Shinran's importance as a
religious thinker lies in his coherent exposition of the Pure
Land Path as being both rooted in general Mahayana conceptions
of wisdom or reality and, at the same time, being accessible
to all, regardless of intellectual capacity or ability to
fulfill religious practices and disciplines.
He was born into the Hino family, a minor branch of the nobility,
at a time when warrior clans were gaining power. At the age
of nine he became a monk of the Tendai School on Mt. Hiei,
where for twenty years he engaged in study and practice. At
the age of twenty-nine, however, despairing of attaining awakening
through monastic discipline, he undertook a retreat at Rokkakudo
temple in Kyoto and, on the ninety-fifth day, Kannon appeared
to him in a dream. Taking this as a sign, Shinran visited
the monk Honen and eventually joined his following. Honen
had descended Mt. Hiei and was teaching that simple utterance
of Amida Buddha's Name, Namu-amida-butusu (nembutsu), would
unfailingly result in birth in Amida's Pure Land at death.
He thus opened up the possibility of Buddhist practice to
laity and commoners, and was attracting followers from all
levels of society.
Shinran studied under Honen for six years until 1207 when,
in a persecution of the spreading nembutsu teaching instigated
by the ecclesiastical establishment, Honen and a small number
of disciples were defrocked and exiled by order of the imperial
court. Shinran was banished north to Echigo on the Sea of
After five years Honen and
his followers were pardoned, but Shinran, having married,
remained in his place of exile for several years, then traveled
with his family to a developing provincial area in the Kanto
region, where he embarked on a twenty-year period of propagation
among ordinary people. He established a sizable following
in several provinces, with local groups led by close disciples.
Then, when about the age of sixty-three, he returned to Kyoto,
where he remained for the rest of his long life, devoting
himself to written expression of the teaching.
Shinran's extant writings, both in the Chinese of learned
Buddhist discourse and in Japanese, were almost all completed
during the final third of his life after his return to the
capital, but his early training in Kyoto and his extended
sojourn living and teaching among the people of the provinces
provided the foundations. His study both on Mt. Hiei and under
Honen concentrated on careful reading of scriptural and commentarial
traditions in Chinese, and he maintained this focus in his
own writings, whether in Chinese or Japanese. At the same
time, however, expulsion from the capital and monastic life
and exile to the countryside provided as test of the teaching
that all people could attain birth through the nembutsu.
On going into exile, Shinran adopted the name Gutoku ("foolish/stubble-haired"),
which expresses his awareness both of the inability to cultivate
learning or uphold monastic discipline and, at the same time,
of their irrelevance to authentic engagement with the religious
path. In interpreting the tradition, then, Shinran seeks to
communicate not only the conceptual meaning, but the apprehension
of reality that lies at their source.
(by Dennis Hirota from "Great Thinkers
of the Eastern World" edited by Ian McGreal; pp. 315-316)