Essential Functions of a Good Teacher of
True Shin Buddhism
by Paul Roberts
Let me say, for the benefit of everyone, that a good teacher of True
Shin Buddhism has two essential functions in the Sangha:
FUNCTION #1: To explain the True
Teaching of the Pure Land Way simply and clearly, so it can be
understood by ANYONE.
This is in
accord with the very heart of Amida Buddha in making and fulfilling His
tell you how many times I have read Shin Buddhist teachings and not
been certain about what the teacher was saying.
teaching should be simple and clear, and require no special training or
background in order for the listeners to understand it intellectually.
never forget that both Master Shinran and Master Honen were exiled by
the government in Japan, and so spent some of their lives in the remote
rural areas of Japan, where there was little or no education, much less
Buddhist influence. Master Shinran writes about how his listeners
were "painfully" ignorant, and how his teaching style was to repeat the
basic ideas of our Dharma message over and over again.
see, in the letters of Master Rennyo, how he followed the same
methodology in teaching - repeating the basic ideas of the Dharma again
and again, and urging his fellow teachers to avoid anything that
smacked of esotericism or complexity.
is much in Buddhist thought that is esoteric and complex - but that
sort of teaching is NOT appropriate for a Sangha full of plain people,
foolish people, BONBUS, and illiterates.
One of the
greatest challenges I see is that so many modern Buddhists are highly
educated. We have the riches of the world's Buddhist thought
literally at our fingertips - and so many people get used to absorbing
vast quantities of Dharma. When they finally come to Shin
Buddhism, they bring along their habits of sucking up yet more DHARMA
sucking up DHARMA DATA doesn't lead to SHINJIN...as so many people find
out. Then, disappointed in their experience - or rather lack of
experience - they go looking somewhere else for another sort of
Some of those who stay with Shin
Buddhism, and yet don't ever get over their overly intellectual and
analytical approach, find that the only way they can make Shin Buddhism
palatable is by mixing in intellectual ideas from various sorts of
philosophy - whether it be borrowing from Christian theology,
post-modernism, Jungian mythos, or whatever.
Shin Buddhism - TRUE Shin Buddhism
- has nothing to do with any of those ideas. It was conceived of
and brought to fruition ages ago - before the beginning of the universe
as we know it. Its origin is beyond human conception - and it is
human foolishness and arrogance to try to reduce it to something less
than what it actually is.
And yet, despite its truly
INCONCEIVABLE beginnings, Amida Himself has chosen to make a Dharma
path that is easy for anyone to conceive of. I have found, over
and over again, that I can talk with ANYONE, regardless of how much
Buddhism he (or she) knows about - and explain all the salient aspects
of the Dharma in easy to understand and universal language.
When people UNDERSTAND the Dharma
message, then they can go inside, and find out from the Buddha within
that the message is, in fact, the TRUTH.
Anyone who is going to function as
a GOOD teacher of True Shin Buddhism needs to be able to do that kind
of simple, clear teaching. If a person can't do that, he (or she)
really isn't ready to teach.
So that is the first function of a
TRUE teacher of the TRUE teaching.
Let's move onto the second function.
FUNCTION #2: The second
function of a TRUE teacher is to confront and correct divergences.
Why is that such an important BASIC
function of a good teacher? Because by confronting and correcting
divergences his (or her) listeners are not confused and distracted by
false teachings that inevitably lead people AWAY from settled shinjin.
Richard St. Clair and I always use
ourselves as examples, to explain why this is such a critical function.
We both came to Shin Buddhism with open minds and hearts, ready
to listen deeply to the Dharma. But we both found ourselves
listening to false teachers, who have become such a big part of the
Shin Sangha today. As a result, we were both confused, and could
not come to settled SHINJIN, because we were listening to and believing
all sorts of false ideas - ideas that were exactly opposite to what our
Dharma masters teach.
Someone might ask how we could
become so confused. My answer is, that when a person first comes
to the Dharma, he (or she) is often like a little baby. He looks
to his teachers like a baby looks to its parents. If the teachers
say that one plus one equals three, the child is likely to believe it.
And it is the same with people who first come to the Sangha.
Most of us are very impressionable at that time in our lives.
We DEPEND on our teachers to feed us the pure milk of the Dharma.
So Richard and I (and countless
others) simply believed these teachers when they made statements about
how Dharmakara Bodhisattva wasn't a historical figure, or Amida Buddha
wasn't a real Buddha, or the Pure Land wasn't a real place, or the
Larger Sutra wasn't a true record of the words of Shakyamuni on Vulture
We'd hear it from Alfred Bloom,
from Nobuo Haneda, from Taitetsu Unno, and from Takamaro Shigaraki and
over and over again - and we'd hear how these were great teachers that
were making the Dharma "relevant" for our modern age, and we simply
didn't have the discernment to recognize that we were being taught
Now the really important question
here is: How could this happen? How could so many in the
Sangha go so far from the Dharma truth upon which the Sangha was built.
And the answer to that question is
this: The reason false teachings and false teachers have
prospered, to the point where they actually dominate the Shin Sangha in
much of the world, is that too many others who are called to be true
teachers have ignored this second critical function.
Whether from apathy or cowardice or
some other egocentric motive, too many clerics and scholars have chosen
to keep silent about the divergences destroying the Shin Sangha today.
If the Shin Sangha is to fulfill
its unique mission here on this planet, that must change.
My challenge to all those called by
Amida to be true teachers is this: Go inside, and ask Amida what
your own fundamental duties as a teacher really are. Lay down
your own thoughts and ideas, and ask Amida whether you too are called
to do what Master Shinran did, and Master Rennyo did, and the layman
Yuien-Bo did, when they confronted divergences in their day, and used a
Dharma sword to cut away all the divergences that would pollute and
ultimately destroy the pristine Dharma if left unrefuted and unchecked.
Ask Amida Buddha whether you are
called to anything less than that.
Master Shinran said, very plainly,
that the most difficult task in the world is to share the Dharma as it
should be shared. And he also said that we who are called to
share it should do it to the very best of our ability "EVEN TO THE
BREAKING OF OUR BONES".
Those were his words.
It is difficult to confront others
in the Sangha, and to tell them that they are teaching false teaching.
It is difficult to speak to members of one's own local Sangha
community, and warn them that a particular teacher is a false teacher,
and his words do not reflect the teaching of our Dharma masters.
And it is difficult to endure the ostracism of others that can
come when one is committed to speaking the whole truth for the benefit
of all beings everywhere.
Over the past seven years, I've had
people call me all sorts of names, simply because I have insisted on
speaking the unvarnished truth. But because I have spoken the
truth, many of those who initially said bad things about me have
reflected, eventually, on my words, and have repented of their former
false thoughts, and come to embrace the truth of the Dharma.
That's what matters. And
that's why this second function of confronting divergences is so
Now, I am
sorry to say that from what I can see there seem to be very few people
functioning today as TRUE teachers, fulfilling these two basic
functions I have described above.
lost in Shin scholasticism, expounding the Dharma in ways that are
obscure and impossible for most of us to understand, rather than
preaching and teaching simply.
And with very few exceptions, most
of the clerics and scholars in the Sangha are entirely unwilling to
confront the false teachings - even when they grumble among themselves
Apathy and cowardice,
unfortunately, are the order of the day.
I have a close Dharma friend who
recently became a Shin priest and is now serving in Japan, after
spending his life here in America as part of the Buddhist Churches of
America (BCA), which is the American branch of the largest Shin sect,
the Nishi Honganji.
We talked, just a few weeks ago,
about what is going on here in America right now, in the BCA. It
is truly tragic.
The BCA is now entirely dominated
by modernists. The bishop, a man named Koshin Ogui, recently sent
12 candidates to Japan for ordination. My friend and other true
priests there met these 12 candidates, and were shocked and appalled at
their ignorance of the basics of the True Teaching.
The BCA Sangha is thus being
systematically destroyed, from the inside out, by its own leaders.
I asked my friend about his own
minister, and some other ministers I know. What were they doing
to turn back the tide here?
My friend told me that no one was
willing to speak up directly, because they would be removed by the
bishop from the ministry if they did.
It's impossible to express how
tragic this all is. In my own heart and mind, this weighs much
more heavily than the terrible disaster we are seeing unfold in Japan.
There will always be all sorts of disasters - whether tsunamis,
or earthquakes, or technological malfunctions - that cause suffering
and death. Suffering and death are what mark our existence here
in this Saha world.
But right before my eyes, I see the
one Dharma door being closed that leads to the end of suffering and
death. If the Shin Sangha cannot or will not do what is necessary
to keep this Dharma door open and easily accessed - how will people
ever find their way to Buddhahood in this world?
What would our Dharma masters say
if they were here? Remember, Master Shinran himself judged that
slandering the Dharma was a worse karmic act than even killing ones'
My hope is that each and every one
who does emerge as a teacher will have a burning desire to fulfill the
two BASIC functions of a good teacher:
1. To teach the Dharma simply
2. To confront and correct
And my hope is that others who are
already teaching - whether as clerics, scholars or lay people - will
also take seriously their responsibility to fulfill these same two
basic functions, in whatever venues they happen to be functioning in.
Apathy must come to an end.
Cowardice cannot rule the day. Self-interest and
self-preservation must be laid aside for the sake of all beings
Those of us called to teach by
Amida must ask ourselves, "What would Shinran say? What would
Rennyo do?". And then we must say and do the same.
This MUST be the mindset for
renewal, revival and restoration of the Shin Sangha to occur.
In closing, I want to invite anyone
who reads this to forward it on to others - particularly to anyone who
is a priest or a scholar in the Shin Sangha.