Jodo Shinshu Revolution

By Rev. Ken Yamada

When I first studied Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism, it really made no sense. A mythical buddha Amida supposedly embraced me with infinite compassion, assuring me of birth in the Pure Land when I die. I joked it was all “Buddha crazy talk.”

Years later, after experiencing suffering that life inevitably brings, Jodo Shinshu began to speak to me. My Higashi Honganji teachers related the teachings to life experiences, thought processes, perceptions, and emotions, guided by Shinran’s writings. Words and concepts were analyzed for their deeper and sometimes symbolic meaning. It all began to make sense.

For hundreds of years, Shinshu was transmitted and believed the way I first heard. How did these teachings transform so that contemporary people like me could understand? Kiyozawa Manshi (1863-1903) gets much credit—he’s considered the first modern thinker of Jōdo Shinshu.

During his lifetime, Kiyozawa tried to reform the Higashi Honganji denomination (formally Shinshu Ōtani-ha), hoping to dismantle what he felt were anachronistic practices and beliefs, and instead turn the focus towards individual introspection and self-realization, but he ultimately failed. It took decades after Kiyozawa’s death for his thoughts to become a guiding light for the institution at large.

Jeff Schroeder, religious studies professor at University of Oregon, documented this evolution in his book, “The Revolution of Buddhist Modernism, Jōdo Shin Thought and Politics, 1890-1962  (University of Hawai’i Press, 2022).

Schroeder wrote:

Through his philosophical investigations, ascetic lifestyle, educational reforms, protest activities, and discourse of religious empiricism, Kiyozawa helped initiate a revolutionary reform movement within the Ōtani community, but the narrative later put forward by his followers—and inadvertently reinforced by much Buddhist studies scholarship—of an extraordinary individual and a handful of his extraordinary disciples restoring a degenerate Shin community through their enlightened teachings is misleading in the extreme. Charisma and inspired rhetoric alone did not bring about a new orthodoxy. That required supplanting the old orthodoxy by gaining influence over educational institutions, rallying public support in the midst of a heresy trial, appeasing the state during wartime, revising the sect constitution, and winning elections.

Schroeder explains in detail how a confluence of events—successive generations of teachers and religious leaders who followed Kiyozawa’s line of thought, clashed with traditionalists, hardened institutional policies, and long-held beliefs, while facing an onslaught of outside pressures, first from science and Western rational thought, then later from government and military authorities during World War II, before eventually emerging to assume positions of power and influence within the denomination.

Kiyozawa himself was a product of changing times during the Meiji era (1868-1912), when Japan transformed from feudalism to a modern society. New ideas flowed into the country, particularly Western thinking and science. A new emphasis on scientific truth, that which could be observed and measured, made traditional Buddhist beliefs seem old-fashioned and superstitious. Kiyozawa adopted Western style reasoning in understanding Buddhism and Shinran’s teachings, bringing new appeal to young, open minded students and priests.

For example, Kiyozawa interpreted Amida Buddha—not as a supernatural being—but rather as a symbol of “the infinite.” He wrote:

Amida Buddha is an expedient expression signifying the infinite, the universe as a whole, or the law that courses through and animates that universe. On one hand, we exist as part of the infinite, so the infinite is not merely an object external to us. On the other hand, the infinite is not a mere content of our mind. Rather, the infinite includes and unites the subjective and objective worlds.

Prominent Kiyozawa student Soga Ryōjin (1875-1971) later radically reinterpreted key teachings based on his own subjective experiences. A year after his teacher’s death, he criticized Buddhist scholars who relied solely on texts and history. Soga wrote:

Unless they hear a sound or see something with their eyes, they do not accept it as knowledge. If it is not in texts, they do not accept it. They are firmly grounded, but they are shallow. They do not know the basis by which historical records come forth. How can those with faith in eyes and ears have faith in their own spirit? How can those with faith in objective facts have faith in spiritual facts? How is it they believe in objective sounds but cannot accept the authority of their own subjective voice? They do not understand that Śākyamuni does not exist only as a textual object but directly becomes active in the depths of our own individual spirits.

Soga stirred great controversy in explaining Dharmākara, which according to a sutra, was a monk who became Amida Buddha. He felt this sacred figure was a consciousness he had within himself after having a series of personal religious experiences. In his essay “A Savior on Earth: The Meaning of Dharmākara Bodhisattva’s Advent,” he wrote, “When the Tathāgata becomes me, it signals the birth of Dharmākara Bodhisattva.”

He continued:

This may not mean much to other people, but for me—who for twenty years had been plagued by sickness and worldly worries, and who had not understood the meaning of the scriptures on this point, even though I made it my task to read from them daily—the insight I received made me feel as if I was handed a torch that all of a sudden lit up a room that had been kept in darkness for a thousand years.

Soga ultimately was accused of heresy and forced to resign his teaching position at Ōtani University in 1930, although later he was reinstated.

Another prominent Kiyozawa student, Kaneko Daiei (1881-1976) helped systematize Shin studies and defined a role for independent reasoning. Twenty years after Kiyozawa’s death, he wrote:

Some people say that religion is nothing more than faith. We feel this faith directly. We, so to speak, intuit the Buddha’s saving power. Because it concerns intuition, there is no need to study it academically… Other people say that the characteristic feature of Shin Buddhism lies in the recitation of the nenbutsu, which is a very simple practice. Each of us individually recites “namu Amida Butsu” and experiences something in it. There is nothing else to Shin Buddhism. To take up anything else and treat it academically is actually a hindrance… 

Even though it is true that faith or practice is the only important thing in Shin Buddhism, a certain realization (shō), that is to say a certain rationality (risei), must be working in the depth of faith and practice. No matter how much a human observes an object with a microscope, if he has no brains, it’s impossible to discover any scientific truth. In just the same way, even if it is said that we should just believe or just practice, neither faith nor practice will be established as long as we have not been readied by our rational faculties. Thus, a certain rationality must be working in the depth of faith and practice. Seen in this way, both practice and faith enter into the purview of study. And in this sense, within Shin studies, there is a foundation [of rational principles] that must be established.

Schroder wrote that for Shin modernists, “the novel expression of Buddhist teachings on the basis of personal religious experience renews the tradition, whereas preoccupation with the doctrinal pronouncements of past figures produces only empty formalism.”

In 1923, Kiyozawa adherent Sasaki Gesshō was appointed the university’s president, but was opposed by traditionalists who tried to block the move by accusing him of heresy. During Sasaki’s tenure, the university changed it’s name from “Shinshu Ōtani University” to just “Ōtani University,” signifying its expanded focus from sectarian studies to broader educational offerings that included history, education, sociology, literature and other topics. Buddhist modernists felt this new policy helped their cause by making Shin studies an academic subject accessible outside the denomination.

 According to Schroeder,

Proponents of Buddhist modernism embraced the new external demands to prove Shin Buddhism’s believability and usefulness as an opportunity to awaken the Shin community from its dogmatic slumbers, to rediscover the world-saving potential of Shinran’s teachings, and to grow, rather than merely preserve, the Shin Buddhist field. Critics viewed the modernists’ doctrinal reinterpretations and institutional initiatives as unfortunate compromises at best or heresies at worst.

As its primary educational institution evolved, the denomination remained a bastion of tradition. In 1927, Kaneko was accused of heresy after he referred to the Pure Land as an “idea.” He explained Pure Land as a “transcendental ideal” and not a physical location. A prominent Buddhist newspaper published accounts of the accusations, fueling the controversy. Students protested in the name of academic freedom, critical press appeared, and the Honganji administration cut the university’s budget. Soga and Kaneko resigned, but were later reinstated. After the entire faculty resigned and the student body of 800 withdrew, a truce was finally reached.

Meanwhile, the country’s government moved ominously towards militarism. In 1931, Japanese troops invaded northeastern China, initiating what became known as “The Fifteen Year War.” Higashi Honganji’s chief abbot quickly voiced support for the administration.

The history of both Higashi Honganji’s and Nishi Honganji’s government support began four hundred years ago when the Honganji organization first split. After military leader Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) became ruler, he provided land in Kyoto where Higashi Honganji headquarters was built, thus beginning a mutual benefitting relationship. That legacy carried into the early Twentieth Century when Buddhist temples lost influence, compelling them to actively curry favor with the Meiji government.

As the war grew and militarism increased, mere support and participation proved inadequate. Authorities demanded Buddhist doctrine align with the nation’s mission, stirring debate within the Honganji organization. Anyone speaking against the government or opposing the war risked arrest, punishment and possibly death. Buddhist denominations of all stripes fell into line.

In 1936, Honganji authorities self-censored problematic scriptural passages, for example, changing this passage in the postscript of Shinran’s master text Kyōgyōshinshō:

-(Original) The emperor and his ministers, acting against the dharma and violating human rectitude, became enraged and embittered.

-(Censored version) The emperor’s ministers, acting against the dharma…

In his book, Schroeder contends that during wartime, the openness of Higashi Honganji modernists to reinterpret traditional beliefs enabled them to explain Shinto nationalism and emperor worship as manifestations of Shinshu teachings. He cites various examples in their writings and statements during this period.

According to Schroeder:

Soga’s and Kaneko’s understanding of Shin Buddhism’s goal as awakening in the present—rather than rebirth in the Pure Land after death—facilitated their sacralization of the emperor and the nation. Kaneko had described the Pure Land as existing here and now, an invisible backdrop of eternal ideals behind our visible world of ever-changing phenomena. Soga had presented Dharmākara as our true subjectivity in the present, his vows a recurrent act throughout human history. This immanentalist, this-worldly doctrinal stance ultimately enabled Kaneko, Soga, and [Haya] Akegarasu to equate Amida’s vows with the emperor’s vows and the Pure Land with Japan.

After the war ended, Soga and Kaneko stopped speaking about a path of Buddhahood through loyalty to the emperor and admitted their wartime views were misguided.

Immediately following the war, General Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, oversaw a U.S.-led occupation of Japan. Occupation authorities purged individuals deemed most responsible for leading the war effort, including some Buddhist leaders. Consequently, Soga and Kaneko were ousted from Ōtani University, but later reinstated.

As Japanese society struggled to recover from the war’s devastation, support for and participation at Higashi Honganji waned. According to Schroeder, “What is clear is that the Ōtani community was plagued by numerous problems in the immediate postwar years, including financial shortages, negative public perceptions reinforced by journalistic attacks on religion, and competition with new religions.”

A modernist faction gained power within the Honganji administration through electoral victories, led by Kurube Shin’yū (1906-1998), who became head of doctrinal affairs.

Schroeder writes:

Whereas Kiyozawa had worked to develop an effective language to communicate his ideas to a broader audience and his first-generation disciples had worked to develop and disseminate those ideas through new educational methods and institutions, his second-generation disciples worked to reform the programs and institutions that propagated Shin teachings more broadly to laypeople and priests throughout the Ōtani community.

Propagation efforts turned the focus more on laypeople, emphasizing how they’re included in a community of seekers. Personal spiritual awakening required constant self-reflection, putting an onus on priests to cultivate their own faith, rather than viewing themselves as merely teachers of others. During these post-war years, Kiyozawa’s image rose to the revered figure seen today.

Resistance to Shin’s reinterpretation remained. Schroeder recounts an anecdote in which a woman questioned if her seven-year-old daughter who died without saying nenbutsu (“Namu Amida Butsu”) was reborn in the Pure Land. Under the old orthodoxy, the answer would’ve been “yes.” Under the new orthodoxy, the woman was told to focus on her own salvation in this life, not her daughter’s. “Needless to say, this was not a comforting answer,” Schroeder writes.

Meanwhile Shinshu thinking continued to evolve. Soga argued for personally encountering Shinran through the Tannishō—rather than the Kyōgyōshinshō’s abstract teachings—especially looking at passages such as: “When I consider deeply the Vow of Amida, which arose from five kalpas of profound thought, I realize that it was entirely for the sake of me, Shinran, alone! Then how I am filled with gratitude for the Primal Vow, in which Amida resolved to save me, though I am burdened with such heavy karma.”

Schroeder writes,

According to Soga’s analysis, Shinran’s audacious claim that Amida’s Vow was for him alone leaves no doubt that he “has truly practiced and realized within himself the Primal Vow of the Buddha, has cast forth his own self, dying in the Vow and finding life in the Vow… cutting down the Buddha and giving life to the Buddha.”

Likewise, modernist teacher Yasuda Rijin (1900-1982) pointed to how Shin’s Seven Pure Land Masters praised Amida and how one’s faith brings a person into this historical community of the faithful. In this way, Amida’s Vow is actualized, transforming from a “subjective” truth to an “objective” truth. “This marks the transformation of an individual-centered person into a true disciple of the Buddha and member of the sangha,” Schroeder writes.

A journal called Shinjin featured modernists’ writings, as well as stories about common laypeople, much like D.T. Suzuki’s (1870-1966)  accounts of myōkōnin, devout Shin followers.

According to Schroeder:

In one submission, a housewife detailed her realization that instead of awaiting an afterlife, she could find joy in this world in the midst of her domestic duties by simply accepting things as they were… A schoolteacher explained how encountering Buddhist teachings enabled him to shed feelings of anger and pride toward others and to recognize buddhahood in his students. And a father, who reported studying an essay by Kiyozawa and myōkōnin poems, related how he learned to recognize Buddha in everything around him and to be humbler and more appreciative toward his wife. All these accounts exemplified the modernist tendency to encounter Buddha in this world and to find in Buddhism a path to joy and contentment in this life rather than an afterlife.

Amid this current of change, partisan conflict within Honganji remained. Akegarasu Haya (1877-1954) was appointed head of sect affairs in 1951. Although spiritual, devout, and a loyal Kiyozawa devotee, he already was 73 years old, blind, and inexperienced in administrative affairs. He initiated regularly scheduled lectures and retreats for laypeople and priests under the banner of Dōbō, a term meaning “fellow travelers.” Akegarasu’s tenure was short-lived, forced out by conservative cabinet members after a year. He devoted the remainder of his life to commemorating Kiyozawa, renaming his home temple Rōsenki, after his teacher’s pen name. A statue of a kneeling Akegarasu paying his respects before Kiyozawa’s image adorns the inside.

In the 1960s, Honganji’s “Dōbōkai movement” turned its focus on laypeople and priests with programs that included visiting the mother temple for retreats, sending teachers to lecture in local districts, and encouraging followers to receive “dharma names.” I’ve participated in these types of programs, which continue to be held today.

Schroeder writes:

But to seek out the purified voice of Kiyozawa is also to turn a deaf ear to the voices of his followers and community. It is to erase—as an instance of decline or distortion—the history of those in his community who interpreted Kiyozawa’s teachings, put those teachings into action, reshaped their community amid the turbulent changes of modern Japanese history, and thereby rendered Kiyozawa orthodox, influential, and of interest to us today. If we exclude that history by focusing only on Kiyozawa’s life and thought, we are in a sense constructing and engaging with an idealized Buddhism above the fray of human politics and institutions. In doing so, we risk missing something crucial about how Buddhism works. We risk failing to see how Buddhist thought and Buddhist traditions are functions of politics and institutions—how the Buddha and the dharma are not just contained and transmitted by, but are also generated by, the sangha.


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