Shinran Shonin: A Humble Challenger
Who is the founder of the Jodo-Shinshu school?
His name is Shinran Shonin (1173-1263). He lived during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), a time of momentous political and social changes in Japan. The Jodo-Shinshu developed out of the Jodo school which was founded by Honen, Shinran’s teacher.
Tell me about Shinran Shonin. What does his name mean?
The name “Shinran” is made up of two Chinese characters meaning intimate of related (shin) and exquisite bird (ran). They come from the names of two eminent teachers in his spiritual lineage, one an Indian, Vasubandhu or Tenjin (or shin)27 (5th century), and the other a Chinese, Than-luan or Donran (476-542) in Japanese.
“Shonin” is an honorific title meaning honored person, eminent teacher of great master, an expression of respect by his followers. I’m sure he would have felt uncomfortable with such a title. He was a humble man who called himself “Gutoku,” meaning the unshaven ignorant one.28
What qualities inspire you about Shinran Shonin?
I often speak of them as the “4 H’s of Shinran”: Honesty, Householder, Humility and Here-and-now.
By “honesty,” I mean that he saw himself as he was and told the truth as he saw it. Despite twenty years of training as a monk, he was honest enough to tell the world that he was unfulfilled as a monk. He admitted that he was filled with ordinary selfish feelings:
I know truly how grievous it is that I, Gutoku (the stubble-haired ignorant) Shinran, am sinking in an immense ocean of desires and attachments and am lost in vast mountains of fame and advantage.
(Teachings II, 279)
By “householder,” I mean that Shinran Shonin’s honesty about himself led him to marry and to have children, and yet pursue the Dharma as a householder. There were several founders of Buddhist schools who lived in Japan about the same time Shinran did, but Shinran is the only one who had a family. He is easy for me to relate to because he was a householder.
Shinran Shonin’s “humility” comes across clearly when he says, “I do not have a single disciple,” (Tannisho, p. 11) even though there were many followers who looked up to him as their teacher. He felt he could not take credit because their reason for seeking his guidance was not his own doing, but the workings of Amida Buddha. How refreshing he is compared to many self-serving religious teachers, both past and present!
By “here-and-now,” I am referring to his focus on this life. The teachers before him emphasized the future life in the Pure Land. They neglected the spiritual change that is possible in the present life. They gave all their attention to death-bed rituals and visualizations, hoping to ensure birth in the Pure Land. For them, the Pure Land was a realm located billions of Buddha realms to the west. Those who were born in the Pure Land after death would find a place where it would be easy to do the practices needed to become a Buddha. Shinran Shonin took a radically different approach. He focused on the here-and-now and rejected the importance of the deathbed rituals. Life would be nerve-wracking if the seekers had to wait to the end of their lives to know for sure about their spiritual fate. Instead, the assurance of complete enlightenment occurs with the spiritual transformation called Shinjin awareness. This awareness can come anytime in the life of the seeker. So, the seeker no longer worries about her spiritual destiny and is able to engage her daily life with greater confidence and optimism.
Do these traits make Shinran Shonin stand apart from other Buddhist figures?
Yes. In my view, these traits make him stand out, especially his householder and marital status. He is, nevertheless, still firmly rooted in the Buddhist tradition. Remember the four appealing qualities about Buddhism: voluntary, open, personal, and peaceful? Shinran Shonin showed them in his actions and words:
Voluntary: Some of his followers traveled hundreds of miles from the Tokyo area to Kyoto to ask if he knew of teachings other than the Jodo-Shinshu way. He replied emphatically, “No,” since for a foolish person such as he, there was no other path. He did not, however, force them to accept his way. He wanted them to decide for themselves.
Now, whether you accept the Nembutsu, entrusting yourself to it, or reject it, that is your own decision.
(Tannisho, p. 7)
Open: Speaking to the same group of followers, Shinran Shonin encouraged them to meet with teachers of other schools if they were not satisfied with what he had to say:
If that be the case (you suspect that there is a better teaching), there are many eminent scholars in the monasteries of Nara and Mount Hiei, so you should go see them and ask them in detail about the way to attain birth in the Pure Land.
(Tannisho, p. 6)
Personal: This quality in Shinran finds expression in his famous utterance:
When I ponder the compassionate vow of Amida, established through five kalpas of profound thought, it was for myself, Shinran, alone.
(Tannisho, p. 35)
He is certainly not monopolizing the teaching for himself to the exclusion of others. Rather, based on his awareness about his own imperfect nature after a long hard search, he decided that the teaching was tailor-made for him. He was not in any position to speak for anyone else. The statement was a deeply personal admission, tested against his own experience.
The Buddhist appeal has always been primarily to the individual. A Buddhist is encouraged to try to clean up his own backyard before he points out or even tries to help clean up someone else’s backyard.
Peaceful: Shinran expressed his peaceful nature through his sense of intimate connection with the animals, fish, and nature. At a time when most people were only thinking of their own family or clan, he saw all living creatures, both human and nonhuman, as members of his family:
All beings have been fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, in the timeless process of birth-and-death.
(Tannisho, p. 10)
Shinran’s view of the world encompassed the plants and even the physical world as brimming with spiritual life:
Tathagata (Buddha) fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain Buddhahood.
(Notes on “Essentials of Faith Alone,” p.42)
And as his life was coming to an end, he requested, “Throw my ashes in the Kamo River and feed me to the fish.”
I read that Shinran Shonin’s teachings is similar to Martin Luther’s. Was it?
Many religious scholars agree that Shinran’s teachings are like those of Martin Luther (1483-1546), the most famous Protestant reformer. Shinran and Luther do share similar understandings regarding 1) human nature, 2) ultimate truth and 3) the source of spiritual resolution. (See page 109)
I often teach classes of students studying for the ministry. The students are of many different faiths. Once, in my class on Jodo-Shinshu, a group of young Lutheran seminarians taking the course blurted out, “Your teaching is just like ours!” I praised them for seeing how Shinran and Luther are alike, but also pointed out some differences.
Then in jest, I said, “You know, it’s actually Shinran Shonin who influenced Martin Luther, because Shinran lived about three hundred years earlier! Did you know Luther was a reincarnation of Shinran!” The class, made up of equal numbers of Buddhists and Christians, roared with laughter. They enjoyed sharing mutual respect for each other’s traditions and were willing to accept that they were alike in some ways and different in others.
I understand that like Martin Luther, Shinran rebelled against the established religious order.
Yes, he was critical of the Buddhist clergy of his time as seen in this poem:
The monks and masters of today
Are like low-grade servants,
And the term “monks and masters” is
synonymous with vulgarity.29
In this poem Shinran must have been talking about the corruption and decadence on Mt. Hiei, where he spent twenty years from age nine to twenty-nine. Mt. Hiei was a major center of Buddhist learning and practice during his time. The bad behavior of the monks and teachers who lived there was one reason he decided to leave.
Did he try to reform Mt. Hiei in the way that Luther tried to reform the Catholic church?
Shinran Shonin did not challenge the establishment directly. When he left the monastery at the age of twenty-nine, he wielded no influence. Luther, on the other hand, was a renowned cleric and a professor at the University of Wittenburg.
Instead of challenging the establishment, Shinran directed his energies to answering his personal religious questions. His questions were finally answered when he became a disciple of Honen Shonin who taught a new kind of Pure Land Buddhism. Honen spoke of salvation for all beings regardless of spiritual and ethical ability. So, as a committed member of the new religious movement, Shinran worked to bring hope to all beings regardless of wealth, class, or education. In that process, he worked to effect changes in the Buddhist establishment.
At what other times may we see the challenger in him?
In 1207 the leadership of the new Pure Land movement led by Honen, was exiled from Kyoto (national capital and center of Buddhism). Shinran Shonin who was among them was sent to the Echigo area in Northern Japan. The exile was part of the growing persecution by the secular authorities, brought on by the jealousy and fears felt by the older established schools. Shinran Shonin expressed his outrage toward the high government officials and even toward the emperor. We who live in modern times cannot fully appreciate the courage that it took to attack the emperor! Shinran Shonin wrote:
The emperor and his ministers, acting against the dharma and violating human rectitude, became enraged and embittered. As a result, Master Genku (Honen)... and a number of his followers, without receiving any deliberation of their (alleged) crimes, were summarily sentenced to death or were dispossessed of their monkhood, given (secular) names, and consigned to distant banishment. I was among the latter.
(Teachings IV, pp. 613-614)
Again, Shinran and Luther share a common bond in that they both left the monastic path, married, and had many children. Please talk about the significance of Shinran’s marriage.
Shinran Shonin is known as one of the first famous Buddhist monks to set aside his monk’s robes and marry. While it is true there had been married priests called “shami,” they were seldom officially approved as monks of established temples. All monks had to be approved and registered by the government. What makes Shinran Shonin’s marriage important is that he was a former monk of the mighty Tendai school (one of the two dominant Buddhist schools of the period, along with Shingon) and went on to found a major school whose clergy, from its beginning, were married priests. Among those who founded the major schools of the Kamakura period, Shinran was unique in this regard. For example, Hone, who founded the Jodo school; Eisai, who founded the Rinzai Zen school; Dogen, who founded the Soto Zen school; Nichiren, who founded the Nichiren school; and Ippen, who founded the Jishu, were all celibate monks.
Shinran married sometime during the four year exile after losing his monk status. His wife, Eshinni, was a well-educated woman, as seen by her writings. A collection of her letters was discovered in 1921.30 Her letters give us important information that fills in some of the gaps in our knowledge about her husband.
Between them, they had six children: daughter (Woman of Oguro), son (Zenran), daughter (Myoshin), son (Arifusa), daughter (Zenni) and daughter (Kakushinnni).31
Why did he marry?
Because we have no direct statement by Shinran, we do not know the exact reasons with certainty. However, we do know that his teacher Honen did not prevent his students from marrying as he admonished:
People should always live by creating the proper conditions for being able to say the Nembutsu. If you cannot say the Nembutsu as a celibate, say it by getting married. If you cannot say it by being married, say it as a celibate.
... Food, clothing, and shelter are necessary only insofar as they create the proper condition for people to say the Nembutsu.
What proved most important for members of the new Pure Land movement was the ability to devote themselves to the practice of Nembutsu. Honen did not specify a particular type of life-style for he allowed celibacy or married life, wanderer or sedentary life, and solitary or collective practice. Honen himself chose to be a monk.
Given this view toward marriage, any number of developments in his life could have led to his decision to marry. Scholars often cite the vision Shinran Shonin had just after he left the Tendai monastery at the age of 29 and just before joining Honen’s movement. In the vision, Prince Shotoku (the 7th century patron saint of Japanese Buddhism) conveys to Shinran a message from Kannon (Avalokiteshvara), “You shall take a wife as the consequence of your past karmic life. I will be that wife. I shall guide you, so that you will lead an exemplary life and at death enter the Pure Land.” Scholars also mention the impact that the exile (at the age of 35) might have had on Shinran, for he was stripped of his status as a monk. He would later write about his new status as “neither monk nor lay” (hiso-hizoku). This category of religious seekers was not unlike the Shamis mentioned earlier. These Shamis considered themselves as being neither monks nor laypersons and were often married with children. Shinran is reported to have admired one such recluse, Kyoshin of Kako.
What did Shinran Shonin do after he was pardoned?
Shinran, along with Honen and his other disciples, was pardoned by the government four years after he was banished. Perhaps the authorities felt that the exile had dealt an adequate blow to the rebellious, surging Pure Land movement. After his pardon he wanted very much to return to the capital to rejoin his teacher Honen. Before he could return, however, he learned that his esteemed teacher had died. Honen’s death left him without say compelling reason to return to Kyoto. He then turned his energies to spreading Honen’s teaching in the remote regions of Japan.
He decided to move even farther away from the capital to Kanto, the region that included present-day Tokyo. With a large family, his move to the hinterlands must have entailed financial and physical sacrifices. Shinran spent the next the next nineteen years sharing the Dharma with others. He succeeded in nurturing a group of dedicated disciples.
He could easily have returned to the comforts and security of the capital, but instead he took the misfortune of the exile and transformed it into an opportunity. His risks and sacrifices gave him a rare opportunity to work with peasant followers who needed simple, direct and concrete answers. The harsh living conditions of the region must have required him to be even more down-to-earth. Speaking gratefully about his work, Shinran Shonin later said:
If I had not been exiled, how would I have been able to teach the people of this remote area (the way of the Nembutsu)?32
Historians say that Shinran disowned his son. What does that say about him?
I find Shinran Shonin to be a man of high principles. He would not compromise the integrity of his religious beliefs. He expected the same high standard of his disciples, especially those who were teachers, and members of his family. When his son, Zenran, continued to mislead the followers by advocating wrong teachings33 for his selfish gains, Shinran could see no other choice but to rebuke and disown him:
To lie to me, Shinran, is none other than to kill your father, which is one of the Five Grave Offenses.34
Shinran Shonin seems to have been a good family man, because both his wife and his youngest daughter speak of him with deep affection and respect. Therefore, he must have agonized over his decision to disown Zenran. Any parent who had to make such a decision would be deeply hurt. I am the father of three children, and I cannot imagine what it would be like to disown any one of them.
Which one quality about Shinran Shonin are you most attracted to?
If I must choose just one, I would say his honesty to admit to his weaknesses, failings and inadequacies. Today such admission of honesty is rare. We experience so much societal pressures to be exactly the opposite: stron and successful at all costs and seemingly confident. These “virtues” in turn propel us to seek happiness by going farther, moving faster and acquiring more.
I this sea of uneasiness, Shinran Shonin shows us how we need not succumb to these pressures. We can be honest by being truthful to ourselves with all our imperfections. We need not be someone else or get somewhere, for we are able to find resolution just as we are. From this peaceful center within, like that of a hurricane, Shinran Shonin moved dynamically outward to question and challenge the forces that undermined the Buddhist ideals.
27 “jin” is also read “shin” which makes up “Shin” in “Shinran.”
28 “Gu” means ignorant, but obviously not in terms of knowledge. He used the terms within the context of spiritual realization, which I shall in later chapters refer to as “foolishness.” “Toku” literally means “stubble-haired,” a term Shinran used in connection with his status as being “neither monk nor lay” upon being exiled and stripped of his monk status.
29 This poem is found in the Shozomatsu-wasan, translated by Norihiko Kikunaga. Shinran: His Life and Thought (Los Angeles: The Nembutsu Press, 1972), p. 62.
30 See the book by Yoshiko Ohtani (refer to the bibliography section) for further information on her life and her letters. Prof. James Dobbins is currently completing his book on Eshinni.
31 Some scholars believe that Shinran was married (prior to Eshinnni) to the daughter of the Regent Kujo Kanezane and had between them a daughter named Hanni.
32 Appears in Shinran’s biography, Den’ne, written by Kakunyo (3rd Hongwanji abbot). English translation is from Kikumura’s Shinran: His Life and Thought, p. 126.
33 While the exact nature of Zenran’s teachings has not been fully determined, it is generally believed that he advocated the idea of “licensed evil” that advocated purposely committing evil acts since Amida’s Vow embraced precisely those who are evil. Shinran condemned this view admonishing, “Do not take poison just because there is anidote.”
34 Translated by the author from Jodo-Shinshu Seiten. (Kyoto: Hongwanji shuppan-bu, 1988), p. 755.