The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Shozomatsu Wasan 104

How lamentable it is that at present
All the monks and laypeople of Japan,
While following the Buddhist rules of conduct,
Venerate gods and spirits of the heavens and earth.

Rite and Ritual

In making it clear that the entrusting heart alone is the cause of birth and the attainment of Nirvana, Shinran Shonin completely removed mandatory ritual from Pure Land practice. Jodo Shinshu liturgy does include sutra chants and offerings of food, incense and flowers, which are placed in front of the principal image, but these are not rituals in the sense of devotional activities that are designed to be effective as vehicles of liberation.

So it is that, for those who understand and accept Shinran's insights, nembutsu as a ritual practice, which is accompanied by prostrations and similar exercises, has been completely removed from the Pure Land way. Chanting nembutsu is an essentially spontaneous expression of the entrusting heart.

Rennyo Shonin said that participation in the liturgy may serve to assist in the hearing of the dharma, but that is not its primary significance. It is an expression of gratitude. It does not include ritual actions, except the most minimal expressions of respect, and it does not include petitionary prayer of any kind. It is free from all supplication and obsequiousness.

The chants at Jodo Shinshu temples and homes consists of little more than a reading of the esteemed words of the Buddha and the Masters, especially Shinran and Rennyo. The Three Pure Land Sutras, the commentaries of the dharma masters and the writings of Shinran and Rennyo form a deep reservoir of esteemed passages that may be used in the daily liturgy. And, when we think of someone whom we love and appreciate, we tend to want to commit their words to memory.

Buddhist scriptures are words of endearment more than anything. They tell us about our frailty, and our inner darkness, and our suffering; they tell us in such a way that just the act of listening is to find true joy and relief, since the hearing is at levels that are deeper than our rational consciousness. The Tripitaka is the public manifestation of the dharma body. Not only does it reveal things that are deeper than mere appearances but it is also the precious body of the Buddha. The same can be said of the writings of Shinran. They are more than mere words; they are the heart of the man.

The Jodo Shinshu liturgy is remarkable for the way that it reflects the experience that it celebrates. It is redolent with the principle of abandoning ritual (as we understand it, in this context) and is a pure act of love, devotion and joy.

Because it has no recourse to rite and ritual as a way to generate the conditions for liberation, Jodo Shinshu celebrates the timeless sensibility of Shakyamuni. As a Shaivite boy at the time of his initiation, Shakyamuni realised the futility of rite and ritual and, from them on, advised against it.

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