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Fuji Matsuri Gotan-e Service commemorates the birthday of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, born on May 21, 1173 in Kyoto, Japan.  Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism.  Mahayana Buddhism is one of the two major Buddhist schools which has spread from India to China and Japan.

A famous Buddhist scholar, Dr. Daisetz T. Suzuki, once said that “The Japanese may not have offered very many original ideas to world thought or world culture, but in Shin (Shinshu Buddhism) we find a major contribution the Japanese can make to the outside world and all the other Buddhist schools…  Of all the development Mahayana Buddhism has achieved in the Far East, the most remarkable one is the Shin (Shinshu Buddhism) teaching of the Pure Land (Jodo) school.  It is remarkable chiefly because geographically its birthplace is Japan and historically it is the latest evolution of Pure Land Mahayana, and therefore the highest point it has reached.”

The Pure Land or Jodo idea grew first in India, then developed in China during the Tang dynasty in the 6th and 7th centuries.  During the Kamakura period in Japan in the 12th and 13th centuries, Shinran founded the Jodo Shinshu or Pure Land Buddhism for the ordinary people.  Buddhism has existed in Japan since it was first introduced there in the middle of the 6th century.  At that time, Buddhism was somewhat of an aristocratic religion.  The Buddhist monasteries were restricted to the noble people and isolated from the ordinary people.  Shinran had a profound understanding of human natures and the needs of ordinary people.

The Bodhisattva ideal is one of the most important characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism.  The principal teaching of the Bodhisattva is to work for others as one’s own benefits.  Thus, the Bodhisattva’s happiness is a by-product of the joy and compassion in selfless working for others similar to what a parent does for his or her own child.  It is living as the beneficiaries of the great work of others.  Shinran taught us that Amida Buddha is always embracing each one of us with his great compassion and wisdom.  This is the function of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.  As the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, his Primal Vow was set up and he stated, “When I attain enlightenment but all beings do not attain enlightenment, may I not attain the highest enlightenment.”  The Primal Vow assured us that all beings will be led to enlightenment when we have entrusted in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

Shinran emphasized that the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha does not discriminate against anyone because of social or physical conditions or life-style.  He stated his writing that “When I carefully consider the Primal Vow which Amida Buddha brought forth, I find that it was only for me, Shinran, alone!  How gracious is the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha who resolved to save me!”  Shinran assured us a true way to enlightenment is the way of Nembutsu, Namo Amida Butsu. 

As time went on after Shinran passed away, his real character and teaching were truly recognized in Japan.  Jodo Shinshu Buddhism became one of the largest Buddhist denominations in Japan.  In 1876, six hundred thirteen years after Shinran’s death, the Emperor Meiji of Japan honored him with the special title of “Kenshin Daishi” meaning “The Great Teacher who has revealed the Truth.”  Let us all express our appreciation to Shinran Shonin’s dedicated religious guidance and celebrate his 828th birthday! 

Rev. Hoshu Y. Matsubayashi, Ed.D. (May White Path, 2001)