Our Founder–Shinran Shonin

Our Founder–Shinran Shonin

Shin­ran Shonin (1173–1263) 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 aris­to­cratic Hino fam­ily, a branch of the Fuji­wara clan, and his father, Ari­nori, 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.


After 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 Amida’s Vow to bring all beings to enlightenment.

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 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 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. He there­fore chose for him­self the name Gutoku, “foolish/shaven,” 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 lower samurai.

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. After his wife returned to Echigo to over­see prop­erty there, he was tended by his youngest daugh­ter, Kakushinni.

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. At this time, prob­lems in under­stand­ing the teach­ing arose among his fol­low­ers in the Kanto area, and he wrote numer­ous let­ters and com­men­taries seek­ing to resolve them.

There were peo­ple who asserted that one should strive to say the nem­butsu as often as pos­si­ble, and oth­ers who insisted that true entrust­ing was man­i­fested in say­ing the nem­butsu only once, leav­ing all else to Amida. Shin­ran rejected both sides as human con­trivance based on attach­ment to the nem­butsu as one’s own good act. Since gen­uine nem­butsu arises from true entrust­ing that is Amida’s work­ing in a per­son, the num­ber of times it is said is irrelevant.

Fur­ther, there were some who claimed that since Amida’s Vow was intended to save peo­ple inca­pable of good, one should feel free to com­mit evil. For Shin­ran, how­ever, eman­ci­pa­tion meant free­dom not to do what­ever one wished, but free­dom from bondage to the claims of ego­cen­tric desires and emo­tions. He there­fore wrote that with deep trust in Amida’s Vow, one came to gen­uine aware­ness of one’s own evil.

Near the end of his life, Shin­ran was forced to dis­own his eldest son Zen­ran, who caused dis­rup­tions among the Kanto fol­low­ing by claim­ing to have received a secret teach­ing from Shin­ran. Nev­er­the­less, 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 Japan’s most pro­found and orig­i­nal reli­gious thinkers.

Copy­right 2002 Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-Ha