Jōdo Shinshū

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JŌDO SHINSHŪ . The Jōdo Shinshū, or True Pure Land sect, is a school of Japanese Buddhism that takes as its central religious message the assurance of salvation granted to all beings by the Buddha Amida (Skt., Amitābha). Its founder, Shinran (11731263), a disciple of the eminent Japanese monk Hōnen (11331212), founder of the Jōdoshū (Pure Land sect), stands in a line of Buddhist thinkers who emphasize faith in the salvific power of Amitābha and the hope of rebirth in his Pure Land, a paradisical realm created out of the boundless religious merit generated by Amitābha's fulfillment of a series of vows taken eons ago while still the bodhisattva Dharmākara. Jōdo Shinshū, or Shinshū as it is often called, is but one of a number of "Pure Land" traditions in East Asia, and is today the largest of the denominations of Japanese Buddhism.

Pure Land devotionalism is a perennial element in both Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. Beginning nominally with the visualization cult of Amitābha inaugurated in the year 403 by the Chinese monk Huiyuan, Pure Land practices have served as adjuncts to the teachings of a variety of East Asian Buddhist traditions and, from the sixth century, as the foundation of several religious movements devoted more or less exclusively to the worship of Amitābha. These movements combine faith in the power of Amitābha with the practice of the Nembutsu, which various schools interpret in differing ways but that in general consists now of the formulaic recitation of the name of Amitābha. Although standing firmly within the Pure Land tradition of its Chinese and Japanese antecedents, Jōdo Shinshū is conspicuous in the interpretation it gives to Nembutsu practice and to the assurances of salvation found in the vows of Amitābha.


Like all Pure Land traditions, the core texts of the Shinshū are a cycle of scriptures originating in northwest India and, perhaps, Buddhist Central Asia, that detail the spiritual career of Amitābha, the glories of Sukhāvatī ("land of ease," i.e., the Pure Land) created by him, the vows he has undertaken for the salvation of all beings, or certain meditative techniques that the devotee can undertake in order to visualize Amitābha and his Pure Land. Although the texts of the so-called triple Pure Land scripture began as individual works (the visualization scripture appears of widely different provenance than the other two), the three Pure Land sūtras are considered by the Japanese to preach a wholly consistent religious message. These texts are the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Jpn., Muryōjukyō ; T.D. no. 363), the Smaller Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Jpn., Amidakyō ; T.D. no. 366), and a text no longer extant in Sanskrit, known in Japanese as the Kanmuryōjukyō (T.D. no. 365). The first and second contain elements of the mythic cycle of Amitābha; the third is a meditation scripture. Also important to Shinshū thought is the work of one of the patriarchal figures of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism, the Wangsheng lunzhu (Jpn., Ōjōronchū ; T.D. no. 1819) of Tanluan (c. 488c. 554). This text was held in great esteem by Shinran, who relied upon it in the composition of the founding document of the Jōdo Shinshū, the Kyōgyōshinshō (Teaching, practice, faith, and enlightenment).


At the age of nine Shinran began his formal Buddhist training at the Tendai center on Mount Hiei. He remained there as a monk in the Jōgyōzammaidō for almost twenty years. At the age of twenty-nine, unable to attain peace of mind, Shinran decided to leave Hiei for Kyoto, where he became a disciple of Hōnen (1201). Despite, or perhaps owing to, the popularity of Nembutsu practices among the common people, monks from the established, traditional Buddhist sects began to denounce and censure Hōnen's Jōdoshū doctrines. This, coupled with certain improprieties of several of Hōnen's disciples, led to the official prohibition of Nembutsu Buddhism and the banishment of Hōnen and his main disciples from Kyoto. Shinran was defrocked and exiled to Echigo (in present-day Niigata prefecture) in 1207. During his years in exile Shinran lived as a laymanhe took the humble name Gutoku ("old fool"), married, and raised a family. It was this experience that led Shinran to realize that enlightenment and rebirth in the Pure Land were not contingent on adherence to the monastic precepts, the study of scriptures and doctrine, or the severance of worldly ties. Shinran used his own experience as a model for the religious life, holding that salvation could be attained in this world and this life in the midst of one's common, daily activities. In this way, Shinran extended Hōnen's notions of universal salvation and completed Pure Land's transformation of Buddhism from a "religion of renunciation" to a "household religion."

The year 1211 saw Shinran officially pardoned. Thereafter, he lived with his family in the Kanto region, where he began proselytizing his new understanding of Pure Land doctrines. He attracted large numbers of followerssome estimate ten thousandsome of whom were instrumental in establishing and maintaining Shinshū centers after Shinran's death. During the period between 1235, when he returned to Kyoto, and his death Shinran was most prolific. It was during this period that he completed and revised the Kyōgyōshinshō, his most important work on Jōdo Shinshū doctrine. In this work Shinran traced the tradition of Pure Land teachings by collecting passages from scriptures and earlier commentaries, to which he added his own interpretations. The Kyōgyōshinshō represents an attempt by Shinran to lend legitimacy and orthodoxy to Shinshū teachings by establishing its affiliation with traditionally accepted authorities, an attempt necessitated by the virulent criticisms of the Jōdoshū by the monks of other Buddhist sects. Other of his works written during this period were intended to systematize his teachings for the guidance of his disciples and to settle the numerous small feuds among his followers in the Kanto region.

True Pure Land Doctrine

In his religious thought Shinran was influenced by Hōnen's division of Buddhist practices into two paths leading to enlightenment: the shōdōmon ("path of sages"), that is, the difficult path wherein enlightenment is dependent on the individual's "own power" (jiriki ) and capability to adhere to the monastic precepts and to engage in arduous meditative practices and study; and the jōdomon ("path of Pure Land"), or the easy path in which one depends on "other power" (tariki ), namely, the salvific power of Amida. Like Hōnen, Shinran held that during mappō (the "latter days of the Law"; i.e., an age of widespread degeneration and decadence) traditional Buddhist practices were all but useless for the attainment of enlightenment. In such an age, he claimed, faith in Amida and in the truth of his "original vow" (hongan ) to save all sentient beings was the only path to salvation and rebirth in the Pure Land. As opposed to earlier forms of Buddhist practice, which uphold the path of wisdom (prajñā ), meditation (dhyāna ), and disciplined austerities (śīla ), and are based on unlimited self-reliance, Pure Land practices provide a way to salvation in the face of the ineffectiveness of self-effort.

Struck by the very limitations of human capabilities and the inherent sinfulness of human nature, Shinran took Hōnen's advocacy of faith in Amida to an even greater degree. While Hōnen held that the individual must "choose" to have faith in Amida and that this choice must be continually reaffirmed through repeated invocations of the Nembutsu, Shinran argued that it was Amida who chose to save all humans. According to Shinran, what effectuates Amida's salvific power is the power of his Original Vow to save all beings as embodied in the Nembutsu. By participating in and allowing oneself to be permeated by this power, one transcends the world of causal necessity (karman ). Implicit in the Pure Land teachings concerning the power of the Original Vow is the belief that, even if the escape from this world of saśara (the round of birth and death of unenlightened existence) is possible through inspired insight alone, the ground of the possibility of that insight depends in turn on something higher or deeper than mere human insight: the divine power (Skt., adhihana ) of the Buddha. This divine power of the Buddha does not lie merely within his human career and character; it transcends his individual personhood, breaking through the limited framework of time and space to embrace all living beings eternally and without limitation.

This interpretation of faith led Shinran to reevaluate Hōnen's use of Nembutsu invocation. Like Hōnen, Shinran believed that the only means to apprehend Amida and to participate in his Original Vow was to invoke his name. By intoning the Nembutsu ("Namu Amida Butsu," or "Adoration be to Amida Buddha"), one accumulates boundless stores of merit and virtue. The necessary requisite is, of course, faith. Hōnen held that repeated invocations of the Nembutsu were necessary to build faith and to ensure rebirth in the Pure Land. Shinran, however, argued that one's practice must begin with faith. In any single invocation the devotee must direct his thoughts to the origins of that practice, that is, to faith in Amida's Original Vow. As such, the invocation of the Nembutsu is an expression of gratitude to Amida for being allowed to participate in the salvation promised by his vows. Yet Shinran did not deny the value of repeated invocations, for, although not leading directly to faith, the repeated invocation has the valuable function of awakening one's heart to Amida's existence. In this way, Nembutsu practice and faith come to be two sides of the same coin, with Shinshū emphasizing the moment of salvation and Jōdoshū stressing the process of arriving there.

Institutionalization and Subsequent History

After Shinran's death his tomb became the center of his movement's religious activities. Ten years later his youngest daughter, Kakushinni, built a mausoleum in the Higashiyama Ōtani area east of Kyoto in which she enshrined an image of Shinran and his ashes. In presenting the mausoleum and its grounds to her father's disciples, Kakushinni stipulated that the maintenance of the temple and the direction of the religious services held there were to be provided by Kakushinni and her descendants in perpetuity. While this marked the origin of the unique Jōdo Shinshū practice of hereditary succession, at the time it was not interpreted by Shinran's disciples as a move toward increasing authoritarian control over the movement. During this period the movement had still not been formally organized into a sect with a central temple under a single leader. Shinran himself had preferred to establish small, informal meeting places (dōjō ) in the homes of his disciples, around which communities of followers (monto ) could gather. Indeed, Shinran had no intention of becoming the founder of a new sect or religion. He considered himself the true successor to Hōnen's teaching and continued to think of his movement as part of the Jōdoshū. For this reason, there was a time when the disciples of Hōnen and those of Shinran, both claiming to represent the "true" Pure Land teachings, quarreled over the right to use the name Jōdo Shinshū. It was only in relatively recent timesin 1872that this conflict was at last resolved and the name Jōdo Shinshū reserved for the groups stemming from Shinran. (Naturally, Shinshū adherents regard Hōnen as a patriarchal figure in his own right in the lineage of Pure Land teachers.) Prior to that date, Jōdo Shinshū was more commonly known as the Ikkōshū or the Montoshū. In the Kanto region, the monto evolved into large local organizations headed by the most powerful of Shinran's disciples. These groups took their names from the territories in which they were located and, for the most part, remained organizationally unrelated to other such groups.

After Kakushinni's death her son Kakunyo succeeded to the directorship of Shinran's mausoleum. His greatest wish was to consolidate and organize the various regional groups into a unified sect centered around the mausoleum. Toward this end, he transformed the mausoleum into a temple, naming it the Honganji (Original Vow Temple) and attempted to draw the local monto into the organization as branch temples. Kakunyo's efforts mark the establishment of the Jōdo Shinshū as a single, centralized organization. In 1332 the Honganji received official recognition as the central temple of the Shinshū movement. The government, however, still considered it an affiliate of the Tendai school. Kakunyo's plans met with resistance from the various local groups and movements, particularly in the Kanto. Many leaders began to erect temples and establish their own regionally based sects. As a result, numerous subsects of Jōdo Shinshū were founded throughout the country.

Although the Honganji continued to thrive, it was not without its problems. In 1456 the Honganji complex was burned to the ground by Tendai monks from Mount Hiei. This was not too serious a setback, for the Honganji had numerous affiliated congregations and temples throughout the country. However, the eighth successor to the head of the temple, Rennyo (14151499), was forced to move and ultimately established Shinshū headquarters in the Yamashina district of Kyoto. In the interim, Rennyo's determination to sever all ties with Tendaihe destroyed Tendai scriptures, scrolls, and images in his templesand his plans to expand and strengthen the Shinshū organization aroused the anger of various Buddhist sects and local feudal lords (daimyō ). The numerous attacks suffered by Rennyo and his followers at the hands of these detractors, led them to form an alliance with local peasants and samurai. During the Ōnin War such groups led armed uprisings known as ikkō ikki in an effort to protect their land holdings from the powerful daimyo. It was during this period that Jōdo Shinshū gained widespread acceptance and popularity among the masses. The success of his armed uprisings acquired for Rennyo the title "saint of the restoration of the Honganji."

The attacks against Shinshū followers continued throughout the Muromachi period. When the Honganji was again burned, this time by Nichiren monks, the tenth successor, Shōnyō, rebuilt the temple in the Ishiyama district of Osaka. It was under Shōnyō's leadership that membership in Shinshū began to spread beyond the peasant masses. The daimyo, recognizing both the potential of the armed peasant uprisings and the power of their affiliation with Shinshū, began to join the sect. When the eleventh successor to the Honganji, Kennyo, became the abbot of the temple, the sect was politically and militarily as powerful as any of the major aristocratic and military families in Japan. Shinshū's strength posed a serious threat to several of the contending military rulers, and in 1570 the powerful daimyo Oda Nobunaga attacked the Honganji. The temple, supported by peasant groups, samurai, and local daimyo, was able to ward off Nobunaga's troops for ten years. In 1580 the Honganji was forced to surrender, and Kennyo fled to Kii province. This siege marks both the height of Shinshū's power and the beginning of its decline. It also marks the end of the sect's involvement in armed peasant uprisings.

After Kennyo's death a dispute over succession divided and further weakened the Honganji. Two branches were formed: the Western Honganji (Honpa Honganji), led by Kennyo's second son, Junnyo, and the Eastern Honganji (Ōtani Honganji), led by his eldest son, Kyonyo. Both established their temple headquarters in Kyoto. It should be noted that the establishment of sects within the Jōdo Shinshū, from the earliest divisions during Kakunyo's leadership until the schism between Kennyo's sons, were all the result of factional, political, and succession disputes, and personality differences. Thus, there are few discernible differences in doctrine and practice among the various sects.

The major sects of today's Jōdo Shinshū religion were established between the latter part of the Kamakura period and the beginning of the Tokugawa. Today there are ten sects, of which the Eastern and Western Honganji sects are the most influential, each outnumbering the combined membership of all the smaller sects. These smaller sects include the Takada, Bukkōji, Sanmonto, Kibe, Yamamoto, Koshōji, Joshoji, and Izumoji groups. The practice of handing down the leadership of temples through family lines is upheld by all sects. The leaders of the Honganji sects claim descent from Shinran, and the leaders of the other sects trace descent to Shinran's direct disciples. In the postWorld War II era the Honganji sects have undertaken foreign missionary activity, opening temples in Hawaii, North and South America, and elsewhere in countries with large Japanese populations.

See Also

Amitābha; Hōnen; Huiyuan; Jingtu; Jōdoshū; Mappō; Nianfo; Pure and Impure Lands; Rennyo; Shinran; Tanluan; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Buddhist Devotional Life in East Asia.


The most accessible works in English describing the history and thought of the Shinshū are D. T. Suzuki's Collected Writings on Shin Buddhism (Kyoto, 1973) and his Shin Buddhism (New York, 1970). Shinshū ideas presented in these works are skewed somewhat by Suzuki's own idiosyncratic interpretation of Pure Land doctrine. His earlier work in Japanese, Jōdokei shisōron (Kyoto, 1948), presents an easily understandable account of Jōdo Shinshū thought within the larger Pure Land tradition. English translations of Shinshū scriptures and texts are available in The Shinshū Seiten, 2d rev. ed., edited by Kōshō Yamamoto (San Francisco, 1978); in The Kyō Gyō Shin Shō, translated by Hisao Inagaki, Kōshō Yukawa, and Thomas R. Okano (Kyoto, 1966); and in the Shin Buddhism Translation Series (Kyoto, 1978).

Many more sources on the Shinshū are published in Japanese. For example, good accounts of Shinshū history can be found in Inoue Toshio's Honganji (Tokyo, 1962); in Shinshūshi gaisetsu, edited by Akamatsu Toshihide and Kasahara Kazuo (Kyoto, 1963); and in Honganjishi, 3 vols., edited by the Honganji Shiryō Kenkyūjo (Kyoto, 19611969). A good treatment of the historical evolution of Jōdo Shinshū can be found in Akamatsu Toshihide's Kamakura bukkyō no kenkyū (Kyoto, 1957). Shinshū nempyō, edited by Ōtani Daigaku (Kyoto, 1973), provides a convenient one-volume chronology of Shinshū history. Hayashima Kyosei's Ningen no negai: Muryōjukyō (Tokyo, 1955) presents a straightforward commentary on the central scripture of Pure Land Buddhism, the Daimuryōjukyō.

The most widely cited collection of Shinshū scriptures and texts is Shinshū shōgyō zensho, 5 vols., 2d rev. ed., edited by the Shinshū Shōgyō Zensho Hensanjo (Kyoto, 19811984). Particularly useful commentaries on Shinran's central work, the Kyōgyōshinshō, include Yamabe Shūkaku and Akanuma Chizen's Kyōgyōshinshō kōgi (Kyoto, 1928); Takeuchi Yoshinori's Kyōgyōshinshō no tetsugaku (Tokyo, 1931); and Kaneko Taiei's Kyōgyōshinshō sōsetsu (Kyoto, 1959). Soga Ryojin's Tannishō chōki (Kyoto, 1961) is an outstanding exposition on the Tannishō. General outlines of Shinshū doctrine are available in Fugen Daien's Shinshū gairon (Kyoto, 1950) and in Shinshū gaiyo, edited by the Kyōka Kenkyūjō (Kyoto, 1953). More extensive discussions of Shinshū thought and development are found in Ishida Mitsuyuki's Shinran kyōgaku no kisoteki kenkyū, 2 vols. (Kyoto, 19701977). Concerning the religious organization of Jōdo Shinshū, see Uehara Senroku and Matsugi Nobuhiko's Honganji kyōdan (Tokyo, 1971). The most detailed reference work on Jōdo Shinshū is Shinshū daijiten, 3 vols., edited by Okamura Shūsatsu (Kyoto, 19351937).

New Sources

AmStutz, Galen Dean. Interpreting Amida: History and Orientalism in the Study of Pure Land Buddhism. Honolulu, 2002.

Bloom, Alfred. "Shin Buddhism in America: A Social Perspective." In The Faces of Buddhism in America, edited by Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka. Berkeley, 1998.

Dobbins, James C. Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Honolulu, 2002.

Machida, Soho. Renegade Monk: Honen and Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. Berkeley, 1999.

Hase ShŌtŌ (1987)

Translated from Japanese by Carl Becker
Revised Bibliography