Shakyamuni and Amida are compassion’s parents;
Using all means they skilfully lead us
And in us the supreme entrusting heart
Do they awaken. (Hymns of the Pure Land Masters 74)
Gotan-e on 21 May is the celebration of Shinran Shonin’s birth. It is a time for special events at our mother temple, Honzan. There is a noh play and other traditional entertainment, as well as tea ceremony. It sounds like a real birthday party. A birthday celebrates the wonder of a new being coming into the world – full of potential. As time passes when we come to our birthdays, we often look back at how life has gone for us. Where were we and what were we doing on our last birthday; how will things go in the future.
A well-regarded biography of Shinran was written by the late Rev Dr Alfred Bloom, who was a professor at Hawaii University and a devoted follower of Shinran. But Dr Bloom is largely dependent on Shinran’s own extensive writings and scant historical detail to put together his life story. The discovery of a collection of letters by Shinran’s wife Eshin-ni has helped provide more information about him. Eshin-ni’s letters give us a very close and familiar insight into Shinran and some important events in his life.
Shinran’s own writing is the basis upon which the teaching and practice of the nembutsu in Jodo Shinshu is built. It has been and continues to be the primary source of inspiration for those of us who see him as their teacher. Rennyo Shonin, a descendant of Shinran and the eighth abbot of the Hongwanji in Kyoto, is recorded as saying,
The scroll of the sacred object of reverence should be kept hanging until it wears away; the sacred scriptures should be read over and over again until they become thread-bare (Goichidaiki-kikigaki 5)
I think he means the writings that Shinran left for us – especially his hymns, commentaries and letters.
The late nineteenth century Shin Buddhist minister and teacher Manshi Kiyozawa wrote,
I speak from experience when I say that to attain religious conviction, we should not depend on anything but religion itself. Wealth, family, friends, parents, brothers, sisters, career, ability, education, knowledge or nation should not matter.’ (December Fan, p. 9)
I think that Shinran was such a person. He depended on nothing but the Dharma from the time that he entered monastic life at the age of nine until the end of his life. He lost his parents when he was young and was raised by his uncles. But most of his life was firstly a quest for spiritual understanding and then serving as a dedicated teacher of those who sought to join him in the life of nembutsu.
In this he was like Shakyamuni Buddha who, towards the end of his life on earth said to his disciples,
Therefore in this world you should be islands unto yourselves, your own refuge, depending on no-one else, with the Dharma as an island and the Dharma as a refuge, depending on nothing else.
Shinran’s principal realisation and the heart of his message was Other Power. He said of this that ‘Other Power is none other than the power of the Tathagata’s Primal Vow.’ (CWS Vol 1, p. 57) And, for us, the Primal Vow is the Name – Namo Amida Butsu. He also said that ‘Other Power is entrusting ourselves to the Primal Vow …’ (p. 525)
A new-born child depends wholly on its parents. In the spiritual life our parents are Shakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha alone – ‘Shakyamuni and Amida are compassion’s parents.’ ‘Namo Amida Butsu’ is calling to them in secure trust, with eyes only for them, and serene thankfulness for their warm and secure embrace.