The radiant light, unhindered and inconceivable, eradicates suffering and brings realization of joy; the excellent Name, perfectly embodying all practices, eliminates obstacles and dispels doubt. This is the teaching and practice for our latter age; devote yourself solely to it. It is eye and limb in this defiled world; do not fail to endeavor in it. Accepting and living the supreme, universal Vow, then, abandon the defiled and aspire for the pure. Reverently embracing the Tathagata's teaching, respond in gratitude to his benevolence and be thankful for his compassion.

~ Shinran Shonin, Passages on the Pure Land Way

Saturday, October 11, 2014

On Listening

It is autumn here in the northern hemisphere, and my favorite time of year. It is a good time for wandering, for losing oneself in the ephemeral beauty of nature, for contemplating impermanence, as the leaves fall and the weather is in a state of constant change. It is a good season to think about what is truly important in life. In Jodo Shinshu, we learn that the most important thing is to attain birth in the Land of Utmost Bliss, there realizing Nirvana, the state of absolute freedom, tranquility and peace, of benefiting others without end.
Since the only way to Nirvana for small, foolish beings such as ourselves is to be born in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, the question that naturally follows is, “What must one do to be born there?” The answer is, “Nothing at all, only hear and accept the Name fulfilled in the Primal Vow.” To hear and accept the Name is to realize shinjin, the diamond-like faith, which is in fact Amida’s Bodhi-mind bestowed on us. How, then, do we realize this diamond-like shinjin? As already stated, the only way is by hearing and accepting the Name. But how can we hear it?
The Japanese term chomon, which means “listening,” is the word used to describe the process by which we “hear the Name and accept it.” Listening to the Dharma should not be thought of as a pastime to be engaged in only after all the other obligations of life have been met.  Rather, it should be our constant priority, for there is nothing in this life more important than listening to the Buddha-Dharma for the purpose of settling our faith. Though this injunction seems easy enough, there are many pitfalls waiting to ensnare those who fail to carefully follow the instructions of Shinran Shonin and the Pure Land Masters. A number of these misunderstandings have come to my attention in the past. I discuss them here in order to warn other seekers against them.
I have heard it said that chomon is the “only practice” in Jodo Shinshu, but this seems a somewhat misguided if not altogether misleading assertion. Certainly our Dharma Masters never referred to listening as a practice. The Nembutsu is the only practice we have in our school, and even it is not a practice in the provisional sense, but the great working of Amitabha in saving beings. If we cannot call even the Nembutsu our practice, how much less can we refer to listening to the Dharma as such! If listening is made a practice—something that we set out to do in order to gain a result—we will miss the whole point of listening, which is not to obtain new and wonderful states of mind or mystical experiences, but simply to hear the Name, Namo Amida Butsu. Once genuinely heard, this Name does all the work necessary to save us, sweeping away our doubts and establishing us in the stage of those who are assured of their birth in the Pure Land. Zonkaku Shonin, the fourth Monshu of the Hongwanji, wrote regarding this, “Hearing is hearing with ‘Buddha-centered power.’ Settlement of my shinjin is determined by Amida’s Vow-Power.”[1] No matter how much we expend our energy in studying the Buddha-Dharma, if we do not rely on Other-Power, our minds will remain unsettled. You cannot manufacture shinjin through your self-powered efforts and calculative designs. A contrived faith is merely a pretense, devoid of any real value.
Some people say that we must first understand the Dharma intellectually in order to entrust ourselves to it. This assertion is completely wrong, however. It is not possible for bombu (foolish beings) like ourselves to intellectually understand the Dharma, nor is there any requirement for us to do so. Rather, the genuine understanding that arises upon truly hearing the Name is a spiritual correspondence that does not require intellectual effort. Indeed, the most ardent devotees of Jodo Shinshu throughout the ages have for the most part been unlettered common people, who clearly had no intellectual aspirations. If we are to truly understand Jodo Shinshu, to some degree we must also be willing to cast aside our intellectual pretensions and become like humble peasants. Peace of mind is not a mental struggle, but its cessation.
Not surprisingly, listening to the Dharma can easily devolve into a self-powered process, if we do not make it a point to rely on the Buddha’s power. Though we listen to the Dharma with the purpose of acquiring shinjin, in truth shinjin is right before us. Amida Buddha has already fulfilled all the requirements for our birth in the Pure Land, including listening, hearing the Name, accepting faith, and reciting the Nembutsu. So all that is left for us to “do” is to leave everything to Him. Dr. Eiken Kobai of Soai University writes, “The problem, then, is why it is so difficult to leave it completely up to Amida Buddha. And the answer is that it is due to our being so taken in by our desire to be ‘logical’ and our desire to ‘understand’ it all. There is understanding, but it is spiritual and not logical.”[2] Those who sincerely seek true and real shinjin must be careful, lest they fall into the trap of self-power and calculative thinking regarding their attainment.
The late Rev. Zuiken Inagaki was well aware of the perils of treating listening as a practice and shinjin as an object to be grasped. In his book The Pitch-Darkness, he relates many anecdotes stressing that those who invest in listening to the Dharma without recourse to the Buddha’s power will only be confounded and confused. In the end, they will have to admit that they have listened and heard nothing. Simply put, bombu are deaf and blind, incapable of seeing or hearing the Dharma as such. The light of wisdom opens our eyes and ears, enabling us to hear and accept shinjin. Zuiken challenges us to ponder what we will do when we find ourselves at the gate of death, completely helpless, and bereft of everything we have “heard” in our lives. What will we rely on then? At that time, in such absolute darkness, only the call of the Primal Vow will be audible to us, urging us to give up self-power, and trust wholly in Amida. This call may be felt not only at one’s actual deathbed, but all throughout life. Indeed, from the perspective of the Buddha-Dharma, we are on our deathbeds right now. [3]
It is when our futile attempts to understand and make intellectual sense of the Dharma come to nothing that we are thrown back to where we started from, but ready to truly and humbly listen to the teaching of Namu Amida Butsu. Again, Dr. Kobai states, “Only when we sense what ignorant beings we are, only when we sense the base passions that truly move us and simply acknowledge it will we be able to break the bonds of ‘logic’ and the desire to ‘understand,’ that bind us. That is when doubts about the Primal Vow disappear, and when we are able to leave our salvation completely up to the workings of Amida Buddha.”[4]
It’s for this reason that Rev. Zuiken wrote, “Believing does not come after hearing. Peace of mind does not come after believing. Listen carefully to the call of the Original Vow, which has accomplished namuamidabutsu and also accomplished our hearing of it, believing in it and peace of mind. If you have listened well, you will be relieved of the heavy burden on your shoulders.”[5] Accordingly, Shinran Shonin tells us that listening simply means to hear the Primal Vow and be free of doubt concerning its origins and fulfillment. If we do not keep this in mind, all our Buddhist studies will be in vain.
I have noticed that some people attempt to excuse their lack of shinjin with such words as, “Well, I’ve done my best. Even if I can’t (or won’t) believe in the Dharma in this life, no doubt I’ll get plenty of chances in the next one.” But those who have actually read the sacred texts realize that the likelihood for us to be born in favorable conditions is slight, while the karmic evil weighing us down is heavy. In less than a second, this life is over. If you do not settle your faith now, when will you be able to? If you do not listen to the Dharma now, when will you be able to? The urgent matter of the afterlife presents itself to us in every breath we take. Death is our constant companion, whether we acknowledge it or not. Each one of us should consider this life as his or her last chance to escape from the wheel of suffering. For once the stock of good that has caused us to be born in the human realm is exhausted, we will once again fall back into the three evil courses. Who knows when we will emerge? The chances of being born a human being and encountering this Dharma are slight, almost so as to be nonexistent. Do not let your life pass by in vain.
In closing, I will present some verses composed by the Myokonin Okaru, as quoted by Dr. Kobai in his superb book Misunderstandings of Master Rennyo [6]:
Why not listen to the Way of Truth...
It isn’t an unreasonable teaching at all.
Don’t you want to hear what is true and real?
Makes me wonder what you want to hear...
Though you are entitled to walk freely,
Why not give up all attachments
And leave it all to Amida?
Rennyo Shonin clearly states, “For this reason, those who, without doubting, deeply entrust themselves to Amida Tathagata single-mindedly and unwaveringly, and disregarding their own deep karmic evil and leaving it to Amida’s care, and who have their heart settled in a single thought of entrusting, will no doubt, ten out of ten and a hundred out of a hundred, attain birth in the Pure Land.”[7] I have written this brief essay to address what I consider to be serious misconceptions regarding “deep listening” in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, in the hope that it will be helpful for those who earnestly desire to share the same faith as Shinran Shonin. Any essay of this length on so vast a topic is bound to miss some important points. Moreover, I am not a Shinshu scholar. I therefore urge my readers to avail themselves of the many fine versions of Gobunsho and other sacred writings in order to resolve all their doubts and realize the supreme Faith that is true and real.
In gasshō,
Gabriel Schlaefer

Sacramento, California

October 11, 2014
[1] Kobai, Eiken. Misunderstandings of Master Rennyo. Los Angeles: The Nembutsu Press. 1998.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For translations of The Pitch Darkness and other books by Zuiken Inagaki, please visit

[4] Kobai, Misunderstandings.

[5] Inagaki, Zuiken. “On Faith.” Retrieved October 11, 2014, from

[6] Kobai.

[7] Nagao, Gadjin M. (ed.). Letters of Rennyo: A Translation of Rennyo’s Gobunshō. Kyoto, Japan: Hongwanji International Center. 2000.

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