by Alfred Bloom, Emeritus Professor, University of Hawaii
Many years ago, I encountered the translation of Shinshu texts made by the late Professor Kosho Yamamoto. His work was sponsored by the Hawaii Kyodan in 1955. The volume was given to me by Mr. Albert Matano, also from Hawaii and studying at Harvard University. It pointed me in the direction of Shinran and provided an indispensable guide for my initial research and Ph.D. thesis. At that time my ability to read Japanese, let alone classical Buddhist Chinese, was extremely limited.
Translations are very significant and important. They open the doors, not only into foreign resources, but into the minds and spirits of ancient, as well as contemporary, thinkers otherwise inaccessible to us. Translations are interpretations and open the way to stimulate new thought and insight in readers. The spread of Buddhism through Asia from India to China, Korea, Japan and Tibet enabled it to flower in a veritable garden of varied spiritual insight, because of the interaction of the translations, native tradition and teachers who transmitted the teachings to the new culture and followers. Traditions can be revitalized through translation.
However, translations, though containing the teaching, do not become vital until people read, study, interpret, discuss, and apply the insights to their lives. Scholars develop their interpretations and analyses of the texts, and their writings give guidance to followers on how the text may be used and understood. A variety of viewpoints becomes a creative catalyst for deepening the thought of the community.
The Collected Works of Shinran, the product of more than 20 years of serious effort by the Hongwanji International Center, is a competent, creative, and courageous endeavor to offer Shin Buddhism to the world. It is competent, being the work of a scholarly group that forged collectively the most precise and perceptive meaning of the original text. It is creative in offering a stimulus for the evolving scholarly tradition in the West. It is courageous in opening the ancient texts for modern scrutiny by modern scholars of various religious backgrounds. It means that Hongwanji has assumed the responsibility to make Shinran’s teaching clear and meaningful beyond the Japanese cultural context.
It should be understood from the outset that the texts are not exciting reading, like a novel or artistic work. It is a book for study and reflection. The accompanying introductions and study helps give great assistance. While the texts can be read individually, they are better appreciated when people gather together in small groups to explore the background, context and content of the text, and to discover the relevance of the teaching for our present life.
In approaching the texts in the collection, it may be well to begin with Shinran’s poetry – wasan, where he presents in the most concrete form, his basic insights. These can be followed by reading his letters where he takes up important questions and issues that disturbed his followers. The shorter commentarial texts contain valuable insights. Of course, the Tannisho and the Shoshinge which is contained in the Kyogyoshinsho have been well known in modern Shin Buddhism as resources for touching Shinran’s mind.
The image of Shinran that emerges from these texts reveals a person who experienced a deep religious transformation through his own struggle as a monk, then as a teacher and family man. Shaped by his experiences of exile, marriage, and human relations, Shinran bequeathed to us a heritage of religious insight. We should not be put off by the density of the writing, his or the translators. His spirit is embedded and embodied in these texts. It is our challenge and responsibility to release it into our contemporary world.