How do disciples approach their master and how does the master respond to them? The relationship between Master and disciple varies depending on what school they both belong to.
For example, in Zen Buddhism, the most popular Buddhist school in the West, the patriarchal transmission of the truth (Enlightenment-experience), directly from person to person, is an essential part of the relationship between Master and disciple. To attain this transmission Zen Buddhists say they depend not on any letters but on the practice of ‘just sitting in meditation.’ Surrounded by the customary quiet of monastic life the relationship becomes highly charged, sometimes dynamic and even violent, if it proves necessary for a Master to awaken his disciple. Let me give you an example:
The Master (jp. Rinzai, ch. Lin-chi, ? – 867) took the high seat in the Hall. He said: “There is a true man of no title in your mass of naked flesh, who goes in and out from your facial gates [i.e., sense organs]. Those who have not yet testified [to the fact], look, look!” A monk came forward and asked, “Who is this true man of no title?’ Rinzai came down from his chair and, taking hold of the monk by the throat, said, “Speak, speak!” The monk hesitated. Rinzai let go his hold and said, “What a worthless dirt-stick [literally, excrement-wiping spatula] this man of no title is!” Then he returned to his quarters. (The Record of Rinzai, Article 3) This story is from The Record of Lin-chi (ch. Lin-chi-lu, jp. Rinzairoku).
Rinzai is the founder of the Rinzai Sect and there are a lot of interesting sayings that originate from this document. Let me quote another famous saying from the same book. It comes from part of a sermon addressed to an assembly of his disciples.
“Followers of the Way, if you want to accord with Dharma as it is, just be men of great resolve. If you spinelessly shilly-shally along, you won’t be able to obtain anything. Just as a cracked jug is unfit to hold ghee (creamy butter, skt. sarpir-manda, jp. daigo), so he who would be a great vessel [of Dharma] must not be taken in by the deluded views of others. Be master of yourself wherever you may be, and then wherever you stand will be the true place.
Whatever comes along, don’t accept any of it. One thought of doubt, and instantly the demon enters your mind. When even a bodhisattva doubts, the demon of birth-and-death will seize the advantage. Just desist from thinking, and never seek outside yourself. If something should come along, see it for what it is. Just have faith in the working actualised within yourself right now.” (From The Record of Rinzai, Article 17)
As you see from this saying full of love, the master’s fierce reproach of his disciple in the previous quotation (“What a worthless dirty stick you are!”) is actually his final way of encouraging his disciple’s self-development towards the ultimate attainment of the Way (Enlightenment).
These examples are from the early stage of Zen Buddhism. In today’s Zen training this interpersonal relationship between Master and disciple has become strictly formalised and tends to be restricted to a certain form of communication.
In Shin Buddhism, on the other hand, there are no such formal restrictions regarding the transmission of truth from Master to disciple. The relationship between them is kept much freer and is consequently active within their daily lives too, rather than being confined only to their lives within the monastery. Let me tell a story from the recent history of Shogyoji Temple, the mother body of Three Wheels.
About fifty years ago, a young monk (today’s Onro-san, the oldest monk at the temple) was working on the garden, when our then Master, Daigyoin-sama, happened to enter the corridor of the Buddha Hall.
Master noticed the monk working and told him to pick a bagworm off one of the trees. The monk answered, “It is not a bagworm, but a dead leaf.” Master said, “No, it is a bagworm.” ” It is not. It is just a leaf,” the monk replied. Master said again, “No, it is a bag worm.” The monk contradicted him, “No, it isn’t.” “Yes, it is,” said Master. After continuing this argument a little while longer, the monk finally said “Yes,” and pronounced the nembutsu. Immediately he was filled with the joy of awakening. Our Master was overjoyed to notice the monk’s attainment of faith.
The last “Yes” is an absolute affirmation, transcending the duality between ‘yes’s and ‘no’s. It means the monk had attained pure faith and that he had broken through ordinary consciousness, that consists of all kinds of bifurcation (duality) such as intellect and senses, subject and object, the self and others and so on. And the joy of faith made him utter the nembutsu.
If one seeks to understand this story by intellect alone, it might seem to recount the disciple’s surrender to the Master. But even if you adopt the intellectual approach, you should not miss the point that the monk’s great “Yes” embraced our Master by going beyond all kinds of discrimination.
I would like to quote quite an interesting story from The Records of Shoma’s Words and Actions, one of the Shin Buddhist documents which I compiled into a book; Myokonin [Mahayana Texts, Chinese and Japanese, vol. 28 , Chuokoron].
When Shoma [an illiterate Shin Buddhist devotee] was staying in a temple, the Head priest asked him, “What is the meaning of the phrase [in the Meditation Sutra] ‘[Amida’s compassion which] embraces all beings forsaking none’ (sesshufusha) ?”. Then Shoma suddenly stood up in front of him , flinging his arms wide and speaking in a loud voice. The priest, however, thought that the man had become too worked up by the difficult question and took flight. But Shoma ran after him. The priest fled from the front of the Buddha Hall to the back of it. But Shoma chased him into the back. Escaping from the back to the front and again from the front to the back, the priest finally fled into the innermost recesses of the temple and hid himself in the storage cupboard for [paper-covered] lamp stands. Closing the door from the inside, the priest thought to himself; “Dear dear! I should never have put such a difficult question to Shoma. He might not be able to find me.” On the contrary, however, Shoma quickly arrived. No sooner had Shoma said “My Head-priest! I Am Here,” then he opened the door and declared, stretching his arms out to their fullest extent, “This is the meaning of the words ’embracing all beings and forsaking none’.” The priest was overjoyed saying, “Now I have understood. That which never lets me go after all the desperate attempts to escape I have been making for so long — that is the meaning of ’embracing all beings and forsaking none’.”
In this story Shoma is shown as someone who led a priest to faith (or awakening). In Shin Buddhism it happens quite often that a priest asks a lay devotee to make suggestions as to how to attain faith. In another account, on the contrary, it is said Shoma always paid respect to his Master Shuten, who had converted him from heresy to true faith, saying “Shuten Tathagata, Shuten Tathagata.”
The stories I have just told you are, however, basically objective descriptions of religious events, each one recorded by a third person. There are relatively few documents, however, that can help us gain an insight into the religious experiences of those involved in such events or into their way of thinking.
As I am principally concerned with the everyday reality of the relationship between Master and disciple, that is, how their interpersonal relationship functioned in their daily lives, I would like to focus my talk on this point.
For that purpose, there is a very good text called Tannisho [A Record of Lamentations over Deviations] written by Yuien (?-1289), one of Shinran’s (1173-1262) disciples.
As you know, Shinran is one of the disciples of Honen (1133- 1212) and the founder of Shin Buddhism (Shinshu). Yuien is thought to have met Shinran during the latter’s stay in the Kanto District. About twenty years after Shinran had returned to Kyoto(c. 1234), Yuien visited Shinran at least once in Kyoto, staying with him for quite a long time. From their conversation Yuien’s visit would appear to have taken place several years before Shinran’s death.
All the sayings of Shinran compiled in the Tannisho by Yuien are records of what the disciple actually heard from his Master at first hand. Yuien says in his preface to the Tannisho, “For this reason, I have noted down some of the sayings of the late Shinran Shonin, all of which have remained buried deep down in the depth of my ears. My sole wish is to disperse those doubts which are entertained by our fellow-believers regarding our faith.” Yuien, in his last days, wrote down Shinran’s words, words that still rang in his ears twenty-five years after his Master had passed away. It means Yuien still continued to listen to his Master speaking to him for a long, long time.
In theTannisho there is a passage in which the relationship between Master and disciple is referred to.
One day Shinran talked to Yuien and his friends (Tannisho, Chapter 6):
“It is completely unreasonable for there to be quarrelling amongst the devotional followers of the nembutsu, with people saying that such and such are ‘my disciples’ whilst such and such are not. I, Shinran, have no disciples. The reason is this: if a man by his own efforts makes others recite the nembutsu, then he may call them his disciples. But it is most presumptuous to claim as ‘my disciples’ those who recite the nembutsu solely as a result of Amida’s working within themselves. It is all due to the karmic condition of things that some follow one master while others leave him. This being so, it would be absurd to say that one who turns from one master to another will not attain birth in the Pure Land. Do they mean to take back the faith given to each person by Amida as if it were something of theirs ? Such views are most decidedly unreasonable.If one follows the truth of reality as it is, one will understand exactly how grateful to be to Amida, and how grateful to be to the master.” Thus spoke my Master.
In this passage there are a couple of important points.
a) It is completely unreasonable for there to be quarrelling amongst the devotional followers of the nembutsu, with people saying that such and such are ‘my disciples’ whilst such and such are not. I, Shinran, have no disciples.
y Shinran claims he has no disciples, just as stated in the above quotation. If one remembers the objective fact that he had thousands of followers (or disciples), what does this statement mean? It means he didn’t ultimately possess or own any of his disciples. His human relationship with them was not centred on possession. He did not possess anyone and was not possessed by anyone. Possessing and being possessed by are two sides of the same coin. He was free from any sort of possession. His followers were basically good friends of his. Usually friendship implies equality of relationship between people. Shinran’s friendship was more than that. He respected his followers as also being his protectors on the same true way, just as he revered his wife as a bodhisattva who would lead him to the Pure Land.
b) The reason is this: if a man by his own efforts makes others recite the nembutsu, then he may call them his disciples. But it is most presumptuous to claim as ‘my disciples’ those who recite the nembutsu solely as a result of Amida’s working within themselves.
Secondly he gives as the reason for his claim to have no disciples, that if a man by his own efforts makes others to recite the nembutsu then he may call them ‘his’ disciples. “But,” says Shinran, “it is most presumptuous to claim as ‘my disciples’ those who recite the nembutsu solely as a result of Amida’s working within themselves.”Religious experiences such as faith in Amida and pronouncing Amida’s Name (nembutsu) belong absolutely to the individual. Even if it appeared that one were able to make another call Amida’s Name, it would not be true. For a human being is only a motivational condition for another’s spiritual (or religious) development, just like a midwife in Socrates’ maieutic method. As to another’s spiritual acts, one should not want to go further than the role of the midwife. If one did so, one would end up “most presumptuous.” Shinran’s spiritual strictness stems from his way of living, with Shinran always coming back to the Buddha again and again, day in day out. Faith in Amida, which causes one to call Amida’s Name, is definitely a private matter for the individual and the Buddha only.
c) It is all due to the karmic condition of things that some follow one master while others leave him. This being so, it would be absurd to say that one who turns from one master to another will not attain birth in the Pure Land. Do they mean to take back the faith given to each person by Amida as if it were something of theirs? Such views are most decidedly unreasonable.
Thirdly, in Shin Buddhism, faith is considered to be something given by Amida. So Shinran says: “Do they mean to take back the faith given by Amida as if it were something of theirs? Such views are most decidedly unreasonable.” As faith is awakened through the workings of Amida, faith is a gift from Amida. It is not ours. If one thinks one has faith, it is no longer faith.
Then what is faith in Shinran’s teaching? It looks elusive just like a moment of time, but only if one wants to possess it. Faith is attained instantaneously by coming in touch with the workings of Amida.
How then does one feel the workings of Amida? It is through one’s relationship with others.
Shinran found Honen not only his Master but also an embodiment of Amida Buddha. On encountering Honen, Shinran, through the personality of Honen, was able to meet and take refuge in Amida Buddha — that which makes Honen what he is. Amida is something that constantly supports all human beings and their interdependent relations (world) and naturally issues forth through them.
Hence, Shinran’s conclusion:
d) If one follows the truth of reality as it is, one will understand exactly how grateful to be to Amida, and how grateful to be to the master.
One who is awakened to faith knows how to thank Amida, how to thank one’s Master and consequently how to thank others.
Other people are the motivational condition for an individual’s religious awakening and consequently are those who have done a great deal for that individual. As a matter of course, one understands how grateful one must be to others.
To conclude, concerning the relationship between Master and disciple, what is most important of all is friendship without any kind of discrimination. Shinran’s religious philosophy is, I feel, a natural consequence of such friendship, the kind of friendship that should be fundamental in all human relations. For Shinran those who surrounded him in his daily life were all good friends who helped lead him to Amida’s Pure Land. Therefore he was so grateful to them all for their bodhisattvaship.
Kemmyo Taira Sato