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
banish Master Honen and many of his followers and to prohibit the
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
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
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
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.
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.