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The Life of Shinran

Birth and Spiritual Transformation

Shinran was born in 1173 in the village of Hino, near Uji, Kyoto as the first son of Fujiwara (Hino) Arinori. It was the time when the aristocratic Heian period (794-1185) was coming to an end and the age of the warrior was just beginning, as the Genji and Heike clans were fighting each other.

At the age of nine, Shinran received ordination at Shōren-in (a temple of the Tendai denomination) at Awataguchi (Higashiyama, Kyoto), with the name of Hannen and entered upon the Buddhist path. Later, he went to Mt. Hiei, the center of the Tendai denomination and single-mindedly devoted himself to Buddhist studies. In spite of twenty years of such endeavors however, Shinran could not find the way to overcome suffering and anxiety. In his turmoil, he secluded himself in Rokkaku-dō temple (Kyoto) and while there, had a profound spiritual experience. As a result, he was able to meet Hōnen (1133-1212) who was then living in Yoshimizu at Higashiyama. There, Shinran encountered the teaching, "Just say the Nenbutsu, and be saved by Amida," and began to walk along the Nenbutsu Path of the Primal Vow. He was twenty-nine years old at that time.

A picture of Shinran
The Konpon Chūdō of Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei (ōtsu, Shiga prefecture)

Persecution

Many people gathered around Hōnen, regardless of differences in status and position. This, however, caused friction with the long-standing Buddhist establishments, and in 1207, Hōnen was exiled to Tosa province (present-day Kōchi prefecture), and his disciples were either sentenced to death or exiled. Shinran (35 years old) was exiled to Echigo province (present-day Niigata prefecture) with the secular name of Fujii Yoshizane. He never saw his teacher Hōnen again.

A scene of Hōnen, being exiled to Tosa province.(Reprinted from the Honganji Shōnin Denne [The Life of Shinran], Kōei version. Property of Higashi Honganji)

Sharing the Dharma

Taking his exile as an opportunity, Shinran resolved anew to live in the Nenbutsu teaching, and regarded himself as an "ignorant bald-headed disciple of the Buddha." He married Eshinni, and while living among the local people, he shared the Nenbutsu teaching with them. Although he was pardoned five years later, Shinran, knowing of the death of Hōnen, did not return to Kyoto, but instead headed toward the Kantō area (the region, surrounding present-day Tokyo) with his family. Through living in such places as Shimotsuma, Kojima, and Inada (all in present-day Ibaraki prefecture), he shared the Nenbutsu teaching with many people.

Shinran lived in a hermitage in Inada, and people gathered there for the Nenbutsu teaching. (Reprinted from the Honganji Shōnin Denne)

Returning to Kyoto

After living in the Kantō area for about twenty years, Shinran, in his early sixties, returned to Kyoto. Just around that time, he finished compiling his major work, the Ken Jōdo Shinjitsu Kyōgyōshō Monrui (popularly known as Kyōgyōshinshō), which he had been working on for about ten years. Even without a permanent residence in Kyoto, he enthusiastically continued his writings, including the Songō Shinzō Meimon (The Inscription on the Sacred Name and Images) and the Sanjō Wasan (The Triple Hymns). He completed these writings to clarify and hand down the path he had encountered through Hōnen, so that all people could be saved equally together.

Further, through writing letters, Shinran continued to convey the Nenbutsu teaching to his fellow practitioners (dōgyō) in the Kantō area. At the same time, they visited him in Kyoto continuously, and he confirmed this teaching with them.

The Ken Jōdo Shinjitsu Kyōgyōshō Monrui (Kyōgyōshinshō), Bandō version

The Final Days of Shinran

On November 28, 1262, Shinran's ninety years of life ended while his youngest daughter, Kakushinni, and his followers were caring for him. In spite of hardships, he lived life totally entrusting himself to Amida's Primal Vow and clarifying the true teaching of the Pure Land, through encountering his teacher, Hōnen.

A scene of Shinran's passing in Kyoto. The woman on the left side of the veranda is said to be Kakushinni, his daughter.
(Reprinted from the Honganji Shōnin Denne)
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