Shinran teaches that this activity manifests itself as Amida Buddha, who resolved to save all beings by bringing into his Pure Land, the realm of enlightenment, all who say his Name, entrusting themselves to his Vow. He thus performed practices for long eons and fulfilled this Vow, so that his Name, Namu Amida Butsu, came to resound throughout the universe, awakening all beings to the reality of great compassion.
Saying the Name results in birth into the Pure Land, not because it is a good act that people perform, but because it is the activity of Amida Buddha himself giving the virtues of his own practice to them. Shinran therefore stresses that genuine nembutsu arises naturally and spontaneously from the Buddha's mind that unfolds itself in us and transforms our minds into wisdom and compassion.
As long as we perform religious practices or say the nembutsu contriving to achieve Buddhahood, our acts are based on attachment to our own goodness. In fact, we constantly cling to imagined selves that we take to be permanent and real, seeking to enhance and protect ourselves by erecting barriers against all that we see as standing apart. Thus arise the feelings that poison ordinary life - desire, envy, anger, fear. Acts rooted in such anxiety and self-attachment can only lead to further pain.
A mind of true sincerity and authentic trust arises when we genuinely hear and are grasped by Amida's Primal Vow, and realize that our own designs are futile and unnecessary. Seeing ourselves with the Buddha's wisdom, we perceive for the first time that all our acts arise from egocentric passions. Nevertheless, this is at the same time to know that Amida's light and life pervade our existence just as we are.
When karmic bonds to this life end with death, people of the nembutsu go to the Pure Land. But with their fulfillment of perfect wisdom-compassion, they return immediately to this world in the dynamic activity of bringing all beings to awakening.
The following passages, although brief, reveal the essential elements
of Shinran's religious awakening: the realization of the Buddha's wisdom-compassion
working in one's existence in the immediate present, coupled with insight
into the actual nature of the bound and ignorant self.
Words of Shinran
Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) was born at the close of the Heian period, when political power was passing from the imperial court into the hands of warrior clans. It was during this era when the old order was crumbling, however, that Japanese Buddhism, which had been declining into formalism for several centuries, underwent intense renewal, giving birth to new paths to enlightenment and spreading to every level of society.
Shinran was born into the aristocratic Hino family, a branch of the
Fujiwara clan, and his father, Arinori, at one time served at court.
At the age of nine, however, Shinran entered the Tendai temple on Mt.
Hiei, where he spent twenty years in monastic life. From the familiarity
with Buddhist writings apparent in his later works, it is clear that
he exerted great effort in his studies during this period. He probably
also performed such practices as continuous recitation of the nembutsu
for prolonged periods.
When he was twenty-nine, Shinran undertook a long retreat at Rokkakudo
temple in Kyoto to determine his future course. At dawn on the ninety-fifth
day, Prince Shotoku appeared to him in a dream. Shinran took this as
a sign that he should seek out Honen, and went to hear his teaching
daily for a hundred days. He then abandoned his former Tendai practices
and joined Honen's movement.
Shinran was stripped of his priesthood, given a layman's name, and exiled to Echigo (Niigata) on the Japan Sea coast. About this time, he married Eshinni and began raising a family. He declared himself "neither monk nor layman." Though incapable of fulfilling monastic discipline or good works, precisely because of this, he was grasped by Amida's compassionate activity. He therefore chose for himself the name Gutoku, "foolish/shaven," indicating the futility of attachment to one's own intellect and goodness.
He was pardoned after five years, but decided not to return to Kyoto.
Instead, in 1214, at the age of forty-two, he made his way into the
Kanto region, where he spread the nembutsu teaching for twenty years,
building a large movement among the peasants and lower samurai.
Return to Kyoto
It is from this period that most of his writings stem. He completed his major work, popularly known as Kyogyoshinsho, and composed hundreds of hymns in which he rendered the Chinese scriptures accessible to ordinary people. At this time, problems in understanding the teaching arose among his followers in the Kanto area, and he wrote numerous letters and commentaries seeking to resolve them.
There were people who asserted that one should strive to say the nembutsu as often as possible, and others who insisted that true entrusting was manifested in saying the nembutsu only once, leaving all else to Amida. Shinran rejected both sides as human contrivance based on attachment to the nembutsu as one's own good act. Since genuine nembutsu arises from true entrusting that is Amida's working in a person, the number of times it is said is irrelevant.
Further, there were some who claimed that since Amida's Vow was intended to save people incapable of good, one should feel free to commit evil. For Shinran, however, emancipation meant freedom not to do whatever one wished, but freedom from bondage to the claims of egocentric desires and emotions. He therefore wrote that with deep trust in Amida's Vow, one came to genuine awareness of one's own evil.
Near the end of his life, Shinran was forced to disown his eldest son Zenran, who caused disruptions among the Kanto following by claiming to have received a secret teaching from Shinran. Nevertheless, his creative energy continued to his death at ninety, and his works manifest an increasingly rich, mature, and articulate vision of human existence that reveals him to be one of Japan's most profound and original religious thinkers.
Copyright Jodo Shinshu Hogwanji 2002