The Yamabushi

Sainenji Temple, located near Shinran Shonin’s residence in the Kanto, where he lived for twenty years from 1214.

But it is indeed preposterous to call persons ‘my disciples’ when they say the nembutsu having received the working of Amida. (The Tanni Sho, 6; CWS, p. 664)

Bennen was a Yamabushi, a ‘mountain ascetic’. When Shinran moved east from Echigo to Kanto in 1214 he gradually gained a significant number of followers. After a while this became a source of irritation to some mountain ascetics (yamabusi, or shugendo) who lived nearby.

Yamabushi live in remote parts of the mountains and belong to a tradition that is common throughout the Buddhist world. In east Asian countries they tend to follow a very rigorous, ascetic way of life. One sure thing can be said of this practice: it is a way of the Path of Sages and bears no resemblance, at all, to the Pure Land path.

Among the ascetics who heard of Shinran was Bennen. It is said that he resolved to destroy Shinran and his Sangha. The Pure Land way has occasionally been subject to persecution and harassment. In Shinran’s time, of course, monks in Nara and Kyoto sought to harm nembutsu people by appealing to authorities against the community led by Honen Shonin.

The emperor and his ministers, acting against the dharma and violating human rectitude, became enraged and embittered. As a result, Master Genku (Honen) – the eminent founder who had enabled the true essence of the Pure Land to spread vigorously [in Japan] – and a number of his followers, without receiving any deliberation of their [alleged] crimes, were summarily sentenced to death or were dispossessed of their monkhood, given [secular] names, and consigned to distant banishment. I was among the latter. Hence, I am now neither a monk nor one in worldly life. (CWS, p. 289)

Throughout Shinran’s writings, including the Hymns, we encounter evidence of harassment and persecution of the nembutsu community by other religious groups and secular authorities.

Bennen was one of these. Not content with harassing Shinran and his Dharma friends, it is said that Bennen made a firm resolution to confront and even kill Shinran. In any case, an encounter between them most certainly occurred. Bennen was perhaps, taken aback by Shinran’s tranquillity in the face of stark danger. Whatever happened, he became a fellow-follower with Shinran of the wonderful way of nembutsu that we still adopt for ourselves today, in the twenty-first century.

We read of Bennen in Shinran’s letters. By this time, he had received a new Dharma name – Myoho-bo. I am always deeply moved by the way that Shinran speaks of him. It is with great warmth and affection.

The fulfillment of Myoho-bo’s cherished desire to be born in the Pure Land is surely celebrated by those in Hitachi province who share the same aspiration. (CWS, p. 550)

I was happy to hear at first hand of Myoho-bo’s attainment of birth. (CWS, p. 551)

Even Myoho-bo’s birth came about only after he underwent a complete change of heart, for he originally had thoughts of unimaginable wrongdoing. (CWS, p. 550)

Although scarcely unexpected, Myoho-bo’s attainment of birth still makes me deeply happy. Surely it is celebrated by all the people in Kashima, Namekata, and the remote districts who desire birth in the Pure Land. (CWS, p. 552)

And I always feel even more deeply moved when I realise that Shinran held Myoho-bo to be an equal, a cherished friend, and a fellow disciple of Amida Buddha. From Shinran’s point of view, the conversion of this once hate-filled and aggressive monk to the true Pure Land way of Amida Buddha had nothing to do with Shinran. It was entirely the work of the Primal Vow.

The way of Other Power is such that it is not even possible for us to convert people to the way of nembutsu and birth in the Pure Land. Only the power of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha can do that.