Hongwanji founder accepted all
The months of November or January, depending on which calendar one follows, are significant for Hongwanji Buddhist temples as occasions to commemorate the founder Shinran's death in 1262. It is the time of Hoon-ko, a gathering of thanksgiving acknowledging the compassion of the teacher. On this occasion, followers celebrate his legacy of spirit in opening the way to enlightenment or spiritual awakening for the common person through trust in Amida Buddha's Primal Vow to save all beings.
Until Shinran's time in medieval Japan, Buddhism had been the preserve of monastic adepts who sought enlightenment through rigorous and demanding mental and physical practices that were available to only the most capable individuals. Ordinary people could only look forward to numerous future rebirths in transmigration until they acquired sufficient spiritual potential to break through the bondage of infinitude and attain final nirvana or Buddhahood.
However, the Pure Land teaching emerged in Buddhism as a way for ordinary people to attain the highest level of life fulfillment. In Japan, this teaching of progress to enlightenment through the recitation of Amida Buddha's name was notably propagated through Honen (1133-1212), who started the independent Pure Land movement, and then through Shinran (1173-1262), who is regarded as the founder of the Hongwanji tradition.
Shinran lived a long life of 90 years. Following a period in his youth in serious pursuit of enlightenment, ending in frustration and a deep sense of spiritual failure, his teacher Honen opened to him the vast reality of Buddha's boundless compassion and his vow to liberate all beings from their sufferings. Shinran spent 60 years sharing this good news with people on the frontier of Japan, working among farmers and people of many backgrounds.
His message, which has endured to this day, stresses that faith and trust in Amida's Vow is the essence of life. Amida means "infinite," and we trust in the embrace of infinite compassion and wisdom to bring our lives to ultimate fulfillment.
Shinran held a cosmic view of reality. The truth is universal, despite variations in expression, therefore he counseled respect for all gods and buddhas, hence all religions. He understood that respect does not mean facile compromise for peace at any price. Rather, he had firm convictions and withstood persecution, but he never denigrated other people or their beliefs.
Another implication of Shinran's understanding of Amida is the equality of all beings as the object of Amida's Vow. He considered his followers as equal companions in the truth and never required them, as the price of salvation, to follow his dictates. Shinran did not teach with a clenched fist, either to hide the truth or coerce his disciples. He claimed not to have disciples and confessed his own limitations and imperfections. He never stood above his disciples, but stood on the same ground.
Shinran had a respect for tradition. Though he was guided by his personal experience, he treasured his root in tradition and plumbed its depth. Shinran's footing in tradition and his broad cosmic understanding gave him a confidence that permitted him to be open, embrace questioning and accept difference.
His legacy has made Shinran one of the most attractive of religious teachers in Japan, even for those who have little regard for institutional religion. His realistic self-understanding and warmth of spirit still draws us today in our world of spiritual confusion and violence. Shinran's life and path offer a guiding light in a dark world.
Alfred Bloom is professor emeritus of religion at University of Hawaii and an ordained Hongwanji Buddhist minister.