The Venerable Master Genshin

The Venerable Master Genshin (942-1017); sixth Dharma Master of Jodo Shinshu

The Venerable Master Genshin is the sixth Dharma Master of Jodo Shinshu. He was born in 942 and returned to the Pure Land a thousand years ago in 1017; some would say on 6 July, which is just four weeks away. In any case, it seems appropriate to pay homage to him at this time.

As everyone knows, Genshin became an abbot and great scholar of the Tendai School on Mt Hiei. He was widely knowledgeable about both Hinayana and Mahayana teachings, especially in regard to the Yogacara philosophy. Above all his contribution to the Pure Land tradition, which became so prominent from the time of Honen Shonin less than a century later, was his great magnum opus Essentials for Attaining Birth.

In Essentials for Attaining Birth, Genshin outlines in great detail the hardships and suffering of the six realms of birth-and-death, eventually guiding his readers to the fulfilled land of Amida Buddha. Along with his extraordinary scholarship and spiritual accomplishments he does seem to have especially commended the nembutsu as the way to ultimate deliverance.

The Teaching and Practice for Birth in the Pure Land of Utmost Bliss are the eye and the foot in the latter age of this defiled world. Who then–monk or layman, noble or common—would not depend on it? The doctrines of the exoteric and the esoteric are not single in text; the practices to attain the cause for enlightenment are, in principle and reality, manifold. For the intelligent and earnest it is not difficult, but for me, an obstinate and simple man, how is it possible to follow such teachings and such practices? Therefore, I depend on the single gate of the Nembutsu. (Essentials for Attaining Birth, Shinshu Seiten, 1978, p. 215)

The wonderful Shin Buddhist master and writer of the twentieth century, Kosho Yamamoto has left us a story about Genshin that is titled A Mother and This Son. ‘This Son’ is none other than Genshin.

Yamamoto Sensei tells us that Genshin’s father died in 949, when Genshin was seven years old, and that a visiting monk noticed the boy’s high intelligence. At the monk’s bidding, Genshin’s mother agreed to let her son go to Mt Hiei to study the Dharma. Along with fresh robes, she gave him a copy of the Amida Sutra.

After some years, Genshin’s mother heard that her son had become famous in the imperial court and had, indeed, delivered a lecture to the Mikado on a version of the Amida Sutra. He was rewarded for his religious service to the Emporer by a gift of fine silk. Thinking that she would be delighted to receive such a gift from him, Genshin sent it to his mother. In return, he received a letter of stern rebuke.

Genshin’s mother did note that she had heard about him from other quarters and, in spite of the fact that he had not been in contact with her until that time, she noted that he had become famous and was wearing fine robes. Far from thanking him for his gift to her, Genshin’s mother told him to stop wasting his time in the world of privilege and vanity, and to seclude himself the monastery to undertake earnest practices for his own salvation and that of all beings.

In 984 Genshin received news of his mother’s impending death and travelled the relatively short distance to see her. It was some thirty years since mother and son had seen each other. As he tenderly cared for her in her dying moments, he asked her to simply say the nembutsu. She was too exhausted to do so, and Genshin proceeded to prepare the room for her departure from this saha world.

When the room was swept, washed and perfumed he finally told his mother about Amida Buddha and his Pure Land. It was then that mother and son said the nembutsu together. Genshin’s mother passed away, having found peace in her son’s words; and having said the sacred Name with him some three hundred times.

Genshin came to see his mother as his Dharma teacher and remembered her in this way:

It was my mother who had made me perfect in practice; and it was I who had enabled my mother to attain the end well. This mother and this son, each becoming the Teacher of the Way! This could but be the happy fruit of past karma.