(5) Books and Scrolls
Rennyo often repeated the couplet:
A tattered scroll worn by hanging,
A tattered book torn by reading.
To those who are beginners in Buddhism in general, or newcomers to Jodo Shinshu in particular, the vastness of the Buddhist canon can be daunting. No matter what teaching we decide to follow, there must be a process of selection—of taking up some sutras and commentaries, and laying others aside. But how can we know which to select and which to lay aside?
One of the aspects of Buddhism that first motivated me to become a disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha is the superiority of the Buddhist canon. From the integrity of its transmission—first orally by sages adept at samadhi, then in written form by faithful scribes—to the supreme purity of its content, I was awed and overpowered by the moral authority and spiritual relevance that I found in even the most basic of the Nikayas. When I discovered the Infinite Life Sutra, my enthusiasm was unbounded. I felt then, as I have ever since, that I had never read anything like it, so complete in its spiritual scope, in the all-encompassing vision of salvation presented to its readers and hearers, and unparalleled in its keen diagnosis of the human condition, as well as the prescription given. I realized then that here, at last, was “the wondrous scripture rare and most excellent,” as Shinran Shonin states, “the conclusive and ultimate exposition of the One Vehicle.” Since that time, I have never ceased reading the Larger Sutra, and it has never failed to satisfy my spiritual hunger or quench my thirst for Truth.
This sutra, together with the other two, and taken with the commentaries of the Pure Land Masters, form the Dharma-medicine of the True Pure Land Way, the prescription for this terminally ill world of Saha. Because the Primal Vow is universal, applying to all beings in all times and places, it is the only Dharma-gate that remains open to us, who inhabit a world so far removed from the enlightening power and influence of Shakyamuni Buddha. This being the case, we are extremely fortunate to have access to the most important scriptures in our tradition in numerous languages, thanks to the hard work of many dedicated translators. To begin with, we have the translation of the Three Pure Land Sutras published by the Society for the Promotion of Buddhism, as well as those sponsored by the Hongwanji-ha in Kyoto. The Collected Works of Shinran is one such resource, a priceless compendium of the extent writings of our Founder, including the Hymns and Letters, and the great masterpiece that is the Kyogyoshinsho. Translations have been made in many other languages as well, including Portuguese, French, Romanian, and Russian. Many of these are available online. The task of translating the many writings of the Masters of the Hongwanji is one that I hope a new generation of Shinshu scholars will soon undertake. Certainly, we can be grateful for the work that such people do in helping to spread the Dharma of Amida Buddha throughout the world.
The scriptures of Jodo Shinshu are, without exception, written for our benefit, that is, for the benefit of deluded, foolish, and simple-minded people. From the poignant hymns of our Founder to Master Rennyo’s wonderfully succinct letters, every word is intended to guide us to give up all pretensions at spiritual attainment and practice, and take refuge without reserve in the Primal Vow. For this reason, as we shall see later on, the sacred texts of Jodo Shinshu are not esoteric documents filled with secret or hidden meanings. Rather, they are straightforward accounts of the glory of the Pure Land, the majestic power of Amida Buddha, and the joy of entrusting oneself to Him. Even the great Kyogyoshinsho, which is often (incorrectly) treated as a scholastic or apologetic work, is accessible to anyone with the patience and persistence to read it and let it speak to them.
Master Rennyo must have taken the words of the couplet quoted in this saying to heart from a young age, for even in his youth as a student of the teachings of Shinran Shonin that he received from his father, Master Zonnyo, we are told that he constantly read the Kyogyoshinsho and wore out three copies of the Anjin Ketsujo-sho. Another source says that he in fact wore out seven copies of this text! This gives us some idea of how devoted Rennyo was to studying and understanding the sacred literature of our tradition.
Of course, the only purpose of studying Shinshu scriptures is to realize “diamondlike shinjin,” which is the spontaneous power of the Primal Vow cutting through our egoistic delusions. If the settlement of shinjin in the one thought-moment of entrusting is not made the focus of Jodo Shinshu studies, then such endeavors are ultimately useless. As Dr. Eiken Kobai of Soai University observes, without shinjin, it is pointless to study the teaching and scriptures of Jodo Shinshu.
“Scroll” in the couplet refers to myogo, a hanging scroll with the Name (usually in six characters, but sometimes more) inscribed thereon. Such scrolls, which represent the fulfillment of Amida’s Vow, have traditionally been the focal point of lay devotion, since poor peasants could not afford the gilded images often found in the temples. In Rennyo’s interpretation, this line reminds us that, however much we may read and study the scriptures, it is all useless if we do not encounter the Vow-power through the Name. In its profound significance, the Name contains everything that is taught in this tradition. Having heard and understood the Name, nothing more is required.
We will have many more opportunities to explore the canon of Jodo Shinshu as we continue our journey with Master Rennyo. In the meantime, since we have such a wealth of pristine writings at our fingertips, it would be foolish of us not to take time to read them. It would be like a starving person passing up on a free buffet lunch! In order to appreciate the sacred literature of this school, a background in Buddhist studies is not necessary, nor is a knowledge of philosophy or comparative religion. All that is required is that we put aside our cherished opinions and theories, and listen humbly and directly to the message of Amida Buddha. As Zuiken Inagaki Sensei wrote:
To distinguish and study the values of the Dharma-gates alone is not sufficient to sail across the sea of birth-and-death. One cannot do without leaving behind speech and texts, and single-mindedly trusting with awe in the Buddha’s mind. What Shonin means by “leaving behind the texts” is to accept wholeheartedly his preaching—not drawing a snake and adding feet to it, not putting in one’s own ideas, but listening to it with a sincere mind. By regarding the holy texts as being sacred, one can partake of the taste of “leaving behind the texts.” Studying the texts logically and being constrained by intellectual reasoning, as long as it remains theory, can never be Buddha-Dharma.
With these words in mind, let us renew our acquaintance with the wisdom of our Jodo Shinshu masters and founders, and following their exhortations, take refuge in the Land of Peace and Provision.