Eshinni

Eshinni's stupa at Kokubu. Photograph by Mark Healsmith.
Eshinni’s stupa at Kokufu. Photograph by Mark Healsmith.

In October 2011, I was one of a group of pilgrims from Australia who travelled to Japan to participate in the 750th anniversary of Shinran Shonin’s birth into the Pure Land, on 16 January 1263.

The entire journey was a wonderful experience and every moment of it was unforgettable: from the glorious celebrations at the Ryukokuzan Hongwanji in Kyoto, to discovering that the guest house at  Tsukiji in Tokyo did not provide towels.

But, more than anything, it was the afternoon that we spent in Kokufu, Niigata, on 29 October that moved me the most. Here it is that a brand new museum in honour of Shinran Shonin’s wife has only recently been built.

With the discovery in 1921 of a collection of letters from Eshinni to her youngest daughter Kakushinni, the identity of Shinran’s wife was no longer in doubt.  Surprisingly enough,  these letters also resolved any questions that some people may have had about Shinran’s historicity.

It was Kakushinni who built the memorial site to enshrine Shinran’s image.  This little mausoleum eventually became a temple and was dedicated as the Hongwanji.

I have long owned and cherished a biography of Eshinni, which was written by Yoshiko Ohtani, the wife of the late Shonyo Shonin (1911 – 2002), the 23rd Monshu of Jodo Shinshu. The Life of Eshinni, Wife of Shinran Shonin was translated into English by the late Professor Taitetsu Unno and his wife Alice.  More recently, James Dobbins, James H. Fairchild Professor at Oberlin college, published a ground-breaking and comprehensive work, which includes the letters.

Although Eshinni does not talk about the Dharma at great length in her letters because they are mainly concerned with day-to-day issues, she demonstrates a razor-sharp understanding of her husband’s teaching.  I have found these letters useful in clarifying some important emphases in Shinran’s writing.

So, it was with great joy that I spent an afternoon at the museum in Kokufu with my fellow Australian pilgrims in October 2012. It is hard to describe the beauty and significance of the Eshinni museum. I think that perhaps the official web site does not really do it justice but it does give some idea of what the museum precinct is like.  It is expansive, conducive to deep reflection, comprehensive, and inspiring.

The new temple at the Eshinni museum. Photograph by Mark Healsmith.
The new temple at the Eshinni museum. Photograph by Mark Healsmith.

We were able to see wonderful drawings of Eshinni’s life and marvel at the writing in her own hand. We visited  the garden that houses Eshinni’s stupa and finally we called at the beautiful new Hongwanji temple in the museum grounds.

It was very moving the see that to the left of the principal image (honzon) of Amida Buddha, Eshinni had been enshrined, with her husband on the right.  Here, I thought, at last, is the perfect representation of the nembutsu way: its domesticity.

For the nembutsu is the work of the Buddha to reach and enlighten ordinary men and women; bombu, the salt of the earth.  Brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, parents and children, same-sex domestic partners, ordinary men and women of many vocations and life-styles.  These are the people who love and commit to each other, work for a living, provide for their families, and do not have the time or capacity for rigorous religious practices.

Our homes are our dojo, our place of practice. Here, above all, it is that we find, to quote Eshinni, ‘entrusting heart, shinjin, born out of the joy of nembutsu.’