Shinran’s 750th Memorial

This Sunday at our Buddhist temple in Seattle, we undertook one of the most important holidays in Japanese Jodo Shinshu Buddhism: Hōonkō (報恩講), the memorial of our sect’s founder Shinran:

Shinran from Wikipedia

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.

8 thoughts on “Shinran’s 750th Memorial

  1. Excellent and informative post. Shinran is definitely one of the great Buddhist teachers and I respect him a lot but I also wonder why the Hongwanji elevates Shinran so much. It seems to me that Amida should be given more emphasis but I am not a devout follower of Jodo Shinshu so I may be just misunderstanding. Anyways, I also read the Dobbins book as well and thoroughly enjoyed it. It has been a few years since I read it though so I would like to re-read it (along with several dozen other books).

  2. Hi Tornado,

    I don’t know if they elevate him to the level of Amida Buddha, that’s not been my experience, but they do tend to sound very saintly and populist, which irks me a little.

    I am actually only half-way through Dobbins, but have read enough to get a good general idea of the early history, which is both infuriating (so much nasty politics), and fascinating as it covers lesser-known Shinshu sects still in existence today. Good times. :)

    A similiar book on Soto Zen is likewise fascinating and infuriating. 😉

  3. I agree that they don’t elevate him to the level of Amida but there is a lot of emphasis. For example when I visit various temples here in downtown Los Angeles, the Soto Zen and the Shingon Koyasan temples both have statues of Kannon and Jizo in front of the temple (the Koyasan also has a statue of Kbo Daishi). While the Nishi Hongwanji temple has a large statue of Shinran. Now I will admit that I have not entered these temples let alone participated in any type of service.

  4. Hi guys:

    Kyoshin: Thanks! I missed the compound kanji in the first two characters:

    Rather sloppy of me. I’ll fix that right away!

    Tornado: Yeah, good point on the statues. It’s the same in Seattle too. However, in each sect I’ve encountered, the founder is elevated to a pretty high status. In Shingon for example, mantras are recited to Kukai in hopes of rebirth in the Tushita heaven with him and Maitreya. Dogen’s role in Soto Zen is the alpha and omega among Western Zen Buddhists despite the prolific number of other worthy monks before and after (for example few take notice of the fact that Dogen high revered Eisai, founder of Rinzai and his teacher for a time). It seems to be a feature of Japanese Buddhism in particular to elevate one’s own founder to near-mythic proportions which I guess is part of the struggle for legitimacy in a crowded field. :-p I am sure other Buddhist sects outside Japan do this too, but Japnese Buddhism is particularly fractured along sectarian lines, and I think it’s more visible.

  5. P.S. Tornado, definitely go in and see a service once if you can. It’s a great way to learn how a certain Buddhist sect works beyond what’s in the textbook.

  6. Thank you for a very interesting post. I attended a Hongwanji Temple for many years in Hawaii and now live in Ibaraki Prefecture (where Shinran spent many years in exile). Thanks too for the information regarding the book by James Dobbins. I just ordered a used copy and look forward to reading it.
    In gassho.

  7. Hi Pandabonium and welcome to the JLR! Hope you enjoy the book, and your time at Ibaraki Prefecture. Never been there myself. :)

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