Shinran (1173–1262)

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Shinran, born Hino Arinori, is the foremost proponent of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism and is widely regarded as the founder of Jôdo-Shinshû, more commonly known outside of Japan as Shin Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism has the largest following in East Asia (China, Korea, and Japan), and the Shin sect is the largest sect of Japanese Buddhism. As a development of Mahayana Buddhism, the core of Shinran's thought is based on the twofold truth:

Conventional truthHighest truth
DistinctionsNo distinctions
WordsBeyond words
defiled worldPure Land
blind passionboundless compassion
foolish beingAmida Buddha
NamuAmida Butsu

Twofold Truth

These truths are twofold because they are like the two sides of the same coin. There is an aspect of truth defined conceptually by the discursive intellect, and there is a truth beyond words, beyond the grasp of the discursive intellect. In this view, all conceptual reality is nothing more than agreed on convention, hence the term conventional truth. When the mind is emptied of all preconceptions, the truth can be grasped for the first time with one's whole being. This is the highest truth, emptied of the concepts that act like an intervening smoke screen between subject and object. When the conceptual smoke screen is removed, the separation between subject and object also disappears. Paradoxically, this merging of subject and object does not mean the obliteration of perception. Rather, perception becomes more fluid, dynamic, and vivid. For example, when one is viewing a flower and is caught up in trying to determine its genus, species, and variety, one fails to see the vivid dynamism of the beautiful flower unfolding before one. However, when one lets go of one's obsession with grasping the flower taxonomically or conceptually, suddenly one feels that the flower is closer, more intimate, vivid, and fluid in its evanescence.

Words and beyond Words

In Buddhism the problem does not lie with the categories or words themselves, such as flower, peony, and so on. Rather, it is the mind that becomes obsessed or attached to fixed conceptions of reality that causes one to become lost or separated from the dynamic flow of reality. Suffering, defiled perception, and blinded passion all result from this fixation. Conversely, words, properly used, can convey reality beyond words. They are like the words of a love poem. Although the individual words of a love poem cannot capture love itself, a beautiful love poem can nevertheless convey the sensibility of love. The words are no mere signs; they are vessels of a higher truth.

The Name of Amida Buddha

In Shinran's Shin thought, the twofold truth is expressed through the Name of Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Immeasurable Life. The practitioner of Shin invokes or chants the name Namu Amida Butsu. It originates in India and comes from the Sanskrit, Namas Amitâbha Buddha, meaning, "I entrust myself to the awakening of infinite light." When the practitioner, caught in the net of fixed ideas, is illuminated by the dynamic flow of reality, he or she is released from his or her blind passions and awakens to the light of emptiness, or the boundless oneness of reality.

The highest truth of reality is formless, without shape, definition, color, or scent. However, the experience of release from the ego-bonds of fixation and blind passion is one of illumination or light. This is neither merely symbolic nor merely material or physical. Similar to the experience of being relieved of a heavy mental burden, one's conscious awareness and field of vision become clearer, lighter, and more responsive.

According to Shinran the consciousness of an ego self-enclosed in its own solipsistic world works under the delusion of self-power (Japanese: jiriki ), as though it sustains itself completely unrelated to the world around it. When the bonds of this delusion are exposed and illuminated by the dynamic unfolding of emptiness/oneness, the self awakens to the working of other-power (Japanese: tariki ), so-called because it is other than (the delusory) ego.

However, one does not and cannot abandon the foolish delusions of the ego; as long as one lives in this limited body and mind, one will continue to suffer the ego's foolishness. Furthermore, it is this very foolishness, when one recognizes it, that connects the practitioner to his or her deepest humanity and that of others. For it is in the suffering of blind passion and foolishness that one finds the deepest bonds of humanity, and ultimately, with all sentient beings. In the illumination of Amida Buddha, the blind passion of the foolish being becomes the gateway to wisdom and compassion. Thus, Namu represents the foolish being who, in his very foolishness, is illuminated by Amida Butsu, infinite light and boundless compassion. The saying of the name Namu Amida Butsu embodies the realization of the oneness of foolish being and boundless compassion. Without the Namu, Amida Buddha is merely a cold abstraction; only when the practitioner engages the vivid flow of reality by allowing his or her blindness to be illuminated does the reality of Amida Buddha come to life. For this reason, the real name of Amida Buddha is said to be Namu Amida Butsu.

Shinran's Social Vision

Shinran's philosophical thought translated itself into an egalitarian social vision. According to him, no human being, even religious masters, were completely enlightened. Indeed, those who had engaged in intensive religious practice were considered particularly susceptible to the hubris of religious attainment. Shinran abandoned the monastic life, married openly, had four children, and lived among the farmers in outlying districts. Nevertheless, he and his wife, Esshinni, continued to wear religious robes and ministered to peasants and farmers until Shinran was about sixty. He describes himself as "neither monk nor layman" (Hirota, 289 [translation adapted]) and states, "I do not have even a single disciple"(Hirota, 664 [translation adapted]) since the power of compassion comes from Amida as the deepest reality of the self, and not from the finite human being Shinran.

He spent his final thirty years living in his brother's house, writing voluminously on his understanding of the wondrous working of Amida's boundless compassion, mythologically expressed as the working of Amida's Primal Vow. This is a way of expressing the relentless flow of reality that sooner or later breaks down and dissolves the brittle facade of self-power ego.

See also Buddhism; Buddhist Epistemology; Japanese Philosophy; Social and Political Philosophy; Truth.


Dobbins, James C. Jōdo Shinshū: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Hirota. Dennis, trans. The Collected Works of Shinran., 2 vols. Kyoto, Japan: Jōdo Shinsū Hongwanji-Ha, 1997.

Keel, Hee-Sung. Understanding Shinran: A Dialogical Approach. Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1995.

Unno, Taitetsu. River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Mark T. Unno (2005)