Unconditional Service

An interview with Shinso Ito

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Shinjo Ito (Master Shinjo)

Tantric or esoteric Buddhism is one of the great forms of Buddhist tradition. In the West, it is usually associated with Tibet, where tantric Buddhism has flourished for more than a millennium. Meanwhile—although it is approximately as old as Tibetan forms and has held major cultural and religious significance—the tantric tradition of Japan is comparatively little known in the West. This stems in part from the fact that the primary traditional forms of Japanese Buddhist tantra (Shingon and Tendai) have not made strong efforts to spread their denominations outside of Japan.

Japanese Buddhism experienced significant changes in the 20th century as the country modernized, fought a war with the West, was occupied by the United States, and developed into an urbanized technological society. Many new Buddhist movements appeared, including the group known as Shinnyo-en (“Garden of Absolute Reality”), founded in 1936. Like most new Buddhist movements, Shinnyo-en draws on multiple sources, but it is most directly connected to the Shingon tradition as practiced at Daigoji, a massive temple complex and pilgrimage site in southern Kyoto. Because it has a strong lay focus, Shinnyo-en has been able to grow quickly and establish practice groups throughout Japan, Asia, and in the West. Thus it is helping to bring more Western attention to the ancient tantric traditions of Japan.

Along with its tantric connections, one of the distinctive features of Shinnyo-en is its focus on the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (also called the Nirvana Sutra), one of the central works of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. This text purports to record the final sermon of the Buddha before he passed away into final nirvana. The sutra deals with many issues important to the development of Mahayana thought and practice, but it is especially noted for its teachings on buddhanature. In part because it teaches that all beings without exception have the capacity to reach complete buddhahood, it has been treasured in East Asia and inspired reformers such as Dogen, Shinran, and Nichiren. This is true in modern times as well, as the followers of Shinnyo-en rely on this sutra for guidance in the chaotic contemporary world.

The following interview took place in New York this past summer, when Tricycle editors James Shaheen and Philip Ryan sat down with Shinso Ito, who was in town to speak at a conference. Shinso Ito is the current head of Shinnyo-en and the daughter of Shinnyo-en cofounders Shinjo and Tomoji Ito. The interview provided a chance to learn more about this growing Buddhist movement, particularly its approaches to the practices of engaged Buddhism and meditation.

—Jeff Wilson


Shinso ItoWhy is volunteerism and other social work so central to Shinnyo Buddhism’s practice? Master Shinjo understood that the training within the traditional Buddhist framework would lead to one’s own enlightenment as a monk, but he believed religion had to be able to help more people, including those who were not especially religious, in ways that suit their different circumstances. He incorporated new practices such as volunteerism so our sangha [community] could offer assistance to the widest range of people. People who are interested in traditional Buddhist training are always welcome, but volunteer activities provide an additional avenue for Shinnyo-en to contribute to the wider secular community.

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