Shinran Shonin


The Founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, was born in the third year of Shoan (1173 CE), at Hino, southeast of Kyoto. The date of his birth is placed as the first day of the fourth month in the lunar calendar (or May 21). His family was of the Fujiwara clan. His father, Hino Arinori, was an official concerned with the Empress Dowager's affairs. Later, it is said, his father abandoned the secular world to live in seclusion. Shinran's mother is said to have died when he was quite young.

In the first year of Yowa (1181), i.e. at the age of nine (eight by modern standards), guided by his uncle Noritsuna, he received his ordination as a novice Tendai Buddhist monk from Jichin at the Shoren-in Temple and was given the Dharma name, Hannen. Then he went up to Mt. Hiei, the center of Tendai Buddhism, where he practiced the Tendai (self power) Nembutsu among other practices for twenty years.

Because he was uncompromising in his self-examining and became frustrated to the point of feeling a total failure unable to achieve enlightenment, Shinran came down from Mt. Hiei at age 29 and sought guidance through meditation for 100 days at the Rokkakudo Temple built by Prince Shotoku.

As recorded many years later in a letter by his wife, Eshinni, Shinran had a vision after the 95th day and found his way to the man who would become his greatest influence, Honen Shonin (1133-1212). He became Honen's earnest disciple, and was named Shakku. Later his name was changed to Zenshin. Master Honen (also known as Genku) broke through Shinran's shell of hardened self-power and allowed him to directly experience the saving power of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow by realizing SHINJIN.

SHINJIN is the single-hearted trust in Amida Buddha's Primal Vow and the mind of abandoning one's self effort as futile before Amida's saving vow-power. SHINJIN is the state of mind in which doubt has been removed, or to quote Master Shinran, "the mind which does not doubt Amida Tathagata's Primal Vow."

Master Honen, Master Shinran and several others were persecuted by the government under the urging of the officially established sects of Buddhism at the time, which were envious of the great popularity and large following of Master Honen's Nembutsu-Only school. Representatives of the established Buddhist sects succeeded in convincing the emperor to banish Master Honen and many of his followers and to prohibit the practice of exclusive Nembutsu which Master Honen advocated.  Shinran was exiled to Kokubu in the remote provice of Echigo (the present Niigata Prefecture) in Northwestern Japan. Four of Honen's disciples were executed and still others were banished elsewhere.

Master Shinran, along with Master Honen and his followers, was stripped of his status as a Buddhist monk as part of the banishment. It was because of this that he considered himself "neither monk nor layperson" since he was still committed to spreading the Buddhadharma and thus was no mere layperson. At this time he took the name Gutoku Shinran. ("Gutoku" means "stubble-haired foolish one.")

The name Shinran is derived from SeSHIN (the second Patriarch Bodhisattva Vasubandu's name in Japanese) and DonRAN (the third Patriarch T'an-Luan's name in Japanese) because he deeply revered the teachings of these two masters.

The banishment of Master Honen and his followers was rescinded in 1211, but hearing that Master Honen had died and seeing no point to travel all the way back to Kyoto he remained in Echigo for three more years. It was his experience with illiterate and uneducated common people that prompted Master Shinran to devote his propagation to people whom traditional Buddhism regarded as ineligible to attain buddhahood, i.e. farmers, fishermen, hunters, and generally the poor and disadvantaged.

In 1214, at the age of forty-one, Master Shinran left Echigo and went to Hitachi (Ibaragi Prefecture). There, in the Kanto area, he propagated the teaching of the Nembutsu Faith among men and women of all walks of life.

Master Shinran took the step of marriage, an act which went against the tradition that monks were to remain celibate. But since Amida Buddha accepts all who take refuge in Him regardless of gender, age, moral standing or any other distinction, Master Shinran felt completely justified in marrying. His wife, Eshinni, was also a person of deep faith in Amida Buddha, and it is in her letters, which were only discovered early in the 20th century after being lost for centuries, that we learn much about Master Shinran's spiritual life.

During those years in Kanto, it is believed, Shinran conceived and began writing his great treatise, Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho (On the Teaching, Practice, Faith and Realization of the Pure Land Way), regarded by many as the summation of over seventeen centuries' evolution of Pure Land faith and practice. Further, it is a work of great depth and poetic beauty in classical Chinese.

Included in the text of this great work is a beautiful poem called Shoshinge, which in 120 verses constitutes a succinct summation of the essence of Pure Land faith and history. It is chanted daily by millions of Shin Buddhists around the world.

In addition, Master Shinran's three volumes of over three hundred hymns (wasan) profess his deep religious sentiment and the essential doctrine of Shin Buddhism. It is believed that he wrote many of these wasan, which serve as teaching material for Shin Buddhist faith in poetic form, during this latter period in his life. Besides these wasan, he left short essays in Japanese, and a few dozen pastoral letters to his disciples.

In 1234 Master Shinran left the Kanto area and returned to Kyoto with his daughter Kakushinni where he continued revising Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho and writing wasan and other works. He passed to the Pure Land on the twenty-ninth of the eleventh month in the second year of Kocho (January 16, 1262).  Over six hundred years later he was given the posthumous title of Kenshin Daishi by Emperor Meiji.

His youngest daughter, Kakushinni preserved Master Shinran's voluminous writings and became an important link in the establishment and spread of the Jodo Shinshu sect.