Japanese Spirituality and The Earth

The life of the earth is the life of reality, the life of faith that does not permit deceit, the life of Nembutsu. There seems little doubt, therefore, that given the opportunity his exile provided, Shinran attempted to test the Nembutsu faith he had acquired from Honen where the life of the earth was actually found. Life in Kyoto would never have given him this opportunity. He took advantage of his exile to put his own faith to the trial. He already possessed the experience that 'Nembutsu alone is true,' so he did not spend his days merely mouthing empty Nembutsu. His was a true Nembutsu bound to the earth, and for him to live among those who worked the plow and hoe and not to use them himself as well would have turned his faith into the kind of "gibberish and nonsense" he himself condemns in the Tannisho. His life in Echigo was in direct and immediate conformity with the earth. The reason he did not content himself with continuing in the 'spotless' life of purity he had been leading to this point-rich in ideality alone, possessed of nothing positive-was because he wished to put the Nembutsu to work in man's ordinary life. Otherwise, it would be difficult to comprehend his reasons for eating meat and marrying in disregard of the Buddhist precepts. He made no attempt to draw distinctions between Shodomon (the "Holy Path," leading to salvation through self power, or by works; Jiriki) and Jodomon (the "Pure Land Path," bringing salvation by means of Amida's grace; Tariki) merely in terms of whether one ate meat or practiced celibacy, or whether one repeated a continual Nembutsu or not. He tested in the actual life of the earth whether he could experience the Buddha's grace or favor in ordinary human existence. Here one cannot help but see the earnestness of his faith. He did not differentiate between priest and layman, and though he was unable to extricate himself completely from the ideologies of his time, he had already withdrawn from his previous existence of saint-like purity, both in his view of Nembutsu and in his awareness of faith. For him "raging passions" and "certain Hell" were not matters that could be said merely to relate to forms external to life; for this reason he discarded a conceptual life without hesitation. I think Shin believers who have come after him still lack a firm realization of this. His central thought is absolute faith in the Original Prayer of Amida. Of other matters, even though they might be highly praiseworthy according to the pronouncements of traditional Buddhism, he took no notice.

The following passage comes from a book entitled Roankyo(literally, "Donkey-Saddle Bridge"), which records the words and deeds of the Tokugawa Zen teacher Suzuki Shosan (1579-1655).

In the eighth month of the year 1652, the master [Suzuki Shosan] arrived at Hoshozen-ji, a temple at Hatogaya in Bushu of the Kanto district. Scores of farmers from all the neighboring parts came to hear his Buddhist teachings. The master said, "Farming is the work of the Buddha. Do not search outside of it. Each of your bodies is the body of Buddha. Your hearts are the heart of Buddha. Your work is the work of the Buddha. But since your minds are inclined to evil, you will fall into hell even with all your good qualities [roots]. Isn't it regrettable, dreaming up all kinds of wickedness in oneself-hate, attachment, stinginess, greed, and so on-agonizing day and night in this life, and in the life after falling into the evil courses eternally? But with farming you can exhaust bad karma, thus kindling the power of the Great Prayer. Farm, repeating the Nembutsu hoe-stroke by hoe-stroke. ... you will then surely attain Buddhahood ... (Part I, 98)

He does not mean evil karma can be exhausted by the repetition of thousands of hoe-strokes. With the Namu-Amida-Butsu of each hoe-stroke the bad karma of incalculable ages past comes to naught. It is not a question of how many hoe-strokes or Nembutsu are required for so much bad karma. One hoe-stroke up, one hoe-stroke down ... that is the absolute, it passes into the Original Prayer itself. No, it is the Original Prayer. In the rise and fall of the hoe is heard the soft whisper of the Original Prayer. Because Shosan is a man of Zen he uses a Zen vocabulary, but his unconscious consciousness penetrates deeply to the marrow of Shinran's sect. There is not the least doubt that his Nembutsu appears from and returns to the earth. The five or six years Shinran spent in Echigo enabled him to attain this realization.

Upon receiving a pardon, Shinran proceeded to Hitachi instead of returning to the capital. It is not known whether this had any connection with his relatives there or not. But is it not probable he went to this urea, where books were obtainable, to find evidence in the Buddhist scriptures for what he had attained - the unattainable.

Later on, we may see recurring in him the passion of his youth - hence the Kyogyoshinshio came to be written. But on the other hand, the light of his faith in Amida, flowing over from his personality and life could not help but have influenced those near him. There began to materialize around him a kind of religious order during the twenty years he lived in the eastern provinces. This would never have happened without his sojourn in Echigo.