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.)

  • David Riley

    While I don’t have any direct experience with Shinnyo-en, I have some indirect knowledge, and years of experience with another so-called “New Buddhism” or “New Religion” of Japan, and from my perspective there are some good reasons to be wary of this group.

    First, the idea of what they call “structured” sesshin, which requires a facilitator. Yes, this form of Buddhism may be “for lay people” and you may have Buddha Nature, but you need an expert, in this case a Shinnyo-en priest, at a temple, to guide you. Sure, we all need guides and teachers, but this is also one of the methods Japan’s New Religions use to control people. I should also mention that these facilitators do not merely guide a practitioner through the insights of daily life, but more importantly, through life in the “spirit world.”

    The “unstructured” practice that you can do on your own, or with other Shinnyo-en members, is rather vague. It includes community service and “share the teaching.” On the surface, there is nothing wrong with propagation; however, in the hands of many NR’s, this is often approached in a fanatical manner and missionary zeal becomes an article of faith. I don’t know about Shinnyo-en, but in the Soka Gakkai you were often judged by the number of people you had personally converted to “True Buddhism”.

    Shinnyo-en is not free. The sesshins cost money, and from what I understand there are monthly dues required. Everything you get from this group requires some sort of donation, and from what I have heard a member is excepted to cough up a certain amount of dough each year or they’re not a member in good standing.

    As I mentioned, there is a spirit world component to all this. According to a November 2012 profile in Buddhadharma, which is online, it involves “communicating with the spirit world, a realm that is tied to traditions of ancestor worship and is part of the doctrinal beliefs of many Japanese religious traditions. According to Shinjo Ito, this was a means of accessing a spiritual dimension related to the deep layers of consciousness . . . By accessing this buddha-mind, one can in turn serve as a spiritual guide, helping others touch into it as well.”

    Like I said, I don’t have any firsthand experience with them, but there are enough warning bells to make me very leery.

    • PC

      Given that SGI was originally a Nichiren Buddhist lay organization and given Nichiren Buddhism’s long history of Shakubuku (ie. rather aggressive proselytizing/evangelism); I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to be wary of this group doing the same thing. This particular group is based on Shingon Buddhism, which doesn’t have a long tradition of aggressive Shakubuku, so there’d be no reason to suspect as much.

      Also, I’m not sure that Rissho Kosei Kai (another New Religion) shares the reputation of the dubious practices you list; so it might not be something endemic to Japanese New Religions.

      As far as the rest of your critique, I can’t really comment, but the doctrines your criticizing may in fact be shared by more traditional Buddhist schools (thinking guru yoga and all the conversations with devas in the sutras).

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for the warnings, David. Either way, I think anyone coming into a new/new-ish religious group should be cautious. For now though I see nothing to raise alarms with Shinnyo-en in particular, but one thing I hope this blog is helpful for is in allowing people to freely discuss their concerns or bad experiences if/when they should arise.

    • Naomi

      Before making comments that might discourage others from learning about Shinnyo-en, it might be more appropriate to get more proper information. As someone with firsthand experience with Shinnyo-en, I felt compelled to respond point-by-point to the statements made by the commenter since they said they do not have such experience.

      (1) so-called “New Buddhism” or “New Religion” of Japan

      As another commenter above as well as the article’s author mentioned, Shinnyo-en is a an independent branch of the Daigo School of Shingon Buddhism, one of Japanese traditional dharma streams linked back to Kukai (a monk sponsored by the ancient Imperial Court of Japan to go to China and learn about Chinese Buddhism).

      (2) “structured” sesshin, which requires a
      facilitator….you need an expert, in this case a
      Shinnyo-en priest, at a temple, to guide you.

      The “structured” sesshin is not done by an expert guide. It is correct to call it more of a facilitator that helps you to objective see your subjective mind. It is the practitioners choice/responsibility to do with that information as they see fit to help support their spiritual growth.

      (3) The “unstructured” practice….is rather vague. It includes community service and
      “share the teaching.”

      Actually, the “unstructured” practice means taking everything that occurs in your daily life as messages from the Buddha, and then trying to learn from that message. Also, Shinnyo-en’s propagation activities are nothing like you say Soka Gakkai’s, and there are no quotas.

      (4) (a) Shinnyo-en is not free. (b) The sesshins cost money,… (c)…monthly dues required. (d) Everything you get from this
      group requires some sort of donation, and (e) …excepted to cough up a certain amount of dough each year or
      they’re not a member in good standing.

      (a) Visiting a Shinnyo-en temple or training center to attend a service is free. There is no limit to the number of services that you can attend as a non-member.
      (b) Sesshins do cost money, a nominal offering of gratitude reflecting the Buddhist paramita of giving.
      (c) Monthly dues for those who would like to officially join as a member, as indicated by the commenter above, are $1USD/month, prorated to April of the following year plus a $1initiation fee (at least in the US). A nominal fee, but to have you “let go” of that nominal fee to say that you are serious that you’d like to go on that path.

      (d) I’m not sure what you mean by “everything you get”, but in many cases there are offering that are requested or there are things that you are purchasing (books) because of your own interest to go down a deeper path of learning about the Shinnyo teaching, not as a requirement to be a member. It again goes back to the paramita of giving.

      (e) There is no such status of “a member in good standing” in Shinnyo-en. The “certain amount of dough each year” is the annual membership fee, which consists of the monthly dues noted above (minus the initiation fee), so $12/year.

      (5) …there is a spirit world component to all this.
      All Buddhism (and other religions as well), make reference to some sort of spiritual realm or heavenly cosmos.

  • Guest

    Shinnyo-en is not a new religion. The founder of Shinnyo-en
    received the highest priestly rank attainable at one of the most prestigious
    and traditional temples in Japan. He founded Shinnyo-en with the full
    endorsement of Shingon Buddhism and Daigoji Monastery. Also, if you travel to
    Daigoji Monastery in Kyoto you can see the Shinnyo Samaya Hall erected in 1997
    on its grounds to commemorate the Shinnyo Samaya Stream of Esoteric Buddhism
    established by Shijo Ito, the founder of Shinnyo-en. This hall also contains
    one of Master Ito’s Reclining Buddha sculptures. Shinnyo-en continues to have a strong bond
    with Shingon Buddhism established by Kobo Daishi in the 8th Century.
    The so called new religions in Japan have no tie to the traditional Dharma, nor
    do they have the endorsement of any reputable temple or established tradition.
    It is inaccurate to label Shinnyo-en with the so called ‘new religions’ of
    Japan.

    Shinnyo-en’s annual fee is $1 per month or $12 per year,
    which simply covers the fee for the Nirvana Magazine… this and any other
    donation is purely voluntary, and any records of donations are kept anonymous. However,
    donations to support the Sangha is a practice that goes all the way back to the
    Buddha. In Shakyamuni Buddha’s time people offered food, drink, shelter to the
    Buddha and his retinue of monks. In the
    many forms of Buddhism practiced today from Tibet to Thailand monks receive
    food offerings and temples receive monetary offerings. The idea is that it is
    offering money to support the Buddhist community or building temples is
    considered meritorious in Buddhism across denominations… really no different
    than the Christian notion of tithing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tarin.griswold Tarin Griswold

    Shinnyo-en is not a new religion. The founder of Shinnyo-en
    received the highest priestly rank attainable at one of the most prestigious
    and traditional temples in Japan. He founded Shinnyo-en with the full
    endorsement of Shingon Buddhism and Daigoji Monastery. Also, if you travel to
    Daigoji Monastery in Kyoto you can see the Shinnyo Samaya Hall erected in 1997
    on its grounds to commemorate the Shinnyo Samaya Stream of Esoteric Buddhism established by Shijo Ito, the founder of Shinnyo-en. This hall also contains one of Master Ito’s Reclining Buddha sculptures. Shinnyo-en continues to have a strong bond with Shingon Buddhism established by Kobo Daishi in the 8th Century. The so called new religions in Japan have no tie to the traditional Dharma, nor do they have the endorsement of any reputable temple or established tradition. It is inaccurate to label Shinnyo-en with the so called ‘new religions’ of
    Japan.

    Shinnyo-en’s annual fee is $1 per month or $12 per year,
    which simply covers the fee for the Nirvana Magazine… this and any other
    donation is purely voluntary, and any records of donations are kept anonymous. However, donations to support the Sangha is a practice that goes all the way back to the Buddha. In Shakyamuni Buddha’s time people offered food, drink, shelter to the Buddha and his retinue of monks. In the many forms of Buddhism practiced today from Tibet to Thailand monks receive food offerings and temples receive monetary offerings. The idea is that, making offerings to support the Buddhist community or building temples is considered meritorious in Buddhism, across denominations… really no different than the
    Christian notion of tithing.


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