Shinran's Contribution to the World

By Rev. Marvin Harada

In January we observe Ho-onko service, which commemorates the passing of Shinran Shonin, the founder of our tradition of Buddhism called Shin Buddhism, or Jodo Shinshu.  

At this point in time in the western world, very few know about Shinran Shonin.  Other Buddhist figures like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other contemporary Buddhist teachers are much more noteworthy.  I think that as time goes on, that many more will come to deeply appreciate the contribution that Shin Buddhism makes to the religious and spiritual life of people.  

If I were to describe in very simple terms, what is the essence of Shinran’s contribution to the world, it would have to be his spirit of humility.  Unlike other great Buddhists and teachers, Shinran Shonin never claims to be enlightened. But yet, when we look closely at his writings, his understanding of the Dharma was deep and profound.  

If we regard enlightenment as an awakening experience in which the ego self is transcended, then from Shinran’s humble perspective, how on earth could one ever claim to be enlightened?  How could you ever say that you were enlightened without a “tinge” of ego in that statement. Maybe some Zen Masters can sincerely claim to be enlightened, but to me, Shinran Shonin, in not stating that he is enlightened, shows the depth of his awakening.  

I always explain in my talks that becoming humble and realizing your arrogance, occur at the same time.  You can’t “strive” to become humble. You can’t think to yourself, “Well, I am going to work at it every day.  I am going to try to become a more humble person every day, and by the end of the year, I will be a truly humble person.”  What if you made that attempt and felt a few months down the road, “Yeah, this is going pretty well. I am getting more and more humble.  In fact, I think I am a really humble person now.”  

In reality, you aren’t humble at all.  You are the opposite. You are arrogant.  You are arrogant thinking that you are humble.  A humble person does not think of themselves as humble.  A humble person sees themselves as arrogant, and that is what makes them humble.  That is why becoming humble and realizing your arrogance occurs at the same time. In a similar manner, for Shinran Shonin, realizing the depth of his ego self is at the same time realizing that which goes beyond the ego self.  That is why in his statements of his ego self, he is expressing his humble nature, which is the proof of his realization or awakening.

For example, here is a quotation from Shinran’s poems, or wasans.  

Although I take refuge in the true Pure Land Way,

It is hard to have a true and sincere mind,

This self is false and insincere;

I completely lack a pure mind.

p. 421

Collected Works of Shinran

In this poem Shinran sees very clearly his ego self, his “unenlightened self.”  But in another poem he expresses the following:

The person who attains shinjin and joy

Is taught to be equal to the Tathagatas.

Great shinjin is itself Buddha-nature;

Buddha-nature is none other than Tathagata.

p. 351

Collected Works of Shinran

Shinjin is the heart and mind of the Buddha that Shinran Shonin comes to realize, awaken to, and receive in his own heart and mind.  This heart and mind of the Buddha, shinjin, is “equal to the Tathagatas (Buddhas).  It is Buddha-nature. Here, Shinran Shonin expresses his heart and mind not as the ego self, but as the heart and mind of the Buddha.  

This is the paradox of Buddhism, and especially Shin Buddhism.  Awakening to one’s ego self, is at the same time awakening to the heart and mind of the Buddha.  To become humble means to realize your arrogance. To become enlightened means to realize how un-awakened you are.  

It will take some time for the western world to appreciate the inherent paradox of the spiritual world of Shin Buddhism, as we in the west think in more logical, rational terms.  Paradox is not a part of our culture and way of thought. But once we begin to appreciate the paradoxical nature of Buddhism, we can see a new world opening up to us.


Rev. Marvin Harada