My encounter with a Good Teacher

My encounter with a Good Teacher      13/12/2009

Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to deliver my very first Dharma talk in English at today’s London Eza.

Before starting my talk, I would like to thank His Eminence Koken Otani, who is a direct descendant of Shinran Shonin and the Successor and Protector of Shin Buddhist Teaching, from the bottom of my heart for his wonderful message especially for the Three Wheels samgha.

I am very honoured and humbled to be giving my talk straight after listening to his message. I hope my talk may well convey my heartfelt gratitude to Shinran Shonin and His Eminence and my joy of being given faith.

I would like to give you my talk following the order, part by part, as shown in this screen.
Part 1 : The reason I chose this particular subject
Part 2 : My encounter with Ven. Chimyo Takehara and how I became a priest
Part 3 : What kind of person a Good Teacher is
Part 4 : Given Faith (信)
Part 5 : How Shinran Shonin expresses the joy of attaining faith
Part 6 : Conclusion

Part 1: The reason I chose this particular subject

Although most of you probably know all about me already, I would like to take you back to my original encounter with my Master, Ven. Chimyo Takehara, head priest of Shogyoji, the parent temple of Three Wheels. Had it not been for that encounter with a Good Teacher, I would never have attained faith, let alone become a priest. That is why I have chosen as the title of my talk today ‘My encounter with a Good Teacher.’ But there is also another reason for my choice: as I was reading Shinran Shonin’s Kyogyoshinsyo for the first time, imagine my astonishment to find what I want to say today in the text composed by an author writing seven hundred and fifty years ago.

Part2: My encounter with Venerable Chimyo Takehara and how I became a priest

My name is Hiroshi Kenshin Ishii. I am thirty-six years of age and male, as of course you can see. In March 2001 I was ordained as a priest at Higashi Honganji Temple, the headquarters of our order. I was born and grew up in Usuki, the birthplace of Rev. Sato as well. I have one older brother and our parents run a number of pharmacies. My father is actually Rev. Sato’s younger brother and they were both born in a Temple called Horenji. My father, however, did not wish to become a priest, so he studied pharmacy instead and was subsequently adopted, Japanese style, by his bride’s family, so that he could take over the running of the pharmacy from my maternal grandfather.

As far back as I can remember my parents regularly attended Shogyoji Temple, despite the fact that it was a five hour car journey from my hometown. For over fifty years two big annual assemblies, called Renseikai, have been held at Shogyoji every summer and winter, and my parents saw to it that I accompanied them every time. When I became a secondary school pupil I had to listen to Dharma talks, too, along with the adults. Needless to say, I can remember hating those meetings and never wanting to go. Nowadays I actually wonder why I did. Occasionally it was because of my dad forcing me to go but, though it was a bore for me as a teenager, I did look forward to seeing my friends who attended the assemblies as well. They are my good Dharma friends now.

My greatest pleasure, however, was seeing Boumori-sama, the wife of my master. Whenever I heard her words of welcome and felt her warm smile, I experienced the relief of a small child being welcomed back from nursery. As a schoolchild, therefore, I would often visit the temple office just to see her smile. Many of you, maybe, will have felt the same way when Rev. and Mrs. Sato welcomed you to Three Wheels, saying how happy they were to see you. This reminds me of an account at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. When a small boy Sopaka by name was taken by his parents to Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha said to him, ‘You are most welcome’. Looking back at this special occasion, the aged Sopaka said ‘the Buddha’s welcome was my primal precept throughout my life.

To return to my own story, I eventually enrolled at a pharmaceutical university near Shogyoji and went to live at the temple. Although the fees were extremely high, my father allowed me to attend that particular university on the condition I stayed at Shogyoji. At that time I had no idea why my father made such a condition, and of course I could not imagine how this would affect my life in the future. I did not even know all the worry I was to cause the people at the temple.

After passing the state pharmacy exams, I moved to the Kyoto branch of Shogyoji Temple and worked for five years as a pharmacist. By the end of that period I was experiencing serious personal problems related to religion. One of my Dharma friends, Dr Shimizu, now the director of the Kyoto branch, encouraged me to return to Shogyoji in order to look into myself. I followed his advice and underwent an introspection session, in the course of which Rev. Sato and Rev. Sudo opened my eyes to all that had been done for me by my parents and others around me. At the same time I managed to look deeply into myself.  What emerged from this session was an awareness of the evil nature of my true self, a self that did not realise what had been done for it by others and that had hurt everyone emotionally. I felt, too, that not only had I taken everything for granted but that I had been bent only on fulfilling my own desires. For the first time in my life I realised what an ignorant and selfish person I really was. But even as I became aware of all this, I was also made to feel the unconditional love of my master, his wife and of so many Dharma friends, a love that would never abandon me, for they knew and accepted me for what I really was, bad karma and all.

There is something now I have to confess. Before the introspection session, I was convinced I would have no difficulty at all in adhering to Ven. and Mrs. Takehara’s words of advice. In actual fact, however, I found it very difficult, to the extent that I would react very strongly when they made a suggestion that bothered me. How fragile and full of doubt is the faith of self power!

I would thank them both when their words seemed to suit my purpose, but disobey them entirely when their words did not. The reason was that I listened to all their words in such a very self centered way. For the first time, however, I was afraid of this evil nature of mine and made a heartfelt confession to Amida Buddha. Immediately I felt my mind beginning to clear but at the same time there was this compelling urge to justify and assert myself. I was torn between feelings engendered by an endless stream of worldly desires welling up within me, one after the other, and the wish to be sincere in my dealings with people who were looking after me so very kindly, albeit sometimes rather strictly.

While I was suffering in this way, I was very surprised to learn from another priest of my master’s suggestion that I be ordained. At that point I could not understand why I, of all people, should become a priest, particularly when my experience as a pharmacist over the last five years had shown me that my qualifications made it perfectly possible for me to live on my own. As I was incapable of reaching a decision, I consulted my father. His answer was that, not having wanted to become a priest himself, he had been working hard to expand his company for my benefit. On the other hand, now that he was getting on in years, his dearest wish was to be able to die in a temple. From this he could see that the offer that had been made me was an invaluable one. It was not the sort of response I had expected from my father but his words made a deep impression. Even so, I could not come to a decision on my own and worried about it for a while. Finally I was invited by my master to go and see him. I went there fully intending to ask him, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why now?’

As soon as we had exchanged greetings, however, and before I could put my questions to him, he addressed me with great kindness, saying ‘You have realised the extent of your karma, haven’t you? I think the only way you can be saved is if you become a priest in the truest sense of the word. Once you have been saved by Amida-buddha, everyone emotionally hurt by you will be saved as well’. He was thinking only of me, seeking to find a solution to my suffering.

Cutting through all my attachments to this world and to my qualifications within it, his words elicited from me a heartfelt ‘Yes’. Like a father speaking to a son who finds himself stuck up a tree, my master seemed to be saying ‘Don’t worry at all. Release your hold on the branch. I will catch you’.

As you can see from this encounter with my master, I have the honour of having a ‘Good Teacher ‘

Part 3: What kind of person a Good Teacher is

I have told you about my own ‘Good Teacher’. Now let me tell you what Shinran Shonin has to say on the subject.

Writing in the Kyogyoshinsho, Shinran Shonin quotes paragraphs on the nature of true teachers from one of the sutras. Let me read it to you now:

[The Buddha said,] “Good sons, the foremost, genuine, true teachers are bodhisattvas and Buddhas. Why is this so? It is because they control (sentient beings) very well by three powers. And what are these three? The first is extremely gentle words. The second is extremely stern rebuke. The third is both gentle words and stern rebuke. Because of these, bodhisattvas and Buddhas are genuine true teachers. Further, good sons, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas are great physicians; hence they are called ‘true teachers.’ Why? Because they know sicknesses and the medicines to cure them, and they give the medicine appropriate to the disease. It is like an excellent physician being skillful in eight kinds of healing. First, he observes the symptoms of the illness. There are three types: those of wind, fever, and water. To the patient of a wind disease, ghee is given. To the patient of fever disease, crystallized honey is given. To the patient of water disease, ginger infusion is given. Through knowing the root of the sickness, he is able to give medicine and cure it. Hence, he is called a good physician.
The Buddhas and bodhisattvas are like this. They know all the sicknesses of foolish beings, which fall into three types: greed, anger, and folly. In the case of the sickness of greed, they make the person observe a skeleton. In the case of the sickness of anger, they make the person observe the features of compassion. In the case of the sickness of folly, they make the person observe the features of twelvefold causation. Because of this, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas are called true teachers.

Good sons, a ferryman who safely transports his passengers is known as a good ferryman. So it is with the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. They bring all sentient beings across the great ocean of birth-and-death. Because of this, they are called true teachers.
(From the Nirvarna Sutra)

When you reflect on the true teachers, you find they are like the father and mother who gave us birth. They are like a nursing mother who nourished us with her milk. They cause the elements of enlightenment to grow. They are like a physician who cures our illnesses, like a deva raining down sweet dew, like the sun showing us the right path, like the moon turning its pure orb.”                       (From the Avatamsaka Sutra)

As can be seen from his inclusion of the above quotations, Shinran Shonin regards a Good Teacher as a great physician. Now, if you don’t mind, I would like you to ask yourselves two questions:

Q1 If you were suffering from a critical illness, what would you do?

All of us surely would look around in desperation for the best doctor available.

Q2 Would you be ready to accept that doctor’s advice and follow all his instructions? Would you take all the medicines he prescribed?

  Of course you’ll say yes.

The first question seeks to establish how seriously you take your illness. We look for the best doctor if we are critically ill. BUT if our illness is not life-threatening, we may not bother.

The second question seeks to find out your attitude to the doctor, in other words, whether you feel you can entirely entrust yourself to him. Even if you could find the best doctor in the world and he gave you the best medicine in the world, there would be little point in any of it unless you actually swallowed the pills. At the end of the day, it is you who has to decide whether to take the medicine or not. Everything depends on you and whether you can entrust yourself to the doctor.

Part 4: Given Faith(信)

The thoughts that went through your minds just now will have revealed to you a very important point about the nature of belief. But it is difficult for us to believe something or somebody in the truest sense. So now, what are your thoughts on true belief or ‘entrusting’?

The Chinese character Shin(信)has several meanings. One of these, of course, is faith. Another is being true to your word or keeping your promise.

Changing what you originally said, or failing to keep your promise is FUSHIN or faithlessness.

At this point I would like you to ask yourselves one further question, namely whether you do actually believe. Generally speaking, we simply think that we ‘believe in’ Amida Buddha or we ‘believe’ the teaching of the Nembutsu, but actually the truth is that prior to our believing Amida Buddha, Amida Buddha himself must have already been active in making it possible for us to do so.

Going back once again to the earlier quotation, Shinran Shonin also regards a Good Teacher as being like your father or mother. Now I would like to tell you a little story.

One very cold, rainy night in winter, you come back home shivering. Tenderly yourmother says, ‘You must be freezing. Go and take a shower immediately, please, and warm yourself up’. Saying ‘Thank you, mum, I will’, you go to the shower room and strip off your clothes.

Now you have taken off all your clothes regardless of the fact that until you step into the warm shower you risk feeling even colder. How can you be so certain, until you turn on the shower that hot water will indeed come out of the pipes? How is it that you can strip naked? It is because you completely trust your mother.

There is absolutely no doubt in your mind, nor do you have to make any special effort to believe her words. What I am trying to say is that you trust her implicitly. Such a mind unclouded by doubt that simply believes without even trying is true faith, is it not?

What makes one like that? In the story I think it is your mother’s unconditional love. I mean, you are able to believe everything she says because she has been giving you her love continuously ever since you were born. You think the words ‘Thank you’ spring naturally to your lips, whereas in fact your words of gratitude also originate from your mother’s love.

Please imagine that the warmshower is the Pure Land, your mother’s voice is your Good Teacher’s voice and your own ‘Thank you’ is the Nembutsu. Both your own faith and the Nembutsu have come about as the result of Amida’s unconditional love and compassion. However we are not able to hear Amida’s calling because we are full of doubt and ignorant, so our Good Teacher tells us ‘Pronounce the nembutsu’ on behalf of Amida Buddha. At this point, for me, my Good Teacher is a manifestation of Amida Buddha.

It is not that first of all we believe in Amida Buddha. It is that Amida Buddha himself gives us our faith in much the same way as your mother makes it possible for you to believe her implicitly through the unconditional love she shows you.

Part 5: How Shinran Shonin expresses the joy of attaining faith

Shinran Shonin spoke about his own Good Teacher, Honen Shonin, in the Tannisho.

Let me quote from Rev. Sato’s translation of Chapter 2 of that work where it tells us how appreciative Shinran Shonin was of his encounter with his own Good Teacher, Honen Shonin.

       Chapter 2

“Each of you has come to see me, crossing the borders of more than ten provinces at the risk of your lives. Your purpose is solely to hear from me how to be born in the Pure Land. If, however, assuming that I know other ways of being born in the Pure Land apart from pronouncing the nembutsu or thinking that I may be acquainted with some Buddhist texts that teach those special ways, you are concerned to know some hidden truth, I am afraid you are making a great mistake. If that is indeed your concern, there are many eminent scholars in the Southern Capital [Nara], or on the Northern Mountain [Hiei], whom you would be better off visiting in order to inquire to your hearts’ content about the essentials for birth in the Pure Land.

As for myself, Shinran, there is nothing else involved apart from simple faith in the nembutsu, according to the instruction of my good teacher, ‘Just say the nembutsu so as to be saved by Amida.’

I do not profess to know whether the nembutsu will really work as the seed that allows me to be born in the Pure Land or whether it may prove the karmic act for which I am condemned to hell. If, however, by pronouncing the nembutsu, I were ultimately to find myself misled by my Master Hōnen Shōnin and cast into hell, even then I would have no regrets.

The reason is this: if I were actually capable of attaining Buddhahood by my own endeavours whilst following other practices but nevertheless simply pronounced the nembutsu and so fell into hell, then indeed I would feel regret at having been deceived. But I am quite incapable of any other practice, so hell would have to be my abode in any case.

If the Original Vow of Amida is true, the teaching of Śākyamuni cannot be untrue; if the teaching of Śākyamuni is true, the commentaries by Shandao cannot be untrue; if Shandao’s commentaries are true, the teaching of Hōnen Shōnin cannot be untrue; if the teaching of Hōnen Shōnin is true, how can it be possible for me, Shinran, to utter untruth? This being so, it is up to you to choose whether to believe in the nembutsu or to reject it.”

Thus spoke my Master.


Shinran Shonin’s words ‘If, however, by pronouncing the nembutsu, I were ultimately to find myself misled by my Master Hōnen Shōnin and cast into hell, even then I would have no regrets. …… I am quite incapable of any other practice, so hell would have to be my abode in any case’ sound to me much like a patient saying ‘If, however, by taking this medicine, I were ultimately to find myself misled by my doctor, Honen Shonin, and was on the verge of dying, even then I would have no regrets. …… No other medicine would have been able to cure my illness, so death would have been my fate in any case.’

This is a strong indication to us of how absolutely Shinran Shonin entrusted himself to Honen Shonin.

 Shinran Shonin lets us know, too, how happy and grateful he is to have encountered Honen Shonin:

       Through countless kalpas and innumerable lives,
       We did not know the strong cause of liberation;
       Were it not for our teacher Genku (Honen Shonin),
       This present life also would pass in vain.

If I might rephrase Shinran Shonin’s words, they could read:

       ‘For a long long time
I could not find the best doctor;
Were it not for my doctor Genku (Honen Shonin),
My present life would end with suffering and death.’

Shinran Shonin’s supreme joy over his encounter with a Good Teacher can be clearly felt in the Genku wasan, as well as in the quotations from the Kyogyoshinsho and the Tannisho. These passages show us how aware Shinran Shonin was of his own state of ignorance and at the same time how deeply he trusted Honen Shonin’s teaching of the Nembutsu.

The paragraph from the sutra that Shinran Shonin quotes in the Kyogyoshinsho, reminds me exactly of all that has been done for me by my master and my Dharma friends.

Good Teacher and Dharma friends, be kind enough to gauge the condition of my mind and bring me peace with gentle words or stern rebuke as befits the occasion.

Part 6: Conclusion

Despite the fact that I am filled with blind passions, greed, anger and folly, my master guided me on the way to the Pure Land by ordaining me as a priest, thereby allowing me to live this given life in its deepest dimension.

It is too difficult for me on my own to be constantly aware of how ignorant I am. But when, with the greatest respect, I see Venerable Takehara, my Good Teacher, then I can return to the original point when I became a priest with an awareness of being ignorant. At such times the nembutsu pours from my lips naturally and unconsciously but with the deepest gratitude.

By the way, I recently attended a meeting to introduce D.T. Suzuki but was dismayed by the comments of a certain scholar who said that in Japan there was a religion known as Shin Buddhism which despite its claim was not Buddhism at all. Such an assertion made me realise that Shin Buddhism, Jodo Shinsyu, has not yet been properly understood over here. I felt the scholar’s ideas were based on only a very superficial appreciation of Buddhism, by that I mean they may not have reached yet any pivotalunderstanding of Buddhism. But the sad fact remains that comments such as these have the power to prevent people from approaching Shin Buddhism in the first place. I admit that it is very difficult for ordinary people to understand Shin Buddhism and also that the relationship between teaching, practice and realization in Shin Buddhism is different from that found in other schools. However, Shin Buddhism definitely is Buddhism. For me indeed Shin Buddhism lies at the very heart of Buddhism. Through Shin Buddhism even such an ignorant person as myself is able to appreciate the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. No other practice would work but the nembutsu works for me just as Shinran Shonin teaches us.
Again I want to point out that unless you encounter a Good Teacher you cannot attain faith. Without faith you cannot be saved. I am sure that like me you will definitely come to appreciate the nembutsu through encountering your own Good Teacher, if you have not indeed already met one.
Your Good Teacher, who has gone through similar experiences to yours and who himself has his own Good Teacher, will give you ‘the best medicine’, that is, living Shin Buddhist Teaching. For you in particular, this Good Teacher is actually able to impart the fullness of Japanese Shin-Buddhist teaching in English. Surprisingly your Good Teacher is very close to you, just as my Good Teacher was very close to me. However, if you do not take the Medicine prescribed by your Good Doctor, the Medicine never work within or upon you.

Thank you very much for your patience in listening to me.
Kenshin Hiroshi Ishii