Shinnyo-en, esoteric Japanese Buddhism for laypeople, spreading around the world

(April 2013) The Acting Supreme Patriarch of Thailand and Thai Theravada Buddhists joined Japanese Mahayana Buddhists in a prayer for peace. During the ceremony, Her Holiness Shinso Ito presented the Most Venerable Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangkhlachan with a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha sculpted by Shinnyo-en’s founder, Master Shinjo Ito. The reclining Buddha or nirvana statue serves as Shinnyo-en’s principal figure of meditation and contemplation.

Today I am happy to introduce you to a branch of Buddhism that you probably have never heard of (I say that with confidence because before coming across them recently I had never heard or them): Shinnyo-en.

This particular branch began in 1936 as a community within Shingon Buddhism, a lineage started in Japan by a monk named Kūkai in the 8th-9th century CE. The founder of Shinnyo-en’s, Master Shinjo Ito, was trained in the Shingon Buddhist Daigo School (see their temple) and sought to adapt the practices to the needs of the laity. Shinnyo-en would go on to branch off as an independent denomination in the 1940s.

Below we discuss Shinnyo-en’s history, recent activities, and plans for the future with Her Holiness Shinso Ito.

JW: To begin, perhaps you could say more about what Shinnyo-en is, and how it is distinct from Shingon. 

Shinnyo-en is a global Buddhist community for laypeople. Our founder, Shinjo Ito, was a master in Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. He developed an innovative practice for laypeople to use their everyday life as their spiritual training based on his own monastic training. He began Shinnyo-en as a community within Shingon Buddhism and eventually it branched off as an independent denomination in the 1940s. And although our foundation is in Shingon Buddhism, a lineage that has been practiced in Japan for more than one thousand years, there are distinct differences between Shingon and Shinnyo Buddhism.

The mere fact that Shinnyo-en is rooted in the teachings of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and has its own unique form of meditation training distinguishes it from Shingon Buddhism. The meditation in Shinnyo-en, developed particularly for non-monastic practitioners, helps laypeople to cultivate moments of insight and awareness through their experiences in daily life. Sesshin meditation is a unique form of guided meditation that allows individuals to do deep self-reflection with the help of a trained meditation guide. The emphasis on enabling practitioners to translate gained insight into practical or concrete activities to improve their spirituality and the world around them is a core element of Shinnyo-en’s practice.

When looking at the relationship between Shinnyo Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism, it is important to recognize the authentic dharma lineage or transmission, which refers to the master-disciple structure for instruction and training. Our founder Shinjo stood in a long succession of spiritual transmissions of wisdom, lovingkindness and compassion that has been conferred upon one master to another in a lineage. This kind of transmission is often described in terms of water being poured from one vessel into another. Therefore, it was more than acquiring the knowledge of Shingon doctrine and the certification to carry out its rituals. By becoming a master himself, Shinjo was able to incorporate mudras, mantras, and authentic rituals and training procedures into Shinnyo-en and established training methods for people to experience the buddha’s wisdom, lovingkindness and compassion. Shinjo, thus, succeeded in progressively adapting monastic instruction to create a parallel path to monastic training for laypeople.

This is where the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, or the Nirvana Sutra as it is often called, plays a larger role for Shinnyo Buddhism as our main Buddhist text. This sutra is not generally regarded as one of the “esoteric Buddhist texts.” However, based on his thorough training and spiritual achievements in esoteric Buddhism, Shinjo found a way of introducing and sharing essential aspects of esoteric Buddhism with laypeople through the Nirvana Sutra.

JW: I see that Shinnyo-en has centers in more than 15 countries around the world. Can you discuss recent growth of Shinnyo-en and your plans for the future. Do you plan to focus on Japan? Thailand? Western countries?

We do not have any plans to establish a particular number of centers. Our priority is helping people to realize greater self-awareness, happiness, and harmony no matter where they are from. Creating centers where people can meditate and reflect on their lives is just one of the ways in which we do this. Shinnyo-en also shares rituals and ceremonies with others around the world to cultivate compassion and inspire spiritual awakenings.

For example, since 1999 Shinnyo-en has been conducting a lantern floating ceremony in Hawaii on Memorial Day. This annual event has grown tremendously and now forty-thousand people come each year to reflect and pray for loved ones who have passed away. People have told us that they feel kinder and more peaceful after the service or that they feel a sense of warmth and healing. I think it allows people to connect with others and to cultivate compassion in their hearts. With the same intention, we engage in a variety of interfaith activities around the world from services at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Manhattan to ceremonies with Theravada Buddhist monks from Thailand and Sri Lanka.

We also encourage our members to engage in service starting in their immediate surroundings, in their families, schools, and workplaces, and in their communities and to find ways to apply Buddhist principles of lovingkindness, compassion and harmony in their everyday life. It is our belief that people who have been touched by lovingkindness, wisdom and compassion carry these qualities into their daily lives and in turn, pass it on to those around them.

JW: The recent ceremony in Thailand points to the great potential for different branches of Buddhism to unite and foster deeper relations. Can you talk about some of the challenges you have faced in doing cross-cultural or interdenominational dialogue with other Buddhists or challenges you foresee in the coming years?

It is a delightful challenge to create new channels of interaction with people from different religions and cultural traditions. It is important to find people who share similar goals and to collaborate with them in order to realize true harmony amidst diversity. I find that a sincere approach to sharing in interfaith and interdenominational dialogues helps to develop a deeper understanding of one another and builds trusting relationships.

My parents, the founders of Shinnyo-en, taught me about meditation and reflection from the time I was a very small child. One of the things they taught me was to reflect on what was important for others and their needs. As a result, when I meet people from different traditions, I try to put myself in their place and respond accordingly. For me, compassion and empathy are essential elements in cultivating harmony.

Giving people the assistance, help, and opportunity they need to shine does not mean that we need to or have to huddle and hide ourselves in the dark. When we take each other by the hand and step out into the light together, we help bring even more light to those around us. That is something wonderful, which I hope to continue in the future.

JW: How do your teachings and practices help individuals in the ‘hyperconnected’ world we live in today? Is there something in particular about Buddhism or, more specifically, Shinnyo-en, that accounts for its growth and greater acceptance in recent decades?

More than two thousand years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha spoke about interdependence. Essentially, it describes everything as being interrelated. It does not mean that one thing is subsumed by another. Rather, it means that our individuality is brought out more fully in the realization of our deep connectedness with others. So I don’t believe that being “hyperconnected” is something we need to fear. Because of the awareness of the world as “hyperconnected,” people today are more aware of and can get a more concrete grasp of “pratityasamutpada,” or deep connectedness.

JW: I understand that the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra is a key foundation to Shinnyo-en. Can you discuss how this fits in with other Buddhist teachings?

Shinnyo Buddhism is inspired by the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, also known as the Nirvana Sutra. This sutra emphasizes the ability of anyone to achieve enlightenment. It teaches that everyone has the potential to awaken to his or her buddha nature. The Nirvana Sutra is a well-known and authoritative source for many practitioners as it is considered to be the last teachings of the Buddha focused and expounding on wisdom, lovingkindness and compassion. In fact, wherever there is a profound interest in buddha nature, one is likely to find references to the Nirvana Sutra.

Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, frequently quotes the Nirvana Sutra in his “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye” and the “Annotated Commentaries on the Three Sutras” by Prince Shotoku from 7th century Japan, also drew attention to the Nirvana Sutra’s emphasis on buddha nature and its presence in our lives. Shinjo Ito came to the Nirvana Sutra after his monastic training in esoteric Buddhism. Based on his spiritual achievements, in this sutra he found a way to illuminate esoteric Buddhist practice for everyday people.

The content of the Buddha’s enlightenment is said to be the middle way discouraging extremes, whether that be in the pursuit of pleasure or in ascetic practice. The Buddha’s focused meditation was the result of letting go of aimless pleasures and extreme asceticism. Shinnyo-en helps people to find the middle way through sesshin training. It enables people to find balance in their lives, to realize their fullest potential and to put their spiritual insights into practice to find a deeper sense of contentment in their own lives and for the betterment of the world. In this way, practitioners are guided on how to apply Buddhist teachings to solve the challenges they face in life and cultivate their buddha nature.

JW:  Is there anything else you would like to add?

This September, Shinnyo-en will be holding its very first lantern floating ceremony in Central Park in New York City. We hope that little by little, by offering people ways or moments to take a step back to reflect on their lives, we can generate a little more hope and kindness in the world.

(My great thanks for the interview to Her Holiness Shinso Ito.My thanks also to Layla Raphael for facilitating this discussion.)

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