This month we will be honoring the birthday of Shinran Shonin. Since we belong to the Nishi Hongwanji branch of Jodo Shinshu, we mark May 21 as that day. But calendar dates can be tricky. The date of an event can “move” depending on which system of calendar is used. For instance, according to Nishi Hongwanji tradition, we celebrate Ho On Ko (the memorial date for Shinran Shonin) in January, but in Higashi tradition, because they use the lunar calendar system, they celebrate at the end of the year, November or December.
Cultural influences can also determine how one counts one’s age. In the West we celebrate our birthdays on the same calendar date on which we were born. So if one is born on May 21, then one becomes a year older on May 21 of the next year. This makes for interesting ages for those born on February 29 which only occur every four years, during Leap years. But in Asia, Japan in particular, everyone advances one year in age on the first of the New Year. So technically, if a baby were born on December 31, they would be considered one year old the next day, January 1. Some people speculate that this system came about from consideration given to the nine months that the child spends developing in the mother as part of counting their age.
The tradition of celebrating the birthday of Shinran Shonin in Jodo Shinshu was started by Myonyo Shonin (1850 – 1903), the Monshu who was also responsible for sending the first Shinshu missionaries to the United States during the Meiji Period (1868 – 1911). It is unusual that Jodo Shinshu celebrates the birthday of Shinran Shonin. It was probably a part of the modernization efforts by many Japanese who sought to take in what the outside world had to offer them. Changing over from the Lunar Calendar to the modern Western Solar Calendar became part of the modernization of the Hongwanji.
Most religious traditions in Japan consider the date of the death of their founder to be the most important moment to mark The day of a founder’s death is auspicious since it is the moment of death that is significant in Buddhist tradition. It is believed that “where” one’s Mind is, or what it is focused on, can to influence the spiritual ‘destiny’ of the practitioner. While the accumulation of “good merit” is beneficial in many ways, such practices were mainly encouraged in order to condition one’s Mind and prepare for the crucial moment of death. If one died unfocused or lost in fear or hatred, the karmic impetus of that Mind was believed to be able to send one off into one of the Three Lower Realms of Hell, Hungry Ghosts, or Animals. In other words, in Buddhism good deeds alone did not compensate for a lack of preparing for and developing one’s Mind for the moment of Death.
In Jodo Shinshu, although Infinite Wisdom and Compassion is emanating from the true reality of the Amida Buddha, one is still expected to focus at least from “one to ten times” upon the Name of the Amida, to ensure one’s Birth into the Pure Land. This phrase is part of the 18th Vow. It was absolutely important to Pure Land practice and to Honen’s exclusive reliance on reciting the Name constantly, that one call upon the Amida Buddha at the moment of Death. Exclusive reliance through non-stop recitation of the Name can be seen to condition the Mind for Birth, knowing Death could occur at any moment. Shinran Shonin added only that one could achieve assurance of Birth through one moment of ‘Shinjin’ Nembutsu and this could happen at any time during one’s life. This meant that one need not wait for the actual moment of Death or worry about the conditions of how one dies affecting one’s state of Mind at the end.
Whether one believes in the importance of marking one’s birthday or not, as Nembutsu followers we should remember that it is not our earthly birth we should focus on but our Birth into the Pure Land. namoamidabutsu.