Jōdo Shinshū (浄土真宗 "True Pure Land School"), also known as Shin Buddhism, was founded by the former Tendai Japanese monk Shinran Shonin (1173-1263), himself a disciple of Honen (1133-1212). Both Shinran and Honen saw the age they were living in as a degenerate time where human beings could no longer extricate themselves from Samsara (the cycle of birth and death) through their own power of jiriki (自力); therefore, Shinran advocated reliance on tariki (the other power (他力) of Amida Buddha) in order to attain liberation. Like other schools of Pure Land Buddhism, the central focus of Jodo Shinshu is devotion to Amida Buddha manifested through a chanting practice called the nembutsu (mindful recitation of the phrase Namu Amida Butsu meaning "I take refuge in Amida Buddha".)
Shinran eventually established his own distinct Pure Land school, which taught that only nembutsu practice was necessary for liberation so other traditional practices were no longer needed for Buddhists.
In contemporary times, Jodo Shinshu is one of the most widely followed forms of Buddhism in Japan. Today, there are ten distinct sects of Jodo Shinshu, and all ten schools will commemorate the 750th memorial of their founder, Shinran Shonin, in 2011 in Kyoto, Japan.
Shinran Shonin (shonin means eminent priest) (1173-1263) lived during the late-Heian early-Kamakura period (1185-1333), a time of turmoil for Japan when the Emperor was stripped of political power by the Shoguns. Shinran's family had a high rank at the Imperial court in Kyoto, but given the times many aristocratic families were sending sons off to be Buddhist monks instead of having them participate in the bakufu ("tent") government. When Shinran was nine (1181) he was sent by his uncle to Mt. Hiei, where he was ordained as a Tendai monk. Over time, Shinran became disillusioned with what Buddhism in Japan had become, foreseeing a decline in the potency and practicality of the teachings espoused.
Shinran left his role as doso ("Practice-Hall Monk") at Mount Hiei and undertook a 100-day retreat at Rokkakudo temple in Kyoto, where he had a dream on the 95th day. In this dream, Prince Shotoku (in Japan he is sometimes regarded as an incarnation of |Kannon Bosatsu) appeared to him, espousing a pathway to enlightenment through verse. Following the retreat, in 1201, Shinran left Mt. Hiei to study under Honen for the next six years. Honen (1133-1212), who was once a Tendai monk as well, left the tradition in 1175 to found his own sect, Jodo shu ("Pure Land School"). During this period, Honen taught Shinran and other followers the concept of nembutsu-only (recitation of Amida's name) and amassed a substantial following. In 1207, the Buddhist establishments of Kyoto persuaded the Kamakura bakufu to proscribe Honen's teachings. The ban is believed to have been motivated by fears of the growing popularity of Honen, and the doctrine that only nembutsu practice was necessary, which excluded the teaching and practices of the other Buddhist schools of the time. The nembutsu-only teaching was perceived not only as a heterodox teaching but a threat to the safety of the nation, since Buddhist rituals were believed to ensure peace and stability. Honen and Shinran were forced into exile, and four of Honen's disciples were executed. Shinran was given a lay name and moved to Echigo province (today Niigata Prefecture).
It was during his exile that Shinran cultivated a deeper understanding of his own beliefs, the Pure Land teachings of Honen, and eventually rejected the traditional monastic code. In 1210, he married Eshinni, the daughter of an aristocrat of Echigo Province, and thereafter had several children. His eldest son, Zenran, was alleged to have created a heretical sect of Pure Land Buddhism through claims that he received special teachings from his father, and demanded control of local monto (lay follower groups), but eventually, Shinran disowned him in 1256. Shinran's daughter, Kakushinni, was instrumental in preserving Shinran's teachings after his death.
In 1211, the nembutsu ban was lifted and Shinran was pardoned. In 1212, Honen died in Kyoto. Shinran never saw Honen following their exile, although he always considered himself a disciple of Honen, rather than a founder establishing his own, distinct Pure Land school. In the year of Honen's death, Shinran set out for the Kantō area of Japan, where he established a substantial following and began committing his ideas to writing. In 1224, he wrote his most significant book, the Kyogyoshinsho ("The True Teaching, Practice, Faith and Attainment of the Pure Land"), which contained several excerpts from the Three Pure Land sutras and the Nirvana Sutra along with his own commentaries.
In 1234, at the age of 60, Shinran left Kantō for Kyoto (Eshinni stayed in Echigo and she may have outlived Shinran by several years), where he dedicated the rest of his years to writing. It was during this time that he wrote the Wasans, a collection of verses summarizing his teachings for his followers to recite. In the last years of his life his daughter Kakushinni cared for him, and his mausoleum later became Honganji ('The Temple of the Original Vow'). Shinran died at the age of 90 in 1263.
Following Shinran's death, the lay Shin monto slowly spread through the Kantō and the northeastern seaboard. Shinran's descendents maintained themselves as caretakers of Shinran's gravesite and as Shin teachers, although they continued to be ordained in the Tendai School. Some of Shinran's disciples founded their own schools of Shin Buddhism, such as the Bukko-ji and Kosho-ji, in Kyoto. Early Shin Buddhism did not truly flourish until the time of Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499), who was 8th in descent from Shinran Shonin. Through his charisma and prostelytizing, Shin Buddhism was able to amass a greater following and grow in strength. In the sixteenth-century, during Japan's Sengoku Period the political power of Hongwanji led to several conflicts between the Hongwanji and the warlord Oda Nobunaga, culminating in a 10-year conflict over the location of the Osaka Hongwanji, which Oda Nobunaga coveted because of its strategic value. So strong did the sect become that in 1602, through mandate of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, the main temple of Hongwanji in Kyoto was broken off into two sects to curb the Hongwanji's power. These two sects, the Nishi (Western) Hongwanji, and the Higashi (Eastern) Hongwanji, exist separate to this day.
During the time of Shinran Shonin, followers would gather in informal meeting houses called dojo, and had an informal liturgical structure. However, as time went on, as this lack of cohesion and structure caused Jodo Shinshu to gradually lose its identity as a distinct sect, as people began mixing other Buddhist practices with Shin ritual. One common example was the Mantra of Light popularized by Myoe and Shingon Buddhism. Other Pure Land Buddhist practices, such as the nembutsu odori or "dancing nembutsu" as practiced by the followers of Ippen and the Ji School, may have also been adopted by early Shin Buddhists. Rennyo ended these practices by formalizing much of the Jodo Shinshu ritual and liturgy, and revived the thinning community at the Hongwanji temple while asserting newfound political power. Rennyo also proselytized widely among other Pure Land sects, and consolidated most of the smaller Shin sects. Today, there are still 10 distinct sects of Jodo Shinshu, Nishi and Higashi Hongwanji being the two largest.
Rennyo Shonin is generally credited by Shin Buddhists for reversing the stagnation of the early Jodo Shinshu community, and is considered the "Second Founder" of Jodo Shinshu. His portrait picture, along with Shinan Shonin's, are present on the onaijin (altar area) of most Jodo Shinshu temples. However, Rennyo Shonin has also been criticized by some Shin scholars for his engagement in medieval politics and his alleged divergences from Shinran's original thought.
Following the unification of Japan during the Edo Period, Jodo Shinshu Buddhism adapted, along with the other Japanese Buddhist schools, into providing memorial and funeral services for its registered members (danka seido), which was legally required by the Tokugawa shogunate in order to prevent the spread of Christianity in Japan. The danka seido system continues to exist today, although not as strictly as in the premodern period, causing Japanese Buddhism to also be labeled as "Funeral Buddhism" since it became the primary function of Buddhist temples. The Hongwanji also created an impressive academic tradition, which led to the founding of Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan, and formalized many of the Jodo Shinshu traditions which are still followed today. Following the Meiji Restoration and the subsequent persecution of Buddhism (haibatsu kishaku) in the late 1800s, Jodo Shinshu managed to survive intact due to the devotion of its monto (lay-groups). During World War II, the Hongwanji, as with the other Japanese Buddhist schools, was compelled to support the policies of the military government and the cult of State Shinto, although it subsequently apologized for its wartime actions.
In contemporary times, Jodo Shinshu is one of the most widely followed forms of Buddhism in Japan, although like other sects of Japanese Buddhism it faces challenges from many popular New Religious Movements (known in Japan as shin shinkyo religions, which emerged following World War II), and the growing secularization and materialism of Japanese society
All ten schools of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism will commemorate the 750th memorial of their founder, Shinran Shonin, in 2011 in Kyoto, Japan.
Shinran's thought was strongly influenced by the doctrine of Mappō, a largely Mahayana eschatology that claims humanity's ability to listen to and practice the Buddha-Dharma (the Buddhist teachings) deteriorates over time and loses effectiveness in bringing individual practitioners closer to Buddhahood. This belief was particularly widespread in early medieval China, and in Japan at the end of the Heian Period. Shinran, like his mentor Honen, saw the age he was living in as being a degenerate one where beings cannot hope to be able to extricate themselves from the cycle of birth and death through their own power, or jiriki (自力). For both Honen and Shinran, all conscious efforts towards achieving enlightenment and realizing the Bodhisattva ideal were contrived and rooted in selfish ignorance; for humans of this age are so deeply rooted in karmic evil as to be incapable of developing the truly altruistic compassion that is requisite to becoming a Bodhisattva.
Due to his awareness of human limitations, Shinran advocated reliance on tariki, or other power (他力)—the power of Amida Buddha's made manifest in Amida Buddha's Primal Vow—in order to attain liberation. Shin Buddhism can therefore be understood as a "practiceless practice," for there are no specific acts to be performed such as there are in the "Path of Sages" (the other Buddhist schools of the time that advocated 'jiriki' ('self-power'). In Shinran's own words, Shin Buddhism is considered the "Easy Path" because one is not compelled to perform many difficult, and often esoteric, practices in order to attain higher and higher mental states.
The basis for Shinran's thought comes from his mentor, Honen, who founded the related Jodo Shu sect, but in some ways Shinran diverged. For example Honen, like many medieval Japanese, considered Amida Buddha to be a Samboghakaya Buddha, while Shinran considered Amida to be the Dharmakaya itself, manifested as compassion.
Like other Buddhist schools, Amida is a central focus of the Buddhist practice, and Jodo Shinshu expresses this devotion through a chanting practice called the nembutsu, or "Mindfulness of the Buddha [Amida]." The nembutsu is simply reciting the phrase Namu Amida Butsu ("I take refuge in Amida Buddha"). Jodo Shinshu was not the first school of Buddhism to practice the nembutsu but it interpreted the Nembutsu in a new way. Shinran understood the nembutsu as an act that expressed gratitude to Amida Buddha, which is evoked in the practitioner through the power of Amida's unobstructed compassion. Therefore, the nembutsu in Shin Buddhism is not considered a practice, nor does it generate karmic merit. It is simply an affirmation of one's gratitude.
This aspect contrasts with the related Jodo Shu school that promoted a combination of repetition of the nembutsu and devotion to Amida as a means to birth in the Pure Land. It also contrasts with other Buddhist schools in China and Japan, where the nembutsu was part of a more elaborate ritual.
In another departure from more traditional Pure Land schools of Buddhism, Shinran Shonin advocated that birth in the Pure Land was peace in the midst of life rather than at death. When one entrusts themselves to Amida Buddha birth there is settled at that moment. This is equivalent to the stage of non-retrogression along the bodhisattva path, a characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism, or shinjin.
Many Pure Land Buddhist schools in the time of Shinran felt that birth in the Pure Land was a literal rebirth that occurred only upon death, and only after certain preliminary rituals. Elaborate rituals were used to guaranteed rebirth in the Pure Land, including a common practice where one's fingers were tied by strings to a painting or image of Amida Buddha. From the perspective of Jodo Shinshu, such rituals actually betrayed a lack of trust in Amida Buddha, and relied on jiriki ("self-power"), rather than the tariki or "other-power" of Amida Buddha. Such rituals also favored those who could afford the time and energy to practice them or possess the necessary ritual objects, which was another obstacle for lower-class individuals. For Shinran Shonin, who closely followed the thought of the Chinese monk T'an-Luan, the Pure Land is synonymous with nirvana.
The goal of the Shin path, or at least the practicer's present life, is the attainment of shinjin (信心 True Entrusting) in the Other Power of Amida. Shinjin is sometimes translated as faith but more accurately this word is translated as "True Entrusting" or simply left untranslated. To achieve shinjin is to unite one's mind with Amida through the total renunciation of self effort in attaining enlightenment; to take refuge entirely in Other Power. Shinjin arises from jinen (自然 naturalness, spontaneous working of the Vow) and cannot be achieved solely through conscious effort. A practicioner of Shinjin is letting go of conscious effort in a sense, and simply trusting Amida Buddha, and the nembutsu.
For Jodo Shinshu practitioners, shinjin develops over time through "deep hearing" of Amida's call of the nembutsu. Jinen also describes the way of naturalness whereby Amida's infinite light illumines and transforms the deeply rooted karmic evil of countless rebirths into good karma. It is of note that such evil karma is not destroyed but rather transformed: Shin stays within the Mahayana tradition's understanding of sunyata, or emptiness, and understands that samsara and Nirvana are not separate. Once the practicer's mind is united with Amida and Buddha nature is gifted to the practicer through shinjin, the practicer then attains the state of non-retrogression, whereupon after death the practicioner will achieve instantaneous and effortless enlightenment.
The Tannisho is a thirteenth century book of recorded sayings attributed to Shinran, transcribed with commentary by Yuien-bo, a disciple of Shinran. The word Tannisho is a phrase which means "A record [of the words of Shinran] set down in lamentation over departures from his [Shinran's] teaching." While it is a short text, it is one of the most popular because practitioners see Shinran in a more informal setting.
For centuries, the text was almost unknown to the majority of Shin Buddhists. In the fifteenth century, Rennyo Shonin, Shinran's descendent, wrote of it, "This writing is an important one in our tradition. It should not be indiscriminately shown to anyone who lacks the past karmic good." Rennyo Shonin's personal copy of the Tannisho is the earliest extant copy. Kiyozawa Manshi (1863-1903) revitalized interest in the Tannisho, which indirectly helped to spawn the Dobokai Movement of 1962.
Earlier schools of Buddhism that came to Japan, including the Tendai and Shingon sects, gained acceptance because of the way they meshed the Buddhist pantheon with the native Japanese Shinto pantheon. For example, a Shinto god could be seen as a manifestation of a bodhisattva. It is common even to this day to have Shinto shrines within the grounds of some traditional Buddhist temples.
Jōdo Shinshū, on the other hand, intentionally separated itself from the Shinto religion, and left out many superstitious practices of the day. Shinran had felt that such practices would make Jōdo Shinshū unnecessarily complicated, and would confuse the self-power found in rituals and superstition with the other-power of Amida. Other practices such as accepting donations for special blessings and prayers were similarly omitted from Jodo Shinshu.
Jōdo Shinshū traditionally had an uneasy relationship with other Buddhist schools because it discouraged virtually all traditional Buddhist practices except the nembutsu, and it discouraged kami veneration. Relations were particularly hostile between the Jodo Shinshu and Nichirenshu, also known as Hokkeshu. On the other hand, newer Buddhist schools in Japan, such as Zen, tended to have a more positive relationship and occasionally shared practices, although this is still controversial. In popular lore, Rennyo Shonin was good friends with a famous Zen master at the time in Kyoto.
Jōdo Shinshū drew much of its support from lower social classes in Japan who could not devote the time or education to other esoteric Buddhist practices or merit-making activities. Famous figures such as the myokonin ("White Lotus Flowers" - lay followers who are considered models of piety) came from the largely illiterate peasant society, yet left their mark on Japanese literature and spirituality.
During the nineteenth century, Japanese immigrants began arriving in Hawai'i, the United States, Canada, Mexico and South America (especially in Brazil). Many immigrants to North America came from regions in which Jodo Shinshu was predominant, and maintained their religious identity in their new country. The Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i, the Buddhist Churches of America, and the Buddhist Churches of Canada are several of the oldest Buddhist organizations outside of Asia. Jodo Shinshu continues to remain relatively unknown outside the ethnic community because of the history of internment during World War II, which caused many Shin temples to focus on rebuilding the Japanese-American Shin sangha rather than encourage outreach to non-Japanese. Today, many Shinshu temples outside Japan continue to have predominantly ethnic Japanese members, although interest in Buddhism and intermarriage contribute to a more diverse community. There are also active Jodo Shinshu sanghas in the UK, Europe, Australia, and Africa, with members of diverse ethnicities.
The practice of Jodo Shinshu ritual and liturgy may be very different outside of Japan, as many temples, like ones in Hawai'i and the U.S., now use English as the primary language for Dharma talks, and there are attempts to create an English-language chanting liturgy. In the United States, Jodo Shinshu temples have also served as refuges from racial discrimination, and as places to learn about and celebrate Japanese language and culture, in addition to Buddhism.
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