About Jodo Shinshu

Jodo Shinshu is the teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha as it was handed down through the religious understanding of Shinran Shonin (1173-1262).

In Jodo Shinshu, the object of worship is Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. The Primal Vow of Amida Buddha promises Universal Enlightenment for all beings. There is no other vow that has such sweeping power, promising hope and life’s fulfillment to all. Amida’s eternal activity of Wisdom and Compassion will never cease so long as beings are lost, suffering or wandering in a meaningless existence.

From the voluminous Buddhist Tripitaka, Shinran Shonin selected the following three sutras that bring us directly to the heart of Amida Buddha.

The Larger Sutra on the Eternal Life (Daimuryojukyo). In this sutra, Sakyamuni tells the Sangha about Amida Buddha.

The Meditation Sutra on the Eternal Buddha (Kammuryojukyo). This sutra shows the actual case of a woman who finds salvation through Amida Buddha.

The Smaller Sutra on Amida Buddha (Amidakyo). This sutra describes the beauty of the Pure Land.

The recitation of the Nembutsu – Namu Amida Butsu – the sacred Name of Amida Buddha is vitally important in Jodo Shinshu, for it is the core of Amida’s Vow. Amida Buddha communicates with us through his Name. Its form is twofold: it is Amida’s voice calling to us and at the same time is our vocal response to his call.

Jodo Shinshu regards Faith (Shinjin) as the only and sufficient cause for birth in the Pure Land and attainment of Nirvana. Shinran explained this Faith as the Faith of the Other Power, the Other Power being the Power of Amida’s Vow. From this, the Faith of the Other Power can be understood to mean the Faith bestowed by the Benevolence of Amida’s Vow. This interpretation of faith is the unique characteristic of Shinshu teaching.

Nembutsu, like Faith, is also bestowed by the Other Power or Amida’s Vow. Faith and Nembutsu given by the Other Power keep the followers from being attached to their own merits or power and help them enjoy the life of “Egolessness” and “Naturalness” which are fundamental ideas of Buddhism.

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.

Con­ver­sion

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.

Exile

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 JODO SHINSHU HONGWANJI-HA 2002