Description – A Portrait of Shinran

The Shūjishō is the oldest of the three collections in A Portrait of Shinran. Compiled in 1326, it is the first attempt of Kakunyo (1270–1351) to formulate his position with regard to Shinran’s teaching. Although he was Shinran’s great grandson, he had to struggle to achieve his leadership position. It was under his tenure that the memorial hall received official temple status and official approval to use the name Honganji.

Listening to the request of his key disciple Ganchi (1273–1353), Kakunyo, age fifty-seven, realized it was necessary for him to make an official statement of his position on the Shin Buddhist teaching. Poring over Shinran’s letters, writings in the Mattoshō, Sanjō Wasan, and Tannishō as well as the letters of Eshin-ni, Kakunyo drew up a concise five-point statement that he called Shūjishō. The points are as follows:

  1. Shin Buddhism rejects the idea of Amida Buddha coming to welcome the dying seeker. Instead, Shin religious life is to be centered in ordinary life, not on life’s final curtain.
  2. In Shin Buddhism, the Mind of Faith is the true cause orienting us toward Birth in the Pure Land.
  3. Shin Buddhism accords special significance to the Eighteenth Vow as the Original Vow. The Eighteenth Vow is understood to equally guarantee Birth in the Pure Land to all living beings whether good or wicked through the power of the Original Vow.
  4. Shin Buddhism understands that a special relationship is maintained between the Mind of Faith, the Name, and the Light of Amida Buddha.
  5. In Shin Buddhism, the cause of our going forth to Birth is perfected by the working of Other Power. The Mind of Faith matures in the course of pursuing our daily life.

Kakunyo’s Shūjishō became an important cornerstone in Shin Buddhist doctrine and its tenets were upheld by succeeding generations of Shin Buddhist leaders.

During the Edo period (1603–1868), it was studied by shūgaku (traditional Shin Buddhist studies) scholars such as Kaigoin Reiō (1775–1850), who lectured on Shūjishō in the winter of 1836. Even in the modern age, the points that Kakunyo set down as guidelines, such as the moment when the seeker’s birth is finally settled, are still actively debated in Shin Buddhist circles. In 1939 the Eastern Buddhist Society published an English translation by Yokogawa Kenshō under the title “Tract on steadily holding to the faith.” A better title would have been “On holding firmly to the Name of Buddha with one mind” as Kakunyo himself suggests.

The Kudenshō is the first volume of A Portrait of Shinran. When we read it, it feels as if we are together with Shinran listening to him tell his favorite stories. These were stories he enjoyed telling his close disciples Nyoshin and Yuien over and over again. Through listening they were able to better gain their bearings on the Buddha way.

In 1331, almost seventy years after his death, these stories were compiled by his great-grandson Kakunyo who wished to record them for posterity. Kudenshō is less known compared to the Tannishō. Filled with anecdotes it give us a glimpse of the essence of Shinran’s teaching. It also gives us a vivid picture of his life through the eyes of his immediate descendants. Eight of the stories are also related to the Tannishō in some way. Kakunyo tries to clarify the controversial points of the teaching. Does our karma affect our chances for enlightenment or not? The book also serves to establish Kakunyo as the direct heir to the teaching lineage.

In early spring 1350, Kakunyo, age eighty, sat before the Buddha image at the Kuonji in Nishiyama, southwest of Kyoto, to conduct the annual service for his grandmother Kakushin-ni (1224–1283). Kakushin-ni, daughter of Shinran, was the one who had the foresight to establish a memorial hall for her father. The hall later came to be known as the Honganji. Before her death, she made the key decision to appoint her son Kakué, Kakunyo’s father, as curator of the hall. At the memorial service of 1350, Kakunyo composed a poem:

Koko ni nomi kokoro wo tomeshi ato wo tote kite sumu ware mo waburu sabishisa
ここにのみ 心をとめし 跡をとて きてすむわれも わぶるさびしさ

“Only the heart sojourns here.
How lonely and desolate this world
For those of us who follow in your tracks.”

How lonely and desolate and yet how immensely rich and creative was the world of Kakunyo, the third leader of the Honganji tradition. In a tumultous period he followed in the tracks of his venerable ancestors Kakushin-ni, Nyoshin, and Yuien, as well as Shinran, to put the Honganji tradition on solid ground. It was not a feat easily achieved and at times he must have despaired but he never forgot his deep indebtedness to those who came before him.

The Gaijashō, the last of three collections in A Portrait of Shinran, was composed in either 1336 or 1337. In 1336, the Honganji in Kyoto where Kakunyo resided was burnt down by invading armies. In that year, Ashikaga Takauji established himself as first shōgun of the Muromachi Shogunate in Kyoto. Kakunyo was forced to remove to the Kuonji in Nishiyama.

In light of these circumstances, some scholars doubt whether it was possible for him to compose the Gaijashō at this time. In the same year 1336, Bukkōji Ryōgen also died at the hands of bandits as he made his way home to Kyoto. Ryōgen’s death upset the status of all Shinshū (Shin Buddhist) temples belonging to the Bukkōji branch, then the largest of all Shinshū temple systems.

By contrast, the Honganji branch was a minor one under the umbrella of the Tendai school. All the same, Kakunyo’s Gaijashō opens with criticism directed at the practices of the dominant Bukkōji branch. By such documents, Kakunyo played an important role by laying down the guidelines of Shinran’s teaching that helped to ensure the steady growth of the Honganji branch in the future.

One hundred some years later, under the leadership of Rennyo, eighth leader of the Honganji, a shift in the political situation would force almost all Bukkōji temples in Kyoto to recapitulate and switch allegiance to the Honganji. While Rennyo is unilaterally praised for making the Honganji a huge institution in Japan, it is Kakunyo who took the helm to deftly guide the still fragile Honganji branch through a treacherous period of Japanese politics to produce early works that helped to define the Honganji tradition.

In Gaijashō, Kakunyo deals with odd notions that had cropped up in the broader Shinshū community. To a certain extent, the work shares similarities with Yuien’s Tannishō that in part presents a critique of similar problems in the Shin community of the time. Such problems actually go back to the time of Shinran.

It is said that Shinran even had problems with his own son whom he assigned to lead the Shin community in Kantō (the area surrounding present-day Tokyo). The Shin community is built around a sense of gratitude to Shinran as founder. However, this sense of gratitude can easily be displaced when a leader insists his followers be loyal to him alone and recognize his ultimate authority. It is unclear whether this happened with Shinran’s son, but politics often interferes with the pursuit of religious life.

Another odd notion was the so-called secret Shinshū societies known as hiji-bōmon. These unofficial lineages enjoyed a parallel existence to the official temple structure and performed practices that they claimed were genuinely Shinshū but in fact were of dubious nature. The existence of such societies has long been known and their activities have been a thorn in the side of the mother church. In recent years, they have even begun to attract the attention of Western scholars as a focus of research.

The Gaijashō itself opens with a critique of practices attributed to Ryōgen that were employed by the Bukkōji branch. Such practices were in part the reason for Bukkōji’s popularity but they were not beyond criticism. One was the Name Registry (Myōchō). By simply having your name added to the Name Registry (provided you kindly make a small donation), your birth in the Pure Land was assured.

A variation of this idea was to have one’s name added to a painting of the Buddha. Such paintings had considerable variations. Sometimes they consisted simply of the Buddha Name as the Honzon or central image flanked by Buddhist figures. At other times the painting was an elaborate illuminated pantheon of Buddhist figures connected to Shin Buddhism, collectively known as kōmyō honzon. This forms a genre in itself and has been explored by scholars, especially art historians.

The problem here is that these clever visual devices were not authorized forms of Shinshū practice. In their favor ,we should also note that Ryōgen’s ideas were not completely ruled against. Shinshū tends to take such odd notions with a grain of salt. Of course it is not possible to officially condone certain practices, nor is it practical or possible to completely ignore them. And sometimes such infractions are even instructive. Today the arrangement of the Honganji main altar can be said to bear the influence of Ryōgen’s colorful Bukkōji devices. However, the Gaijashō was the first to point out the problem of using such devices.

The Gaijashō earns an important mention in the Boki ékotoba biography of Kakunyo written in 1351. It is further discussed by Shinshū Otaniha scholars such as Honpō’in Gijō (1796–1858), who wrote his Heigo commentary on it in 1846. Studies and commentaries on Kakunyo’s three collections, that is, the Gaijashō, Kudenshō, and Shūjishō, were occasioned in part by the inclusion of these works in two popular compendiums: the 31-volume Shinshū hōyō (published by the present-day Jōdo Shinshū Honganji-ha or Nishi Hongwanji) of 1759–1765 and the 13-volume Shinshū kana shōgyō (published by the present-day Shinshū Ōtani-ha or Higashi Honganji) of 1811.

In recent times other Shin Buddhist writings have tended to replace Kakunyo’s works in popularity, but none of them can really give us a real-time window onto the events of his time, as well his thoughts, as these works do.