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"The extent of Shinran's Benevolence is higher than the highest mountain and deeper than the deepest ocean. How can we fail to express gratitude? How can we not express appreciation? Thus, as an annual observation, this most important service is conducted for a period of seven days to specifically express our feelings of appreciation and gratitude."
Rennyo Shonin, 1477
Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) is the founder of the Jodo Shin School of Buddhism. As a boy of 9 years, he was ordained into the Buddhist priesthood and for 20 years practiced the contemplative and scholastic disciplines of Buddhism. At the age of 29, Shinran abandoned the ascetic disciplines and accepted the Teachings of Amida Tathagata. Buddhism had taken a new meaning for Shinran. He adopted a way of life amongst the common rural people and had called himself "neither priest nor layman." His religious experience was based upon a close association and deep understanding for the needs of the common people. During this time, the study of religion was a luxury afforded only by the very rich and noble classes. The study of Buddhism was especially confined to those who had the freedom and time to do so. However Shinran, through his own experience, knew that education and rigorous spiritual disciplines were not the way for all to attain a spiritual awakening. Through his struggle in which he lived, he taught a new path to the awakening of the religious consciousness. It was a path that all could follow free of scholastic requirements and rituals. It was a path that Shinran himself had experienced...Namuamidabutsu, the Absolute Truth called Amida Tathagata, the source of all life.
A very wise teacher once said, "If you listen to the Dharma (Teachings of the Buddha) just to understand oneself, you will never see beyond your self...If you just see yourself, you can never see beyond your own self-centering." The paradox of such a statement was a very real problem for Shinran. As a Buddhist monk practicing the scholastic and contemplative disciplines of "egolessness," he was confronted with his own self-centered desires and fears. How to resolve his desires had formed a stumbling block to the opening of his religious consciousness and eventually led him to abandon a life of ascetic practices. Without a doubt, this confrontation had caused Shinran much agony. However, upon meeting with his teacher Honen Shonin at the age of 29, Shinran had realized that it was this agony that was the Truth of his religious consciousness. It was this religious agony that had revealed the Absolute Truth called Amida Tathagata which is manifested in our daily lives as Namuamidabutsu. It is the realization of one's true self within the Law of Cause and Effect - it is because of my sufferings and desires that the Absolute Truth exists in me.
Today, Jodo Shinshu is one of the largest schools of Buddhism internationally. On January 16th in all Jodo Shinshu temples throughout the world, special Hoonko services will be held in observation of the death anniversary of Shinran Shonin. Hoonko is a time when we all may express our joy and gratitude for the benevolence of Shinran Shonin. Through the life of Shinran, we are able to hear and to receive the beautiful teaching of Namuamidabutsu.
Literally, Hoonko means a "gathering for expressing our debt of gratitude." Through the life of Shinran Shonin, we have a direct opportunity to resolve our own religious awakening within the rituals or hopes for "another world." The implied meaning of Hoonko is to come and gather... to learn and to listen to the teachings of Amida Tathagata.
The late Rev. Russell Hamada was one of the founding advisors to Hongwanji Place (then SDDSTL Special Projects). Rev. Russell was a longtime resident minister at the LA Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. This message was reprinted from Dharma Talks of the Four Seasons, which is available in our Online Store.