Shinnyo-En temple visit

I recently had the chance to visit a Shinnyo-En temple with my girlfriend and learned more about this relatively new form of Buddhism.

Though Shinnyo-En’s followers are mainly Japanese, it has managed to establish a foothold in several other countries as well. The temple we visited was in the Los Angeles region and we joined a bazaar hosted by the temple where they offered food and entertainment on an overcast day.

Founded by Shinjo-Ito and his wife, I heard much about as much about their practice as I did about the followers’. Shinjo-Ito and his wife are said to have had visions of the Dharma in their dreams and set off to realize their vision. Shinjo-Ito retired from his career as an engineer and they adopted Dharma names, Kyoshu-sama and Shojushinin-sama. Kyoshu-sama went through many strict practices through Shingon Buddhism. One of his practices include meditating with lit candles on arms to train in pain tolerance and “become one with the God of Fire.” He also meditated under a waterfall. His lay followers believe they are able to pick up in their spiritual training where Kyoshu-sama left off.

Practicing meditation is a big emphasis among followers, which progress in meditation divided into 4 levels: Daijo, Kangi, Daikangi and Reino, with tests organized for followers to demonstrate their advancement. Those who attain the highest level, Reino, are able to give spiritual advise during sesshin and can assess advancement during the meditation test. Reino, however, are still lay persons.

Interestingly, the last person to practice as a monastic within Shinnyo-En was Kyoshu-sama, making Shinnyo-En a strictly lay organization. The community is now led by Kyoshu-sama’s daughter, Shinso-ito, who decided not to marry and have children so that the next leader that is chosen would be based on a consensus of merit.

Their sangha arrangement is certainly different than the traditional monastic-lay arrangement and I have respect for their succession model and am curious how they will continue practicing without a monastic tradition. Do you all know of other streams of Buddhism without a monastic tradition?

4 Replies to “Shinnyo-En temple visit”

  1. Cool post Oz.

    We spoke a bit of this before, but I wonder about the Shinnyo-En meditation practice. Did you have a chance to check it out, or receive instruction? Based on the mention of sesshin I would think it looks a lot like zen, but which Buddhist meditation tradition does it most resemble, and how is it different?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

  2. Hello Oz, thanks for the report on the Shinnyo En temple.

    I would also like to re-ask John’s question about the nature of their meditation practice, and also generally if there are any Shinnyo En practitioners out there.

    I must admit I had only recently heard about Shinnyo En and all I knew was, as you mentioned, their connection to Shingon. Considering this important connection in the founder’s experience, I was wondering if anyone knows how far Shingon doctrine/practices have influenced aspects of Shinnyo En belief and practice. In particular, with Shinnyo En being totally non monastic, I wonder what part (if any) esoteric ritual might play for practitioners.

    Does anyone know, or has anyone experienced these practices?


  3. You state that you are “curious how they will continue practicing without a monastic tradition. Do you all know of other streams of Buddhism without a monastic tradition?”

    By most measures, no form of Japanese Buddhism has a monastic tradition. Japanese monks are not considered such by the Buddhist monastics of other countries since they don’t follow the Vinaya and are, often, married (and certainly have the option to marry). By those standards, all Japanese monastics are really lay.

    This new tradition really doesn’t seem any different except it is more explicitly lay.

  4. As a member of Shinnyo-en, i can answer that there appears to be some confusion surrounding the types of meditation. Daijo, kangi, daikangi, and reino are not the types of meditation. They are the relative levels of spiritual understanding one has acheived. Although it’s a really bad analogy, think of them as something vaguely akin to the various Jhanic states. Meditation itself does come in several forms. Chanting meditation is huge within all parts of the Shingon tradition, and Shinnyo-en is no different. In fact most meditation in Shinnyo-en can be classified as action-meditation (such as chanting). As for formal, sitting meditation, there are two basic types: structured (with the help of a qualified senior meditator/spiritual guide) and unstructured (to be done by the individual as frequently as possible in daily life, without the help of the guide). These are critical to the Shinnyo practice.

    As far as Buddhism in Japan and the monastic side of the house: don’t be so quick to dismiss the full monastic traditions. Yes, there are parts of the monastic tradition that allow marriage, based on historical socio-political mandates. But there are still monasteries in Japan (Eiheiji is one example, Daigoji is another, you really just have to look for them, they are there) where monks do not marry and hold to the vinaya. Still, the presence or lack of a full monastic tradition misses the point entirely in Japan. Also, the monks don’t make the tradition – the individual practice (or lack thereof) does in Japan.

    These days, monks are seen in Japan (in general) as kind of outdated. It’s kind of like service stations vs. gas stations in a way. It used to be that you could go to the station and out would come the attendants to fill your tank, wash your windshield, check your fluids, etc. Now finding a service station (where they do all the work) is next to impossible and on one level laughably quaint. You can pump your own gas, check your own fluids, and wipe your own windshields, so why pay someone else to do it? You can meditate at home, read sutras online, and write your own commentaries, why have someone do it for you unless you’re super busy or super lazy? Lay Buddhism in day-to-day society is where this is headed. We’ve seen monks open bars to offer mindful counseling services, and we’ve seen monks learning how to rap to stay relevant to modern youth. As society advances industrially, we see the monks either taking on new roles and innovating away from things like the vinaya (which could use a serious update) or becoming kind of irrelevant, as recent journalism from Thailand shows us is happening there, too. It’s sad, but that’s reality in an industrialized world.

    Temples in Japan largely morphed from places where the community came to celebrate life events AND learn about the Dharma with qualified representatives (as farmers, they would not have had the time or resources to do so themselves) into community gathering/festival sites, and ritual places where lay people passively attended during important events and little more. Shinnyo-en took a decidedly practice-centered approach to blend that community gathering/festival space for events (such as the annual bazaar) with actual, active participation in Buddhist practice by the laity, giving the “keys” as it were, to lay-priests in training (what we are told from day one we are) and ordained clergy, avoiding the rarefied, almost quaint atmosphere (as perceived in Japan and eslewhere) with a syncretism between laity and clergy and a focus on living one’s daily life AS a form of Buddhist practice, rather than as a hindrance to the practice. Of course, that comes from the Shingon understanding that most actions, when taken properly, can lead to enlightenment. so, we see it as one’s daily life can lead to enlightenment, if we live it right. It’s a somewhat unique way of going about it, and temple members feel more invested in the temple than many of their peers in the lay Buddhist community elsewhere. Why? Because it’s responsive and encourages participation by everyone, not just monks. So, yeah, it’s more explicitly lay focused, and growing.

    Are there other ways to go about Buddhist practice? Yes, and we encourage them. There is nothing stopping us from living the monastic life, but we find value in day-to-day lay life, too. This way allows the laity a real chance to be active in their own process of enlightenment (potentially in this very lifetime), rather than passive burners of incense and chanters of words they don’t understand, which much of the Buddhist laity is.

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