Monday, March 29, 2010

Shinran – a manifestation of Amida Buddha and Avalokitesvara

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Before I enter this topic, lets think a little to Shakyamuni, the Founder of Buddhism.
Did he become a Buddha during his life on this earth that we all know from history, or had he attained Buddhahood countless lifetimes ago, in the incomprehensibly remote past? Or was he the manifestation of Amida Buddha?

The answer depends on which sutras you chose to read. In many sutras the first situation is presented, in others the second is taken as a profound truth (for example, the Lotus Sutra,  - Life Span chapter), and the Pure Land sutras are interpreted by Shinran Shonin as to clearly show the third situation in which the true reason for the appearance of Shakyamuni in the world was to teach the Dharma about Amida Buddha’s salvation. To me, the third is the one I chose[1].

The same thing applies to many important figures in the Buddhist history after Shakyamuni’s passing.
Some Masters have a visible life in which they are born, do this or that, meet with the Dharma, practice it and one day attain the most important thing –supreme Enlightenment, or in the case of Shinran Shonin, he receives shinjin, which is  faith in Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow.
This is the visible life, but an invisible one or hidden truth about them might be revealed by their own words or actions on various occasions or by the testimonies of their closest disciples who had revelatory dreams or visions about these Masters.


In the case of Master Honen (Genku), Shinran sometimes described him not just as an ordinary person who received shinjin during his earthly life after struggling with hard practices, but also in the following terms:

“It was said among the people
That the original state of our teacher Genku (Honen)
Was Master Tao-ch'o,
Or again, Master Shan-tao.”

Genku appeared as Mahasthamaprapta,
And also as Amida.
Emperors and ministers venerated him,
And the ordinary people in the capital and the countryside revered him.

He also recorded Honen’s own words about who he actually was during his life on earth:

“When the moment of death approached,
Our teacher Genku (Honen) said,
"This is my third time to be born in the Pure Land;
It is especially easy to accomplish."

Genku himself said,
"Formerly, I was among the assembly on Vulture Peak[2];
I practiced austerities with other sravakas
And guided beings to the Buddhist path."

He then, explains again his own interpretation of who his Master truly was:

“Amida Tathagata, manifesting form in this world,
Appeared as our teacher Genku;
The conditions for teaching having run their course,
He returned to the Pure Land.”

.............................................

“The death of our teacher Genku
Came in 1212, in early spring;
On the twenty-fifth day of the first month,
He returned to the Pure Land.”

Master Honen returned to the Pure Land, which means it was not the first time when he was born there – this is how Shinran Shonin regarded his Master. This is how I, a disciple of Shinran, look to Honen Shonin, too.

It is also well known the opinion of Shinran Shonin about prince Shotoku, whom he also regarded not as an ordinary person, but as a manifestation of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. I myself look to Shotoku Taishi in this way, so as to be in accord with Shinran, my Master.

Now lets move to the actual topic of this article and reffer to the case of Shinran Shonin about whom, I think, we can have two visions that are equally argumented.
First, we may think to Shinran as to an ordinary person filled with blind passions who struggled for twenty years as a monk to attain Enlightenment through his personal power and after being confronted with failure, he met Honen Shonin and entrusted totaly to  Amida Buddha, remaining an ordinary person until his death when he was born in the Pure Land and became a Buddha himself.
Or we may think to him as the manifestation/emanation of Amida Buddha and Avalokitesvara who took the apparent form of an ordinary person filled with blind passions, going through struggle, failure, conversion and birth in the Pure Land, so that the most suitable Dharma for this age (Amida Dharma) being spread in the world and become accepted by many.

The first vision about Master Shinran is sustained by the fact that he never described himself in his written texts as being a manifestation of anybody, but only an ordinary person filled with blind passions entrusting totaly to Amida Buddha. We should clearly understand this. He didn’t even describe himself to be the founder of a new school, but always considered himself as a disciple of Honen.
The teaching he left to the world is outstanding and unique, however, he never said about himself as being an extrardinary person.
I don’t insist on this first vision as there are so many quotes from Shinran’s own words that can be used as a proof for it.

My interest is to the second vision that I personaly share about Shinran Shonin, despite the humbleness he always showed in what he wrote and preached.
So, what is the basis for my vision of Shinran Shonin as being the emanation/manifestation of Amida Buddha and Avalokitesvara?

I don’t deny that my own feeling has a crucial role in this. On this basis I accept openly the testimonies of others who themselves shared the same vision as myself.
And who were these persons that also regarded Shinran Shonin as being the manifestation of Amida and/or Avalokitesvara?

First it was his own wife, the mother of our school, Eshinni. Here is what she wrote to her daughter Kakushinni, after Shinran’s passing:

„Also I recall a dream I had while we were at a place called Sakai village at Shimotsuma in Hitachi [province]. It seems that there was a dedication ceremony for a temple building. The building stood facing east, and it was apparently on the eve of the ceremony. In front of the building there were lanterns [burning] bright, and to the west of the lanterns in front of the building there were [two] Buddhist images suspended from the horizontal part of what seemed to be a shrine gate (torii).
In one there was no face to the Buddhist image, but only a core of light, as if it were the radiance of the Buddha’s head; distinct features could not be seen, and the light was the only thing there.  In the other, there was a distinct face to the Buddhist image.

 I asked what Buddhist images these were, and the person [who answered] – I have no recollection who the person was – said, „The one that is only light is none other than Master Honen. He is the Bodhisattva Seishi[3]. When I asked who the other was, he said, „That is [the Bodhisattva] Kannon[4]. That is none other than the priest Zenshin[5] [Shinran]”.

Upon hearing this I was shocked [out of my sleep], and I realized that it had been a dream. I have heard that such things are not to be spoken to other people, for they may not think such things spoken by this nun [i.e. Eshinni] to be true. Therefore, I [have remained] silent, not telling other people [about this]. But I did tell my husband [Shinran] the part about Master [Honen].
He said, „Among dreams there are many different types, but this dream must be true. There are many [other] instances of dreams in which people have seen Master [Honen] in one place or another as a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Seishi. The Bodhisattva Seishi is the ultimate in wisdom, so he [appeared simply] as light.”

I did not  say anything about my husband being Kannon, but in my own mind I never looked upon him from that time forward in an ordinary way. You should ponder these things well[6]. Thus, you should have no doubt [concerning Shinran’s birth in the Pure Land] however his death may have been.”[7]

We see that Shinran Shonin accepted as true the dream of his wife, without being informed about the part related with him. This is a thing to reflect...
To me, Eshinni is very important and her apparition in human form as a consort of Shinran Shonin is not accidentaly. She is a part, together with her daughter Kakushinni, of Amida’s salvation work. The image that suddenly appear in my mind is that of Buddhist paintings where some Buddhas are pictured together with their consorts. Such far my gratitude and devotion to her goes in my mind....

Things are profound and beyond our capacities to understand using our limited minds, but I certainly feel with my heart the wonderful Compassionate work of many Buddhas and their manifestations who are always active in order to make us, hopeless sentient beings, to entrust to Amida Buddha. I am amazed when seeing with eyes of devotion the working of the Buddhas. We indeed live in the last Dharma age in which no one is capable of attaining anything permanent from the spiritual point of view, but exactly in this age Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are so much active using a lot of methods to make us aware of the Amida Dharma. Shinran was the most important part of Amida’s working, following a long line of Masters which started with Shakyamuni Buddha himself, and into my opinion he could not be an ordinary person in his true nature.

Now lets read other testimonies in which Master Shinran appears as an emanation/manifestation.

We read in Hongwanji Shonin Shinran Denne (Godensho[8]), the biography of Shinran Shonin written by Master Kakunyo Shonin (1270-1351), the third chief abbot of Hongwanji (the son of Kakushinni and grandson of Shinran):

„On the ninth day of the second month in the eight year of Kencho (1265)[9], at night at the hour of the tiger[10], Shaku Ren’i had a vision in a dream: Prince Shotoku bowed in worship to Shinran Shonin and said in verse:

„Adoration to Amida Buddha of Great Compassion!
You have appeared in this world (as Shinran Shonin) to spread the excellent teaching;
You lead people of the evil world in the evil period of the five defilements
To definitely attain the supreme Enlightenment.”

Hence, it is clear that Shonin, the Patriachal Master, was an incarnation of Amida Tathagatha.”

Shaku Ren’i or Ren’i bo was a native of Hitachi Province (present day Ibaragi Prefecture). He came to Kyoto and lived with Shinran, attending him in his last years. So he was not a nobody, but a very close disciple.

We also read in the Godensho the following testimony:

„Shonin’s disciple, Nyusai-bo, cherished the desire to have a portrait of Shonin. Knowing this, Shonin said to him, „You can ask the Dharma-bridge[11] Jozen [who lived in Shichijo] to portray me.”

Elated by Shonin’s suggestion based on deep observation, Nyusai-bo invited the Dharma-bridge to Shonin’s abode. Jozen came at once as requested. The moment Jozen saw Shonin, he said, „Last night I had an inspired dream. The holy priest I saw in the dream is exactly the same person as I now see before my eyes.”

With profound joy and awe, he continued, „Two noble priests came to visit me.
One of them said: ‚I wish to have a portrait of this revered incarnated one made. Please make one, Jozen.’
So I asked: ‚Who is this incarnated one?’
The priest replied: ‚He is the founder[12] of the Zenkoji Temple’.
I prostrated myself on the floor with my hands joined together, and thought to myself in the dream, ‚He must be a living incarnation of Amida Tathagata’.
Feeling my hair standing on end, I deeply revered and paid homage to him. The priest added: ‚A portrait of his face will be enough.’
After the exchange of these words, I awoke from the dream. As I now see Shonin’s august countenance at this hermitage, it is not a bit different from the holy priest that I saw in the dream.”

So saying, Jozen shed tears of great joy. Shonin remarked, „Let my portrait be just as you saw in your dream.”

Master Kakunyo commenting this last testimony said: „Jozen portrayed Shonin’s face only. Jozen had this dream in the night of the twentieth day of the month in the third year of Ninji[13]

He then concludes:

„As I deeply contemplate this miraculous and portentous event, I clearly see that Shonin was an incarnation of Amida Tathagatha. It follows then that the teaching he promulgated was most likely Amida’s direct exposition. Amida holds up the brilliant lamp of undefiled wisdom to disperse the darkness of delusion in the world of defilement; furthermore, he showers the rain of Dharma everywhere in order to moisten the dried-up hearts of ordinary and deluded beings in the distant future. Let us revere and entrust ourselves to his teaching.”

Here is another incident from Godensho which shows that Shinran Shonin was not an ordinary person in his original nature.
When Heitaro of Obu village in Nakanosai County in Hitachi Province was obliged to make a visit to Kumano Shrine (a Shinto shrine) due to his public duty, he went there without observing the Shinto prescribed manner concerning such a visit, didn’t put on the mask of a wise person and did not purified his body with special rituals, but kept adoring the Primal Vow in his heart.
As the story goes,

 ...he reached Kumano without any incident. On that night, Heitaro had a vision in a dream: the door of the shrine was opened and a layman in proper ceremonial dress and hat came in and said to Heitaro, „Why have you come here in such a defiled and impure state, unafraid of the deity?”
At that moment, Shonin suddenly appeared before him and said „He practices the Nembutsu in accordance with Zenshin’s (Shinran) instructions.”

Thereupon, the layman held up his scepter in the proper way and bowed deeply to show his respect to Shonin, without saying a word. Then Heitaro awoke. He was struck with unspeakable wonder.

On his way home, Heitaro paid a visit to Shonin and told him what had happened. In reply Shonin said: „That was good”. This was also an inconceivable thing.

At the end of Godensho, Master Kakunyo states:
„Many miraculous stories were told about Shonin, but it is impossible to relate them all. I have presented only a selected few.”

As we clearly saw, Eshinni, Kakushinni, Ren’i-bo, Nyusai-bo, Juzen, the painter, Heitaro and Master Kakunyo are only a few names of those who shared the belief that Shinran Shonin was the manifestation of Amida Buddha.
Master Kakunyo is the third abbot of our school (Hongwanji-ha and Otani-ha branch) and a very important figure in the Jodo Shinshu history. His book, Godensho, is considered even now to be the official biography of Shinran Shonin and is included in the canon of our school. It is always chanted in every Jodo Shinshu temple on the occasion of Hoonko or Shinran’s memorial days (9-16 January) and on his 750th Comemoration we attended in 2011. So, this work is not an ordinary one.

All these testimonies, together with my own feeling, prove to me that Shinran Shonin was in fact an emanation/manifestation of Amida Buddha himself and Avalokitesvara. He came to this world and took the human appearance of an unenlightened person who tried at first practices based on personal power, gave up to them, received shinjin and preached the Dharma about Amida Buddha in such a unique and accesible way for everybody. At the death of his illusory body he came back to his original form, which is Amida Buddha. He is now dwelling in the Pure Land as well as here in samsara with us, taking many forms, always guiding us in ways known or unknown.

Shinran, the emanation of Amida Buddha and Avalokitesvara, took not only human form but also human problems and a human personality with its many difficulties and shortcomings, living the life of an ordinary person in the last Dharma age in order to show that Amida’s salvation is especially concerned about such people who can’t save themselves by any method. Shinran „experienced” failure in his spiritual life as a monk and a self power practitioner in order to show that failure is accepted and we should not worry about it.

He intentionaly lived the life of an ordinary person, got married even if he was a monk, didn’t preach about precepts and showed that even hunters, fishermen, prostitutes and all hopeless people can be saved only by faith in Amida Buddha. He did all these and lived like an ordinary person filled with blind passions, in order to show that such beings like us, Amida especially saves. I think that nothing in Shinran’s life happened accidentaly, but was included in Amida’s plan of salvation. Also I think that the life of Kakunyo, Rennyo or other patriarchs was not accidentaly too.

But no matter if all Jodo Shinshu followers  share or not the second vision about Shinran Shonin that I myself share, we all have to agree on one point, that he became a Buddha in the Pure Land of Amida, like any person of shinjin will become at the end of his or her life. nThat Pure Land is a real place and once born there through shinjin we become Buddhas.

Also, no matter if Jodo Shinshu followers believe or not that Shinran was a manifestation/emanation of Amida and Avalokitesvara, they have to listen  and entirely accept his teaching so that they can receive the same shinjin like him.

If for you, Shinran was just an ordinary person until death and birth in the Pure Land, but you totaly accept his teaching and receive shinjin in your heart, then you fulfilled everything on the Jodo Shinshu path.

We have enough reasons and arguments to chose each one of these visions about Shinran Shonin, so it depends on each one of us. After all, the most important matter in Jodo Shinshu is to receive shinjin. If you can listen openly to his teaching and entrust in Amida Buddha, nothing else matters.

Shinran finaly gave his message to the world, so he acomplished his mission. Now, it falls upon us to keep and transmit his message without modifying it.

Namo Amida Butsu
Homage to Shinran Shonin, the emanation of Amida Buddha and Avalokitesvara!


[2] The Larger Amida Sutra was preached by Shakyamuni Buddha on the Vulture Peak.
[3] Bodhisattva Seishi (Daiseishi) or Mahasthamaprapta, is one of the attendants Bodhisattvas of Amida Buddha together with Kannon (Avalokitesvara). He represents wisdom.
[4] Bodhisattva Kannon (Kanzeon) or Avalokitesvara, is the Bodhisattva of Compassion and one of the attendants of Amida Buddha together with Bodhisattva Seishi. Kannon is often depicted with a small representation of Amida Buddha on his crown. In China and Japan is often portrayed in feminine form.
[5] Zenshin is a clerical name adopted by Shinran during his six year period of study unde Honen’s guidance in Kyoto. Zenshin can be found in some parts of his writings, even if he used more often the name, Shinran.

[6] This long passage about Eshinni’s dreams is paraphrased in Kakunyo’s Kudensho.
[7] The quote and most of the footnotes are from Letters of the nun Eshinni, by James C.Dobbins, printed at University Hawai’i Press in 2004 .
[8] This is even in our present time the official biography of Shinran Shonin recognized by the Hongwanji-ha branch of Jodo Shinshu.  All quotes and footnotes that follows are from Zuio Hisao Inagaki’s English translation printed by the Horai Association in 2009.
[9] At that time, Shinran was 84.
[10] About 4 o’clock in the morning.
[11] The Dharma-bridge: ‘Hokyo’ in Japanese, an abbreviation of ‘hokkyo-shonin-i’, the rank of the Master of of Dharma-bridge; originally, the lowest of the three higher ranks of priesthood, which corresponds to the older term ’risshi’. Later, used as a title of honor for medical doctors, painters, poets, and so on.
[12] Founder; hongan no onbo in Japanese; here hongan does not mean ‚primal vow’, but ‚a founder or promoter’ of a temple, statue, or a Dharma meeting.
[13] This corresponds to 1242.

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