“Live the Nenbutsu of gratitude with your friends and families, quietly and with love”

(Report on the 160th London Eza)

The 160th London Eza and 2022 Hoonko Otorikoshi took place on Sunday 23rd October 2022. Attendance was smaller than usual but a number of young guests and newcomers brought a lively, bright energy to proceedings. Also joining the meeting were the participants of the preceding Shokai retreat, who joyfully expressed their gratitude to Shinran Shonin, founder of our tradition, through their chanting of the Hoonko liturgy.

After the Hoonko service, Mr Andrew Webb invited Rev. Kemmyo Taira Sato, director of Three Wheels, to give a talk entitled ‘On the Nenbutsu of Gratitude’. Andrew said that during translation work Kemmyo-sensei has found many mistakes in older English editions of Shinran Shonin’s letters. It is Andrew’s view that these errors are one of the reasons for the unfortunate, commonplace perception among some Western Buddhists and scholars that Rennyo Shonin taught a different Dharma to that of Shinran Shonin. Andrew said that studying Prof. Sato’s new translation clearly showed the oneness and continuity between the two masters.  

At the start of his talk, Sensei noted that his work to translate Shinran Shonin’s letters was something he was undertaking to fulfil the last request of his friend Prof. John White, late secretary and trustee of Three Wheels, London Shogyoji Trust. Through his dear friend’s wish, he has been able, he said, to “renew on a far deeper level my understanding of several important features of Shin Buddhist teaching.”  Of these features, the present talk would focus on the ‘Nenbutsu of gratitude’.

Firstly Kemmyo-sensei pointed out that the phrase ‘most humbly and respectfully’ (anakashiko ankashiko) which is so familiar from Rennyo Shonin’s Ofumi, which we read daily, originates in Shinran Shonin’s own letters. “Rennyo Shonin, a most loyal admirer of Shinran Shonin, simply copied his predecessor’s usage of this modest phrase.”

Sensei went on to explain that, “the Nenbutsu of gratitude flows forth from the extreme joy of attaining the true faith of entrusting oneself to Amida Buddha”. However, he added that it is important to “notice the key distinction between the Nenbutsu, pronounced at the moment of attaining faith decisively, and the nenbutsu to be said after the attainment of Faith.” The former refers to the ‘one-thought moment’ of attaining true faith, and the latter to our expression of gratitude for this awakening. As Rennyo Shonin said, “[the nenbutsu pronounced after the attainment of faith] should be understood solely as a grateful response to the Buddha for what he has done for us.” Shinran Shonin’s letters also highlight the fact that even this latter nenbutsu which “we pronounce with gratitude after the awakening of faith and throughout our lives is also [solely] the working of Other Power.”

Rev. Sato also made the important point that because Shin Buddhism is based on Other-power, the notion of ‘gratitude’ in our tradition “does not embrace any sense of moral obligation or responsibility, rather its essence lies in the experience of awakening and the love that springs quite naturally from that experience.”

Next Kemmyo-sensei further explained that the nenbutsu of awakening and the nenbutsu of gratitude, both based upon Amida Buddha’s Other-power, correspond to the ‘self-benefiting and other-benefiting’ dimensions of Amida’s Original Vow. It is this universal vow and prayer that Shinran Shonin expresses in his letters 3,9, 10, 13 and 16, such as; “[we] ought to say the nenbutsu with the utmost sincerity, especially to save [slanderers of the nenbutsu]”, and “those who are absolutely sure of their birth and are mindful of what has been done for them by the Buddha, should say the nenbutsu with heartfelt gratitude and in the spirit of ‘may there be peace in the world and may the Buddha-dharma spread widely”. In conclusion, Sensei said, “the nenbutsu of gratitude for what has been done for us is not simply an expression of our own personal gratitude but also an expression of our deepest prayer for the universal deliverance of all sentient beings. This prayer comes to us as a gift from Amida Tathagata when we respond to his original Vow, in other words, to the dynamic working of all fundamental truth, “Oneness of All Individual Beings Just as They Are.” 

Following Kemmyo-sensei’s talk there was time for a discussion and a communal meal. During the discussion, Mr Christopher Duxbury said that he was so impressed by Shinran Shonin saying that we should pray for those who slander the nenbutsu that it left him speechless. Mr Sam Kelly echoed this feeling, noting that the period in which Shinran Shonin was writing was even more troubled than ours, and especially for nenbutsu followers, but even in such circumstances Shinran Shonin still said to pray for the slanderers. Sam said this clearly showed the truth of the “Profound prayer for universal salvation without discrimination.”

Mr Chris Dodd highlighted Sensei’s phrase, “Oneness of All Individual Beings Just as They Are”. He said it is so wonderful to find ourselves already embraced by the Buddha in this world of oneness of self and other, which is not ‘our own world’ but a gift.

Mr Gary —, a follower of Honen Shonin, said that he was still struggling to understand Shinran Shonin’s teaching. Kemmyo-sensei said that many Shin Buddhists think Shin Buddhism is different from Honen Shonin’s teaching but that isn’t right. Shinran Shonin quoted Honen Shonin even at the end of his life, always returning faithfully to his master. Sensei said that Honen Shonin was converted to other-power nenbutsu through reading Master Shandao, but when we read the latter’s teaching which Honen Shonin received we can see that it perfectly accords with Amida’s Vow of entrusting faith. Sensei added, “Honen had many disciples, some who understood him better than others, please be careful about which you listen to.”

Mr Andy Barritt asked a question about how we should share our joy of faith with others. Rev. Ishii said, “Whenever we think ‘I heard’, ‘I know’, we already have a bad tendency to newcomers. If we intend to teach, we are already in darkness. The initial impulse to share our joy comes from the Buddha, so we just need to express our gratitude not as words to others but towards the Buddha. We need to just listen to the dharma and express our gratitude and repentance. That listening to the dharma naturally helps others.”

Rev. Sato concluded the discussion by telling us, “Nenbutsu of gratitude refers to the rest of our life after attainment of faith. Gratitude means humble and respectful. No pride, no attachment. Live the Nenbutsu of gratitude with your friend and families, quietly and with love, doing for the doing.”

Finally, a number of visitors and newcomers introduced themselves. Ms. Pearl—-, said that she had been coming to temple for one month. She first heard about Shin Buddhism from her family who live in Kyoto and said that it “really resonates” with her. Mr Kazuki —, a great-grandson of an old friend of Kemmyo-sensei, was also visiting. He is priest and graduate of  Otani university who is in the U.K. on a working holiday. Mr James Martin, a Royal Holloway student, also introduced himself. He is the son of Mr Simon Martin who helped make the Three Wheels Zen garden many years ago. James said, “I am studying ethics but I realised I don’t have a foundation for that, so I wanted to look into it. Today’s talk gave me a good foundation.


Gassho, Andy Barritt

31st October 2022