like stepping into the ocean. In the beginning, the water is shallow, but as we walk deeper out into the ocean, the water becomes deeper and deeper, eventually becoming fathomless.

When we first begin on the path of Buddhism, our “faith” is like that, it is naturally shallow as we just “get our feet wet,” in terms of our learning and understanding. But as we continue on that journey of listening, learning, and reflecting, our faith deepens, our understanding deepens, our conviction deepens. If we really continue on that journey, then our “faith” evolves to what in Shin Buddhism we call “shinjin,” which is to receive the heart and mind of the Buddha as one with our heart and mind. It is to awaken to our true self, to know our truest heart, to encounter the fathomless world of the Dharma.

Evil in Shin Buddhism – Another loaded term is the word “evil” which you will encounter as you begin to read Shin Buddhist literature. For people who come from a western, Judeo Christian background, I know from experience in conducting study classes and discussions over the years, that this word really sets people off, or is a roadblock at the very least, to getting into the Shin Buddhist teachings. The word “evil” brings to mind people like Adolf Hitler, or Jeffrey Dahmer. How can Shinran Shonin see himself or we sentient beings as “evil” like those horrendous individuals?

The difficulty with this term is first to address morality and ethics in Buddhism. In the west, I think that people have the concept that religion = morality and ethics. While Buddhism has morality and ethics, it does not stop there, and goes deeper than morality and ethics. What does it mean to go deeper or beyond morality and ethics? It means that even a murderer on death row has the potential to transform their life and to become “awakened” in a Buddhist sense. Their crime as a murderer may not be lessened in a secular or societal sense, but in a “spiritual” sense, they could be more awakened and have a deeper understanding of Buddhism than “moral, law-abiding citizen,” me, for example.

Adolf Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer are two examples of individuals who committed horrific crimes in their life. But from a Buddhist perspective, it is sad that they never met a teacher or teaching that directed them to a path of peace or understanding.

That is why Shinran Shonin feels that although he couldn’t kill even one person, given certain causes and conditions, he might end up killing hundreds or thousands. I always think of the American pilot who flew the B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. That pilot was trained to fly airplanes. He was trained to serve his country. When called for a special mission that might end the war, he accepted that mission. Little did he know the scope of death and destruction the atomic bomb would have on the city and people of Hiroshima.

“Evil” in Shin Buddhism is not just something of the moral and ethical level. This term is trying to point out our innate self-centeredness, our deep-rooted concern for ourselves above all else. Although I don’t kill anything other than an occasional ant or fly with my own hands in my everyday life, I kill every day because of the food that I eat. Someone killed a chicken for my fried chicken. Someone killed a steer for my hamburger or steak. Someone killed a fish for my sashimi. Who is there that is not committing “evil” in that sense in their everyday life? We all take life. In that sense, we are all “evil,” although we live moral, law-abiding, ethical lives.

Shinran Shonin encounters the great compassion of the Buddha as embracing all beings, even the most evil of persons, meaning, himself. He doesn’t think, “Oh, Amida saves even someone as bad as Jeffrey Dahmer.” He thinks, “Amida’s compassion reaches and embraces even a person as bad as me.”


Rev. Marvin Harada