Jodo Shinshu: Myth vs History

By Rev. Ken Yamada

With its mythical Buddha and otherworldly Pure Land, many people wonder how Jodo Shinshu could possibly represent the historical Buddha’s teaching.

By contrast, Shinshu followers feel Shinran’s teachings—the basis of Jodo Shinshu—reflect Buddhism’s true essence. The key to this conundrum lays precisely in how “myth” and symbolism may convey truth more effectively than “fact” and history.

Esteemed Buddhist scholar Daisetsu Suzuki, for example, compared Christianity, a religion based on “historical fact,” with Jodo Shinshu, a tradition based on myth and symbolism. Jesus was an historical figure who really lived two millennium ago, and Christian belief is based on this “fact.” By comparison, Shinshu followers aren’t compelled to believe Amida Buddha, nor predecessor Dharmakara, ever really existed in this world.

In his book, “A Miscellany of the Shin Buddhist Teachings,” Suzuki wrote:

The Christians like to think that their religion is based on historical facts, while Buddhism, especially Shin, is a metaphysical reconstruction, so to speak, of the ideas and aspirations which generally make up a religion. For this reason, Christianity to its followers is more solidly and objectively constituted. Here is one of the fundamental differences—indeed the fundamental difference between Christianity and Shin. Shin, in accordance with the general make-up of Buddhism, is not dualistically minded, however much it may so appear superficially; moreover, it does not take very kindly to the idea that objectivity is more real than subjectivity. Truth is neither subjective nor objective. There is no more reality in what is known as historical fact than what is considered psychological or metaphysical. In some cases, historicity is mere fiction. History takes place in time, and time as much as space depends upon our intellectual reconstruction. Religious faith, however, wants to grasp what is not conditioned by time and space. It wishes to take hold of what is behind historical facts. And this must be Reality transcending the polarization of subject and object. History is karmic, and Shin aspires after the ‘akarmic,’ or that which is not historical.”

Indeed, history seems constantly re-interpreted, re-written, and revised. As new information emerges, new “facts” discovered, and different perspectives considered, what once was considered true, may suddenly become dubious, and even, false.

In Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, “War and Peace,” an account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the writer questions somewhat humorously how events of the day might be portrayed in history:

Many historians say that the French did not win the battle of Borodinó because Napoleon had a cold, and that if he had not had a cold, the orders he gave before and during the battle would have been still more full of genius and Russia would have been lost and the face of the world have been changed. To historians who believe that Russia was shaped by the will of one man—Peter the Great—and that France from a republic became an empire and French armies went to Russia at the will of one man—Napoleon—to say that Russia remained a power because Napoleon had a bad cold on the twenty-fourth of August may seem logical and convincing.

 If it had depended on Napoleon’s will to fight or not to fight the battle of Borodinó, and if this or that other arrangement depended on his will, then evidently a cold affecting the manifestation of his will might have saved Russia, and consequently the valet who omitted to bring Napoleon his waterproof boots on the twenty-fourth would have been the savior of Russia. Along that line of thought such a deduction is indubitable, as indubitable as the deduction Voltaire made in jest (without knowing what he was jesting at) when he saw that the Massacre of St. Bartholomew was due to Charles IX’s stomach being deranged. But to men who do not admit that Russia was formed by the will of one man, Peter I, or that the French Empire was formed and the war with Russia begun by the will of one man, Napoleon, that argument seems not merely untrue and irrational, but contrary to all human reality. To the question of what causes historic events another answer presents itself, namely, that the course of human events is predetermined from on high—depends on the coincidence of the wills of all who take part in the events, and that a Napoleon’s influence on the course of these events is purely external and fictitious.”

A favorite story I like to tell is called “The Scorpion and the Frog.” To the chagrin of my friends who’ve heard it many times before, I sometimes recount the short tale because first-time listeners immediately understand and relate it to their own feelings and life experiences, nodding their heads vigorously in agreement.

The story goes:

Once there was a frog resting on a river bank. A scorpion approaches and asks the frog for a ride across the river. The frog thinks it over and replies, “Why should I give you a ride? You’ll sting me.”

The scorpion answers that it merely wants to cross the water. Why should it sting the frog?

The frog agrees and the scorpion climbs upon the frog’s back. As they cross the water, the scorpion suddenly stings the frog, which makes its legs go numb. They both start to sink and will drown. The frog looks back at the scorpion and asks, “Why did you sting me?”

The scorpion replies, “Because I’m a scorpion.”

Usually with a chuckle, listeners blurt out, “Oh I know what you mean. My friends are like that. I always help them, but then, they lash out at me.” They, of course, see themselves as helpful frogs and others as ungrateful scorpions.

Less clear is the Buddhist perspective: If we understand our own selfish nature, we realize we are scorpions. By carefully examining our own lives, we see that others constantly help us, yet we don’t appreciate them.

Whatever the case, obviously this story is fiction. I doubt scorpions and frogs speak the same language, let alone help each other cross rivers. But this make-believe story effectively conveys human feelings and experiences to which people can relate, understand and learn from. As a work of fiction, the story is not bound by time and place, and therefore remains timeless and universal. This was Suzuki’s point when speaking about historical fact and the objective versus the metaphysical and subjective.

Early Buddhism, based on Pali sutras, consisted of recorded words and teachings of the historical Buddha, which encouraged the Sangha to act in accord with dharma, Great Truth. Subsequently he gave much guidance to followers on behavior and explained major concepts such as suffering, impermanence, and interdependence. These fundamental Buddhist teachings appear quite sound, sensible and understandable.

In the millenniums that followed, those words and teachings were pondered, debated, understood and interpreted in new, deeper and more complex ways, giving rise to the Mahayana tradition, in which teachers used myths, stories and symbolism to convey meaning. Such conveyances are called “expedient means” (Sanskrit: upaya).

Suzuki, referring to early Buddhism as “primitive,” wrote: “The rise of the Pure Land idea illustrates the persistent and irrepressible assertion of certain aspects of our religious consciousness—the aspects somewhat neglected in the so-called primitive teaching of the Buddha.”

The influential psychoanalyst Carl Jung seems to agree with this sentiment in his book “Man and His Symbols,” when he wrote:

Man, as we realize if we reflect for a moment, never perceives anything fully or comprehends anything completely. He can see, hear, touch, and taste; but how far he sees, how well he hears, what his touch tells him, and what he tastes depend upon the number and quality of his senses. These limit his perception of the world around him.”

“Thus, a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider “unconscious” aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason.”

“Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend. This is one reason why all religions employ symbolic language or images.”

Jodo Shinshu is based on the myth of Dharmākara, who becomes Amida Buddha. The story is told by Shakyamuni Buddha to his attendant Ānanda in the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life. Dharmākara was a king “in the distant past—innumerable, incalculable, and inconceivable kalpas ago.” He vowed to help all sentient beings and create a Pure Land.

The Larger Sutra states:

At that time, there was a king who, having heard the Buddha’s exposition of the Dharma, rejoiced in his heart and awakened aspiration for the highest, perfect Enlightenment. He renounced his kingdom and the throne and became a monk named Dharmākara.”

  “Dharmākara Bodhisattva adopted the pure practices that had led to the establishment of the excellent lands of two hundred ten kotis of Buddhas.”

 After Dharmākara proclaimed 48 sacred vows, “the entire earth shook in six ways, and a rain of wonderful flowers fell from the heaven, scattering everywhere. Spontaneous music was heard, and a voice in the sky said, “Surely you will attain the highest, perfect Enlightenment.”

Shinran Shonin, despite living 800 years ago in a time of widespread folk belief and superstition, pierced the sutra’s symbolism and exposed its meaning as the working of wisdom. In his work, “Notes on Once Calling and Many-Calling” he wrote:

From this treasure ocean of oneness, form was manifested, taking the name of Bodhisattva Dharmākara, who, through establishing the unhindered Vow as the cause, became Amida Buddha. For this reason, Amida is the “Tathagata of fulfilled body.” Amida has been called “Buddha of unhindered light filling the ten quarters.” This Tathagata is also known as Namu-fukashigiko-butsu (Namu-Buddha of inconceivable light) and is the “dharma-body as compassionate means.” “Compassionate means” refers to manifesting form, revealing a name, and making itself known to sentient beings. It refers to Amida Buddha. This Tathagata is light. Light is none other than wisdom.

Modern Shinshu teacher Ryōjin Soga, saw Dharmākara as an embodiment of faith that arises within oneself. In an essay, “A Savior on Earth, The Meaning of Dharmākara Bodhisattva’s Advent,” he wrote:

Dharmākara Bodhisattva is no ancient myth; he is a reality of present faith. If we conceive of him apart from the one moment of faith, he becomes a mere mythological figure.”

“As a human buddha, Dharmākara Bodhisattva is, as such, the eternally existent Amida Buddha; at the same time, in another aspect, he is the true subject of the self that seeks salvation. I have expressed this idea with the words “the Tathāgata becomes me.” In other words, as savior he is the figure of the unity of ki (faith) and hō () (Tathāgata). Or again, on the side of the human being to be saved, he is the figure of the unity of the buddha-mind (faith) and the mind of common mortals (sinful karma).

“Dharmākara certainly did not appear as one historical human being. He deigned to be born directly in the heart-mind of us human beings. The calling voice directed at all sentient beings of the ten directions did not come from the high world of pure light, nor was it uttered objectively by one human person. This voice arose from the dark breast of suffering of each human being.”

(Translated by Jan Van Bragt in the book, “Cultivating Spirituality,” edited by Mark Blum and Robert Rhodes)

In his seminal work, Kyōgyōshinshō (True Teaching, Practice, Faith and Attainment), Shinran cites the parable of a finger pointing to the moon. It reads:

From this day on, rely on dharma, not on people who teach it. Rely on the meaning, not on the words. Rely on wisdom, not on the working of the mind. Rely on the sutras that fully express the meaning, not on those that do not…

 Hence, words may indeed have meaning, but the meaning is not the words. Consider, for example, a person instructing us by pointing to the moon with his finger. [To take words to be the meaning] is like looking at the finger and not at the moon. The person would say, “I am pointing to the moon with my finger in order to show it to you. Why do you look at my finger and not the moon?” Similarly, words are the finger pointing to the meaning; they are not the meaning itself. Hence, do not rely upon words…

 Shinran here encourages us to look beyond words themselves to uncover their true meaning. Likewise, if we too easily dismiss myths and symbols as silly, unbelievable, or irrelevant, there can be no deepening of consciousness, greater awareness, or spiritual awakening.

Joseph Campbell, who devoted his life to studying myths, wrote:

“Every myth is psychologically symbolic. Its narratives and images are to be read, therefore, not literally, but as metaphors.”

 “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result, we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

 Personally, before I understood Jodo Shinshu’s symbolism, I jokingly called it “Buddhist crazy talk.” Now I agree with Campbell, when he says, “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.

-Rev. Yamada is editor at Higashi Honganji’s Shinshu Center of America