On Finding the Pure Land: Shinran Shonin’s Confession

On Finding the Pure Land: Shinran Shonin’s Confession February 21, 2017


Over at Project Gutenberg I stumbled upon S. Yamabe & L. Adams Beck’s translation of the Buddhist Psalms of Shinran Shonin.

While I’m a Zen person, I’m fascinated with Pure Land Buddhists, as they are in fact the most popular forms of Buddhism in East Asia. And, Shinran is the second founder of Pure Land in Japan. So…

Shinran Shonin was born into Feudal Japanese nobility in 1173. However, like many spiritual figures he was visited with suffering early in life. His father died when he was four, his mother when he was nine. Driven by grief and the burning questions of life and death he entered the monastic life, joining the Tendai sect and practicing on the holy Mount Hiei. He practiced intensely for twenty years, but was unable to resolve his doubts.

Then in 1201 he met Honen. Also, originally a Tendai monk, Honen studied the Pure Land scriptures and came to believe that all one needed do was call upon the Buddha’s name to be saved. He left the mountain and moved to Kyoto where, as Wikipedia tells us he “started addressing crowds of men and women, establishing a considerable following. Hōnen attracted fortune-tellers, ex-robbers, samurai and other elements of society normally excluded from Buddhist practice.”

He taught that we live in the last age, where it is no longer possible to achieve liberation on one’s own. So, all upayas, all skillful means such as meditation and charity and, well, all of it no longer worked. However, there is an escape hatch. All one need do was chant the nembutsu, calling upon Amida Buddha.

Shinran studied for several years with Honen. After the first year Shinran experienced his great awakening called shinjin. In the following years, while he did not disrobe, Shinran began to eat meat, and married Eshinni. They would have seven children. He was officially defrocked and with it stripped of his original monastic name. However, he refused to be laicized. He declared he was in fact “neither monk nor lay,” and renamed himself Gutoku, “foolish, bald headed one.”

(Within a few hundred years that “neither monk nor lay” would become the secret heart of Japanese Buddhist ordination across all the schools. But that’s for another reflection.)

Shonine wrote of his own experience, “I, the Bald-Headed Fool Shinran, abandoned forever the provisional path of manifold practices and good work, and separated myself once and for all from birth in the forest of the twin śāla trees. I turned to the true path, the basis of virtue and good, and gave rise to the aspiration for birth [in the Pure Land] that is difficult to comprehend. But now I have utterly abandoned the expediency of the true path, and have converted to the ocean-like vow singled out [by Amitabha Buddha]. I have separated myself straightaway from the aspiration for birth that is difficult to comprehend, and I long to attain birth that is difficult to fathom…”

While he honored Honen for his guidance, his teachings began to vary from his teacher’s. As the Wikipedia article tells us Shinran “not only gave up traditional monastic practices to focus on rebirth in the Pure Land, but that in time he eventually gave up on practices related to rebirth in the Pure Land, instead relying solely on faith in the vow of Amitabha Buddha.”

He died at the age of ninety, leaving the care of his community to his youngest daughter Kakushinni. Through his daughter and others Shinran’s teachings would spread, and eventually become Jodo Shinshu, among, if not the largest of the Buddhist schools in Japan.

The text reprinted below is culled from Shinran’s Buddhist Psalms, first published in English in 1912.


Though I seek my refuge in the true faith of the Pure Land,
Yet hath not mine heart been truly sincere.
Deceit and untruth are in my flesh,
And in my soul is no clear shining.

In their outward seeming are all men diligent and truth speaking,
But in their souls are greed and eager and unjust deceitfulness,
And in their flesh do lying and cunning triumph.

Too strong for me is the evil of my heart. I cannot overcome it.
Therefore is my soul like unto the poison of serpents,
Even my righteous deeds, being mingled with this poison, must be named the deeds of deceitfulness.

Shameless though I be and having no truth in my soul,
Yet the virtue of the Holy Name, the gift of Him that is enlightened,
Is spread throughout the world through my words being as I am.

There is no mercy in my soul.
The good of my fellow-man is not dear in mine eyes.
If it were not for the Ark of Mercy, the divine promise of the Infinite Wisdom,
How should I cross the Ocean of Misery?

I, whose mind is filled with cunning and deceit as the poison of reptiles, am impotent to practise righteous deeds.
If I sought not refuge in the gift of our Father, I should die the death of the shameless.

It is a token of this evil age that in this world the priests, together with the people,
In secret serve strange gods,
While bearing the appearance of the devout sons of Buddha.

Sad and corrupt is it that the priests and people, following after the superstitions of auspicious times and days, seek sooth-saying and festivals
And worship the gods of heaven and earth.

Though I have heard that the names of priest and monk are honourable,
Yet now are they held as light as the five shameless precepts of Devadatta.

Being of one accord with the many minds of the heathen,
They bow in worship before devils,
While yet wearing the robe of the Buddha.

Sad and sorrowful is it that all the priests and people now in the land of Yamato should worship the devils of heaven and earth, in the name of the holy mysteries of the Buddha.

It is a mark of the downward way of this evil age that men despise the name of priest or monk as a mean thing, considering them like unto slaves.

May they yet bring offerings with homage unto the priests, even as you do unto Saliputra or Mahamonugalyayana, those two great servants of the Lord; though they are priests but in name and without discipline, for this is the time of degeneration and of the last days.

Though sin hath no substance in itself, and is but the shadow of our illusion, and soul is in itself pure, yet in all this world is there no sincere man.

Great sorrow is it that, in the wicked world of this age now so near its end, the high priests who are born in the palankin, and the monks who bear it now in Nara and Mount Hiyei, desire high secular rank as the greatest honour.

That they consider the monk and nun as their slaves, and mock at the honourable title of priest and minister, even as at the mean name of slave, gives testimony that they despise the teaching of the Buddha.

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