Master Shinran or Shinran Shonin is the founder of the Jodo Shinshu School of Pureland Buddhism. It is widely practiced in Japan, also in other Asian countries and in the West.
He was born to an opulent family as Matsuwaka Maru. His father was Lord Arinori, who died suddenly when he was only 4 years old and his mother was Lady Kikko, who died due to frail health when he was 9 years old. Following her death, Matsuwaka decided to enter priesthood. It is because of his acute sense of impermanence that he wanted to enter the temple. Thinking that he would be next to die, he wanted answers on where people go after death.
With the permission of his uncle Lord Noritsuna (who was then his steward) he presented himself at Shoren temple. This temple was located at Mt. Hiei, the headquarters of the 1Tendai Sect. The head priest Reverend Jichin was delighted that he announced to have his ceremony the next day. However, Matsuwaka stood up and wrote a poem then asked his uncle to hand to the Reverend. With hesitation, his uncle handed the poem which says:
For him who counts on tomorrow
Like for the fragile cherry blossom,
Tonight, unexpected winds may blow.
The Reverend was even more impressed that they performed his ceremony right away.
10 years into his life of asceticism as a monk, Matsuwaka had a dilemma. He can’t get rid of his worldly passions. His thoughts are always plagued by it. Even though he is considered the prodigy of Mt. Hiei – he is incomparable to no one when it comes to studies and practices – he considered himself vile and unworthy, that’s why he made a trip to Sinaga, Osaka to the mausoleum of Prince Shotoku.
Master Shinran revered Prince Shotoku. The Prince was considered the “Sakyamuni of Japan,” because he was responsible for spreading Buddhism in Japan. At the Prince’s mausoleum, he prayed for 3 days and 3 nights. On the 4th day he was exhausted physically and spiritually, he fell asleep. Prince Shotoku then appeared to him in a dream and said: “Amida Buddha endeavors to save all mankind. Japan is a suitable place for true Buddhism to flourish. Listen carefully, listen carefully to what I’m going to tell you now. You only have 10 years of life remaining. As your life ends, you shall be reborn into the Pureland simultaneously. Put your trust in the true Buddhist teacher”
Master Shinran wrote these words right away upon waking up. This dream is called the Dream Revelation of Shinaga. He was mostly distressed over the message that he only has 10 years to live. However, the prince also said, “As your life ends, you shall be reborn into the Pureland simultaneously.” So, what was really hinted in this dream? The answer will come to him when he turns 29.
After 17 years of ascetic training and practices in Mt. Hiei, Master Shiran, now 26 years old, is still troubled with his dark mind and the crucial matter of the afterlife, so he talked with Reverend Jichin regarding this. It infuriated the Reverend because what he is seeking cannot be achieved in 10 or 20 years and should not be taken lightly.
He traveled back to Mt. Hiei after his audience with the Reverend. Here he encountered a beautiful woman. She is deeply troubled and is suffering. She begged Master Shinran to take her to the mountain so she too can take the practices. He declined and said that women are prohibited in Mt. Hiei ever since it was established by Reverend Dengyo. To this the woman said that she is saddened by his answer and stated that wouldn’t a person as great as Reverend Dengyo have read the Nirvana Sutra, which teaches that all sentient beings have Buddha-nature and can be saved. She also told him that Buddha’s compassion was “The greater one’s evil, the greater pity should be bestowed upon him.” If this logic is followed, then shouldn’t women be given more compassion because they are tainted? She finished her argument saying that if women are prohibited in the mountain because they are tainted, then the mountain is already tainted by female birds and animals. As a parting thought, the woman said, “Master Shinran will you someday teach the true Buddhism that saves all people without any discrimination?” Then she handed him a gift, a beautiful gemstone, as a remembrance of their meeting. The woman’s name was Tamahi.
This encounter left Master Shinran with confusing thoughts. He was enthralled with Tamahi’s beauty and wisdom but was also doubtful of her intentions. Despite the latter, he can’t get her off his mind. Because of this, he considered himself a hypocrite. He who follows the precepts strictly and looked down on the other monks2 who sneak down the mountain at night to have fun with wine and women, yet here he is embracing a woman in his mind.
Still continuing his search, he would again have 2 dreams that would play an important role in his life.
At 28, Nyorin Kannon Bodhisattva appeared to him in a dream and said, “Excellent, excellent. Your desire is soon to be fulfilled. Excellent, excellent. My desire too will be satisfied.” “Your desire is soon to be fulfilled” means, you will soon attain what you have been wishing for. For Master Shinran this is finding his crucial matter of the afterlife. “My desire too will be satisfied” means Nyoirin’s desire. His mission to convey Amida Buddha’s vow will soon be realized when Master Shinran attains Absolute Happiness. This is the Dream Revelation of Daijo Temple.
At 29 he received the Dream Revelation on Sexual Indulgence from Guze Kannon Bodhisattva. Here Guze Kannon told Master Shinran, “When the practitioner indulges in sex due to his past karma, I will take on the form of the woman Tamajo to be ravished by him. I will magnificently adorn his whole life, and at his death I will lead him to be born in the Land of Supreme Bliss. This is my vow, tell it to all people.” During these times, Buddhist monks cannot marry in the belief that by doing so they violate the precept and violate a woman. However human beings are born out of sexual desire and to distance themselves from it is like a fish trying to distance itself from water.
Master Shinran even grew more desperate. After all it has been 10 years since Prince Shotoku told to him in a dream that he only has 10 years of his life left. He decided to descend Mt. Hiei. Weary and exhausted, one day he was holding on to the railing of Shijo bridge. Here he met Venerable Seikaku. Seikaku noticed that he is pale so he told him his troubles. Seikaku responded that he has solved his crucial matter of the after life because of Master Honen. Master Shinran eagerly asked to be taken to Master Honen. This would change his life dramatically.
It is through Master Honen that Master Shinran found out all about Amida Buddha’s vow, which is achieving Absolute Happiness in this lifetime and in achieving such one’s birth in the Pureland is assured. So at 29 years old, in 1201, Master Shinran attained Absolute Happiness thus assuring his birth in the Pureland after death. The very question that made him decide to enter priesthood has finally been answered after 20 years. Because of this, he called Master Honen as “The True teacher Genku” – a teacher of true Buddhism.
From then on Master Shinran continued to teach about Amida Buddha’s vow until he died at the age of 90 in 1261. He took a wife (her name is Eshinni, but he also married Tamahi before her), he had a child and he ate meat – all the things he avoided before leaving Mt. Hiei, he did and still attained Absolute Happiness in his current lifetime.
1The Tendai Sect was founded by Shiyi in China and spread in Japan by Saicho
2 These monks were fake. They are Heike survivors who escaped Genji’s pursuit. They went to Mt. Hiei to seek refuge.
Quick bullet reference about Master Shinran:
- Master Shinran was born as Matsuwaka Maru to an opulent family
- At age 4: His father Lord Arinori died
- At age 9: His mother Lady Kikkyo died
He entered priesthood in the Shoren Temple at Mt. Hiei, the headquarters of the Tendai sect
- At age 19: He was troubled by his worldly desires that he sought the guidance of Prince Shotoku, a person he revered. The Dream Revelation of Shinaga happened
- At age 26: He sought audience with Reverend Jichin because of his dark mind.
He met the woman Tamahi.
- At age 28: The Dream Revelation of Daijo Temple happened
- At age 29: The Dream on Sexual Indulgence happened
He met Reverend Seikaku, who introduced him to Master Honen.
He met Master Honen, who taught him all about Amida Buddha’s vow. He called him the “True Teacher Genku,” because of this.
He attained Absolute Happiness
- At age 90: He died after 70 years of teaching Buddhism and about Amida Buddha’s vow.
- 3 dreams played a great role in his life, they are:
1. The Dream Revelation of Shinaga (from Prince Shotoku)
2. The Dream Revelation of Daijjo Temple (from Nyorin Kannon Bodhisattva)
3. The Dream Revelation on Sexual Indulgence (from Guze Kannon Bodhisattva)