An Overview of Shinran
Shinrans 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 Buddhas Name, Namu-amida-butusu (nembutsu), would unfailingly result in birth in Amidas 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 Japan coast.
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 amongamong 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.
Shinrans 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)