His Early Life
Shonin Shinran was born at Hino, a few miles southeast of the old capital of Kyoto on May 21, 1173. It was some years after the civil wars of Hogen and Heiji and some fifteen years before Yoritomo Minamoto established is Shogunate at Kamakura- a period in which old aristocratic families were losing their influence and new warrior clans were coming into power. The political and social changes awakened people from the long peaceful slumber of the Heian Era and made them suffer both disaster and poverty.
Buddhism, which was already rooted firmly in Japan, did not have the power to console them, for it was flourishing only in its monastic formalities. In spite of this social unrest, Shinran was born in fortunate circumstances; his father Lord Arinori Hino belonged to the aristocratic Fujiwara family holding a high office in the Imperial Court and his mother Lady Kikko was of the illustrious Minamoto family. His name as a child was Matsuwaka-Maro, and as the heir of this nobility he was brought up with the tenderest care. He showed wisdom as a child and everyone around him foresaw a promising future for him.
However, when he was only four years old he had his first bitter experience in life - the sudden death of his father. So he and his younger brother were sent to their uncle, Lord Noritsuna for their upbringing and education. At the age of nine a second great misfortune befell him; he lost his beloved mother by her unexpected death. His uncle tried to make the poor youth happy and cheerful, but the sensitive boy was impressed too deeply by the sorrowful occurrences.
When he became nine years old, he announced to his uncle that he wished to become a Buddhist monk following the custom of the time. Lord Noritsuna could not prevent this step and one spring day he took the unfortunate lad to a Buddhist monastery, Shoran-in, at the foot of Higashiyama in Kyoto. He told the venerable Jichin, chief abbot of the monastery, the boy's story asking admission to the priesthood. The venerable master sympathized deeply and accepted the proposal but seeing that the day had already come to an end, declared his desire to postpone till the morrow the ordination service.
Matsuwaka-Maro, upon hearing this, was greatly disappointed and in his urgent desire for immediate ordination composed and recited the following verse expressing the futility and unreliability of life:
Like cherry blossoms are the hearts that
Tomorrow they think they might.
For who can tell but there may be a tempest in the night.
The chief abbot was deeply impressed by these words and seeing the firm determination of the young boy, disregarded the lateness of the hour and performed the ritual. The venerable Jichin himself took up the duties of the ordination and the name Hannen was bestowed upon Matsuwaka-Maro.
Twenty Years on Mount Hiyei
For several months the venerable Jichin tested the abilities of the young pupil, and in January of the following year (1182) he took Hannen to Mount Hiyei, then the scholastic centre for Buddhist studies. Hannen was left at the Daijo-in Monastery where among a number of fellow students he started his life and study as a Buddhist monk. Under various scholars he devoted himself to learning the philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism, especially of the Tendai Sect. At times he went to Nara and Horyuji Monastery for research in Hinayana teachings.
Year after year his study progressed and his priestly rank rose accordingly, until at length he was appointed the chief abbot of Shoko-in Monastery at the age of twenty-five. All who knew him were so greatly impressed by his unusual talent and zeal that they came to look on him as the future chief abbot of all the monasteries on Mount Hiyei.
In spite of all this success, Hannen was not satisfied. He could not yield to the temptation of occupying a conspicuous place as a high priest, for he found himself an ordinary minded man full of lusts and passions, deserving no high rank. "Though I try to pacify my mind in meditation," he is said to have declared, "the waves of lusts rise up incessantly. Though I try to see clearly the moon of One-Mindedness, the clouds of passions still come to intercept. The moment this one breath is not followed by another, my life shall be lost forever more. How can I indulge in the vanity of a transient life! How can I blind myself to the hypocritical disciplines and studies!"
His purpose in becoming a monk was not to gain the fame of high priesthood; his, was to discover the way of deliverance from this imperfect world for the sake of all the people. And having found his twenty years of living on Mount Hiyei a miserable failure, he determined to seek the true way.
In the "Life of Shonin Shinran" by Shonin Kakunyo, it says "During the first year of Kennin (1201 A.D.) when Shonin Shinran was twenty-nine years of age, his earnest heart, ever intent on spiritual and unworldly things, induced him to call on the venerable Genku in whom the Shin Sect finds a most illustrious transmitter of its doctrine, took especial pains to explain to him in a most exhaustive matter the essentials of his teaching and their ultimate significance. As soon as this was done, Shonin Shinran instantly came to realize the innermost meaning of the doctrine of salvation through Amida Buddha and his all-embracing love for sentient beings; and to his heart's fullest content, he found his faith firmly established in the truth that leads every sentient being, however ignorant, to the direct path of the Pure Land."
Thus having been awakened through Master Genku's cordial guidance, Hannen stood bravely on the firm rock of faith, and determined to devote his whole life for the propagation of the doctrine and to deliver all people from this suffering world. He settled down at Okazaki, not very far from the Master's place and became a disciple of Shonin Honen and received the name of Shakku. At this time, he was twenty-nine years of age. From that time, for a period of six years, he made a daily visit to Yoshimizu from his humble dwelling at Okazaki to receive the Teachings of Shonin Honen. Above all, in March, of the second year of the Genku (1205), he received the important Treatise of his Master, the Senjaku Hongwan Nenbutsu Shu.
The fact that he received this Treatise and that he had married Princess Tamahi, the daughter of Kwampaka Kujo Kanezane, at the request of the Master, show that among the many disciples Shonin Shinran was the one most trusted. By the marriage, when Shinran was thirty-one, Shonin Honen and Shonin Shinran proposed to break the barrier between priest and layman in order to show the public a concrete demonstration of their firm faith that spiritual purity is more essential than mere outward devotions and formalities and that the Compassion of Amida Buddha is so great and universal as to come to everybody, whatever life he may lead, married or celibate.
When the priests of the old schools saw the new movement of the salvation through faith in the Nembutsu gaining popularity among the people, they began to be jealous. This jealousy gradually heightened to malice, till they finally came to court complaining of the new movement on the ground that the new faith was absolutely against the Buddha's law and might lead innocent people to do wrong. As the result of this complaint, Genku and Shinran, together with other prominent disciples, were sentenced to exile in 1207- Genku to Tosa Province and Shonin Shinran to Kokubu in Echigo Province.
But to these teachers of the Nembutsu, banishment was not a punishment; they looked upon it as an opportunity for evangelism. "If my Great Teacher, the Venerable Genku, was not sent away into a remote province by the authorities," said Shonin Shinran, who was thirty-five years old at this time, "how should I ever be sent into exile, and if I did not live a life of banishment, how could I hope to have the opportunity to convert the people living in the remote districts? This too must be ascribed to the Grace of the Teachings of my Master." Burning with such zeal, he availed himself of every opportunity to preach his faith all along the way to exile.
The Venerable Shonen Honen, although the orders for his pardon arrived later during the year he was exiled, was however, not permitted to enter Kyoto; therefore, he stopped at the Kachi-Ojo Temple. Finally, three years later, he was permitted to return to Kyoto. On Shonin Shinran, too, was bestowed an order pardoning him. Shonin Shinran wished to meet his master immediately, but due to the deep snows he left Echigo the following year and made his way toward Kyoto. On the way he learned of the passing of his Teacher on January 25. Because, in his sorrow, he felt that there was no further use in his going to Kyoto, he returned once more to Echigo. There he started anew, wandering from place to place preaching the law as he went. It is said that he first used the name Shinran at this time.
After roaming about through provincial towns and villages, Shonin Shinran settled at Inada, Hitachi Province, in 1217, when he was forty-five years old. Though this cottage was a lonely one far from towns, there was always a large number of anxious truth seekers, noble and lowly, lay and monks, who knocked at his rustic gate. His long-cherished desire to see the Buddha's law widely propagated as well as his ever-abiding prayer for the welfare of all sentient beings was thus satisfactorily brought to consummation. It was at this place, when he was fifty-two years old, that he wrote his famous work, the "Teaching, Practice, Faith and Attainment" (Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho) and laid the foundation of the Shin Sect.
The hymn of True Faith, Shoshinge, which is widely read for religious services, is an expression of Faith in the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Eternal Life and Light. The original hymn written in the form of Chinese blank verse gives detailed explanations of the principal tents of the Buddha's religion and quotes for each point theological testimonies from the Sacred Scriptures and authentic literatures. And, therefore, it may be said to be a synopsis of the teachings of the Shin Sect.
Later Years in Kyoto
Shonin Shinran spent twenty-five years of his life in those provincial countries always wandering from place to place except for the few years' settlement at Inada, and strove for the spiritual welfare of the people. In 1232, when he reached the age of sixty, he started on his way back to Kyoto, reaching the Capital in 1235.
In the Life of Shonin Shinran, it says "After returning to his native city, Shonin Shinran reflected upon the past, and realizing how years come and go like a dream or a vision, he came to look upon his earthly abode in the metropolis as a thing not worth troubling his mind. He moved from one place to another, sometimes in the West and sometimes in the East. Among such places there was one near Gojo-Hishi-no-Toin to which he took a fancy for a while as he considered the view very fine. Here gathered those disciples of his, coming from various quarters, who in former days had received his personal instructions, and renewed their friendship.
During this time he wrote many religious books, which are now contained in the Canonical Books of the Shin Sect. Toward the later part of mid-winter in the third year of Kocho (1263), Shonin Shinran showed symptoms of a slight indisposition, and after this his wards never referred to earthly things, dwelling only on how deeply grateful he was to the Buddha; he uttered nothing but the name of Amida-Buddha, which he constantly repeated. On the twenty-eighth day of the same month (January 16th of the following year in the solar calendar) at noon he laid himself on his right side with his head toward the North, and face toward the West, and when at least his recitation of the Buddha's Holy Name was heard no more, he had passed away. He was then just completing his ninetieth year."
Just before his death, it is said that he wrote:
Though I, my life having run its course,
Return to the Pure Land of Eternal Rest,
Come back shall I to earth again and again
Even as the waves of Wakano-ura Bay.
When alone you rejoice in the Sacred Teachings
Believe that there are two.
And when there are two to rejoice
Believe that there are three
And that other shall be Shinran.
Shonin Shinran taught that he who believes in Amida Buddha's Divine Will and surrenders himself wholly to his marvelous power, though he remains unchanged in form, is actually endowed with the seeds of Buddhahood. As the seed germinates when planted in soil, so the merits contained in the faithful heart are manifested in full glory when the believer is reborn in the Pure Land, to become completely one with Amida who is boundless in Life and in Light. One who is reunited with Amida not only enjoys heavenly happiness in the Pure Land with Him, but also finds joy in helping His holy work of saving his fellow beings from the sea of birth and death.
Shonin Shinran has not vanished into another world. He lives among mankind in order to guide them into the presence of Amida Buddha. And rightly has he said,
Although my body will pass away,
Forever my teaching shall live;
As fresh as the green grass of Wakano-ura Bay
So long as human beings live.