Shinran Shōnin was born 1173 in Hino, a smaller town near Kyōto. He stemmed from a branch of the famous Fujiwara familiy, which was in his time already on the way of decline. His mother died when he was seven years old. Under these circumstances his father decided to receive ordination as a Buddhist monk. The nine year old Shinran also was brought to a monastery by an uncle to become a novice. The legend knows however, that the abbot postponed the ordination to the next day, because it was already late in the night, when Shinran arrived. But little Shinran was dissatified, and looking at an blossoming cherry tree, which stood in front of the temple gate, he composed the following poem:
「明日ありと 思う心の仇桜 夜半に嵐の 吹かぬものかは」
Myōnichi ari to omou kokoro no adasakura yohan ni kaze no fukanu mono kawa
(Reflecting about tomorrow:/ Will these transient cherry blossoms/ in the midst of the night/ not be blown away by the wind?)
For twenty years Shinran lived in one of the most important centres of Japanese Buddhism, the main monastery of the Tendai denomination at Mt. Hiei. With greatest enthusiasm he practiced and studied all kinds of the Buddhist teaching. But more and more he felt the big difference between the reality of the daily life of the monks and the original ideals of the Buddhism. The Buddhist monks of his time were part of a state within the state, because Buddhist monasteries possessed the complete sovereignity within their territory, they had full controll over their serfs and raised even troops. But is this the true intention and purpose of monastic life? Shinran discovered the faults not only in the outer environment. He recognized himself a a child of his time and he was aware, that all their problems also existed in his own heart. Therefore he failed in the “ten thousand practices”, he had learned at Mt. Hiei, therefore he seemed to be unable to any realization, if he was honest to himself.
Despaired about himself and his era, in which Buddhist practice seemed already to be impossible, the twenty-nine-year-old Shinran left Mt. Hiei and retreated to a small Kannon temple in Kyōto “to pray concerning his next life”. On the 95th day the World saviour Kannon revealed him, that he should turn to Master Hōnen.
At this time people of all social levels – monks and laypeople, men and women – gathered at the outskirts of Kyōto, to listen to Hōnen Shōnin’s explanations about the calling of the name of Buddha Amida. For five years Shinran belonged to the inmost circle of Hōnen’s disciples and learned from him the Buddhism of Other Power in all its details. As long as he lived, he never regarded himself to be more than a simple disciple of Hōnen.
Hōnen’s nembutsu movement was in its openness and religious single-mindedness a challenge to the old elites. In 1207, when Shinran was 35 years old, the nembutsu movement was forbidden by the Imperial court and its monks were divested of their clerical status by the state. Hōnen was exiled to Sanuki, Shinran to Echigo. Both should never meet again.
In Echigo Shinran renounced the monastic rules and married. Since that time he called himself a “stupid baldie” (Gutoku), who is “neither monk nor layman”. After he was pardoned Shinran settled with his family in the province Hitachi in East Japan (a region, which is in the north of the present conurbation of Tōkyō). With greatest enthusiam and extraordinary success he devoted himself to the establiment of a local nembutsu community in the coutryside.
His return to the place of his youth may have been a surprise to many of his followers: At the age of seventy he left East Japan to live for the rest of his life in Kyōto, where he occupied himself completely to writing. In 1247 his major work written in Chinese, the Kyōgyōshinshō (“Teaching, Practice, Faith and Realization”) was completed. Many scriptures for ordinary followers, which are written in Japanese using the easy Japanese Katakana characters, followed in the later years, inclueding the “Japanese Hymns”, which are nowadays often recited during Shin Buddhist celebrations. In his last twenty years Shinran kept in touch with his followers in East Japan with such scriptures and many letters. In retrospect his absence from his followers was of great benefit, because it forced Shinran to write all his works, which are now the spiritual fundament of the Jōdo Shinshū.
Shinran died in old age of 90 years. His followers erected for him a mausoleum in Kyōto, which developed in the long run of time to a place of pilgrimage, and later to an important temple, the Hongwanji.
Shinran’s teaching is undoubtely exceptional among the Buddhist doctrines and traditions. Many people feel bewildered when they hear first, that Shinran gave up monastic rules and even Buddhist meditation: How can such a teaching be called Buddhist at all? But this is only a superficious impression. Actually, one should better say that Shinran brought the whole spectrum of Buddhism to a single point: the nembutsu, i.e. the complete entrusting to the Buddha just calling his name. By the way, Shinran’s teaching is exclusively based on the Buddhist sūtras and does not – as some people suppose – incorporate local, f.e. Shintoist influences.
Shinran looks at the spiritual development of man radically from the side of the Buddha, the self-power of man is not involved at all. Only if man renounces all his calculation and gives up all his attempts of manipulation, of forcing the salvation for himself or others by his own means, he is capable to entrust fully to the Other-Power of the Buddha. The ultimate expression for this entrusting to the Buddha is to be “aware of the Buddha” (nembutsu) in form of “calling his name” (shōmyō). In the ultimate sense the Nembutsu is nothing else than the Buddha calling himself. Man is just listening to this name-calling and giving response in a kind of reflex, in which the calling, the entrusting and the certainy of birth to the Pure Land coincide.