Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan
Images of Pure Land Buddhism in Medieval Japan

What is an historian? What can we learn of the events of the past, of what people in the past thought and felt, and how can these things be known? These are big questions and big books have been written to attempt to answer them. On a personal level, the questions to do with history that I ask myself are; why do I read history - what do I think I learn from it and what am I to believe of what I read, and, in the end, what does it matter?

I read history to illuminate what we take for granted in our culture. By our culture I mean both 'Western Culture' common to most readers of this English language web site, but also our adopted Buddhist culture. Since the Buddhadharma is a pan-cultural and transhistorical phenomenon as well as an experiential repository of transcendent truth there is a lot of cultural baggage of which to become cognizant. One may choose what one will accept or not of Buddhism's cultural accretions, but one must first become conscious of them.

There is much that we half learned at school or take as commonplace that historical examination shows to be other than what we thought and some historical events influence us so profoundly that understanding them is an intellectual imperative. The great tragedy of the First World War, the event that shaped the entire twentieth century and beyond is one such event. For many years I read many books trying to understand why this conflict happened. The ostensible reason, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, is no reason. (The best book about the origin and events of the First World War that I have read, by the way, is John Keegan's 'The First World War' - Random House, 1998). To fully understand what happened would require deep knowledge of the politics, culture and economy of late nineteenth century Europe and so much more. What contemplation of this kind of matter really teaches us, I think, is that while human nature does not change, what people think and believe at any one time can be totally alien to the thoughts and concerns of a later age.

The edifice of institutional Jodo Shinshu presents itself to those newly encountering it, and perhaps also to its Japanese followers as a monolith of doctrinal and liturgical/practical givens. There was Shinran, then Rennyo, and eight hundred years have passed and the Hongwanji and all that it represents and transmits exists. All that we now know, however, was built and passed on by the faith and efforts of innumerable individuals, from the Head Priests of Hongwanji, to individual believers and including the whole of the Japanese people and their culture. Like our parents love we tend to take all this for granted, but our parents had their life stories which made them what they were and in turn shaped us, their children.

James C. Dobbin's books, 'Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan' and 'Letters of the Nun Eshinni: Images of Pure Land Buddhism in Medieval Japan' provide the reader with a view of the people and events of a time when Jodo Shinshu was not an established Buddhist sect, but an idea shared by quite a scattered group of people.

The first book was conceived, researched and written in the 1970's and 1980's and initially published in 1989. Only in 2002 was it published in a paperback edition, making it available at a price that made me decide to buy it, although I had been aware of the book's existence for some time. In the preface to the paperback edition, Dobbins notes that scholarship since he wrote the book would change some aspects of his perspective were he writing it now. Only a specialist in the field, or one familiar with the ongoing evolution of Dobbins' thought by way of being his student or colleague would know what the differences might be, and 'Jodo Shinshu' reads as a complete and fascinating study. In his introduction to 'Letters of the Nun Eshinni' Dobbins noted that that work should be considered as 'an elaboration' of 'Jodo Shinshu'. I will therefore consider both books together.

The first three chapters of 'Jodo Shinshu' build to a fairly comprehensive account of the development of Pure Land thought up to the time of Shinran, the special aspects of Shinran's thought and the controversies provoked by Honen's and Shinran's teachings and the resulting difficulties for the development of Jodo Shinshu as an accepted form of Buddhism in Japan. Dobbins' characterization of Shinran's teachings as 'a curious combination of radical religious reform and self-effacing introspection' is in a sense apt, but the combination is in the end not curious. It is the mark of Mahayana Buddhism that the insight gained by introspection is freely and joyfully given to all beings. Shinran teaches us that the insight in fact is given to all who will listen by Amida and that the introspection involved is not meditative, but is the Nembutsu.

The fourth chapter is devoted to the issue of 'licensed evil'. This problem arises from Shinran's thought, since he emphasizes that it is the 'evil person' that is especially the object of Amida's grace. Confusion as a result of this terminology is as likely now as it was in medieval Japan, and it has always been necessary to clarify the concepts involved and counsel forbearance rather than willful wrongdoing. Shinran is quoted in Tannisho as deploring the attitude of enjoying the poison just because the antidote is readily available. The 'evil' under consideration is in any case 'karmic evil', that is, every being's burden of past, unresolved karma, and the karmically determined and unavoidable 'evils' involved in being an embodied being. No human is truly pure and could never become so by any exertion. This difficult matter is discussed with clarity and scholarly detail.

The next five chapters cover what is known of the history of the Shinshu from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. In the early years the Shinshu as an institution hardly existed, but its base of supporters in the rural areas (a base presumably built from Shinran's personal following from his time in the Kanto area) grew and the development of autonomous villages encouraged the development of Shinshu congregations. The efforts of Kakushinni, Shinran's daughter in establishing and ensuring initial funding for a permanent memorial shrine to her father and the installation of her son as custodian of the shrine would lead to the institution of the Hongwanji and the unbroken line of Shinran's descendants as hereditary Head Priests - a continuity that has preserved Shinran's teachings for us today. Kakushinni is a fascinating person but there is more of her story in 'Letters of the Nun Eshinni' than in this volume.

The account of the development of the Hongwanji focuses on what is known of the individuals (Head Priests and their family members in the main) actions in dealing with their rival new sects, the ongoing hostility of the established sects and heterodox tendencies within the Shinshu. The narrative is well written and fascinating to read. It is extensively footnoted and the footnotes are worth reading too.

In the last chapter Dobbins offers a sympathetic summing up of his view of the Shinshu. The last sentence of the book is worth quoting. Its sentiment will not be new for any follower of the Jodo Shinshu way, but bears repeating.

Far from being branded as heretical, Shin Buddhism should awaken other Buddhists to the broader dimensions of their religious heritage, and should spark a reassessment of the scope and nature of Buddhism.

The volume includes of course a very comprehensive bibliography. This is mainly of value to the scholarly reader of Japanese, but many interesting secondary sources in English are cited.

'Jodo Shinshu' is a worthwhile and well written book, one that I wish I had read years ago and I must add my thanks to the University of Hawai'i Press for bringing out a well produced and affordable paperback edition.

The core of 'The Letters of the Nun Eshinni' is translations of the fragments of letters written by Eshinni, Shinran's wife, to Kakushinni, their daughter who was living in Kyoto. Kakushinni had cared for Shinran in his later years in Kyoto while Eshinni returned to her native province of Echigo. The letters were written in the last decade of Eshinni's long life. These documents only came to light in 1921 but have been the focus of intense study. They open a window into the physical, social and religious life of medieval Japan and provide crucial biographical details of Shinran. The translation here reads well and the very extensive footnotes flesh out the bare bones of the letters. The translations are preceded by a chapter putting the letters in context.

The greatest part of the book however is made up of the three concluding chapters, each of which is in fact an essay inspired by the letters. These chapters not only expand on issues raised in the letters, but here Dobbins articulates his further thoughts on the Shinshu that go beyond, or change some of the emphasis of 'Jodo Shinshu'.

The third chapter is entitled 'Pure Land Buddhism and the Medieval Experience'. Although, as Dobbins admits, the idea that 'Pure Land Buddhism succeeded because it accorded with medieval values and perceptions' is unarguable, the discussion of those values and perceptions is of significant interest. As well, in this chapter Dobbins also raises the question of 'nonduality' in the context of Shinran's teachings. He concludes that he sees 'duality' in the celebration of the physicality of the Pure Land and that this aspect of the teachings is what is mentioned in Eshinni's letters and is presumably what the majority of the medieval believers held as their concept of the afterlife. The discussion is interesting and well balanced. In a sense though, I don't think it matters. While philosophically showing that Shinran understood reality as 'nondual' places his teachings in the mainstream of Mahayana Buddhism - and in many passages in his writings it is clear that this is the case - there equally are passages, especially in the Wasan, that could be interpreted otherwise. That Amida can be seen as the ultimate reality but also as a deeply personal presence embodying acceptance and love is an essential part of Jodo Shinshu understanding. Illiterate peasants of medieval Japan could not have had the conceptual or linguistic tools to grasp the abstract concepts Shinran expounds in the Kyogyoshinsho, but Amida as a loving parent, the Pure Land as a glorious place of bliss, are concepts we can all understand. This 'duality' is an 'upaya', a skillful means of introducing the teachings, but ultimately, I believe, the shinjin of those who begin with the more literal understanding of Amida and the Pure Land and those whose understanding is initially more intellectualized will ultimately be the same. This, I think, is an argument that Dobbins would recognize, but as an 'outsider' not necessarily accept.

The fourth chapter, 'Women, Sexuality and Pure Land Buddhism' is full of fascinating information about the evolution of marriage and the role and rights of women in early Japan. The title of the book, 'Letters of the Nun Eshinni' begs the question; what did the role/title of nun mean at the time, given that Eshinni was Shinran's wife and the mother of his children? This question is well answered, and in this chapter Dobbins also raises the problem of underlying misogynistic assumptions in Buddhism.

In the last chapter, 'The Medieval and the Modern in Shin Buddhism' Dobbins seeks to reposition Shinran in his medieval context. He accepts that modern interpretations of Shinran's thought de-emphasize the manifest importance of dreams, visions and Shinran's veneration of Prince Shotoku for legitimate reasons, but insists that to understand Shinran we need to understand the entirety of his spiritual experience. I agree, but the difficulty is stated by Dobbins in the course of the chapter. In pre-modern times Shinran was seen as a 'sacred' figure, but he has been 'humanized' by more recent scholarship and popular works. Where does this dichotomy leave us? Historical scholarship can tell us much but is always a reconstruction filtered through a mesh of contemporary concerns, interests, needs and preconceptions. Perhaps the 'truth' lies in a nondualistic acceptance of both aspects of Shinran: a man necessarily of his time, but possessed of an insight relevant for all time.

A few hundred years from now, when the tiles again need replacing on the roof of the Founder's Hall at the Hongwanji in Kyoto, a tile will be found with the names of members of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia. We will doubtless have all been forgotten, but it will have been us, and those nameless believers that follow us who will have shaped and transmitted Jodo Shinshu in Australia. Perhaps historians of the future will try to understand our times and the individual people involved, but in the history of the Dharma countless beings have found the way of release from samsara and only a few, like Shinran Shonin, are remembered for their special insights and teachings. The study of the life and times of Shinran and his successors is vitally interesting to all who follow the Jodo Shinshu way, but it is each individual's attainment of true entrusting that really matters, and that does not depend on any special cultural or historical understanding. That is the import of what Shinran transmitted and although his understanding and the way he recorded it was conditioned by the place and time at which he lived, the teaching is universally effective.

- Mark Healsmith

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