Buddhist teacher recognized as the founder of the Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land School), which advocates that faith, recitation of the name of the buddha Amida (Amitabha), and birth in the paradise of the Pure Land.
For centuries Jōdo Shinshū has been one of the largest schools of Buddhism in Japan. During his lifetime Shinran was an insignificant figure, but in the centuries after his death his fledging movement grew into an enormous religious organization that revered him as its founder.
Shinran did not see himself as a philosopher, teacher, prophet or reformer. Rather, he was a self-effacing disciple of the Buddha, who drew from the Pure Land tradition something of profound power and truth.
Many millions of people since Shinran's time have found that his teaching has no equal as a source of guidance, insight and joy. The reverence that he attracts comes from the fact that, having walked the path himself, he recorded his realisation in an accessible way, for the benefit of his friends and later generations.
Turning, at a critical time in his life, to the way laid down by his enlightened predecessors - Shakyamuni Buddha and the dharma masters1 - Shinran was able to validate the teaching he had received. He found joy in the compassionate embrace of Amida Buddha, who calls to all beings, without discrimination, in the Name (myogo, Namu-amida-butsu [the nembutsu)).
As a writer, Shinran is both lyrical and lucid. Both of his major works, The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation of the Pure Land Way (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho), and the Hymns in Three Volumes (Sanjo Wasan), are like a symphony, gradually disclosing the working of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow to nurture, awaken and sustain the entrusting heart (shinjin), which is the cause of liberation from birth-and-death.
Although a limited variety of translations have been available for almost one hundred years, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, has recently granted wider access to Shinran's teaching in English by publishing The Collected Works of Shinran (Kyoto, 1997). It is a magnificent book, and an extraordinary privilege that we can read a quality rendition of Shinran's writing in our own language.
During this retreat he had a dream in which Prince Shōtoku (574–622), the semilegendary promulgator of Buddhism in Japan, revealed that the bodhisattva Kannon would become Shinran’s conjugal partner for life and would lead him to the Pure Land paradise at death.
Inspired by this vision, Shinran abandoned monastic life at Mt. Hiei and became a disciple of Hōnen (1133–1212), the renowned master of Pure Land Buddhism. Subsequently, Shinran married and had children, thereby departing from Buddhism’s ancient tradition of clerical celibacy.
As a fervent follower of Hōnen, Shinran adopted his teaching of the “exclusive nembutsu” (senju nembutsu): invoking the name of Amida Buddha is the sole practice assuring enlightenment in the Pure Land.
It was about this time that he married Eshin Ni and began a family. During his banishment and subsequent 20-year residency in the Kantō region (the vicinity of present-day Tokyo), Shinran deepened his religious ideas and actively propagated Pure Land teachings.
During this period he also compiled an early draft of his magnum opus, Kyōgyōshinshō (“Teaching, Practice, Faith, and Attainment”), a collection of scriptural quotations on Pure Land teachings interspersed with Shinran’s interpretations or comments.
In addition to completing the Kyōgyōshinshō, he composed doctrinal treatises, commentaries, religious tracts, hymns of praise (wasan), and other works, both to confirm his own understanding of Pure Land Buddhism and to convey his views to others.
According to the Godenshō, Shinran died in Kyōto at the age of 90. On his deathbed he chanted the nembutsu steadfastly, and at his side were his youngest daughter, Kakushin Ni (1224–83), and several other followers.
After his cremation, Shinran’s ashes were interred in eastern Kyōto. In 1272 they were moved to a nearby site where a memorial chapel was constructed, which would be the precursor of the Hongan Temple, the headquarters of the Shinshū school.
The Hongan Temple preserved and promoted this image, especially during the Shinshū’s emergence as Japan’s largest and most powerful religious movement under the leadership of Shinran’s descendant Rennyo (1415–99).
Shinran is celebrated as an important and insightful interpreter of Pure Land Buddhism. His ideas are built upon the fundamental Pure Land belief that Amida, a supreme, all-pervasive, unfathomable, and compassionate buddha, fulfilled his vow to create a religious path whereby all living beings can escape the sufferings of the world and attain enlightenment by being born into a miraculous and transcendent Pure Land.
The Pure Land was popularly viewed as an otherworldly paradise in the distant west, but it was also interpreted philosophically as an extension of Amida and as a transformed state in which enlightenment is certain.
Shinran taught that Pure Land Buddhism was the most efficacious path in the present age of mappō (literally, “end of (Buddhist) law”; i.e., the decline of the dharma), when the traditional practices of Buddhism are no longer relevant because of the diminished religious capabilities of humans.
But critics argue that such comparisons detract from Shinran’s message and skew his intent.
They maintain that his teachings can be understood completely within a Buddhist framework.
see also: Shinran Shonin