This month we will celebrate the birth of Shinran Shonin at our Gotan-e Service on Sunday, May 15. For me, Gotane is a time when I feel renewed gratitude for the founder of our tradition, Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), and his life dedicated to sharing the Nembutsu. In 1207, Shinran was exiled to a remote area in Echigo Province (modern-day Niigata Prefecture) as part of a widespread persecution of his teacher Honen Shonin’s Nembutsu community. Honen taught that by simply reciting the Nembutsu, it was possible for any person to break free from the cycle of birth and death through birth in Amida Buddha’s realm of peace and bliss. At that time in Japan, many mainstream Buddhist teachers taught that people who engaged in professions such as fishing and leatherworking, those who had broken monastic precepts, and women in general were so burdened with negative karma that they would surely remain bound to the cycle of birth and death at the end of their present life. From that perspective, Honen’s Nembutsu teaching was radical, even subversive. In 1206, the conservative scholar-monks of the Kofukuji Temple in Nara, sent a letter to the emperor recommending that he prohibit the practice of exclusive Nembutsu advocated by Honen.
Because Honen taught that men and women have equal potential for fulfillment through the Nembutsu, women from all segments of society were drawn to his community. In late 1206, while the Emperor Gotoba was away from the capital on a pilgrimage to the Kumano Shrine, his consorts Suzumushi and Matsumushi joined a Nembutsu gathering led by Honen’s followers Juren-bo and Anraku-bo. After hearing the Nembutsu teaching, the emperor’s consorts experienced a great change of heart and took ordination as Buddhist nuns. As imperial consorts, it would have taken great courage for Suzumushi and Matsumushi to abandon the world of palace life. The emperor wielded great power in his world, but the hearts of his consorts turned away from that world and turned toward Amida Buddha’s realm of peace and bliss. In hearing the Nembutsu teaching, they came to the radical realization that in the light of Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion, the lives of all people are equally precious. It is not difficult to see how the Nembutsu teaching was a source of consternation for the emperor and the established Buddhist schools.
When the emperor returned and discovered that Suzumushi and Matsumushi had renounced their lives in the imperial palace to join Honen’s Nembutsu Sangha, he became enraged and ordered Juren-bo and Anraku-bo to be executed along with two other leading followers of Honen. Honen was sent into exile on the island of Shikoku. Seven more of his followers, including Shinran, were dispossessed of their monkhood and sent into exile, scattering the community throughout Japan. While many lamented the exile, Honen instructed his disciples that this too should be accepted as the flow of karmic causes and conditions in their lives. Honen’s disciples took that teaching to heart, and as a result, the Nembutsu teaching flourished in the rural provinces to an extent that likely would not have been possible had it not been for their exile.
Prior to his exile, Shinran himself enjoyed special status as an ordained monk of the influential Tendai School. Years after he was stripped of his monastic status, he commented on that experience, writing “I am now neither a monk nor one in worldly life.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 286) Even without the special status of monks and nuns, our lives in the Nembutsu are illuminated by the Buddha’s wisdom that shines brighter than the misguided values of worldly life. Wherever he went, Shinran worked tirelessly to share the Nembutsu teaching, so that the people he met would see the preciousness of their own lives when viewed in the light of Amida Buddha.
Namo Amida Butsu