Living Together in the Nembutsu

In late twelfth-century Japan, an unusual Buddhist gathering took shape around a charismatic monk called Honen-bo Genku who was living in the Yoshimizu district of Kyoto. Honen had spent much of his life as a student on Mount Hiei, one of the great centers of Buddhist learning in Japan at the time. The depth of Honen’s knowledge and understanding was well-known. Leading monks of his day referred to him as “The Most Wise Master Honen,” and he was regularly summoned to conduct Buddhist services for the imperial family and high-ranking members of the nobility.

Given the high esteem in which he was held, it was no wonder that a gathering of Honen’s regular students in Yoshimizu included ladies from the prominent families of the capital and erudite monks from Mount Hiei. However, a first time visitor to Yoshimizu would likely have been surprised to find a motley assembly of samurai warriors, common peasants, fishermen, monks who had broken the precepts, prostitutes and even notorious outlaws sitting down together with the high-class ladies and dignified monks to listen to what Honen had to say. All these people came to hear one simple teaching: “Entrust yourself to the great compassion of Amida Buddha and say the Nembutsu. If you live in the Nembutsu completely free of doubt, then you will surely realize liberation through birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.”

One of the ladies who heard these teachings given by Honen at Yoshimizu was the daughter of Miyoshi Tamenori, the head of a powerful family in Echigo province (modern-day Niigata Prefecture). It was a common practice in the provinces for young women from prominent families to be sent to Kyoto to learn the ways of sophisticated society by serving as a lady-in-waiting to an aristocratic family. While in Kyoto, Tamenori’s daughter encountered Honen’s teachings and became one of his dedicated students, eventually taking the Dharma name Eshinni.

Around that same time, a monk by the name of Hannen joined Honen’s Sangha at Yoshimizu, eventually taking the Dharma name Shinran. Shinran had studied on Mount Hiei from the age of 9 to 29, and like Honen became disillusioned with the life and practices of the elite monks there. Shinran sought out the teachings of Honen after having a vision in which the World-saving Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Jp. Kannon Bosatsu) appeared before him and gave the following instruction:

“If you, practicer, are obliged to have sexual contact with a woman through some past karma,

I will transform myself into a beautiful woman and become your partner.

I will adorn you with virtues throughout your life,

And at your death I will guide you to the Land of Utmost Bliss.”

(An Illustrated Biography of Shinran,

As a monk who had been observing a strict vow of celibacy for the previous twenty years, Shinran must have been at a loss regarding how to understand this profound vision that he received from the Bodhisattva of Compassion himself.

When Shinran met Honen at Yoshimizu, he surely confided in him and sought guidance on how to continue his study and practice of the Dharma now that he had abandoned his life as a monk on Mount Hiei. Honen, for his part, taught that the most important matter of Buddhist practice is not conforming to one specific lifestyle, but rather finding a life style that supports your life in the Nembutsu. He emphasized this matter such that we find the following words in “The Sayings of Honen-shonin as Stated by His Disciples”:

“To live this life means to create the conditions in which one is able to recite nembutsu in a natural way. . . . If one cannot practice nembutsu as a monk, one should take a wife and recite nembutsu. On the contrary, if one cannot practice nembutsu with a wife, one should recite nembutsu as a monk. If staying in one place makes nembutsu impossible, go on a pilgrimage and practice nembutsu. Conversely, if nembutsu is difficult on a pilgrimage, stay in one place and recite nembutsu.. . . If the practice of nembutsu in seclusion is impossible, practice it with other nembutsu devotees. Conversely, if practice with other devotees is impossible, recite in seclusion. Food, clothing, and housing are considered to be supporting elements for nembutsu.”

(The Promise of Amida Buddha, Wisdom Publications, p. 319)

While we have few details about how Shinran and Eshinni first met, it is clear that Honen’s nembutsu teaching was a key karmic circumstance that brought them into each other’s lives. We know from a letter written by Eshinni to their youngest daughter, Kakushinni, that by 1211 they were married, living together in Echigo with three children. In the subsequent years, they would continue to have children and live their lives as a family dedicated to sharing the Nembutsu teaching they received from Honen.

At 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 18, 2015, we invite you to join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for a special service in remembrance of Eshinni, Kakushinni, and Lady Takeko Kujo, a descendent of Shinran and Eshinni who worked tireless to share the Nembutsu teaching in the early decades of the 20th Century.


Namo Amida Butsu