The Jodo Shin School

The “True” Pure Land

Shinran (1173-1262) is certainly the most well-known of Honen’s disciples. In fact, he is better known than Honen, having forming his own school called Jodo Shin (the True Pure Land school, Jodo shin shu) which became the largest school of Buddhism in Japan. He was born in Kyoto, becoming a Tendai monk in 1181, and eventually coming to study under Honen in 1201. In the Kenei Persecution of 1207 when Honen was sent into exile, Shinran was also exiled to Echigo in Niigata prefecture in northeast Japan. In 1212 he traveled south into the provinces of Kanto where he remained to teach for over twenty years.

Although he returned to the capital in 1235, his life and work were not as well documented or known at the time as some of Honen’s other disciples like Ryukan, Shoku, and Bencho. This is witnessed by Nichiren’s criticisms of the
nembutsu movement around 1260 which singled out Honen but did not mention Shinran. As such, his encounters with Honen and his life work are not well documented in early Jodo school (Jodo shu) writings. Nevertheless, other sources have well documented his life and work. And Shinran himself wrote a number of important works, such as The True Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way (Kyogyoshinsho), the earliest existing compilation of Honen's words called A Teaching to the Western Land (Saihoshinansho), and Lamenting the Deviations (Tannisho), a collection of his words.

Shinran in his teaching emphasized more greatly faith and the all-encompassing other-power (tariki) of Amida. So in certain ways, his teaching has some similarities with Kosai’s “single calling” teaching. Even though Shinran had no objection to any number of recitations, he did emphasize an absolute value in one. He felt that one recitation best expressed the way of salvation which Amida chose as the easiest possible for all persons. From the standpoint of faith, the “single calling” coincides with the moment in which faith arises in the mind and also expresses the deep joy of that faith in Amida Buddha’s wonderful compassion. In such a deeply believing recitation, there is enough karmic merit to bring the person to Birth in the Pure Land. From the time that a person attains this faith, his or her nembutsu repetitions are all prompted by a joyous gratitude toward Amida Buddha for the compassion that has now saved them - they are no longer calls for salvation. The power to bring about this emancipating faith is not on the part of the person but is Amida’s gift. And so one simply focuses on giving deep praise to this compassionate and emancipating power of Amida, while leaving behind all other practices. As a person already fully embraced by Amida, one should go through life expressing this by following basic morality and ethics, and fulfilling one’s duties to family, community and the larger society. Thus, to make a broad generalization, the nembutsu of Honen and the Jodo school represents more the process of establishing of a deep relationship with Amida Buddha, while the nembutsu of Shinran and the Jodo Shin school represents a recognition of that ever present relationship to Amida’s grace. In this way, the Pure Land for Jodo school believers is more of an existential place one goes to after death through establishing a firm relationship with Amida, while the Pure Land for Jodo Shin followers is none other than this world when it is illuminated by Amida’s power. Together, these two notions of nembutsu and Pure Land compliment each other by providing a means to confront both life and death.

Precepts, Ethics and Tolerance in the Way of Faith

In a certain way, Shinran developed the full practical implications of Honen's single-minded nembutsu practice (senju-nembutsu), which sees the monastic precepts as different kinds of auxiliary practices (irui-no-jogo) of a spirituality focused on faith in Amida Buddha. Although Honen observed the precepts, specifically celibacy, through to his death, Shinran explored this teaching to the fullest by marrying and having children openly. Although there had been cases previously of monks marrying and having children, Shinran was revolutionary in using his understanding of total reliance on Amida to legitimize such a lifestyle within Buddhist monastic practice.

His exile and separation from Honen in 1207 appears to mark his entry into this way of life as shown in this reflection, “The emperor and his ministers, acting against the Dharma and violating human rectitude, became enraged and embittered. As a result, Master Honen – the eminent founder who had enabled the true essence of the Pure Land way to spread vigorously – and a number of his followers, without receiving any deliberation of their crimes, were summarily sentenced to death or were stripped of their monkhood, given secular names, and consigned to distant banishment. I was among the latter. Hence, I have taken the term
Toku (‘stubble-haired’) as my name.”[1]

By the 15th century, this lifestyle had become institutionalized among priests in Shinran's Jodo Shin school. However, the monks of Honen’s Jodo school lineage continued to uphold the Tendai precepts in outward form through this time. In the Edo Period (1600-1868), although these standard Mahayana precepts became state law applying to all monks, Jodo Shin priests were exempted while the Jodo school officially adopted the
nembutsu as their single precept. The final step in the transformation of the Buddhist monk in Japan was the Meiji edict of April 1872 concerning monks. This edict allowed monks under state law to eat meat, marry, grow hair, take on a family name, and not wear robes except at services. This edict was the final institutionalization of what was once regarded as Honen's and Shinran’s outrageous interpretation of the essentials of Buddhist practice.

Although Shinran’s almost extreme emphasis on faith over practice may seem at odds with Honen’s balance of the two, Shinran himself felt that he taught precisely the same as Honen, writing, "As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, 'Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida,’ nothing else is involved." He became so devoted to Honen that he once wrote, "If I should be cheated by Honen Shonin and by practicing the nembutsu fall into hell, I would never regret it." And although he spent a relatively short period with Honen, just 6 years, the closeness between them is confirmed by Honen’s giving to Shinran a copy of the Senchakushu. Indeed, Shinran never saw himself at odds with the mainstream of the nembutsu movement and the other core disciples of Honen, as seen in these words of warning to his own followers:

Please read the copies of Seikaku’s Essentials on Faith Alone (Yui shinsho), Ryukan’s On Self-power and Other-power (Jiriki tariki no koto), and other tracts I sent earlier. Such men are the best teachers for our times. Since they have already been Born in the Pure Land, nothing can surpass what is written in their tracts. They understood Master Honen’s teaching fully and for this reason attained perfect Birth….. You must not do what should not be done, think what should not be thought, or say what should not be said, thinking that you can be Born in the Pure Land regardless of it. Human beings are such that maddened by the affliction of greed, we desire to possess; maddened by the affliction of anger, we hate that which should not be hated, seeking to go against the law of cause and effect; led astray by the affliction of ignorance, we do what should not even be thought. But the person who purposely thinks and does what he or she should not, saying that it is permissible because of the Buddha's wondrous Vow to save the foolish being, does not truly desire to reject the world, nor does such a one consciously feel himself a being of karmic evil…. In recent years the teaching of nembutsu has undergone so many alterations, it is hardly necessary for me to comment on them; nevertheless, for people who have carefully received the teaching of the late Master it is still as it originally was, undergoing no change at all. This is well known, so I am sure you have heard about it. Although people who teach variant views of the Pure Land teaching are all disciples of the Master, they rephrase the teaching in their own ways, confusing themselves and misleading others. This is truly deplorable. Even in the capital there are many who are going astray; how much more this is so in the provinces I have little desire to know.”[2]

Although Shinran and other disciples in his lineage, such the great Rennyo, called for respecting not only aspects of the wider Buddhist tradition but the deities of other religions, nembutsu faith often became a weapon for the peasants to resist the autocratic and oppressive control of local, regional and even national authorities. Especially, during Rennyo’s life in the 15th century, bands of Jodo Shin nembutsu followers called ikko-ikki led rebellions against local authorities, often targeting local shrines which housed the protector deities of these authorities and powerful landowners. They legitimized their disloyalty to the authorities by referring to the greater, all-encompassing power of Amida Buddha through which only single-minded devotion leads to salvation. In this way, both Rennyo and Shinran found the need to appeal to civil law and daily ethics to try to maintain order within their movements.

Shinran once wrote, “You should know that this faith (
shinjin) is bestowed through the compassionate means of Shakyamuni, Amida and all the Buddhas in the quarters. Therefore, you should not disparage the teachings of other Buddhas or the people who perform good acts other than the nembutsu. Neither should you despise those who scorn and slander people of the nembutsu; rather, you should have compassion and care for them. This was Honen’s teaching.”[3]


[1] Shinran’s The True Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way (Kyogyoshinsho), section 117 in The Collected Works of Shinran (Kyoto: Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, 1997), p. 289.

[2] Shinran’s Lamp for the Latter Ages (Mattosho), section 19 in The Collected Works of Shinran, p.550-551.

[3] Shinran’s Lamp for the Latter Ages (Mattosho), section 2 in The Collected Works of Shinran, p.527.

Portrait of Shinran - courtesy the Nara Museum.

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