Shinran passed away approximately 750 years ago, though I think this may be based on the more traditional calendar not the Western one. The kanji characters behind the holiday mean something like “Gathering to Repay Gratitude” toward Shinran. Anyway, Jodo Shinshu Buddhism tends to have a lot of memorial-type holidays I think compared to other Buddhist sects. Another is the “perpetual memorial’ of Eitaikyō dedicated to all great Buddhists of the past. Memorials are a good time to break of out one’s self-centered life and to reflect upon the contributions of others in the past who helped make you who you are. It’s a humbling experience, and a cause for gratitude. After all, we exist not as discrete entities, but instead exist in relation to all other things.
So it is with Shinran. Shinran definitely rates in Japanese Buddhism as one of the big-name Buddhists in Japanese Buddhism1, and in the West he is known more for his unusual approach to Buddhism (breaking his clerical vows and getting married, his “faith” based approach, etc) and sharp wit. For me, I had trouble understanding Shinran’s life and legacy because I have been somewhat cynical of the “official” history by the Hongwanji as it tends to elevate him to a saintly status I am not comfortable with. On the other hand, I also disagree with detractors of Pure Land Buddhism as well, because I feel most of them don’t study Shinran’s thought enough to appreciate the subtleties.
While living in Ireland, I picked up a copy of Dobbin’s excellent research on medieval Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, which spends some time in the beginning dissecting Shinran’s life. I appreciated its balanced, but still positive view of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. It carefully analyzes the “official” history which largely began with Shinran’s great-grandson Kakunyo (覚如, 1270-1351) in a work called the Godenshō (御伝鈔). The history of Shinran, as described by Kakunyo is somewhat suspect as he tried to elevate his position as caretaker of Shinran’s mausoleum by elevating Shinran’s status in Buddhism of the time. This is not unusual as a certain unrelated book I am reading on medieval Soto Zen shows that other sects did the same thing when they tried to assert their power over other rivals. But it also means that it makes it difficult to get an accurate picture.
Dobbins in his excellent research shows how Shinran was a trusted disciple of Hōnen the founder of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, but also that he was not one of the elite disciples either. More of a middle-tier disciple based on some evidence. He also demonstrates how Shinran in his early years of exile tried to follow Honen’s teachings as faithfully as he could, but over the years his own thought matured and different from Honen’s somewhat. This deflates some of the official histories, but Dobbins shows how Shinran was also very devout in his own way, and sought to synthesize many strains of ideas within Pure Land Buddhism that stretch all the way back to China and India. This is where I think Shinran’s brilliance shines in that many concepts that were espoused by various Pure Land Buddhists over the many centuries were brought together in Shinran’s massive work the Kyōgyōshinshō (教行信証), but also that he added some new innovations of his own. Shinran had no faith in the Shinto teachings at the time, unlike many Buddhist contemporaries, and sought to bring Buddhism back full-circle to simple, accessible teaching while also deflating any ideas of worshiping him by clearly stating that he had no “disciples” shifting the focus back onto the Buddha.
The Kyōgyōshinshō is a pretty hefty tome and difficult to read, but if you look at Shinran’s letters, you can also get a good overview of his life and thought in how he left instructions with disciples. This is where I think one really gets a good view of his thought in his own words and some clever insights that go beyond the textbook doctrine.
While I may sound cynical at times, the fact is is that Shinran is an intriguing figure, and simply put, because of his life and the lives of his faithful disciples, my life as a Buddhist disciple would likewise be different, and I feel much poorer for it. I can’t always explain the influence of Shinran on my life and my path as a Buddhist for the last 5 years, but I know that since I encountered the teachings of Honen and Shinran 5 years ago, it has been my religious mainstay and now my platform for exploring the teachings through ordination someday.
So, thank you Shinran for your efforts and I will be visiting your mausoleum, the Hongwanji later this year. :)
Namu Amida Butsu
Update: Edited blog to correct translation. Thanks to Kyōshin for catching that one !
P.S. By the time you read this post, it will be my 6th wedding anniversary with my wife. Happy anniversary, dear! :)
P.P.S. I was very happy to also meet the head of the Buddhist Churches of America, Rev. Kōshin Ogui, who is our “bishop” or sochō (祖長) in the US. I enjoyed his book much, and bought a copy for my mother once a while back, and it was cool finally meeting the man in person. We had a good but brief talk, and he told my wife in Japanese “it’s good your husband is interested in Buddhism” and she joked I study more than her. He teased my wife, saying she should study more, but then I stated in my poor Japanese that she understands better than me in spite of my studying. Rev. Ogui then said how it’s easier when you grow up in a Buddhist culture, which my wife agreed. I appreciated those words as it recognizes just how difficult is to convert to a religion not part of your native culture, and how much you have to learn as an adult. Anyway, Rev. Ogui was a wonderful fellow, and I was glad to finally have the chance to meet him. :)
1 No joke, I actually have at home a kind of manga featuring all the major sects and the lives of their founders. I’ve been hesitant to read as my skills are still weak. :) Even for regular Japanese not inclined to be religious, names like Shinran, Kōbō Daishi (Kūkai) and such are still known, even if said person wouldn’t know many historical details. I suppose it’s like Americans knowing Martin Luther but not knowing much beyond what we learn in school unless you happen to follow the faith.