Hongan-ji , monument to a resolute, restless monk

The Buddhist Channel, 13 June 2023

Kyoto, Japan -- Matsuwakamaro (Shinran's birth name) was born in 1173 in Heian-kyo (now Kyoto). Early in his life, both his parents died. The trauma led him to search for the meaning of life, specifically what happens after death, and enrolled to become a monk at Shoren-in at the age of 9. There he stayed as a lowly priest until 28. During this period, acutely aware of his own impermanence, he practiced at Mt. Hiei.

However, the spiritual sojourn led him to nowhere. In frustration at his failure as a monk and at obtaining enlightenment, he took a retreat at Rokkaku-do. In his intense practice, he experienced a vision where Avalokitesvara appeared to him as Prince Shotoku, asking him to search for the monk Honen.

At the age of 29, Shinran became a disciple of Honen and adopted his teachings on Amida's vow. He practiced the ritual of nembutsu, which involved reciting the name of Amitabha as an act of pure land devotion. However, Shinran caused controversy among Honen's followers by eating meat and fish while wearing his monk's robes. Although it was common for monks to eat meat at that time, they would typically remove their robes before doing so. Shinran ate meat wearing his robes to challenge the hypocrisy of the clergy and to allow the fish to acquire merit.

In addition to his dietary choices, Shinran stirred further controversy by marrying and having seven children while still being a monk. However, in 1207, due to pressure from mainstream Buddhist groups, Honen and his followers, including Shinran, were banished from practicing their form of Buddhism. Two of Honen's disciples were executed on charges of sexual misconduct, while Shinran and five others were exiled to different locations.

It was during this challenging period, marked by emotional and physical stress, that Shinran wrote his renowned treatise "Kyōgyōshinshō" (The True Teaching, Practice, and Realization of the Pure Land Way). In this work, he presented his interpretations and teachings of Pure Land Buddhism. Shinran emphasized the concept of "faith through reliance" (Shinjin), teaching that enlightenment and salvation are not achieved through individual efforts, but through the grace and compassion of Amida Buddha. He believed that anyone, regardless of their background or abilities, could attain enlightenment by relying on Amida Buddha's vow to save all sentient beings. This marked the birth of Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land School).

Shinran's Jodo Shinshu teachings challenged the prevailing belief that enlightenment could only be attained through rigorous monastic practices and strict adherence to Buddhist precepts. He advocated for a more inclusive and accessible form of Buddhism, highlighting the significance of faith, humility, and gratitude. The essence of his teachings can be summarized as follows:

1. The Nature of Human Beings: Shinran emphasized the inherent limitations and weaknesses of human beings, teaching that they are bound by karmic conditions and unable to achieve enlightenment through their own efforts alone.

2. The Necessity of Faith: Shinran stressed the importance of having faith in Amida Buddha, the central figure in Jōdo Shinshū. By relying on Amida's primal vow, which promises salvation to all beings, one can be reborn in Amida's Pure Land and attain enlightenment.

3. The Practice of Nembutsu: Nembutsu refers to the recitation of Amida's name, "Namu Amida Butsu," as an expression of gratitude and trust in Amida's vow. Shinran regarded the Nembutsu as the primary practice of Jōdo Shinshū, emphasizing that it is the true working of Amida's Primal Vow.

4. Entrusting Heart: Shinran emphasized the importance of the "entrusting heart" or "shinjin." It signifies deep faith and trust in Amida Buddha that arises when one realizes their own inability to attain enlightenment. Shinjin is considered the moment of spiritual awakening and forms the basis of one's salvation.

5. Other-Power: Shinran taught that salvation depends entirely on Amida's Other-Power, not on one's own efforts. He emphasized complete reliance on Amida's compassion and vow to save all beings, regardless of their abilities or shortcomings.

6. Transformed Life: Shinran believed that through the power of Amida's vow, one's life is transformed, and they are assured of being born in the Pure Land. This transformation leads to a deep sense of gratitude, compassion, and a desire to live in accordance with the Buddha's teachings.

Shinran's writings in the Kyōgyōshinshō emphasized the importance of faith, reliance on Amida Buddha, and the transformative power of Amida's vow. They provided guidance for Jōdo Shinshū followers to attain liberation and enlightenment in the Pure Land through the working of Other-Power rather than self-power. By challenging the significance of rituals and hierarchical structures within Buddhism, Shinran contributed to the democratization of the religion, making it more accessible and egalitarian.

Notably, Shinran communicated his teachings through vernacular Japanese rather than classical Chinese, which was the common language used in religious texts and teachings at that time. By using the vernacular language, Shinran made his teachings more accessible to the general population, allowing them to understand and engage with Buddhist concepts more easily.

During Shinran's lifetime, Japanese society experienced significant upheavals due to conflicts between the shogunate and royal courts. This led to hardships for the lower echelons of society, including townspeople, lower-class warriors, and merchants. The discontent among these individuals contributed to the support for the nembutsu movement. Shinran's teachings had a profound impact on Japanese society, and the Jōdo Shinshū movement gained popularity among the common people. However, the authorities saw the movement as a threat to the nation's ritsuryo system, a historical legal system based on Confucianism and Chinese legalism, as it was perceived as disrespectful to native deities and Buddha.

Despite the authorities' efforts to suppress the movement, Jodo Shinshu became one of the largest Buddhist sects in Japan, with millions of followers to this day. Shinran's teachings had a lasting influence on Japanese society, bridging the gap between Buddhism and the common people and democratizing Buddhist practice and beliefs. His legacy continues to resonate within Jōdo Shinshū and Japanese Buddhism as a whole.

Shinran passed away in Kyoto, around 1263 at the age of 90. In his will, he expressed his desire for his body to be thrown into the Kamo River as food for the fish. Even in death, Shinran refused to entrust himself to the established order, as funerals and cemeteries were administered by other Buddhist sects at the time. His remains were entombed at Otani, Higashimaya, which later became the foundation for Hongan-ji.

About Hongan-ji

Hongan-ji is currently divided into two locations known as Nigashi Hongan-ji and Nishi Hongan-ji.

Higashi (East) Hongan-ji, also called the Shinshū Honbyō, houses the mausoleum of Shinran. Although it is owned by the Ōtani-ha, it is commonly referred to as Higashi Hongan-ji by visitors and locals in Kyoto. The temple features the impressive Goei-dō, also known as Mie-dō or Founder's Hall Gate, which is often the first landmark encountered when walking north from JR Kyōto Station. Its layout closely resembles that of the Nishi Hongan-ji head temple and includes an Amida-dō and a larger Mie-dō. The Mie-dō at Higashi Hongan-ji, dating back to 1895, competes with other structures for the claim of being the largest wooden building in the world.

A few blocks away from the main grounds of Higashi Hongan-ji is the Shosei-en garden, owned by the temple. Poet-scholar Ishikawa Jozan and landscape architect Kobori Masakazu are said to have contributed to its design in the 17th century.

Nishi (West) Hongan-ji, similar to Higashi Hongan-ji, features a massive Goeidō, Kaisando, and a smaller Amida-dō or Amitābha hall housing an image of Amitābha. The Kura, or storehouse, at Nishi Hongan-ji houses numerous National Treasures, although most are not publicly displayed. The shoin, or study hall, is also renowned, divided into two sections: the shiro-shoin or white study hall and the kuro-shoin or black study hall.

This year marks the 800th birth anniversary of Shinran and the 850th year of the establishment of Jodo Shinhu

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