“Compassion of My Religion’s Founder”

Shinran (Nara National Museum)

Bishop Eric Matsumoto
(from the February 2022 Headquarters Update newsletter)

Recently, an invitation from Murabbi (Missionary) Matiullah Joyia of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Hawaii was extended to the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii to participate in the 2nd World Religions’ Conference with the theme “Compassion of my Religion’s Founder.” At the conference, 6 world religions (Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam) presented a variety of chants or sacred readings and the compassion of their respective faiths. Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, Office of the Bishop was honored to be asked to represent the Buddhist Tradition while Rev. Yuika Hasebe chanted “The Tradition of Shinran Shonin” (Shonin Ichiryu no Sho) as our contribution.

I began by explaining that the Buddhist Tradition is vast and varied in its approach as it recognizes that people’s individual abilities and capabilities differ. Thus, I often refer to the illustration of a large tree or a spectrum to describe Buddhism. Further, as we all know, the Founder of Buddhism is the Historic Buddha, Sakyamuni, who was born in Ancient India as Prince Siddhartha Gautama, but for this presentation, I focused on Shinran Shonin, who we revere as the Founder of Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism.

Although I have to admit I had to think about what I would share for as we know Shinran Shonin would never say about himself that he was compassionate. Of course, this is not to say that we of later ages cannot regard him as being compassionate for he truly was!

I decided to focus my presentation on Shinran Shonin’s gratitude for the Great Compassion of Amida Buddha. For Shinran Shonin, the Compassionate One is Amida Buddha, not himself. Shinran Shonin, out of awareness of Amida Buddha’s compassion, was moved to share that compassion with others. In a poem of hymn, he wrote

Persons who truly realize shinjin
As they utter Amida’s Name,
Being mindful of the Buddha always,
Wish to respond in gratitude to the great benevolence.

Thus, for Shinran Shonin, even in exile, he devoted the latter half of his 90 year life to sharing the Wisdom and Compassion of Amida Buddha or the Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Infinite Light as expounded in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra in which a universal Buddha whose reach is cosmic in proportion makes unprecedented vows to lead all with no exceptions to Supreme Enlightenment to the extent that this Buddha conditions the Buddha’s own personal attainment of Perfect Enlightenment with the enlightenment of all other forms of life. In almost all of the 48 vows made by this Buddha, the phrase, “If, when I attain Buddhahood, (if such and such is not so) …may I not attain perfect enlightenment.” are part of the vows.

In the Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhist Tradition, Enlightenment reaches out to us, not as rigorous and demanding religious practices or even in the form of meditation, but the Calling Voice of Enlightenment beckoning us to please wholeheartedly entrust, just as you are, in the Compassionate 18th Vow. Shinran Shonin’s reading of the 18th Vow, in part, is

If, when I attain Buddhahood, the sentient beings of the ten quarter, with sincere mind entrusting themselves, aspiring to be born in my land, saying my Name perhaps even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain the supreme enlightenment.

Thus, in the Jodo Shinshu Pure Land Tradition, central is the Buddha’s Name of “Namo Amida Butsu.” It is the form in which the Buddha approaches us and at the same time the Great Practice and also our gratefully responding to it by reciting it in awareness, joy and gratitude of that all-inclusive and all-embracing compassion. Ultimately, even our awareness and gratitude are because of the Buddha’s compassion not my own compassion or endeavor. Therefore, our entrusting can be described as an Endowed True Entrusting brought forth by Enlightened Wisdom and Compassion, that is Namo Amida Butsu, itself.

As a final point, I introduced the special characteristic of Shin Buddhism as experienced by Shinran Shonin, which truly expressed the all-inclusiveness and all-embracing aspect of Great Compassion which reaches out to save the “spiritually foolish being” (bonbu). I made sure to mention that this quote (to follow from the Tannisho) is often misinterpreted as endorsing negative behavior which it does not! It adds a new dimension to Great Compassion. If Great Compassion is great compassion it has to be equally accessible and applicable to one and all including those who by some other standards may not be included. Great Compassion reaches out to those who are not able to help themselves and thus only speaks of True Entrusting. For it is the nature of Great Compassion or the Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Infinite Light to include all. Thus, Shinran is known to have said,

“Even a good person attains birth in the Pure Land, so it goes without saying that an evil person will.” “It is impossible for us, who are possessed of blind passions, to free ourselves from birth-and-death through any practice what(so)ever. Sorrowing at this, Amida made the Vow, the essential intent of which is the evil person’s attainment of Buddhahood. Hence, evil persons who entrust themselves to Other Power are precisely the one who possess the true cause of birth. Accordingly, he said, “Even the good person is born in the Pure Land, so without question is the person who is evil.”

Many people were confused about the true nature and intent of Great Compassion and thus Shinran Shonin devoted his entire latter part of his life clarifying what the Shin Buddhist Teaching was all about, a non-dichotomous Compassion.

To close, Shinran Shonin said, “How joyous I am, my heart and mind being rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and my thoughts and feelings flowing within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension! I am deeply aware of the Tathagata’s immense compassion, and I sincerely revere the benevolent care behind the masters’ teaching activity. My joy grows ever fuller, my gratitude and indebtedness ever more compelling. Therefore, I have selected [passages expressing] the core of the Pure Land way and gathered here its essentials.” Again, it was out of awareness, joy and (especially) gratitude of Amida Buddha’s Great Compassion, which he found embracing a “spiritually foolish being” that he saw himself as, that motived Shinran Shonin to dedicate his life to sharing about Great Compassion so that others too would come know and experience Great Compassion. Thank you very much.

Namo Amida Butsu.

Bishop Eric Matsumoto in ministerial vestments (small thumbnail image)Reverend Eric Matsumoto is the 16th bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.