Ryōjin Soga: An Upside Down View of Buddhist History

By Rev. Ken Yamada

Innovative Jodo Shinshu Buddhist thinkers of the modern era typically begin with Manshi Kiyozawa, but another name sometimes tops the list.

Ryōjin Soga “was arguably the most innovative thinker in the history of modern Shin Buddhism,” wrote scholar Robert Rhodes, in the book Cultivating Spirituality. Soga (1875-1971) continued Kiyozawa’s approach to Shin Buddhism using Western philosophical analysis and inquiry, pushing the boundaries of reason and logic.

Among Soga’s ideas, his view of Mahayana’s evolution, particularly Pure Land, turns Buddhist history on its head. Conventional thought positions the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni, as the originator of Buddhist teachings, which evolved over time and different interpretations into an abstract and highly symbolic form expressed as Amida Buddha. For Soga, the opposite occurred — Śākyamuni was produced by a continuous flow of wisdom embodied by Amida from beginningless time.

Kiyozawa and others following his philosophical lineage, such as Soga, Daiei Kaneko, Haya Akegarasu, Rijin Yasuda and other Higashi Honganji teachers, helped make Jodo Shinshu relevant in the modern era. However, their ideas initially were rejected and they faced persecution.

Accused of heresy, Soga resigned his professorship in 1930 at Higashi Honganji’s Ōtani university in Kyoto, which contributed to mass student protests. He founded a private academy and continued writing and teaching until returning to the university 10 years later. Eventually he became the university’s president.

As a graduate student, Soga criticized Kiyozawa’s thinking, but later accepted and adopted Kiyozawa’s approach. On his 60th birthday in 1935, Soga lectured on “Shinran’s View of Buddhist History,” a translation by Jan Van Bragt of which is included in Rhode’s anthology of Shin Buddhist essays,  also edited by Mark Blum. Another translation by Wayne Yokoyama appears in the book, “Interactions with Japanese Buddhism,” edited by Michael Pye.

Soga’s fascinating viewpoint helps deepen our appreciation and understanding of Jodo Shinshu by turning basic assumptions upside down. His argument is somewhat complex and difficult, so I’ve attempted to explain its premise by citing passages from his talk found in both of the aforementioned books.

Around the time of Soga’s lecture, scholars were producing works documenting the development of Buddhist thought by linking scriptural passages with sutras and the dates they were produced or translated, a methodology that today forms the basis of Buddhist studies.

Soga felt Buddhist scholars are “only interested in whether something has been really taught by the Buddha or not. They have thus eyes only for the doctrine and forget about the matter of practice whereby Buddhahood is realized.” He said, “To ignore the content while arguing about the form is like a caterpillar going round and round the rim of a potted plant.”

He said, “I submit that it is a Buddhist history seen from the viewpoint of historical materialism, a materialism that negates the very spirit of Buddhism and leaves no room for any unified body of Buddhist truth, for any spirit pervading the whole of Buddhist history…”

The true essence of the Buddhist path is awakening the unenlightened mind. Soga felt Shinran (Jodo Shinshu’s founder) understood that “Buddhism is the doctrine directed at the attainment of Buddhahood, the doctrine that teaches about the buddha, the doctrine that teaches that which makes a buddha truly into a buddha and thus aims at making all sentient beings into buddhas.” In this sense, the so-called history of Buddhism isn’t about documenting the past, but about spiritual awakening in the present, according to Soga.

He asks: “Of what possible significance would it be to create a history of Buddhism stripped of the fact of Buddhist experience?” “What we call Buddhism and what we call Buddhist history, which are respectively the object and the methodology, are one.”

There is “absolutely no allowance for a notion such as ordinary unawakened beings becoming Buddhas. Those who follow that line of thinking would feel that this offers conclusive proof that the problem of becoming a Buddha was absent from the beginning. With this fundamental problem missing from the outset, their approach has as much life to it as stale beer…”

Scholars assume the flow of Buddhist history flows from simple to complicated: Śākyamuni’s simple path of inward practice eventually turning into a philosophy and practice of mysticism. Soga questions this logic that Śākyamuni taught simple and easily understandable truths which evolved over time into complex and abstract expressions of Mahayana. While acknowledging the historic Buddha was originator of what’s called “Buddhism,” Soga saw the foundation of that wisdom rooted in an ancient past.

He says, “It is correct to say that Buddhist history so called begins with Śākyamuni. However, the wellsprings of this Buddhism go back to even before the beginning of Buddhist history… Only when our thoughts become one with the flow can we understand for the first time how distant is the source.” Soga said, “Could it be that vast collection of stories was produced in just a few hundred years after the Buddha’s death? Or were those stories actually the traditions  handed down for several tens of thousands of years before the Buddha?”

Soga said: “The truth of Buddhism is not something produced by Śākyamuni. It is a truth without beginning or end. It existed long before Śākyamuni and is forever the same, not at all dependent on Śākyamuni’s coming into the world. Śākyamuni’s profound realization and mission consisted in making a judicious choice among, and steering in a right direction, these legends that symbolize and adorn the Buddhist path, in gathering them into a synthesis and thus pointing out the direction to be followed in the future.”

Soga felt the Larger Sutra of Infinite Life, the focus of Shinran’s greatest interest, expressed this timeless history. He said, “The Buddhist path is what each of us, as the ordinary unawakened being lost in delusion, must seek over and over again, until finally, we realize the attainment of the long-sought goal as a history-changing event in our lives. Our spiritual ancestors, their minds at one (with the Buddha), sought for that path, trod it with unwavering…. Never once did our spiritual ancestors ever conceive of the history of the Buddha marga (path) as some sort of evolutionary development starting from fundamental Buddhism and going to Theravada/Hinayana Buddhism and then to Mahayana Buddhism and Ekayana Buddhism, or from jiriki Buddhism to tariki Buddhism. As far as our true and sincere involvement in the Buddha marga is concerned, the evolutionary view is a denial of the history of Buddhism. The true and sincere unfolding of Buddhist history is properly the historical process making Buddhas out of ordinary unawakened beings, that is the historical process of bringing the Buddha-marga to fulfillment. “

He said, “For Shinran, the root and stem of Buddhist history is to be found in the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life; the history of Buddhism is the history of the dissemination of the Larger Sutra.”

Soga said, “What, then, about the myriad forms Buddhism has taken in its history? They are all branches and flowers on that trunk of the Larger Sutra. They have bloomed in wild profusion and will continue to do so, precisely because the life-giving trunk is there.”

Soga cites a passage in Shinran’s text, Kyogyoshinsho, to support his argument:

Amida, by establishing the incomparable vows, has opened wide the dharma-storehouse, and full of compassion for small, foolish beings, selects and bestows the treasure of virtues. [The sutra further reveals that] Śākyamuni appeared in this world and expounded the teachings of the way to enlightenment, seeking to save the multitudes of living beings by blessing them with this benefit that is true and real.

Śākyamuni’s life, or background, was testament to the truth he understood. “The real greatness of Śākyamuni lies in the greatness of his background. When you take this background away from him, Śākyamuni becomes nothing more than an outstanding scholar of the way… Buddhism would then be nothing but a kind of moral doctrine.”

“In my understanding, the tradition of Dharmakara Bodhisattva was, for Shinran, the pure background that gave rise to Śākyamuni … The tradition in Śākyamuni’s background, this true and unadulterated tradition, must have its origin in Amida Buddha. The Buddha called Amida is ultimately the ancestor that embraces Śākyamuni; Śākyamuni is a descendant bathing in the light of Amida Buddha. Furthermore, Amida Buddha is also the ancestor of our people throughout history, and we ourselves are descendants taken up in the ocean of his light.”

“Śākyamuni Buddha exists only by the grace of Amida Buddha’s original vow. The core of the question is not whether  that single great personality known as Śākyamuni has existed or not. That there has existed a buddha called Śākyamuni is a question of the historical background that made Śākyamuni into a buddha. The problem does not reside in Śākyamuni as a mere human person, but in the Buddhist path that brought the person of Śākyamuni Buddha into being. The true history of Buddhism, the history of Amida’s vows, lies in the point that Śākyamuni was made to be a true buddha, an authentic Tathāgata. It is in the midst of the history of the Buddhist path that Śākyamuni was born and the attainment of Buddhahood became a reality. In other words, Śākyamuni, while being a real existent, was a manifestation body of Amida Buddha. The great mission for the sake of which Śākyamuni came into this world is to be found only his being a manifestation body of Amida’s original vow.”

Soga concludes: “It is within this history of the vow and the nenbutsu that we come into the world, live, breathe, and finally return to the earth as dry bones.”



Cultivating Spirituality, A Modern Shin Buddhist Anthology, edited by Mark L. Blum, Robert F. Rhodes, SUNY Press, 2011

Interactions with Japanese Buddhism, Explorations and Viewpoints in Twentieth-Century Kyōto, edited by Michael Pye, assisted by The Eastern Buddhist Society, Equinox Publishing, 2013

More writings by Ryōjin Soga:

The Thanksgiving Sermons of Soga Ryōjin



Rev. Yamada is editor at Shinshu Center of America