Shinran and Violence

By Rev. Ken Yamada

Turmoil and violence afflicting our world today are confusing and enraging. What to do? Shinran Shonin, founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, offers some relevant, timely and wise guidance.

With a pandemic raging these past several months, we’ve seen mass protests, shootings, arson, vandalism, fights, and verbal assaults. They occur across national borders, on our streets, in the halls of our legislators, and even in supermarket aisles. Each side claims justice; anger foments everywhere. Our country seems divided as ever.

Shinran (1173-1263) was no stranger to violence. His lifetime was plagued by a civil war, and later, an armed uprising against the government. Shinran himself became embroiled in an incident involving his teacher Honen and Honen’s disciples, resulting in four executions. Subsequently, both Honen and Shinran were exiled.

I recently read a paper, “Violence and Nonviolence in Shinran” (MDPI Religions journal, June 2018), written by Dennis Hirota, a Nishi Honganji researcher, perhaps best known as the head translator of The Collected Works of Shinran. He wrote, Shinran “articulated a mode of thinking that… provides an alternative model for considering moral judgments and issues of violence today.”

Jodo Shinshu is based on the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life, in which Amida Buddha makes 48 vows, including the vow to save all sentient beings. However, a provision excludes “those who commit the five grave offenses.” Those offenses include killing one’s parents, killing monks, disrupting the sangha, injuring buddhas, destroying temples, and more broadly, evil acts of speech, mind, and body—in other words, any act of violence or aggression.

Hirota points out Honen typically ignored this exclusion provision when citing the Vow, making it easier to stress how all beings are saved. By contrast, Shinran highlighted the exclusions. “Shinran states that the Buddha’s intent in the exclusion is not to reject the gravest offenders and revilers of the dharma from the sphere of wisdom-compassion, but to indicate precisely that all beings are embraced by bringing them to awareness of, and reflection on, the depth of the karmic evil that permeates their existence.”

Typically we think, “Good is rewarded, evil is punished,” but Shinran turned such thinking upside down, saying, “Even a good person attains birth in the Pure Land, so it goes without saying that an evil person will.”

That logic may seem strange when speaking of violence. How could abhorrent acts lead to spiritual awakening? For answers, consider Shinran’s treatment of a story in the Contemplation Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life.

The Contemplation Sutra tells the story of how Prince Ajatasatru kills his father, King Bimbisara, and imprisons his mother, Queen Vaidehi. The focus usually is on what the Buddha teaches the queen to overcome her suffering, which includes Nembutsu, reciting the Buddha’s name, which we do in Jodo Shinshu. But Shinran focuses on the murderer, Ajatasatru.

In his text, Kyogyoshinsho, Shinran devotes several pages to events after Ajatasatru usurps the throne. As king, he is afflicted by extreme guilt over the murder, laying ill in bed, painful sores covering his body. In remorse, Ajatasatru says, “A wise man said, ‘If a person’s acts in body, speech, and mind are not pure, know that he is certain to fall into hell.’ I am indeed like this…”

Here, Ajatasatru comes to see his evil nature. For Shinran, the seeds of spiritual awakening lay in this recognition. One’s life isn’t the result of one’s calculations and selfish actions, but rather, by something far greater—the innumerable interconnected causes, conditions, and effects that create our lives. Ignorance of this truth, results in an opposing and destructive perception that separates oneself from others, driven by ego, selfishness and calculated actions.

According to Shinran, “Our desires are countless, and anger, wrath, jealously, and envy are overwhelming, arising without pause; to the very last moment of life they do not cease, or disappear, or exhaust themselves.”

Hirota writes violence and other aggressive acts surface “from ‘afflicting passions’ (bonno) of ego-attachment and deepens one’s entanglement in samsaric existence… They are rooted in forms of violence directed toward self-magnification and division from others.” He also writes, “Consequently, for Shinran, mental acts are the primary form of violence.”

If mental acts are included as violence, aren’t we all guilty? Whom among us haven’t thought ill of others? The most extreme manifestation of discriminatory and ego-centered thinking is physical violence.

In a letter, Shinran wrote, “Human beings are such that, maddened by the passions of greed, we desire to possess; maddened by the passions of anger, we hate that which should not be hated, seeking to go against the law of cause and effect; led astray by the passions of ignorance, we do what should not even be thought.”

In the Tannisho, Shinran offered advice related to sectarian attacks and religious persecution, but his words ring true today. When challenged, he said: “If one responds without rancor thus, what person will do one harm? An authoritative passage states, “Where arguments take place, blind passions arise. The wise keep their distance.”

Hirota writes: “We see here the nonviolent, nonconfrontational response that Shinran speaks of, acting out of the egalitarian thrust of the Pure Land path to dissolve barriers and neutralize enmity rather than establishing division between self and other.”

I’m reminded of what Higashi Honganji teacher Daiei Kaneko wrote in A Thinking Person’s Guide to Shin Buddhism: “Morality may set the standard for right and wrong, but most of the time it comes down to a sense of ‘I am right, you are wrong.’ This makes us quick to scathingly denounce others for petty misdeeds while pleading mercy for our own crimes. Consequently, our struggle to subjugate evil becomes a struggle between self and other.”

Even trying to “right” a “wrong” is tainted by discriminatory and egotistical thinking. According to Hirota, “The hallmark of Shinran’s thought is his insight regarding religious praxis, that any endeavor to rectify one’s emotions and behavior can never be effective in eradicating violence in its deepest sense of discriminative thinking and perception. Moreover, the self-conscious performance of virtuous conduct can only serve continuing self-validation.”

Hirota writes: “Shinran’s treatment of violence may be construed as running precisely counter to the presuppositions of the modern liberal discourse of moral principles and imperatives. It is an effort to deconstruct intuitive notions of the ego-self as the center of agency and judgements of good and evil. It thus seeks to nullify key assumptions that configure universally prescriptive codes of action. Most significantly, Shinran’s views are at odds with modern humanistic confidence in the autonomy of individuals and their powers of disinterested moral discernment and action.”

Because of self-centeredness, ego-attachments, and ignorance—our passions—how can we know right from wrong, good from evil? Thus, Shinran writes, “I know nothing of what is good or evil.”

What do these words mean in today’s world? Of course, violence is abhorrent, especially acts by the powerful against the powerless—the underprivileged and under-represented. Neither should violence be inflicted in reverse—by the weak upon the strong—even under the banner of justice and righteousness.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught nonviolence (Sanskrit: ahimsa), meaning all forms of violence should be avoided. Violence is rooted in ignorance, that “I” am separate from “others.” True reality ultimately means we all are interdependent and One.

Yet injustice exists and unfairness often rules the world. Change is needed. What to do?

I find wisdom in our teachers from the past: The Buddha taught us to avoid violence; Shinran showed us how violence springs from our blind passions. Ultimately, how can we know our actions are good? Knowing this means we must tread lightly and humbly.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence. When it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. From his view we may indeed see the basic weakness of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

Likewise, Prince Shotoku (574-622), the first Buddhist ruler of Japan, promoted understanding as the way forward. A constitution he established says, “Let us cease from wrath, and refrain from angry looks. Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all people have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary persons. How can anybody lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all, one with another, wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end.”

Let us sow the seeds of peace, by first recognizing our own ignorance and propensity to harm. Then, when seeing it in others, we’ll understand we’re no different. Let this be the way forward.


-Rev. Ken Yamada is editor at Shinshu Center of America.