:: Jeff Wilson explains how the Jodo Shinshu school of Pure Land Buddhism emerged from the refugee experiences of its two Japanese founders, Shinran and Rennyo.
“We live in the age of the refugee,” according to Chilean playwright and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman, and the daily onslaught of news seems to confirm his grim observation. From crises in Europe and Asia to walls along the Mexican border, refugee and migrant issues are among the central concerns of our time. These days I find myself reflecting on how they relate to my dharma teaching and practice as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist. Perhaps this is especially so because my lineage emerged from the experiences of exile and suffering of our most important founders, Shinran and Rennyo.
Shinran, the thirteenth-century founder of the Jodo Shinshu (Shin) school of Buddhism, lived in an age of profound disruption, with civil wars, foreign invasions, plagues, and natural disasters. He was orphaned at the age of nine and forced to enter the monastery when his relatives could not provide for him.
Shinran practiced Buddhism for twenty years at the elite Tendai complex on Mt. Hiei before finally joining a new community focused on the Pure Land path. This radical movement preached buddhahood for all beings and pushed back at the strict hierarchical order of medieval Japan. Inevitably, followers of that movement were persecuted. Rivals trumped up charges and the community was outlawed. Some of its members were executed, while Shinran, his elderly teacher Honen, and several of his peers were stripped of their ordinations, branded as criminals, and forced into exile far from their homes in Kyoto. Shinran, for having sought a path that was open to all, found himself a refugee in the remote snow-bound province of Niigata.