Here’s the story of Shinran in a nut shell. Back in 12th century Japan, he was a low-ranking monk in the highly bureaucratic Tendai monastery on Mt. Hiei which was pretty beholden to the aristocratic class of the time. He did all sorts of practices up there, and pretty much failed at all of them. He was a lousy monk, by his own admission, so he gave up. He gave up and left the mountain and through a series of fortunate events, met and became a disciple of Honen, a Pure Land teacher who had also quit the monastic life. Together and apart, they started teaching people a different path to enlightenment, one which eschewed the reigning authorities of their day and relied on the compassion of Amida Buddha for deliverance to the Pure Land. They got into trouble for this, and were eventually banned from the capital to different parts of the country-side where they promptly set up shop ministering to the “peasants” the radical notion that anyone can get enlightened.
In short, being a lousy monk, Shinran gave up on that path, took a wife, had children, lived his life, and remained a pretty damn good Buddhist. This was something of deep interest to me.
He was not without his critics, of course. The main thrust of criticism came in the form of the “licensed evil” argument. Basically, Shinran was claiming that it doesn’t matter what you do to get enlightened because we’re all going to get enlightened. (Which, if you think about it, is basic Mahayana philosophy and has been a philosophical paradox since day one. If nirvana is characterized as non-dual, how do you get from an unenlightened state to an enlightened one if there’s no duality? Form is emptiness, emptiness is form and all that.) But if it doesn’t matter what you do, then you must be free to do anything. And to be fair, there were a number of Buddhists in his time who were running around doing horrible, immoral things for this very reason (hence, licensed evil). To which, Shinran said, “just because you have the antidote doesn’t mean you keep drinking the poison.”
I have this box of Alka Seltzer “morning after” strength sitting in my kitchen. The product is literally marketed to people who are going to drink too much and need hang-over relief. The reason you get a hang-over is because alcohol is a poison and the hang-over is your body’s way of repairing the damage you’ve done to it, of saying, “hey, that was really stupid. Don’t do it again, okay?” But it’s okay to drink too much because, hey, we’ve got these great medicines for dealing with the hang-over. No problem.
This is very much what Shinran’s talking about, I think. We know we should behave, but we don’t. Ultimately, from the point of view of enlightenment, from the perspective of universal Truth with a big capital T, we’re all already enlightened, so it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. But that doesn’t change the fact that our unenlightened behavior still causes us daily problems. (Look around. If we’re all already enlightened, explain poverty and disease and George Bush.) To push the hang-over analogy, you might be able to make your hang-over symptoms go away, but you’ve probably destroyed your liver, which you’re going to have to deal with eventually. Better to just avoid getting that drunk altogether.
But this is all academic. And the real question, what prompted this three-parter, was why Shinshu for me? The previous two little anecdotes are relevant because they remind me that Buddhism is not something that you have to go and do somewhere else. It’s something that’s inextricably mixed in with your everyday life. Shinran went out and got married and had kids and kept on teaching. His followers weren’t all vegetarian, celibate, non-drinkers full of self-rightous piety; they were moderate in their lifestyles and were basically good, normal, moral people. Which is the point, after all. The point is that we’re all basically good people, and this is where Shinshu really gets me.
Back in the summer of 2002, the woman I’d been with for several years left me, we got evicted, I had a lousy job and no money, was deeply in debt, and was trying to write my thesis. For a good part of that summer, I was living in my car. By most accounts, I’d hit bottom. Well, if nothing else, I certainly felt that way. Things were bad. But despite how bad they had become, I couldn’t shake this overwhelming sense of gratitude for the things that were sustaining me. The love and support of my family and friends, for example. And more “intangible” things like the very fact that I was alive at all. (Sometimes I marvel at the fragility of life, how it takes humans more than a decade to be self-sustaining and even then how easy it is for life to be lost, and how it’s really amazing any of us are here at all.) I’d been reading the work of Hiroyuki Itsuki at the time which is particularly relevant. He talks of this insatiable desire people have to persevere in spite of their mortality.
In Shinshu, we talk about everyone getting enlightened. Even the worst of us. Shinran once said he’d rather be reborn in hell because the folks there are really suffering, they really need the dharma. People here are going to be just fine. There’s something very comforting in all of that. I mean, take a second, stop reading this, and think about that. No matter who are, it’s okay. The compassion of the Buddha (i.e., the potentiality in each of us to attain awakening) does not discriminate. The compassion of the Buddha is for everyone.
So no matter how bad I may have it, somehow I know it’ll be okay.
Back in the summer of 2002, feeling this way, I felt like Shinshu was becoming more and more important in my personal life. That it wasn’t just academic. That maybe it was time that I finally bit the bullet and joined a community. That being surrounded by other people who had felt and thought and experienced some of the same things was somewhat comforting. So at the housewarming party for my crappy, windowless, basement-apartment that fall, I asked my classmate and Shinshu minister Kanjo how one goes about becoming a Buddhist. When I told him about this feeling of gratitude I’d been having, he said I didn’t need to do anything. I already was a Buddhist.
So, to answer your question, that’s how I came to Jodo Shinshu.
And now that I’ve spend all week writing about this, I think I might have to follow it all up with a wedding rant. I am, after all, getting married next week. Next week! And this all leads me to the question of what any of this has to do with marriage.