Jodo Shinshu is a Japanese phrase that means “True Pure Land School” and refers to the sect of Buddhism practiced at the Mountain View Buddhist Temple. Jodo Shinshu is also known as Shin Buddhism, so the terms are used interchangeably.
Jodo Shinshu, or Shin Buddhism, was founded by the former Tendai Japanese monk Shinran Shonin (1173 – 1263). Shin Buddhism is a non-monastic tradition. Shinran Shonin was one of the first monks in the Japanese Buddhist tradition to marry and raise a family, and he called himself “neither monk nor lay person.” Shin Buddhism is a family-friendly path that all ages can participate in together. Shin is the largest tradition of Buddhism in Japan and has been in America for over 120 years.
Shinran lived as a monk for 20 years until he left the monastic tradition to follow his teacher, Honen (1133 – 1212). Shinran married a woman named Eshinni, and together they raised six children. As Shin Buddhism became popularized, all of Japanese Buddhism changed, and today many traditions of Buddhism have married clergy.
Shin Buddhism focuses on a lay-oriented, non-monastic approach to Buddhism. This is both easier and more difficult at the same time. Although there are no monastic precepts to follow, nor arduous meditational practices to do, our everyday life becomes our “practice center.” We must struggle with work, relationships, child-rearing, caring for elderly parents, and the myriad experiences and responsibilities of our lives.
Through listening to the Dharma, the Shin Buddhist finds meaning, fulfillment, and insight in the joys and sorrows of everyday life.
Shinran had a unique insight into Buddhism. For many years, he practiced monastic Buddhism in an attempt to lessen his ego self and attain enlightenment, but to no avail. Shinran’s religious and spiritual experience was to discover that enlightenment is not something to achieve or attain, especially when the ego self is involved. The ego self is relentless in that the more one achieves, the more highly one thinks of oneself.
Shinran gave up striving for enlightenment and instead opened his heart and mind to receive the truth, the light of the Dharma, into his heart and mind.
Shin Buddhism is a path of deep self-reflection and introspection through listening. Seeing the teachings in our everyday life, we are led to a life of gratitude and appreciation for all that sustains our life, nurtures our life, and enhances our life.
Central to Shin Buddhism is the recitation of “Namo Amida Butsu,” which means, “I bow my head to the truth of enlightenment, wisdom, and compassion.” The Shin Buddhist path is a life of listening, reciting, and coming to see Namo Amida Butsu as a deep and profound truth, and not just a word or recitation.
Enlightenment expressed in one phrase: NAMO AMIDA BUTSU. Namo literally means “to take refuge,” and comes from the Sanskrit word namas. What are we bowing to when we say “Namo Amida Butsu?” We are bowing to Amida Buddha, where Amida Buddha is not a being, a deity, or a historical person. Amida Buddha is a symbol of the contents of enlightenment, great wisdom, and great compassion. We bow our head to the truth of enlightenment, saying “Namo Amida Butsu,” and we come to receive that truth of wisdom and compassion into our hearts and minds.
Listening is our main practice. Listening can mean listening to Dharma talks at the Temple, but it can also mean reading and discussing the teachings and listening to others. By listening, we come to see the teachings in our everyday life, all around us. Anyone and anything can be a teacher to us, if we have the heart and mind to listen, to learn, and to receive. In Shin Buddhism, rather than striving to attain enlightenment, we listen to find ourselves “within enlightenment, within the heart of the Buddha, which is wisdom and compassion.”
During the late 19th century, Japanese immigrants, also known as issei or first generation Japanese Americans, began arriving in the United States. Many Issei came from regions in which Jodo Shinshu was predominant and maintained their religious identity in their new country. The Buddhist Churches of America is among the oldest Buddhist organizations outside of Asia. Jodo Shinshu remains somewhat unknown outside the ethnic community because of the history of internment during World War II, which caused many temples to focus on rebuilding the Japanese American Sangha rather than encourage outreach to non-Japanese. This situation is changing with each generation. Although many Jodo Shinshu temples continue to have predominantly ethnic Japanese members, interest in Buddhism and intermarriage contribute to a more diverse community.
Today Shin Buddhism is considered the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan with many followers in the United States. Originally, the Mountain View Buddhist Temple serviced the area within and around the communities of Los Altos, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale. In the pre-World War II days, this was known as the “Mountain View Japanese Association” area.
The Mountain View Buddhist Temple is affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), an overseas district of Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha Hongwanji (more familiarly known as Nishi Hongwanji), located in Kyoto, Japan. The spiritual leader of the Hongwanji is presently the 25th descendent of Shinran Shonin, Kojun Ohtani. He is referred to by the title of Monshu, which means “primary gate.” The Monshu’s representative in the mainland United States is the Socho, or administrator, is currently Bishop Marvin Harada. The Hongwanji has approximately ten million followers in Japan, divided into 31 districts, or kyoku, and affiliated branches all over the world.
In the mainland United States, the BCA headquarters, or Honbu, is located in San Francisco. There are 60 temples comprising the Buddhist Churches of America, and organized into eight districts: Bay, Central California, Coast, Eastern, Mountain States, Northern California, Northwest, and Southern. The Mountain View Buddhist Temple is located within the Coast District.
For more information about the BCA, explore their website: www.buddhistchurchesofamerica.org
As a member of the Mountain View Buddhist Temple Girl Scout Troop 60736 and as part of her Girl Scout Gold Award, Victoria Shinkawa produced a workbook on Jodo Shinshu. Click below to learn more.