Master Shinran's Challenge:

Is Birth in the Pure Land Determined by Faith or by Practice?

from the Godensho (Life of Shinran Shonin)

Compiled by Master Kakunyo (1270-1351)

Translated by W. S. Yokoyama*

Now, long ago, when Master Honen was still alive, he endeavored to spread the word of Birth in the Pure Land through Other Power, and people everywhere flocked to him, all of them wanting to take refuge in that teaching. Even court officials, whose lives were involved in the elegant purple affairs of the Forbidden city’s jade court, had set their hearts on winning for themselves a lotus dais among the golden groves [of the Pure Land]; even those who hailed from families that had promising careers to look forward to in the three ministries or nine departments were suddenly longing for the moon of the Forty-eight Vows. Not only that, there were also people from outside the capital and those who were from remote areas who came to worship and adore him.

The noble and the common came around by the cartful such that the street in front of his house turned into a virtual marketplace. Of the close followers who constantly accompanied him, there were some three hundred and eighty. However, of those who were transformed by him at a deep personal level and who earnestly sought to follow his admonitions, there were hardly any. Of them there no more than five or six of them altogether. [Speaking to Honen] Master Shinran once said,

“I am a person who has put aside the way of Difficult Practice and switched to the way of Easy Practice, and who has left the gate to the Sacred Path and entered the Pure Land gate way; without your kind instruction how could I have ever stocked up the good cause for my release and liberation?  Of all the joys of joys, indeed nothing matches this. Although there is many a brethren who cordially share the same room and respectfully listen to the injunctions of one and the same master, it is difficult to tell whether we are truly identical with regard to the makeup of our shinjin leading to birth in the land of reward.

"For this reason, in order to know which of them meet the qualifications of being our true friends from here on out, and which belong to the memories of this fleeting world, I desire that you make an opportunity for me to speak to them to press my question face to face on the occasion of a meeting of your disciples.”

Honen replied,

“Your request is an entirely reasonable one, thus during tomorrow’s meeting I will announce the matter.”

Thus at the gathering on the following day, Shinran asked them,

“Today, everyone must seat themselves according to whether they think birth is determined by faith or whether birth is determined by practice. You can seat yourself at either one or the other, but each of you must indicate your choice.”

At the time the three hundred-some monks did not seem to quite understand what he was driving at with his request. After awhile, though, Seikaku (1167–1235) and Shinku (1146–1228) declared,

“We shall take a seat on the side that says birth is determined by faith.”

Next, Horiki (1146–1228), who arrived late, asked,

"Shinran, what are you busily writing down?”

Shinran said,

“Everyone must take a seat according to whether they think birth is determined by faith or whether birth is determined by practice.”

Horiki replied,

“In that case, I, Horiki, am not to be left out, and will join those who side with the view that birth is determined by faith.”

So doing, Shinran recorded his name accordingly [with those of the view that birth is determined by faith]. Although there were several hundreds of other followers present, no one else had another word to say on the matter. [Their silence] could well be due to their being unable to wrest themselves free of the deluded mind of self power, that lulled their true diamondlike faith to sleep. While they sat there silently, Shinran, who was the scribe, set his own name down.

After a short time had passed, Honen announced to them,

“I, Honen, will also take a seat alongside those who believe that birth is determined by faith.”

At that point, among the disciples some humbly expressed their feelings of reverence, while others grew visibly dejected by degrees.

*Note: This translation has been lightly edited for ease of comprehension.