"In Zen, the practice is to "zazen" quietly sit...just sit.  In Shin, the practice is "Monpo" deeply listen...just deeply listen. To open our hearts and minds and truly hear the Buddha Dharma."


                                              ---Rev. Bob Oshita 


Both Shin & Zen arose in the 13th century Kamakura period of Japanese history. They became great religious reform movements that aimed at restoring the intent and essence of the Pure Land and monastic teachings of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion. The following is not a coherent philosophy but a presentation of dynamic ideas to stimulate awareness and greater appreciation for the integrated Shin and Zen approach to our practice.

Similar but Different

The Integrated Practice of Shin and Zen Buddhism is a powerful method that effectively cultivates wisdom, compassion and true entrusting.  The Shin Buddhist path and Zen practice are both complimentary because they are inherently non-dualistic in their approach to the dharma. Both require effort by the practitioner but both recognize that ultimately enlightenment unfolds naturally of itself and cannot be forced.  In addition, both Shin and Zen offer simple approaches to spiritual cultivation; Shin involves just deeply hearing the still inward voice of the universe and voicing the nembutsu while Zen involves just sitting, which is the natural manifestation of the Enlightened Mind.  Furthermore, both focus on the personal and direct experience of ultimate reality rather than relying on mere belief in creeds or the literally truth of scripture.

They differ with each other in their approach to teachers and their focus on meditation. Zen requires faith in a teacher/guru and the fostering of a strong teacher/student relationship, in which the student moves up the spiritual ladder by correctly solving koans (riddles) through the supervision of his/her guru. In addition, rigorous sitting meditation and other practices are required to realize spiritual insight. The focus is more on wisdom than compassion. Usually to practice Zen, as it should be practiced, one needs to live a monastic lifestyle.

On the other hand, the Shin approach does not rely on a teacher/guru nor does it offer a teacher/student relationship. Likewise, one does not move up a spiritual echelon by the consent of a guru but workouts out his/her daily practice alone enabled by the spiritual power of the Primal Vow (see below) and with the support of the lay members of the community (sangha). In Shin, there are no hierarchies and each person is considered an equal with others in the spiritual community. Reliance on the guru is replaced with total trust on the Primal Vow. The focus is more on compassion and community. Essentially, Shin is best practiced as a layperson indeed the monastic lifestyle may even inhibit its practice.

Also, in Shin, sitting meditation is not required but serves as a good away in integrated the three gates of karma, the mind, body and speech, in order to better practice deep hearing (monpo). It is precisely this ability to unify the mind with the body that makes Zen useful to the Shin Buddhist.


                                        Why Integrate Shin & Zen?

Our overstressed modern lifestyle makes it difficult to awaken and live by the wisdom and compassion of Amida, which can only be experienced in the timeless present moment, without some sort of disciplined meditative practice. Our modern world unrelentlessly bombards and saturates us with so many distractions that create deep attachments, greed, pride, anger, fear, stress, violence, etc, etc. As a result, our minds, bodies and speech are disjointed and sidetracked, raising an almost impenetrable wall against the call of boundless life itself. Our 21st century life is much more complicated and spiritually hazardous than the early days of Shin in 13th century Japan where life was simpler making renunciation easier to attained.


The central Shin practice is called monpo or deep hearing, which drives us to intimately experience the call of Life itself and allows Life to speak to us as the nembutsu – Namu-Amida-Butsu, the divine liberating force that sanctifies all life.  However, to effectively attune ourselves to the nembutsu, whose divine vibration lies within our physical form, we need our minds, bodies and speech not to be distracted and disjointed but unified in a concentrative state called samadhi (oneness). 

The non-dualistic Soto Zen school of Buddhism is a proven way to help us discipline and fuse the mind, body and speech, in order to study the self and allow the present moment to intimately touch us so that we may directly experience the one true and real life. Since zazen practice is essentially non-dual, when we practice zazen, unified in mind, body speech, without expectations, it becomes the expression of this one true and real life. Likewise, the nembutsu practice becomes non-dual, manifesting the one life when our minds, bodies and speech are fused into one and without expectations just listen with our whole being to the still inward voice within. Therefore, we become the practice, the practice becomes us, and as a natural result, the practice directly manifests the presence of Amida (Boundless Life itself).


As a natural consequence to all of this, the universe’s urge to love and compassion will progressively open up our hearts so that we may directly experience boundless life. This entire process is expressed through the loving activity of the Primal Vow, which is the universe’s giving itself up to all sentient beings, which is none other than itself. By integrating Shin and Zen practice, we become so attuned to the intuitive vibrations of Life itself within our bodies, minds and speech, we naturally entrust ourselves to its impulse and let Life speak to us through the nembutsu.

                                          Non-Dualistic Approach

Dogen-zenji, the founder of Soto Zen was asked, why do we practice? He responded, because it is in our nature to do so. Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism, would have said it is due to the natural calling of Life itself. This means that we do not practice zazen or nembutsu to get something or to get somewhere, which would be the manifestation of the calculating and foolish self (self-power). Simply, we sit, just to sit or voice the nembutsu, just to voice it. A does not go to B but remains in A thus naturally is made to realize B. This is precisely the process of Shin and Zen Buddhism. We need to take on this non-dualistic approach in our zazen and nembutsu practice.


Therefore, by sitting, without expectation, and following the right posture and breathing techniques, we automatically manifest the Mind of Buddha. Zazen is the realization of the Enlightened Mind (Amida). Likewise, by deeply hearing the dharma with our whole being, accepting and then fully trusting ourselves in Amida’s Primal Vow and then voicing Namu-Amida-Butsu, in response to that trust, the Mind of Buddha quite naturally realizes itself in our hearts and minds. Therefore, nembutsu practice is the realization of the Enlightened Mind (Amida).


What is important is following the technique naturally and spontaneously and not desiring to obtain something outside of you. Satori (enlightenment) as well as shinjin (trusting faith) cannot be obtained by the calculating mind. Shin Buddhism refers to this manipulating mind as the “foolish being of self-centeredness” who engages the life experience with an attitude of gain or loss, win or lose and blame or praise. We are all foolish beings, not just the person who annoys us.  In spiritual practice, the calculating mind relies on human effort alone to attain peace, joy and enlightenment; this is known as the self-power approach. 


It is precisely this calculating or foolish mind that gets us into trouble. It is the major cause of our suffering; it is the engine of our agony and confusion. We need to let go of it. The Enlightened Mind is already present in our hearts and minds. This intimate realization is ultimately the gift of the Other Power. The other here refers to that which lies beyond our small mind, beyond our ego-design but is the grace of the intuitive and natural mind of boundless life itself.

The 13th century Japanese reformer, Shinran Shonin, spoke often about losing the calculating mind and just let go and relax the ego, and float on the river of eternity. He said "being grasped by Unhindered Light is felt, but is beyond conceptual understanding; to be free of any form of calculation is to have realized Other Power."

In the Shin book, River of Fire, River of Water, Dr. Taitetsu Unno states, "when freed from egoistic design and calculations, life unfolds freely, in spite of the unavoidable difficulties. But a new kind of wisdom is bestowed on a person, so that he or she can negotiate through the labyrinth called life." Similarly, the 13th century founder of Soto Zen, Dogen-zenji wrote,

"To study the Buddha Dharma is
To study the self
To study the self is
To forget the self
To forget the self is
To be confirmed by ten thousand things (Other Power)."

No Struggle

The highest form of Zen practice is called saijojo Zen. Roshi Philip Kapleau, in his famous The Three Pillars of Zen, stated "that this Zen was practiced by all of the Buddhas of the past namely Shakyamuni and Amida and is the expression of Absolute Life, life in its purest form. It is the zazen which Dogen-zenji chiefly advocated and it involves no struggle for satori (enlightenment or salvation) or any other object.  In this highest practice, means and end coalesce. In saijojo, when rightly practiced, you sit in the True-nature, and at the same time you sit in complete faith that the day will come when, exclaiming, oh, this is it! You will unmistakably realize this True-nature. Therefore you need not self-consciously strive for enlightenment.”

This practice and experience of no struggle corresponds to the Shin Buddhist notion of the negation of self-power as a vehicle to enlightenment and the opening of the heart and mind to the Primal Vow or Other Power as the means to liberation. Other Power is free of any manipulation and self-absorbed calculations to achieve kensho or enlightenment. Other Power is the silent working of the Buddha in our lives. It is the dynamism of Life itself awakening us to Reality-as-it-is (Amida). Shinran said, "In the nembutsu, no self-working is true working; it is beyond description, explanation and conceivability." Moreover, as the Shin Buddhist, Elson Snow said,

"I withdraw
Buddha approaches;
I come near
He runs away!"                  

                               The Primal Vow: the Power of Love

You might be thinking to yourself, what is the Primal Vow? This term refers to the already fulfilled 48 Vows of Amida Buddha in timeless time, revealed in the Sacred Story from the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life. It is the primordial promise of Life itself to care for and liberate the weak, fragile and suffering, regardless of moral or economic status, race, gender, belief, intellectual capacity or species. It manifests the fulfillment of its ancient promise in the minds of human beings through the experience of shinjin and its resulting verbal response of the nembutsu, the Name-that-Calls.


The Primal Vow is a metaphor expressing the Great Activity of the universe, the living force of unconditional love and compassion, which completely identifies itself with the joys and sufferings of each sentient being and ceaselessly works to spiritually liberate all from their delusions and distress. This mysterious and conscious flow of life is an active agent in our lives and operates through the multitude of interconnections we encounter in our life experience. It is part of the natural backdrop of the universe like gravity and functions throughout the countless galaxies and time, the Earth, its eco-system, our family, work, friends, pets, difficult people we meet, our minds etc.


This intimate caring force lies both within us and outside of us. It is equated with the deepest part of our mind, which is nonetheless our True Nature or Buddha-nature. Ultimately the Primal Vow is the activity of pure love, the life of Amida Buddha giving herself up to all sentient beings and channeling their suffering burdens to boundless life.


                                             --Written by G.R. Lewis, BFF Senior Facilitator

Originally this was given as a talk during the Shin and Zen Integrated retreat in New Hartford in May, 2005.




Copyright 2008. G.R. Lewis, All Rights Reserved

The author grants permission to copy this document for personal uses only.