WHO IS SHINRAN SHONIN? IF YOU WERE asked this question, I know you would beable to provide an answer because you arepart of our sangha. But, can you imagine how a conversation may go among people who know little about our religion?
If asked, “Who is Shinran Shonin?” he may answer, “Oh,he’s the guy who used to do many things for the church.” Asecond person may say, "Oh, yeah, that’s the church thatsells chow fun at the Maui Fair.” A third person may say,"Yeah, Shinran Shonin was the guy who not only did thingsfor the church but he actually founded the Chow Fun Church.Maybe, he was the first person to make chow fun."
To avoid misconceptions about Shinran Shonin, let meshare some facts about him with you. Shinran Shonin or St.Shinran is the founder of Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism,and he is "the Great Spiritual Master" of all Nembutsu followers.
Shinran Shonin was born on May 21, 1173, in a small village called Hino, just southeast of Kyoto. He lost both parents during his childhood. His mother died when he was fouryears old, and his father passed away a few years later.Shortly thereafter, at the age of nine, he entered priesthoodand lived and studied at Mount Hiei, where the Tendai Sectof Buddhism is headquartered. He studied diligently, adoptedthe practices of the church, and advanced in rank as a priest.After 20 years, however, he made a fateful decision to leaveMt. Hiei at the age of 29. (By coincidence, Shakyamuni Buddha left his castle at the same age of 29 almost 1,800 yearsearlier. I came to Hawaii as a Kaikyoshi also at the age of 29almost 800 years later.)
There are a number of reasons cited as to why ShinranShonin left Mt. Hiei. The major reason was that his spiritualneeds went unfulfilled because he was unable to grasp thetruth about attaining salvation through the Buddha’s teachingsas was taught at Mt. Hiei. Then, he heard of a monk who waspreaching about salvation. He went to the monk’s temple andlistened to the monk’s Dharma messages. The more he listened to the monk’s sermons, the more he began to realizethat the path to salvation did not lie in individual religiouspractices (e.g. countless recitations of the Nembutsu, chanting, numerous incense offerings, etc.) Shinran Shonin sawthat the problem with individual practices "is that we canbegin to congratulate ourselves over how many times we’vesaid the Nembutsu, or obsess over whether we should besaying it more, or feel pride that our chanting is beautiful, andso on", (Wilson, Jeff 2009). Shinran Shonin eventually cameto the conclusion that the key to salvation is to wholeheartedly entrust one’s self to the infinite wisdom and compassion ofAmida Buddha and recite the Nembutsu while "thinking of theNembutsu as the practice of Amida Buddha, not as one’sown. When we say the Nembutsu, we are allowing Amida’spractice to flow through us. The Nembutsu is therefore something we participate in, not something we produce.” (Wilson,Jeff 2009).
I believe that when Shinran Shonin discovered how salvation could be attained by all who seek it, he must havesaid something like, "Wow, this is wonderful and dynamic!Yes, for years, this is the truth I was looking for! I firmly believe that this is the true teaching of the Buddha that cansave all sentient beings."
Of course, I don’t know what Shinran Shonin actuallysaid upon his discovery of the truth. I know, however, that upuntil his time, Buddhism in Japan was a largely esoteric religion primarily for nobles and the elite classes. ShinranShonin kindly shared his spiritual guidance with ordinarypeople including females through his messages. He said, "Iam an ordinary and foolish being, but the reason that AmidaBuddha never leaves me alone is because I am foolish. I amalways embraced by Amida’s great wisdom and compassion.Although I have received his great vow, all who entrustthemselves to Amida Buddha and express their trust andsincere gratitude by reciting his holy name, Namo AmidaButsu, will also receive his vow."
More than 750 years ago, Shinran Shonin spread histeachings throughout Japan. He identified himself as acommoner, and he made Amida’s great guidance availableto all. This is one of the reasons that Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is the largest Buddhist sect in Japan today. This is thereason that all Jodo Shinshu followers are expressing joyand gratitude by observing Gotan-e, Shinran Shonin’s birthday service, in May. Thank you, Shinran Shonin!