Namu Amida Butsu

The following article will be in two parts—Part 1 will be in this (May) issue and Part 2 will be in the June issue

MOST TEMPLE MEMBERS AND DHARMA School students know that St. Shinran is the founder of Jodo Shinshu. Members who took study classes or who have read the history of our religion may also know additional facts about St. Shinran such as:

  • He was born in an area south of Kyoto in the village of Hino on May 21, 1173.
  • He lost both parents (for different reasons) when he was a child.
  • He entered the priesthood at Mt. Hiei to study Tendai Buddhism at the age of 9.
  • He left Mt. Hiei after 20 years of studying Tendai Buddhism and began studying the Nembutsu teachings under the guidance of St. Honen.
  • He married Lady Eshin-ni at a time when Buddhist priests were not allowed to marry.
  • In 1207, St. Shinran was exiled to Echigo (present day Niigata).
  • While in exile, he continued to propagate the Nembutsu to all who came to him.
  • After approximately five years, St. Shinran was pardoned and he moved to the Kanto area (just north of present day Tokyo) where he continued to spread the Nembutsu teachings among the common people.
  • When he was in his early 60’s, he returned to Kyoto and wrote his dynamic guidance to the Nembutsu entitled, "Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho", the Teaching, Practice, Faith, and Enlightenment.
  • St. Shinran passed away at the age of 90 on January 16, 1263.

Although the above facts about St. Shinran are documented, there are many mysteries surrounding his life. Not well known is the reason he entered the priesthood, and how he lived propagating the Nembutsu among the common people. In examining his life in greater detail, almost all will agree that he led a long and impressive life.

As noted above, St. Shinran entered priesthood at the tender age of nine years old. He was born into an aristocratic family and given the name of Matsuwakamaro at birth. His family, the Hino family, was descended from the Genji clan, one of the most influential families within the imperial court system. He was born at a time when the imperial court was losing its authority to a rising military government, and his family was soundly defeated by the Heike clan. Feeling threatened that the Genji families would unite and cause an uprising to retain control of the government, the Heike clan set out to annihilate members of the Genji clan. Shinran’s father left the family when Shinran was four years old to escape the Heike clan. Some sources say that he entered priesthood, but his fate is actually unknown.

Approximately four years later, St. Shinran’s mother passed away unexpectedly due to illness. She left behind St. Shinran and six siblings. With the help of St. Shinran’s uncle, all seven children were able to enter the priesthood. It was then that St. Shinran began studying Tendai Buddhism at Mt. Hiei just outside of present day Kyoto.

The initial reason that St. Shinran entered priesthood was related to his survival, and it was by no means an easy life. Because he came from a family that had been defeated, he was not allowed to associate with people who lived outside of the temple. Of course, he was not allowed to marry, and he was expected to remain in the monastery in service to the Buddha for the rest of his life.

St. Shinran adjusted to monastery life quite well despite the difficult conditions, and he gained the respect of others. Yet, despite his advancement in the priesthood, he was bothered by what he experienced. He was troubled by the behavior of senior monks who routinely violated the expected code of conduct. Moreover, the belief that not all, but only those few who dedicated their life to the Buddha could attain salvation did not sit well with St. Shinran. He therefore left Mt. Hiei after 20 years.

(Part 2 to be continued in the June issue)

Namu Amida Butsu