The letters of Shinran Shonin

Image by Mark Healsmith
Image by Mark Healsmith

From this week’s update, and for the next year or so, I would like to begin an exploration of the  letters of Shinran Shonin.

For me, July is the natural time for new beginnings.  The living world that I inhabit, here in South Australia, is emerging from its short time of dormancy,  which lasts for only a few weeks until the end of July. This is the time that the annual cycle of growth begins.

For people of nembutsu, Shinran’s letters are very important because they tackle ‘real-life’ concerns. In them, he addresses his nembutsu companions directly in a respectful and forthright way.

We encounter matters, which concern us in our own time. For example, How should we relate to those who oppose the nembutsu? What is the destiny of a nembutsu follower who has not realised the entrusting heart? How should we conduct ourselves in daily life and in our relationships with others?  Where does Jodo Shinshu fit in comparison to other schools of Buddha Dharma? How, indeed, does the entrusting heart arise in us?

And, there are many more questions, which Shinran addresses in his responses to the concerns of his Dharma friends.

We also learn about Shinran’s anguished relationship with his oldest son, Zenran.

Shinran sent Zenran to the Kanto to resolve problems within the nembutsu community. However, Zenran’s incompetence became more than an embarrassment.

We learn, too, about the wonderful conversion and radiant nembutsu life of one of Shinran’s staunchest opponents.

We hear about Shinran’s affection for his fellow-followers and the way that he is able to endorse their personal understanding of the Dharma where that is merited. Above all, we become ever more aware of the wondrous depth of Shinran’s compassion.

After his lengthy stay of about twenty years in the Kanto area (the south-eastern region of Honshu), Shinran returned to Kyoto in 1234, thus leaving his disciples to manage their growing nembutsu communities without his direct involvement. Many problems began to emerge in these remote communities and thus began an exchange of letters between Shinran and his disciples in the Kanto. This is the origin of this sublime collection of Dharma teachings.

The letters are bundled into several collections, which you will find in The Collected Works of Shinran, pp. 523-583.  The largest collection, Mattoshô, Lamp for the Latter Ages, has been published as a discrete volume in the Shin Buddhism Translation Series. Much of our exploration during the next year will be concerned with this collection.

The other collections are

  • Shinran Shônin go-shôku shû, A Collection of Letters;
  • Go-shôsoku shû (Zenshô bon), Another Collection of letters;
  • Shinran Shônin ketsumyaku monjû, Letters of the Tradition; and
  • Uncollected Letters.

Shinran completed the first two volumes of Wasan (Hymns of the Pure Land and Hymns of the Dharma Masters) just three years before his first letter.  To me, the letters seem to confirm – and to refine – the discussion, which began in these wasan.