Who Was Shinran Shonin?

Trailblazing Founder of Jodo Shinshu

Statue_of_Shinran-_at_Honganji_Nagoya_Betsuin_2.jpg
Statue of Shinran at Honganji Nagoya Betsuin, a Jodo Shinshu temple in Nagoya, Japan. Public Domain

Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) was an innovator and a rule-breaker. He founded the largest school of Buddhism in Japan, Jodo Shinshu, sometimes called simply "Shin" Buddhism. From its beginning Jodo Shinshu was a radically egalitarian sect, with no monks, revered masters or central authority, and Japanese laypeople embraced it.

Shinran was born into an aristocratic family that may have fallen out of favor with the Court.

He was ordained a novice monk at the age of nine, and soon after he entered the Hieizan Enryakuji temple at Mount Hiei, Kyoto. Mount Hiei is a Tendai monastery, and Tendai Buddhism Is known primarily for its syncretization of the teachings of many schools. According to several sources, young Shinran most likely was a doso, or "hall monk," engaged in Pure Land practices.

Pure Land Buddhism originated in early 5th century China. Pure Land emphasizes faith in the compassion of Amitabha Buddha. Devotion to Amitabha enables rebirth in the western paradise, a Pure Land, where enlightenment is easily realized. The primary practice of Pure Land is the nembutsu, recitation of Amitabha's name. As a doso, Shinran would have spent much of his time circumambulating an image of Amitabha, chanting (in Japanese) Namu Amida Butsu -- "homage to Amitabha Buddha."

This was Shinran's life until he was 29 years old.

Shinran and Honen

Honen (1133-1212) was another Tendai monk who also had practiced for a time at Mount Hiei, and who also was drawn to Pure Land Buddhism. At some point,​ Honen left Mount Hiei and retired to another monastery in Kyoto, Mount Kurodani, which had a reputation for strong Pure Land practice.

Honen developed a practice of keeping Amitabha's name in mind at all times, a practice supported by chanting the nembutsu for long periods of time. This would become the basis of a Japanese Pure Land school called Jodo Shu. Honen's reputation as a teacher began to spread and must have reached Shinran at Mount Hiei. In 1207 Shinran left Mount Hiei to join Honen's Pure Land movement.

Honen sincerely believed that the practice he had developed was the only one likely to survive the period called mappo, in which Buddhism was expected to decline. Honen himself did not give voice to this opinion outside of his circle of students.

But some of Honen's students were not so discrete. They not only loudly proclaimed that Honen's Buddhism was the only true Buddhism; they also decided that it made morality unnecessary. In 1206 two of Honen's monks were found to have spent the night in the ladies' quarters of the emperor's palace. Four of Honen's monks were executed, and in 1207 Honen himself was forced into exile.

Shinran was not one of the monks accused of misbehavior, but he was exiled from Kyoto also and forced to de-frock and become a layman. After 1207 he and Honen never met again.

Shinran the Layman

Shrinran was now 35 years old.

He had been a monk since the age of 9. It was the only life he had known, and not being a monk felt strange to him. However, he adjusted well enough to find a wife, Eshinni. Shrinran and Eshinni would have six children.

In 1211 Shinran was pardoned, but he was now a married man and could not resume being a monk. In 1214 he and his family left Echigo Province, where he had been exiled, and moved to a region called Kanto, which today is home to Tokyo.

Shinran developed his own unique approach to Pure Land while living in Kanto. Instead of repeated recitations of the nembutsu, he decided one recitation was enough if said with pure faith. Further recitations were merely expressions of gratitude.

Shinran thought Honen's approach made practice a matter of one's own effort, which showed a lack of trust in Amitabha.

Instead of exhaustive effort, Shinran decided the practitioner needed sincerity, faith, and the aspiration for rebirth in the Pure Land. In 1224 he published the Kyogyoshinsho, which synthesized several Mahayana sutras with his own commentaries.

More confident now, Shinran began to travel and teach. He taught in people's homes, and small congregations developed with no formal central authority. He took no followers and refused the honors normally given to master teachers.This egalitarian system ran into trouble, however, when Shinran moved back to Kyoto in about 1234. Some devotees tried to make themselves into authorities with their own version of the teachings. One of these was Shinran's oldest son, Zenran, whom Shinran was forced to disown.

Shinran died soon after, at the age of 90. His legacy is Jodo Shinshu, long the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan, now with missions around the world.