(1173-1262) was the founder of Shin Buddhism. He was born at the close of the Heian period, when political power was
passing from the imperial court into the hands of warrior clans. It was during this era when the old order was crumbling,
however, that Japanese Buddhism, which had been declining into formalism for several centuries, underwent intense renewal,
giving birth to new paths to enlightenment and spreading to every level of society.
Life of Inspiration
was born into the Hino family and his father at one time served at court. At the age of nine, however, Shinran entered the
Tendai temple on Mt. Hiei, where he spent twenty years in monastic
life. From the familiarity with Buddhist writings apparent in his later works, it is clear that he exerted great effort in
his studies during this period. He probably also performed such practices as continuous recitation of the nembutsu for prolonged
After twenty years, however,
he despaired of ever attaining awakening through such discipline and study; he was also discouraged by the deep corruption
that pervaded the mountain monastery. Years earlier, Honen Shonin (1133-1212) had descended Mt. Hiei and begun teaching a radically new
understanding of religious practice, declaring that all self-generated efforts toward enlightenment were tainted by attachments
and therefore meaningless. Instead of such practice, one should simply say the nembutsu, not as a contemplative exercise or
means of gaining merit, but by way of wholly entrusting oneself to the great compassionate activity of the ultimate dimension,
symbolized by Amida's Vow, to bring all beings to enlightenment and spiritual liberation.
When he was twenty-nine,
Shinran undertook a long retreat at Rokkakudo temple in Kyoto
to determine his future course. At dawn on the ninety-fifth day, Prince Shotoku , the founder of Japanese Buddhism, appeared
to him in a dream. Shinran took this as a sign that he should seek out Honen, and went to hear his teaching daily for a hundred
days. He then abandoned his former Tendai practices and joined Honen's movement.
At this time, however,
the established temples were growing jealous of Honen, and in 1207 they succeeded in gaining a government ban on his nembutsu
teaching. Several followers were executed, and Honen and others, including Shinran, were banished from the capital.
was stripped of his priesthood, given a layman's name, and exiled to Echigo (Niigata) on the
northern hinder lands of the Japan Sea
coast. About this time, he married Eshinni and began raising a family. He declared himself "neither monk nor layman." Though
incapable of fulfilling monastic discipline or good works, precisely because of this, he was grasped by Amida's compassionate
activity. Later, he chose for himself the name Gutoku, "foolish/bald one," indicating
the futility of attachment to one's own intellect and goodness.
He was pardoned after five years, but decided not to
return to Kyoto. Instead, in 1214, at the age of forty-two,
he made his way into the Kanto region, where he spread the nembutsu teaching for twenty years, building a large movement among
the peasants and lower samurai.
Return to Kyoto
Then, in his sixties, Shinran
began a new life, returning to Kyoto to devote his final three
decades to writing. He did not give sermons or teach disciples, but lived with relatives, supported by gifts from his followers
in the Kanto area. It is from this period that most of his writings stem. He completed his major work, popularly known as
Kyogyoshinsho, and composed hundreds of hymns in which he rendered the Chinese
scriptures accessible to ordinary people. His creative energy continued to his death at ninety, and his works manifest an
increasingly rich, mature, and articulate vision of human existence that reveals him to be one of the world’s most profound
and original religious thinkers. His last words were,
"Though I return to the Pure Land
of Eternal Peace after my life is at an end,
Yet shall I return to this world, again and again,
Just as the waves of Wakanoura Bay
return to the beach....
When you rejoice in the Nembutsu, consider that two actually rejoice
When you rejoice with another, consider that there are three,
And that other is Shinran…Thank You, Namo Amida Butsu."