views updated May 08 2018


SHINRAN (11731262) was the founder of the Jōdo Shinshu, or True Pure Land school, of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Born in Japan during a period of social turmoil and religious change, Shinran became a Tendai monk at age nine and followed that discipline on Mount Hiei. At age twenty-nine, moved by a deep spiritual disquiet, he meditated for one hundred days in the Rokkakudō Temple in Kyoto, where he had a vision that led him to become a disciple of the Pure Land teacher Hōnen in 1201. He later received Hōnen's permission to copy his central work, the Senchaku hongan nembutsu shū (Treatise on the Nembutsu of the select primal vow), and to make a portrait of the master. Because of strong criticism voiced by the monks of Mount Hiei and Kōfukuji in Nara and the indiscretions of certain of his disciples, Hōnen and his leading disciples were exiled. Shinran went to Echigo (now Niigata prefecture) in 1207 under the criminal name of Fujii Yoshizane.

During the next period of approximately seven years of exile and residence at Kokubu in Echigo, Shinran married Eshin-ni and fathered six children. Shinran is particularly noted for establishing marriage among the clergy and abandoning monastic precepts as a religiously justified act. He was inspired by a dream vision of the bodhisattva Kannon (Skt., Avalokiteśvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion), who promised to take the form of a woman to be his helpmate in his mission to spread Pure Land teachings to the masses.

Pardoned in 1211, Shinran left Echigo in 1213 bound for the Kantō. There he gradually created a sizable community by establishing small dōjō (meeting places) in followers' homes throughout the region. Upon his return to Kyoto in 1235 or 1236, Shinran engaged in correspondence with his disciples, answering questions on doctrine and giving advice about various issues raised by the nascent community. Among his literary efforts, he completed and revised the Kyōgyōshinshō, wrote various commentarial texts such as the Yuishinshō-monʾi and Ichinentannenmonʾi, and composed collections of wasan (hymns) expressing basic themes of his teaching or praising the texts and masters of the Pure Land tradition. For the most part, Shinran wrote in the language of the common people.

Variant interpretations of Shinran's teachings inevitably led to conflicts among his followers. These issues were a persistent theme of Shinran's later letters, and continued to plague the community after he died. However, in Shinran's last years, Zenran, his eldest son, created conflict and misunderstanding among the disciples by claiming to have received a special teaching and authority from Shinran. After Shinran dispelled these misunderstandings by disowning his son, peace returned to the community. Shinran expressed some of his deepest insights in his final letters and writings. Among these are his assertion that believers are "equal to the Tathagata" and his expression of faith in the absolute "other power" (tariki ) of Amida (Skt., Amitabha) Buddha. In 1262 Shinran died peacefully at the home of a brother.

Shinran's spiritual disillusionment with monastic discipline and his experience of faith in Amida Buddha's Primal Vows (hongan ) under the guidance of Hōnen became the basis and inspiration for the development of the Jōdo Shinshū as a major and distinctive expression of Pure Land teaching in Japanese history. Influenced by hongaku ("primordial enlightenment") thought in Tendai philosophy, as well as by contemporary Chinese Pure Land scholarship, Shinran expanded the vision of the meaning of Amida Buddha's compassion stressed in the Pure Land tradition.

Shinran maintains that there are two stages in the salvation process established by the virtue of Amida Buddha. These are ōsō, "going to the Pure Land," and gensō, "returning." Ōsō refers to the elements of religious experience that lead to rebirth in the Pure Land. Gensō indicates the altruistic end of salvation whereby we become part of the salvation process guiding all beings to enlightenment. Shinran analyzes the first stage, that of going to the Pure Land, into four dimensions, discussed in the four sections of the Kyōgyōshinshō. These are Teaching, Practice, Faith, and Enlightenment.

The section on teaching refers to the Daimuryōjukyō (Larger Pure Land Sūtra), which narrates the story of how, ten kalpa s ago, the bodhisattva Hōzō (Dharmākara) completed five kalpa s of religious training and became Amida Buddha in the Western Pure Land through the fulfillment of his forty-eight Primal Vows.

The section on practice establishes that the recitation of Amida's name (the Nembutsu, from Chin., nianfo ) is the way provided by the eighteenth vow for the salvation of all beings. Shinran maintained that the Nembutsu is the great practice praised by all Buddhas, for the name itself is the embodiment of Amida's virtue.

The section on faith reveals Shinran's most distinctive understanding of Pure Land teaching. Here he shows that faith is the true and real mind of Amida Buddha expressed in human consciousness. Against the background of the Mahayana tradition, he asserts that faith itself is the realization of Buddha nature (shinbusshō).

In developing this interpretation, Shinran went beyond the limited conception of Amida portrayed in the sūtra myth narrative. He understood Amida as the sole reality of the cosmos, joining Pure Land teachings to the concept of Primordial Enlightenment (Jpn., hongaku ) of the Tendai philosophy. Amida Buddha was no longer merely one Buddha among others, limited in time to his Enlightenment ten kalpa s ago. Rather, he is the eternal Buddha (Jōdo wasan no. 55). According to the Jinenhōnishō, Amida, as the ultimate, formless body of Dharma (Skt., dharmakāya ), takes form in order to manifest his essential nature, which is beyond all comprehension and definition. Amida Buddha is the symbol for eternal life and light, the compassion and wisdom that makes salvation possible for every human being, no matter how evil and corrupt. The power of his vow is manifest in human history through the name, formulaically expressed in the words "Namu Amida Butsu" ("Hail to Amida Buddha"), which serve as the external cause of salvation.

The Light (kōmyō ) is the inner condition of salvation experienced as undoubting faith in the name and vow and the simultaneous exclamation of the Nembutsu. Faith is not a human act but ultimately the bestowal of Amida's true and real mind within the human consciousness as the immediate awareness both of one's own spiritual incapacity and of the unfailing embrace of Amida's compassion. In that moment, the assurance of salvation is attained as a deep inner movement of total reliance on the vow. It is for this reason that Shinran emphasized the "power of the other" (tariki ), that is, the salvific power of Amida, rather than one's own effort (jiriki ), as essential to salvation. The awareness received in that moment indicates that the disciple has attained the level of the truly assured (shōjōjū ). All the causes, and therefore also the fruit, of salvation have been perfected. The believer's spiritual status in the life is "equal to the Tathagāta," although his actual enlightenment awaits him in the future as the causal basis for this final attainment has been established through his presently experienced faith in Amida's vow.

According to Shinran, the recitation of the Nembutsu is not performed as a means to gain rebirth in the Pure Land through one's own merit. Rather, it is a spontaneous outflow of gratitude for the assurance of salvation received. The section designated Enlightenment teaches that the final destiny of beings is birth in the Pure Land, which is identified with nirvāa. It is also to become a Buddha and, after the manner of the bodhisattva, to return to this defiled realm to save all beings.

The community initiated through Shinran's efforts and teaching eventually differentiated into several branches. Among them, the most significant have been the Takada Senjūji and the Honganji, which latter would later divide into East and West branches. At first a relatively minor movement within Japanese Buddhism, Jōdo Shinshū was transformed into a powerful religious and social institution through the eloquence, simplicity, and determination of the eighth patriarch, Rennyo (14151499). Despite internal divisions, it has remained a major popular religious force in Japan.

See Also

Amitābha; Hōnen; Jōdo Shinshū; Mappō; Nianfo; Pure and Impure Lands; Rennyo.


Akamatsu Toshihide. Shinran. Tokyo, 1969. A detailed survey of Shinran's life.

Akamatsu Toshihide and Kasahara Kazuo, eds. Shinshushi gaisetsu. Kyoto, 1963. A collection of essays on Kamakura Buddhism, the life of Shinran, and the development of Shinshu institutions.

Bloom, Alfred. Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace. Tucson, Ariz., 1965. A systematic study of Shinran's teaching.

Bloom, Alfred. The Life of Shinran Shonin: The Journey to Self-Acceptance. Leiden, 1968. A critical examination of issues of Shinran's biography.

Futaba Kenko. Shinran no kenkyu. Kyoto, 1962. An analysis of social and religious issues related to the life of Shinran.

Ienaga Saburo. Shinran Shonin gyojitsu. Kyoto, 1948. A chronological outline of Shinran's life and activities with important textual references.

Ingram, Paul O. The Dharma of Faith: An Introduction to Classical Pure Land Buddhism. Washington, D. C., 1977. A study of Shinran's teaching set in the context of Buddhist tradition; includes a study of Rennyo.

Kasahara Kazuo. Shinran to togoku nomin. Tokyo, 1957. A study of Shinran's life in the context of the social development of the Kanto area.

The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. Translated by Hisao Inagaka et al. Abridged ed. Kyoto, 1966. A translation of Shinran's comments in the Kyogyoshinsho.

Matsunaga, Daigan, and Alicia Matsunaga. Foundation of Japanese Buddhism, vol. 2. Los Angeles, 1976. A detailed historical survey of major Buddhist schools of the Kamakura period.

Matsuno Junko. Shinran. Tokyo, 1959. A detailed study of Shinran's life.

Shigefuji, Shinei. Nembutsu in Shinran and His Teachers: A Comparison. Toronto, 1980. A detailed examination of Shinran's teachings in relation to the Pure Land tradition.

Shinshu Seiten: Jodo Shin Buddhist Teaching. San Francisco, 1978. An anthology of translations from Shinran and Rennyo with supplementary explanatory materials, assembled by Buddhist Churches of America.

Suzuki, D. T. Collected Writings on Shin Buddhism. Edited by the Eastern Buddhist Society. Kyoto, 1973. Essays on Mahayana and Pure Land Buddhism.

Suzuki, D. T., trans. The Kyogyoshinsho by Gutoku Shaku Shinran. Edited by the Eastern Buddhist Society. Kyoto, 1973.

Ueda Yoshifumi, ed. and trans. The Letters of Shinran: A Translation of Mattosho. Kyoto, 1978. A translation of Shinran's major letters, with explanatory introduction.

New Sources

Chilson, Clark. "Born-Again Buddhists: Twentieth-Century Initiation Rites of Secretive Shinshu Societies in Central Japan." Studies in Central and East Asian Religions 11 (1999): 1836.

Dobbins, James C. Jodo Shinsu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Bloomington, 1989.

Smith, Joel R. "Human Insufficiency in Shinran and Kierkegaard." Asian Philosophy 6 (July 1996): 117128.

Ueda, Yoshifumi, and Dennis Hiroto. Shinran: An Introduction to His Thought. Kyoto, 1989.

Alfred Bloom (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 08 2018


Shinran (Zenshin, Shakkū 1173–1263) was a Pure Land Buddhist teacher of medieval Japan and founder of the Jōdo Shinshū (Shin Buddhism) tradition. His teachings focused on faith (shinjin) in conjunction with the practice of the nenbutsu, invoking Amida (AmitĀbha) Buddha's name, as the basis for birth in the Pure Land, where he believed Buddhist enlightenment is immediate. Shinran considered the Buddha's power, rather than human effort, to be the motive force behind all true religious practice and behind enlightenment itself. The Shinshu, in accord with Shinran's own example, broke with the Buddhist tradition of clerical celibacy, and allowed priests to marry and have families. Three centuries later, Shinran's modest following grew into a huge and powerful Buddhist school headed by Honganji in Kyoto, which originated at his gravesite.

Shinran spent the first twenty years of his career as a Tendai monk on Mount Hiei, but in 1201, after a hundred-day religious retreat at the Rokkakudō chapel in Kyoto, he abandoned monastic life and became the disciple of HŌnen (1133-1212). In 1207 Shinran was banished to Echigo province (present-day Niigata prefecture) in a general suppression of Hōnen's Pure Land movement that occurred after provocative behavior by certain followers. Shinran never saw his teacher again, and for over twenty-five years he lived away from Kyoto. The last two decades of this period were spent in the Kanto region (around modern-day Tokyo), where Shinran became a peripatetic Pure Land teacher. His marriage occurred shortly before, or soon after, his banishment. Shinran continued to dress in Buddhist clerical robes and shaved his head as priests do, even while living with his wife, Eshinni (1182–ca. 1268), and their children.

The gist of Shinran's teaching is that Amida Buddha has vowed to bring all living beings to enlightenment, and the power of his vow surpasses any religious practice humans can perform. Thus, the consummate religious state is single-hearted reliance on Amida, or faith. This faith is none other than the Buddha operating in a person, rather than a person's own created mental condition. The nenbutsu, likewise, is an act initiated by Amida, as well as an extension of him in the world. When people hear Amida's name it awakens them to his grand vow, and when they intone the nenbutsu their practice coalesces with Amida's compassionate activity. The upshot of this teaching is that Amida's saving power extends to everyone without differentiation: clerical or lay, male or female, good or evil. In fact, evildoers are a prime object of Amida's vow (akunin shōki).

Shinran returned to Kyoto in the early 1230s. By that time he had completed a preliminary draft of his magnum opus, Kyōgyōshinshō (Teaching, Practice, Faith, and Attainment). He spent the rest of his days in Kyoto, but remained in touch with his Kanto followers through letters and occasional visits on their part. In old age he dedicated himself to study and writing, completing his Kyōgyōshinshō and composing a variety of other Buddhist works, including wasan hymns. His wife and most of their children moved to Echigo in the 1250s to live on property she inherited. But Shinran remained in Kyoto with their youngest daughter Kakushinni (1224–1283), who looked after him in his last years. He died in Kyoto in 1263, chanting Amida's name and surrounded by followers. Many revered him as an earthly manifestation of Amida Buddha or of Kannon (Avalokiteśvara) Bodhisattva.

See also:Japan; Kamakura Buddhism, Japan; Nenbutsu (Chinese, Nianfo; Korean, Yŏmbul); Pure Land Buddhism; Pure Land Schools


Bloom, Alfred. Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1965.

Dobbins, James C. Jōdo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan (1989). Reprint, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Hirota, Dennis, et al., trans. The Collected Works of Shinran, 2 vols. Kyoto: Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, 1997.

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

Ueda, Yoshifumi, and Hirota, Dennis. Shinran: An Introduction to His Thought. Kyoto: Hongwanji International Center, 1989.

James C. Dobbins


views updated May 23 2018


The Japanese Buddhist monk Shinran (1173-1262) was the founder of the True Pure Land sect, or jodoshin shu. He was the most famous disciple of Honen and was active in developing and transforming Amidist beliefs in Japan.

The son of a court noble, Shinran entered the Tendai monastery on Mt. Hiei in 1182. But he found Tendai teachings inadequate. He is said to have turned to belief in Amida as the result of a dream in which he was so instructed by the bodhisattva Kwannon.

In 1207 Shinran was exiled to Echigo in the north at the same time as his master Honen, returning to the capital with him in 1211. The reason for Shinran's banishment was that he had taken a wife, thus defying the vow of celibacy. The woman was alleged to be a daughter of the Fujiwara regent Kanezane, and Honen was said to have commanded the marriage.

Although there is some doubt about the identity of Shinran's wife, there is none at all that he wished to show by this act that monastic discipline was not necessary for salvation if one put oneself completely at the mercy of the Buddha Amida as Honen required. He further wished to demonstrate that the family should be the center of religious life. Shinran felt that he was merely carrying to its logical conclusion Honen's idea that if salvation meant consigning oneself completely to Amida's grace other religious practices were superfluous.

It was Shinran's belief that he should exert himself to the utmost to propagate belief in Amida among the simple people. He was himself obliged to live among the people, in a sense a social outcast. And he thought of himself as a lost soul. He even went so far as to claim that the wicked had more chance for salvation than the good, for the former relied more on Amida's grace than the latter, who counted too much on their good works. "If even good people can be reborn in the Pure Land, how much more the wicked man!"

Certain more conservative followers of Honen claimed that the continual calling of the Buddha's name, the nembutsu, was a most desirable religious act. Honen himself is said to have recommended multiple invocation. Shinran, however, believed that quantity had little to do with the Buddha's grace and that a single repetition of his name was all that was necessary. Multiple repetition seemed to him to be, in fact, a practice through which one strove to attain salvation other than by complete reliance on Amida's mercy.

Shinran's innovation in Japanese Amidism was the abolishment of monasticism and the authorization of a married priesthood. He himself was a shami, a person who leads a religious life but does not follow the monastic discipline.

Further Reading

An account of Shinran's life and excerpts from his writings are in Ryusaku Tsunoda and others, eds., Sources of the Japanese Tradition (1958), and a detailed discussion of Shinran's beliefs is in Alfred Bloom, Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace (1965). □


views updated May 23 2018

Shinran ( Shōnin Shinran; 1173–1262). Founder of Jōdo-shin-shū, a major school of Japanese Buddhism, a pupil of Hōnen. When Hōnen was exiled in 1207, Shinran rejected the necessity of monastic rules and residence. He married and fathered children. He was pardoned in 1211, and began to establish a community of followers. His belief that the buddhas and bodhisattvas fulfil their commitments and vows to help all in need led him to reject all ‘ways of effort’ (jiriki) and to rely on ‘the power of the other’ (tariki; see JIRIKI), concentrated on the Buddha Amida. Not even repeated calling on Amida's name (nembutsu) was strictly necessary: one plea sincerely meant will bring Amida's help. He spent the remainder of his life working on his Kyogyo-Shinshō (True Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Way).