June 30, 2010

Our visit with Her Holiness Shinso Ito

This week, I went with Tricycle's editor and publisher, James Shaheen, to talk to Her Holiness Shinso Ito, the head priest of Shinnyo-en, a Japanese lay Buddhist movement whose global membership numbers about one million. Shinso Ito is the first female priest in her Shingon lineage, from which Shinnyo-en emerged, and has twice presided over ceremonies in the thousand-year-old Daigoji Temple, the oldest building in Kyoto.

She is pictured below presenting a statue* made by her father, Shinjo Ito, the founder of Shinnyo-en, to New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Her Holiness and Hizzoner were speakers at the 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service that took place in New York this week.


We spoke with Her Holiness for more than half an hour about topics ranging from the practices of Shnnyo-en to the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, getting young people interested in Buddhism, and the message of universal Buddhahood in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra.

The interview was recorded and we hope to present it in an upcoming issue of Tricycle!

Read our previous post about Shinnyo-en.

[Image courtesy Shinnyo-en]

*The statue Shinso Ito presented to Mayor Bloomberg, is a small version of a life-size statue which will be brought to New York City for public display when a location is confirmed, according to Shinnyo-en. The statue depicts Prince Shotoku and symbolizes a universal wish for peace. Master Shinjo Ito, the founder of Shinnyo-en, cast the statue in 1967.

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Skip Tick's picture

Having spiritual mediums ("Reinosha") communicating to members the wishes/advice of the founder's departed sons from the afterlife doesn't smell of buddhism to me.

Doug Palacios's picture

Thank you all for the excellent commentary. Buddhism is essentially a path of inquiry and, as such, engaging in this forum is in a sense a pursuit in that direction. I joined Shinnyo-en with a skeptic's mind and a doubtful heart thinking that I would soon enough debunk all of what I thought were its "cult" ways. It turns out I found a path were I can question freely and where I'm encouraged to only accept those things which make sense to me and to put aside those that don't. It's a respectful community and the best part is that HH Shinso Ito is constantly reminding us all to embrace diversity: cultural, linguistic, religious, etc. But yes Doug, going back to your initial question--It is imperative that we inquire into any doubts we may have, be it about a buddhist order, politics, hatred or our own apprehensions. If you ever have a chance, check out a Shinnyo-en temple--there's plenty around the world and don't forget to keep seeking a path that works for you

Antonis's picture

I'm really grateful to all the blogisattvas -- Doug, James, Philip, and Dr. Wilson -- for sparking this discussion. I'm a member of Shinnyo-en and feel strongly that objective, well-rounded, accurate information speaks for itself. (And James, I don't mean to imply that you're giving out Kool-aid :) .)

The truth about someone, something, etc, is often somewhere in the middle of two opposing views. After a while, insiders begin to forget what it's like to have an outsider's viewpoint, and that, I feel, is the beginning of dogmatism and such. So, continuous dialogue, skeptical analysis, and a practice that is firmly rooted in the "real" world are essential for a healthy pursuit of genuine Buddhism!

As far as a good acid test is concerned, I totally agree with Doug, and thank him profusely for his thoughtful statement. I would say that any well-researched evidence would uncategorically reveal that Shinnyo-en meets all the minimum requirements for being called a "Buddhist" path. (I just assumed Tricycle did their homework, actually, before interviewing Her Holiness, and would not have bothered otherwise).

Shinnyo-en teachings certainly emphasize things like the Four Dharma seals, but teachers sometimes use slightly different vocabulary or ways of explaining it. Here's one snippet from our main book, "The Path of Oneness" (p. 441), which may illustrate my point:
Everything is impermanent.
This is the law of arising and perishing.
When arising and perishing are transcended,
Joyous is the calm of nirvana.

This is a translation from a verse in the Chinese Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Please forgive any awkwardness in the translation.)


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James's picture


Doug's picture

Hi Phillip, good call. The issue of Shugendo as Buddhism is still undecided (other sources I know in the Shingon might or might not agree), but that is an issue for far brighter people than me. Shugendo may borrow elements of Buddhism, but it's another thing to consider it Buddhism altogether in my opinion.

That's why such teachings as the Four Dharma Seals, the Four Noble Truths and so on serve as a good acid test for what's legit and what's not.

@James: please put down the Kool-aid.

Philip Ryan's picture

Thanks for your comment, Doug, and you too, James. Prior to both of our recent blog posts on Shinnyo-en, I spoke to Dr. Jeff Wilson, an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, about this. Dr. Wilson offered a few further comments:

"It's helpful to keep in mind that Shugendo arises directly from the interaction of Buddhist, Daoist, and native Japanese religious sources, and has always been tied to formal Buddhist institutions in Japan. As Japanologist Byron Earhart noted: 'It was the new esoteric Buddhism of the Heian period which furnished the catalyst and framework for this organization. In fact, the two major Shugendo sects took shape around the two major esoteric traditions. Within the Kumano area, the Honzan sect of Shugendo was affiliated to the Taimitsu or Tendai branch of mikkyo through the temples of Onjo-ji and Shogo-in. Centering around Omine, the Tozan sect of Shugendo was affiliated to the Tomitsu or Shingon branch of mikkyo through the temples of Daigo-ji and Sanbo-in (Earhart, "Shugendo, En no Gyoja, and Mikkyo Influence,' in Tantric Buddhism in East Asia, edited by Richard Payne, Wisdom Publications 2006).' I've visited Shogo-in and Daigo-ji--their Buddhist credentials aren't in question, and it's clear from a study of Shugendo practices and material culture that they are basically Buddhist. I consider Shugendo to be a form of Buddhism, and there are plenty of scholars who agree--but really, it's a matter of perspective and it is legitimate to come down on either side of the issue. At any rate, Shinnyo-en is indeed a newer religious movement but that doesn't prevent it from being seen as Buddhist in Japan, and its Shingon Buddhist lineage isn't disputed. As I understand it, the Shugendo influences come through its Shingon parentage, rather than being independent influences operating in a wholly non-Buddhist way."

Hopefully Dr. Wilson's remarks will be helpful. Being syncretic, as are most religious movements (especially in Japan!), Shinnyo-en may contain Shugendo elements. Wikipedia has something to say on the matter: "In modern times, shugendō is practiced mainly by Tendai and Shingon sects, retaining an influence on modern Japanese religion and culture. Some temples include: Kinpusen-ji (Tendai) in Yoshino, Ideha Shrine in Dewa Sanzan, Daigo-ji in Kyoto (Shingon)."

James's picture

Hi Doug,
Shinnyo-en was founded by Shinjo Ito. Shino mastered all lineages of Buddhism, including those of the traditional esoteric lineage. He did so at Daigoji monastery in Kyoto, which is the head of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. Also, there is, as it should always be in the case of mastering such Dharma lineages, documented proof of such lineage succession. So, Shinnyo-en, which means "borderless garden of truth, is not a new religion, but it is based on the oldest foundation of Shakyamunis teachings. Hope this helps to clarify for you. Have a good day Doug. :)

Doug's picture


Has anyone delved into Shinnyo-en's claims as a Shingon-based lineage? I can't recall the source, but I was fairly certain Shinnyo is just another of Japan's syncretic "new religions movements" and not traditional Buddhism per se. People frequently confuse Shugendo practices with actual Buddhism, and Shinnyo-en appears to derive many elements from Shugendo.

I would hope that Tricycle researched this first. :)