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‘Kyōgyōshinshō’ and ‘Zaijarin’ — Celebrating the 800th Year of Jodo Shinshu

May’s special service in Kyoto to celebrate the 850th birthday of Shinran Shonin and the 800th year of the establishment of Jodo Shinshu is an appropriate time to ponder Shinran’s real intention to have completed his opus magnum “Ken-jōdo-shinjitsu-kyō-gyō-shō-monrui” 『顕浄土真実教行証文類』, for short, the “Kyōgyōshinshō” 『教行信証』.

It is said that Shinran had completed the draft of this writing in 1224, which marked the establishment of Jodo Shinshu, called Shin Buddhism in the West.

The torch of Shin Buddhist Dharma has been carried out to the current 25th Sennyo Gomonshu-sama, sharing the Amida Buddha’s universal soteriology that equally embraces all people without forsaking anyone.

Next year, the BCA will celebrate its 125th anniversary since the teaching arrived in San Francisco in 1899. Shinran Shonin would be surprised if he were alive now to see his teaching flourishing all over the world.

Of all the religious currents in Kamakura Buddhism, the Pure Land movement was the most pervasive. The period is known for the emergence of local samurai and warriors who formed feudalism in Japan. There were continued political unrest and many natural disasters that made ordinary people fear for their future, and become eager to be born in the land of peace and bliss afterlife.

Within that movement, Hōnen (1133-1212) stood as Pure Land’s foremost advocate. Hōnen himself withdrew from Mount Hiei in 1175. Hōnen was 40 years older than Shinran, and both of them were nurtured for many years in the Tendai interpretation of Pure Land and with the “Ōjōyōshū” (“The Essentials of Rebirth in the Pure Land”) that was the Pure Land handbook written by the Tendai priest Genshin. Tendai’s interpretation integrated the aspiration to be born in the Amida’s Pure Land with Mount Hiei’s concept of personal religious development.

Hōnen interpreted the Nembutsu in a much broader context that the traditional schools, called Nara Buddhism did, and at his deepest level of conviction that he embraced the Pure Land teaching to be the exclusion of the traditional path of religious exertion.

Hōnen’s Pure Land teaching became very popular because of its simplicity to solely recite the Amida’s name to be born in the Pure Land.

Shinran was one of those who appreciated the teaching. Hōnen summed up this conviction in the “Senjaku-hongan-nembutsushū” 『選択本願念仏集』(“Passages on the Nembutsu Selected in the Primal Vow”), composed in 1198.

Shinran first visited Hōnen at his Yoshimizu school after having the revelation in a dream at the Rokkaku temple during dawn of the 95th day of his 100-day visitation. Hōnen was then close to 70 years of age. His full figure and face seemed perfectly matched to his mellow personality. Shinran probably could not help but feel that Master Hōnen was the very embodiment of Amida Buddha’s mind and heart. Shinran visited Hōnen day after day to hear the Amida Buddha’s teaching and the way to emancipate from the cycle of birth and death in this life.

Regardless of the evil acts we have committed as non-enlightened beings, if we respect the Buddha from the bottom of our hearts and recite the Amida Buddha's name with total trust in the Buddha’s Vow to enlighten all sentient beings, we will be born in that Buddha’s realm. It guarantees that even the most ignorant, even those who commit the greatest evil, will be liberated. That’s why it is referred to as the “easy path.” Honen’s simple teaching touched Shinran’s heart and mind, and more and more, it led Shinran away from Mount Hiei and the monastic practices.

In 1201, after several years as being Hōnen’s disciple, Shinran finally discarded sundry practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow, which signified his great turning point in his spiritual journey.

Subsequently in 1205, Master Hōnen allowed Shinran to copy his “Passages on the Nembutsu Selected in the Primal Vow” and his own portrait, and Hōnen signed Shinran’s name on the copy.

Hōnen was 73. Shinran must have been in deep joy to have realized the efficacy of Amida’s universal vow through encountering Hōnen. More than 20 years of his monastic path finally ended while a new path opened up toward the gate of Pure Land. Shinran finally saw a light of hope at the end of a long tunnel.

Hōnen’s revolutionary interpretation of Pure Land Buddhism soon evoked a harsh reaction from other Buddhist schools, particularly the Tendai school.

In 1204, while Honen’s teaching was getting tremendously popular, he issued the “Seven Article Pledge,” called “Shichikajō- kishōmon”『七箇条起請文』, which states the rules of conduct to have his followers obey.

Consecutively, “Gedatsubo-Jōkei”(解脱房貞慶)of Hosso school (one of the Nara Buddhist schools) presented the “Kōfukuji-sōjō”(興福寺奏上)in 1205, condemning the nine accusations toward Hōnen’s teaching.

The condemnation reached the peak in 1207, which resulted in the suppression of the exclusive Nembutsu, the exile of Hōnen and Shinran from Kyoto, and the execution of a number of Hōnen’s disciples.

This Nembutsu persecution is called Jōgen-no-hōnan (承元の法難) which was an unprecedented incident in the Japanese Buddhist history. Shinran expressed strong resentment in the postscript of the “Kyōgyōshinshō.” (CWS I, p.289.)

Hōnen was pardoned and received a permission to return to Kyoto. In 1211, he finally returned to Kyoto from Sanuki (讃岐 current Kagawa Prefecture), but unfortunately, he became ill and passed away at the age of 80 on Jan. 25, 1212. Shinran also got pardoned at the same time, but decided not to return to Kyoto.

Instead, in 1214, at the age of 42, he made his way into Hitachi 常陸 and Inada 稲田 (current Ibaraki Prefecture), where he spent 20 years spreading the Amida Buddha’s spiritual liberation through the Nembutsu teaching.  

In Kyoto, right after Hōnen’s death, Master Myōe-Kōben (1173-1232, 明恵上人高弁), an eminent Kegon priest, composed his “Zaijarin” 『摧邪輪』 (“Pivotal (Points) Shattering Heresy”), which was the first major denunciation of Hōnen’s “Senjaku-hongan-nembutsushū” (“Passages on the Nembutsu Selected in the Primal Vow”) from the point of view of an orthodox Buddhism.

In this book, Myōe attacked Hōnen on two points: for omitting the aspiration for enlightenment (bodhi-citta; bodaishin 菩提心) from his path to the Pure Land through the exclusive Nembutsu, and for portraying the traditional Buddhist schools as a band of thieves (gunzoku 群賊).

Several years later, Hōnen’s tomb and remains were destroyed. Shinran heard the sad news while he was composing the draft of his opus magnum “Kyō-gyō-shin-shō” in 1224 in the Kanto Inada. He must have thought that completing the writing would be extremely important in order to defend Hōnen’s interpretation and clarify the true essence of Amida Buddha’s soteriological structure.

In “Kyō-gyō-shin-shō,” Shinran states that the mind aspiring to attain Buddhahood (bodaishin 菩提心) is the mind aspiring for great enlightenment of crosswise presentation through the true and real shinjin. The mind to aspire for Buddhahood is the mind to save sentient beings. It is directed from the Amida’s Primal Vow in transcending crosswise orientation, called the Other-Power that is totally free from our calculated mind and personal religious development, so-called the self-power. (CWS I, p.107, 113, and 223, edited)

Shinran wanted to clarify in “Kyō-gyō-shin-shō” that Hōnen had never denied the importance of Bodhi-citta; the mind to aspire to attain Buddhahood. What he had denied was the Bodhi-citta to develop personal religious practice in the mind of self-power; the Bodhi-citta received through the efficacy of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow (Other-Power) is extremely essential for ordinary people to pursue attaining Buddhahood because it is the true and real One Vehicle.

Shinran praises his teacher Hōnen in the “Hymns of the Pure Land Masters” — Through countless kalpas and innumerable lives, we did not know the powerful condition of liberation; Were it not for our teacher Genkū (Hōnen), this present life also would pass in vain. (CWS I, p.387, edited)

Celebrating the 800th year of establishment of Jodo Shinshu since 1224 brings us many aspects of appreciation and deep gratitude in everyday life. Namo Amida Butsu


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