Shinran Shonin: The Humble Reformer

Early Years
Shinran Shonin, our founder and teacher (1173-1262).
Shinran Shonin, our founder and teacher (1173-1262).

Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) was the founder of Shin Buddhism. He was born at the close of the Heian period, when political power was passing from the imperial court into the hands of warrior clans. It was during this era when the old order was crumbling, however, that Japanese Buddhism, which had been declining into formalism for several centuries, underwent intense renewal, giving birth to new paths to enlightenment and spreading to every level of society.

Shinran was born into the Hino family and his father at one time served at court. At the age of nine, however, Shinran entered the Tendai temple on Mt. Hiei, where he spent twenty years in monastic life. From the familiarity with Buddhist writings apparent in his later works, it is clear that he exerted great effort in his studies during this period. He probably also performed such practices as continuous recitation of the nembutsu for prolonged periods of time.


After twenty years, however, he felt despair about never attaining awakening through such intense discipline and study; he was also discouraged by the deep corruption that pervaded the mountain monastery. Years earlier, Honen Shonin (1133-1212) had descended Mt. Hiei and begun teaching a radically new understanding of religious practice, declaring that all self-generated efforts toward enlightenment were tainted by attachments and therefore meaningless. Instead of traditional accepted practice, one should simply say the nembutsu, not as a contemplative exercise or means of gaining merit, but by way of wholly entrusting oneself to the great compassionate activity of the Ultimate Dimension, symbolized by Amida’s Vow, to bring all beings to enlightenment and spiritual liberation.

When he was twenty-nine, Shinran undertook a long retreat at Rokkakudo temple in Kyoto to determine his future course. At dawn on the ninety-fifth day, Prince Shotoku, the founder of Japanese Buddhism, appeared to him in a dream. Shinran took this as a sign that he should seek out Honen, and went to hear his teaching daily for a hundred days. He then abandoned his former Tendai practices and joined Honen’s movement.


At this time, however, the established temples were growing jealous of Honen, and in 1207 they succeeded in gaining a government ban on his nembutsu teaching. Several followers were executed, and Honen and others, including Shinran, were banished from the capital.

Shinran was stripped of his priesthood, given a layman’s name, and exiled to Echigo (Niigata) on the northern hinder lands of the Japan Sea coast. About this time, he married Eshinni and began raising a family. He declared himself “neither monk nor layman.” Though incapable of fulfilling monastic discipline or good works, precisely because of this, he was grasped by Amida’s compassionate activity. Later, he chose for himself the name Gutoku, “foolish/bald one,” indicating the futility of attachment to one’s own intellect and goodness.

He was pardoned after five years, but decided not to return to Kyoto. Instead, in 1214, at the age of forty-two, he made his way into the Kanto region, where he spread the nembutsu teaching for twenty years, building a large movement among the peasants and lower samurai.

Return to Kyoto

Then, in his sixties, Shinran began a new life, returning to Kyoto to devote his final three decades to writing. He did not give sermons or teach disciples,Buddhist Faith Fellowship but lived with relatives, supported by gifts from his followers in the Kanto area. It is from this period that most of his writings stem. He completed his major work, popularly known as Kyogyoshinsho, and composed hundreds of hymns in which he rendered the Chinese scriptures accessible to ordinary people. His creative energy continued to his death at ninety, and his works manifest an increasingly rich, mature, and articulate vision of human existence that reveals him to be one of the world’s most profound and original religious thinkers.

Shinran Shonin’s Spiritual Quotations

These are good sayings to ponder and reflect.

“Although my eyes, blinded by passions, do not see the brilliant light which embraces me, the Great Compassion never tires, always casting its light upon me.”

“Being grasped by Unhindered Light is felt, but is beyond conceptual understanding; to be free of any form of self-centered calculation is to have realized Other Power.”

“We should know that Amida’s Primal Vow does not discriminate whether one is young or old, good or evil, and that true entrusting alone is needed, for it is the Vow that seeks to deliver sentient beings burdened with foolishness and blind passions.”

“If I were capable of realizing Buddhahood by other religious practices and yet fall into hell for saying the nembutsu, I might have dire regrets for having been deceived. But since I am absolutely incapable of any religious practice, hell is my only home.”

How shameless and unrepentant a person am I, and without a heart of truth and sincerity; but because the Name is given completely by Amida, its virtue pervades the ten directions.”

“When we entrust ourselves in Amida’s Primal Vow, we who are like broken tiles and bits of pebbles are transmuted into gold.”

“By benefit of Infinite Light, true entrusting is magnificent. The ice of desire is melted to become the water of Nirvana. Our desires are the essence of Nirvana, like the relation of ice and water. The more ice, the more water: the more desire, the more Nirvana.”

“The Primal Vow of Amida is manifested in its entirety in the Name, Namu-Amida-Butsu, and aside from this Name there is no supernatural reality or being. The implications of this simple fact are fathomless.”

“Though we speak of Vow and Name, these are not two different things. There is no Name separate from the Vow; there is no Vow separate from the Name.”

“The Nembutsu is non-practice and non-good for those who practice it. It is non-practice for us, because it is not the practice which we do out of our own contrivance; and it is non-good because it is not the good which we do out of our own contrivance. It is entirely due to Other Power (Natural Power) and is free from self power.”

“Awaken to the life nurturing Primal Vow of Amida; those who only entrust in this universal activity of love and compassion, through the benefit of being embraced and never forsaken, all attain Enlightenment.”

“What a joy it is that I place my mind in the soil of the Primal Vow and I let my thoughts flow into the sea of the inconceivable Dharma.”