When Toshikazu Arai was studying Shinran Shōnin’s teachings at Ryukoku University in 1982, Professor Dr. Hisao Zuio Inagaki suggested he translate Shinran’s “Saihō-Shinan-shō” into English.
“Saihō-Shinan-shō” is a compilation of the words and deeds of Shinran’s teacher, Hōnen Shōnin (1133-1212). While some of Hōnen’s disciples founded their own schools of Pure Land Buddhism, Shinran’s teachings inspired millions of seekers and developed into the largest Buddhist school in Japan.
“The Path to the Pure Land: A Translation of and Commentary on Shinran’s Saihō-Shinan-shō” was published in 2021 by the American Buddhist Study Center, and is the first English translation of this Shin Buddhist classic. Dr. Arai’s translation presents a wealth of Hōnen’s writings. It goes deep into what Hōnen taught through lectures and letters, with his emphasis on shinjin and the Nembutsu. We also learn about heretical views that misrepresented Hōnen’s teachings.
Although the book is about Hōnen’s teachings, Dr. Arai reminds us that it is Shinran’s writing, revealing his own realization at age 85. “Outwardly it looks like a collection of Hōnen’s words and deeds, but under these surface descriptions, we feel Shinran listening to his teacher with deep reverence,” Dr. Arai writes.
Hōnen lived toward the end of the Heian period and beginning of the Kamakura period. His father was a samurai who ordered his son not to take revenge after he was mortally wounded by an enemy. We become acquainted with some of the people Hōnen inspired during those dangerous times.
“Through the recorded sermons, we learn a great deal about Hōnen’s teachings and practices,” writes Dr. Kenneth Tanaka, professor emeritus of Mushashino University in Tokyo. “Through the letters, we also learn about the human side of him.”
Noteworthy are letters Hōnen wrote to samurai generals who took refuge in the Nembutsu teaching after having killed many people in the war between the Minamoto and Taira clans (1180-1185). Hōnen also corresponded with Lady Masako Hōjo, the widow of Minamoto no Yoritomo, who defeated the Taira. Lady Hōjo became the de facto governor of the Kamakura Shogunate after her husband died.
Hōnen’s influence went beyond people of eminence. There are interesting records of dreams by religious common people, relating to visions about Hōnen shortly before and after his death. These people included priests, nuns, monks, ordinary men and women, and even children.
Dr. Toshikazu Arai is professor emeritus at Soai University, Osaka. He has devoted his life to the study of Shinran’s thoughts, and translating Shin Buddhist texts into English is an important part of his ministry.
Other translations by Dr. Arai include “Grasped by the Buddha’s Vow: A Translation of Tannishō” (Berkeley, Buddhist Churches of America Center for Buddhist Education, 2008); “Hearing the Buddha’s Call: A Translation of Rev. Jitsuen Kakehashi’s Book Shinran” (Honolulu: Buddhist Study Center, 2012), and more.
“The Path to the Pure Land” is available for purchase in paperback from the American Buddhist Study Center website at Ambuddhist.org and in the Kindle edition at Amazon.com.