We will be observing our annual Gotan-e Service on May 21, 2017 at 9:30 a.m. Gotan-e celebrates the birth of Shinran Shonin, the founder of our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, in the year 1173. As we celebrate Shinran’s birthday, we take time this month to recall the events of his life. Shinran was ordained as a Buddhist monk of the Tendai school at the age of nine under the guidance of the eminent monk Jien. Shinran spent the next twenty years studying the Tendai teachingsand practicing monastic discipline on Mount Hiei. Although he departed from Mount Hiei at the age of 29, his later writings show the lifelong impact that the Buddhist education he received in the Tendai tradition had on his understanding of the Dharma.
The Tendai School was established in Japan, bythe monk Saicho (767-822) who in 804 joined an official delegation to China, where he studied with the leading monks of the Tiantai (Jpn. Tendai) school. Upon his return to Japan he worked to establish a dedicated site for monastic practice at Mount Hiei, just northeast of the capital. Saicho envisioned the Mount Hiei monastic complex as a site for Mahayana Buddhist practice based on the model of Bodhisattva Vows and self-realization through working for the benefit of others.
As he petitioned for support to establish an officially sanctioned ceremonial platform for ordaining monks in the Mahayana tradition, Saicho emphasized the benefit that his mountain Buddhist community would bring to the nation of Japan.
What is the treasure of the nation? The religious nature is a treasure, and he who possesses this nature is the treasure of the nation. That is why it was said of old that ten pearls big as pigeon’s eggs do not constitute the treasure of a nation, but only when a person casts his light over a part of the country can one speak of a treasure of the nation. A philosopher of old once said that [he who is capable in speech, but not action should be a teacher of the nation]; he who is capable in action but not in speech should be of service to the nation; but he who is capable both in action and speech is the treasure of the nation. Apart from these three groups, there are those who are capable neither of speech nor action: these are the betrayers of the nation.
Buddhists who possess the religious nature are called in the west bodhisattvas; in the east they are known as superior men. They hold themselves responsible for all bad things while they credit others with all good things. Forgetful of themselves, they benefit others. This represents the epitome of compassion.
(Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume One: From Earliest Times to 1600, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary, et. al., p. 145-146)
As a student on Mount Hiei, Shinran would have aspired to these lofty ideals set forth in the writings of Saicho and other great teachers of the Tendai tradition. While the specific reasons for Shinran’s departure from Mount Hiei are not recorded in his writings or other contemporary documents, we do know that by Shinran’s time the monasteries of Mount Hiei had come to be dominated by monks from aristocratic backgrounds who were regularly embroiled in secular and political affairs. There was even a standing army of “warrior monks” based on Mount Hiei, who would periodically march on the capital to influence matters of the state.
Perhaps exasperation with how far monastic life on Mount Hiei had diverged from the ideals set forth by Saicho was a contributing factor in Shinran’s decision to leave Mount Hiei and join Honen’s Nembutsu community on the outskirts of Kyoto. In his Hymns on the Dharma Ages, Shinran writes, “It is saddening to see the behavior of the monks of the major temples and monastic complexes at present, whether high-ranking monks or ‘teachers of dharma.’” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 424) In contrast, Shinran expresses his joy in encountering his teacher Honen (Genku) in the following verse from the Hymns on the Pure Land Masters:
Though Shan-tao and Genshin urged all to enter the true Pure Land way,
If our teacher Genku had not spread it among us
On these isolated islands in this defiled age,
How could we ever have awakened to it?
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 387)