Shinran (1173-1262) was a Japanese Buddhist monk, born in Hino village near Kyoto. He lived at the turbulent close of the Heian Period and during the succeeding Kamakura Period. Shinran was a pupil of Honen and the founder of what ultimately became the Jodo Shinshu sect in Japan.
Shinran came from a middle-ranked nobleman's lineage and at the age of 9, due to the loss of his parents he became a monk apprentice. Soon after, he studied at Mt. Hiei, one of the centers of Buddhism in Japan at that time. For the next 20 years of his life, he very earnestly underwent various hard practices as a monk, including the constant practice Samadhi, which practice consists in walking around a statue of Amida Buddha for 90 days while calling his name and thinking of him.
Whatever practice he might devote himself to, he could not obtain enlightenment only to realize how full of evil passions he himself was. He sought for salvation visiting various sacred places and finally took a retreat at the temple of Rokkakudo. While there, he had a revelatory message from Avalokitesvara and went to see Honen.
Honen, who had been disillusioned with the Hiei Buddhism and started the exclusive practice of nembutsu guided by Shantao's teaching, warmly led Shinran to believe in this nembutsu. Shinran's relief was such that he later reflected:
"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 was personally allowed to see his teacher's secret publication Senjakushu and to make a portrait of him, At the age of 35 the ban of the nembutsu was unreasonably declared by the emperor, who was pressed by the Hieizan and Nara Buddhist Orders. Honen was exiled to Shikoku and Shinran to Echigo, presently Niigata.
This exile was a great chance to deepen his religious thought; he renamed himself Gutoku Shinran (gu means foolish and toku means thinly haired, implying neither a shaved monk nor a layman).
Four years later he was released from his exile but he did not return to Kyoto as his teacher Honen was already dead. Instead he left for Inada, an area north to Tokyo (Ibaraki Prefecture now) with his family. (Incidentally he is said to have married in Kyoto at the age of 30 or so.)
He was engaged in teaching the nembutsu to the people there for about 20 years. By and by his disciples increased and at the age of 52 he wrote the Kyogyoshinsho, his greatest work as the basis of Jodo Shinshu. He intended to clarify Honen's true shinjin in the nembutsu, since many of Honen's disciples mistook their teacher's true thought. Shinran especially placed stress on "shinjitsu" or truth.
|Shinran Shonin: "Portrait on Bear-fur Seat"|
Around the age of 60 or more Shinran returned to Kyoto probably to completely edit his lifework while his wife Eshin-ni returned to Echigo with her children. She is said to have had some estate there.
Towards the end of his seventies Shinran was troubled by the deviations in shinjin among his disciples in the Kanto area, so hedispatched his eldest son Zenran or Jishinbo there to pacify theturbulence. However, Zenran was not welcomed by them, which led him to dare to claim initiations from his father Shinran. This confused the situation all the more, and Shinran was forced to disown his own son with tears. He was 84 years old then.
About a year of personal depression, on February 9 before dawn, when he was 85, Shinran had a revelation of wasan or a hymn in his dream:
Entrust yourself to Amida's Primal Vow.
Through the benefit of being grasped, never to be
All who entrust themselves to the Primal Vow
Attain the supreme enlightenment.
Encouraged by this revelation, Shinran started to express his deep gratitude that he could encounter Amida's Primal Vow in the collection of Pure Land Hymns on the Right, Semblance, and Last Dharma Ages. He continued to write other books and notes until 88 years of age.
He took his last breath of Nembutsu peacefully at the age of 90 attended on by his youngest daughter Kakushin-ni. She soon notified his death to her mother Eshin-ni in Echigo. Later her grandson Kakunyo founded Honganji Temple and established the basis of Jodo Shinshu or the True Pure Land Buddhism.