Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist - Rennyo's Letters

11.07.2015 10:21


Rennyo's Letters

"THE LETTERS" are those written by Rennyo Shōnin (1415-1499) to his followers. He was one of the greatest teachers of the Shin school of Buddhism; in fact it was he who laid the firm foundation for the modern religious institution known as the Jōdo-Shin Shu, the True Sect of the Pure Land. His letters numbering about eighty-five are preserved and the title Gobunshō or Ofumi, that is, "honorable letters," is given to them. They are generally read before a sermon and quoted as the most authoritative source-documents on the teaching of the Shin school. Saichi states here that when his mind is illumined by these epistles he realizes what a miserable creature he is; but when he sees the Buddha-mind as revealed through these illuminating documents of the great teacher, he is assured of the overwhelming immensity of Oya-sama's love for him and feels grateful for it without measure. Rennyo's letters serve to bring out both aspects of our religious consciousness: (1) the sense of wickedness and depravity and (2) the feeling of gratitude for being saved from an utterly helpless situation. Here is one of Rennyo's letters:

To be established in [Shin] faith means to understand the

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[paragraph continues] Eighteenth Vow. 1 To understand the Eighteenth Vow means to understand the frame of mind 2 the "Namu-amida-butsu" sets up in you. 1a

Therefore, when you attain a state of single-mindedness as you utter the "Namu2 with absolute trust [in Amida] you perceive the significance of Amida's Vow which is directed towards awakening a faith-frame in you. For herein we realize what is meant by Amida Nyorai's "turning towards" 3 us ignorant beings. This is pointed out in the Larger Sūtra of Eternal Life 4 where we read: "Amida provides all beings with all the merits." 5

Thus it follows that with all the evil deeds, with all the evil passions we have been cherishing in our former lives ever since the beginningless past, we are, owing to Amida's Vow which is beyond comprehension, thoroughly cleansed of them with no residue whatever left; and in consequence of it, we are made to abide with no fear of regression in "the order of steadfastness." 6








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This is what is meant by the statement that Nirvana is attainable without destroying the evil passions (kleśa). 7

This is the teaching exclusively taken up by our school but you are warned not to talk this way to people of other schools. Let me remind you of this.

With reverence . . .

The translation of such documents as Rennyo's letters is full of difficulties as they are so laden with technical terms which defy in many cases replacement by any other languages. The terms require lengthy explanations, which I have to omit. But a word about the "Namu-amida-butsu."

"Namu-amida-butsu" is the Japanese reading of the original Sanskrit phrase "namo amitābhabuddhāya," meaning "Adoration of the Buddha of Infinite Light." But with followers of the Pure Land teaching, the phrase is far more than mere adoration for Amitābhabuddha, or Amida, for by this they express their absolute faith in Amida as one who makes it possible for them to be born in his Land of Purity and Bliss.

With popular minds "Namu-amida-butsu" is rather a confused notion, for as in the case of Saichi the phrase frequently represents Reality itself impersonated as Amida or Oya-sama, and at the same time it is a form of adoration as well as the expression of absolute dependence. This is not, however, all of "Namu-amida-butsu," for the phrase often serves as a metaphysical formula symbolizing the identity of subject and object, of the devotee and Amida, of the "sin-laden" individual


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and the all-saving and all-merciful Oya-sama, of all beings (sarvasattva) and Buddha, of ki and , of human yearnings and the supreme enlightenment. In this sense, the phrase, "Namu-amida-butsu," stands for a state of consciousness in which Saichi finds it sometimes difficult to distinguish himself from Amida.



The Oya-sama who never fails me
Has now become myself,
Making me hear his Name--
The "Namu-amida-butsu."




I am a fortunate one:
Oya-sama is given me,
The Oya who turns me into a Buddha--


When the phrase is used as a philosophical symbol, it is usually divided first into two parts: "Namu" (ki) and "Amida-butsu" (). "Namu" then stands for the devotee filled with all possible sinfulness while "Amida-butsu" is the Buddha of infinite light and eternal life. When the devotee pronounces the phrase, "Namu-amida-butsu," he is the "Namu-amida-butsu" itself. When Saichi repeats "Namu-amida-butsu," "Namu-amida-butsu," the phrase is to be understood in this sense, and no idea of supplication or mere adoration is implied here. Saichi in this case may be said to be like Tennyson calling himself "Alfred," "Alfred" as he tells us in his "Ancient Sage." Saichi here is completely drunk with the identification, completely absorbed in the mystery, through which the miserable Saichi carrying all his human passions

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and cravings finds himself transformed into a Buddha and in the presence of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and other holy souls. In a state of ecstasy or intoxication, Saichi does not know where to stop when he jots down in his schoolboy's notebook all that goes through his mind while busying himself with making the footgear. Saichi's repetition of "Namu-amida-butsu" is to be interpreted in this way.

Saichi often addresses himself, asking such questions as: "What are you doing now, O Saichi?" "How are you faring, O Saichi?" "Say, Saichi, where are you?" "Why don't you stop writing?" and so on. These questions evidently show that his was a dual personality: the "miserable, despicable, woebegone" Saichi was living together with Amida or Oya-sama when Amida was felt to be near. Sometimes Saichi felt that it was not he who addressed Amida or himself but Amida addressing Amida. Amida's presence in Saichi was not a visionary experience. Amida really directed Saichi's movements while this by no means prevented Saichi from being himself, from being a miserable existence incalculably separated from Amida. But Saichi felt at the same moment that without this miserable existence of his he could not experience all the joy that came from unity. 8

The psychologists may declare Saichi to be a very good example


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of schizophrenia. But they forget that Saichi is not a sick person, not a case of psychosis, tormented by the split. He is a perfectly healthy personality, he has never lost the sense of the oneness of his being. In fact his sense of being is so deep and yet so definite that he is living a more real and meaningful life than most of us do. It is we and not he who live in a psychological duality with all its disturbing consequences.

Eckhart once gave a sermon on "the just lives in eternity" in which he says:

The just lives in God and God in him, for God is born in the just and the just in God: at every virtue of the just God is born and is rejoiced, and not only every virtue but every action of the just wrought out of the virtue of the just and in justice; thereat God is glad aye, thrilled with joy, there is nothing in his ground that does not dance for joy. To unenlightened (grob) people this is matter for belief but the illumined know. 9

It is illuminating to hear Eckhart say that "to the coarse-minded (grob) people this is matter for belief but the enlightened know (wissen)." "The coarse-minded" means those who cannot go beyond the senses and the intellect, for they do not know anything that takes place in the realm of prajñā-intuition. The Oya-sama whose all-embracing and all-comprehending love makes Saichi hear his Name, "Namu-amida-butsu," first becomes Saichi himself. This means that the Oya-sama individualizes himself as a Saichi in the same way as Eckhart would have God "be born in the just and the just in God" and then hears his own Name pronounced by his individualized human Saichi. Amida is now transformed


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into the "Namu-amida-butsu" in the being of Saichi and Saichi in turn becomes Amida by hearing Amida's Name, "Namu-amida-butsu" as pronounced by Saichi himself. In this unity it is difficult to distinguish who is Amida and who is Saichi. When the one is mentioned the other inevitably comes along. Amida's Pure Land cannot now be anything else but Saichi's sahaloka--this shaba world of particular existences.



Oya is in the Pure Land,
I am in this world,
And Oya has given me,
To become one with me:
The "Namu-amida-butsu"!




Let me go to the Pure Land,
Which is like visiting my neighbors
This world is the Pure Land.




You are not saying the Nembutsu,
It is the Nembutsu that makes you say it,
And you are taken to the Pure Land.




168:1 "If upon my obtaining Buddhahood, all beings in the ten quarters should not desire in sincerity and trustfulness to be in my country, and if they should not be born there by only thinking of me, say, up to ten times . . . may I not attain the Highest Enlightenment."

168:1a Transcriber's note: from "understand" to "sets" was somehow inserted into the footnotes on this page above footnote 2. This fragment makes a lot more sense when inserted between "means to" and "up in you" in this sentence, so I have placed it there.--JBH.

168:2 As was explained, the Nembutsu which consists of the six syllables, Na-mu-a-mi-da-buts(u), is a miraculous formula. When this is pronounced in sincerity of heart and in absolute faith in Amida, it produces a certain state of consciousness which is termed here "frame of mind" or "faith-frame." When it is attained, the devotee is said to have joined "the group of steadfastness" with no fear of retrogression. The faith thus awakened assures one of birth in the Pure Land.

168:3 The miracle of Shin faith is that when the ordinary-minded people are confirmed in their faith all their sins and evil passions are transferred to Amida, and it is then he and not the actual sinners that would bear all the dire karma-consequences. More than that, all the merits Amida has accumulated during his infinite lives of self-training are given freely to the devotee. This is technically known as the doctrine of transference (pariṇāmanā).

168:4 This is the principal Mahāyāna Sūtra on which Shin teachings are based. But the Shin text is Sanghavarman's Chinese translation executed in 252 A.D., when he came to China from Central Asia.

168:5 This "transference of merit" has a deep metaphysical significance in the history of Buddhist thought in India and China.

168:6 The "order of steadfastness" is a stage where Shin devotees become p. 169 absolutely sure of their rebirth in the Pure Land, that is to say, when they see as Saichi does all the doors removed which keep this world in separation from the Pure Land.

169:7 Nirvāna is kleśa (bonnō) and kleśa is Nirvāna--this is one of the great Mahāyāna teachings. When however its import is not properly comprehended, it lends itself to all kinds of dangerous misinterpretation for which mysticism is usually blamed. Eckhart for this reason was censored as a heretic.

171:8 Meister Eckhart, as quoted by Paul Tillich in his paper on "The Types of Philosophy of Religion," says: "There is between God and the soul neither strangeness nor remoteness, therefore the soul is not only equal with God but it is-the same that He is." To Saichi, Amida is both remote and near, perhaps to him Amida is near because of his remoteness, he is remote because of his nearness. To use Saichi's own words: "Saichi feels miserable because he is full of evil cravings, but it is just because of his misery that he is made to appreciate the loving-kindness of Amida who is no other than his Oya-sama and that the joy and the feeling of gratitude following the appreciation know no bounds, even going beyond the limits of the whole universe."

172:9 Evans, p. 149.