Shinran Shonin: a Life
Shonin (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.
Shinran 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 periods.
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.
Shinran 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
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,
I return to the Pure Land of Eternal Peace after my life is at an end,
I return to this world, again and again,
the waves of Wakanoura Bay return to the beach....
rejoice in the Nembutsu, consider that two actually rejoice
rejoice with another, consider that there are three,
other is Shinran…Thank You, Namo Amida Butsu."
Shinran Shonin's Spiritual Quotations
(these are good sayings to ponder and reflect)
my eyes, blinded by passions, do not see the brilliant light which embraces me, the Great Compassion never tires, always casting
its light upon me.”
grasped by Unhindered Light is felt, but is beyond conceptual understanding; to be free of any form of self-centered calculation
is to have realized Other Power.”
“We should know that Amida’s Primal Vow does not discriminate whether one is young or old, good
or evil, and that true entrusting alone is needed, for it is the Vow that seeks to deliver sentient beings burdened with foolishness
and blind passions.”
I were capable of realizing Buddhahood by other religious practices and yet fall into hell for saying the nembutsu, I might
have dire regrets for having been deceived. But since I am absolutely incapable of any religious practice, hell is my only
and unrepentant a person am I, and without a heart of truth and sincerity; but because the Name is given completely by Amida,
its virtue pervades the ten directions.”
“When we entrust ourselves in Amida’s Primal
Vow, we who are like broken tiles and bits of pebbles are transmuted into gold.”
“By benefit of Infinite Light, true entrusting
is magnificent. The ice of desire is melted to become the water of Nirvana. Our desires are the essence of Nirvana, like the
relation of ice and water. The more ice, the more water: the more desire, the more Nirvana.”
Primal Vow of Amida is manifested in its entirety in the Name, Namu-Amida-Butsu, and aside from this Name there is no supernatural
reality or being. The implications of this simple fact are fathomless.”
we speak of Vow and Name, these are not two different things. There is no Name separate from the Vow; there is no Vow separate
from the Name.”
Nembutsu is non-practice and non-good for those who practice it. It is non-practice for us, because it is not the practice
which we do out of our own contrivance; and it is non-good because it is not the good which we do out of our own contrivance.
It is entirely due to Other Power (Natural Power) and is free from self power.”
to the life nurturing Primal Vow of Amida; those who only entrust in this universal activity of love and compassion, through
the benefit of embraced and never forsaken, all attain Enlightenment.”
a joy it is that I place my mind in the soil of the Primal Vow and I let my thoughts flow into the sea of the inconceivable