by Dr. Alfred Bloom, Emeritus Professor, University of Hawaii
May 21 marks the birthday of Shinran (1173-1262), founder of the Japanese Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism. This sect is represented in Hawaii by temples associated with the Honpa Hongwanji Mission or the Higashi Hongwanji. The celebration of this event was instituted by the Abbot Myonyo (Kouson, 1850-1903) of the Honpa Hongwanji denomination during the Meiji era (1868-1911).
Shinran was a descendant of a branch of the aristocratic Fujiwara clan. While his family background could have led him to a career in the Imperial court, political fortunes brought him to the Tendai monastery on Mount Hiei at the young age of nine years. There he underwent a spiritual transformation that provided the basis for his re-interpretation of Buddhist teaching and practice.
Through his re-interpretation, Shinran, following the lead of his teacher Honen, (1133-1212) opened the path to Enlightenment and Nirvana to all people regardless of their social, educational, or moral qualifications. Shinran’s teaching of “salvation by faith alone” held spiritual and social implications and antedated Martin Luther (1483-1546), the great Protestant religious reformer, by two hundred years.
In Japanese tradition it has been more common to commemorate the death of a great teacher or leader. Many give famous last words. Generally in society one’s age changes at the New Year. Celebrating birthdays is a more modern development, perhaps taking the lead from the Abbot Myonyo in the wake of Japan’s opening to the West.
The death of a great leader is important in highlighting the heritage he/she has left behind which strengthens tradition. Nevertheless, birth represents an auspicious moment fraught with potentiality. A death is fixed, static, but a birth points to change, development, growth, creativity.
As the child grows and responds to his/her world, we focus on the possibilities that Shinran’s teaching offers to modern people. A major question faces the followers of Shinran: What spiritual contribution does Shin Buddhism offer to modern people? What is its meaning for modern people? Is it a fixed system or is it open to the future as new conditions in culture and society arise?
Shin Buddhism has its deep roots in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition which emphasizes interdependence and the oneness of all life. From this perspective, Shinran’s teaching of the non-discriminating equality of all beings is the basis for social and world peace and justice when given concrete expression in human relations. The figure of the bodhisattva, a Buddha in the making, suggests the central issue for all religions is: Not what benefits I get from my religion for myself, but how my religious faith, motivated by boundless compassion or love, benefits others.
Shinran’s understanding of Buddhism challenges our popular conceptions in turning religion from being simply a personal, private concern to one of mutuality and sharing that is both local and global. His vision of a world united in compassion and love, rather than hatred and violence supports and joins with the hopes and efforts of all other religious faithful who also urge peace and justice. Hence the motto of the Honpa Hongwanji is a word of Shinran: “Let there be peace in the world.”