The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Jodo Wasan 1

Those who truly attain shinjin
As they utter Amida’s Name,
Being mindful of the Buddha always,
Wish to respond to the great benevolence.1

The News of the Day

Jodo Shinshu: The true teaching (or school) of the Pure Land way into the bodhisattva vehicle
Name: Namo Amida Butsu: 'Take refuge in the Buddha of immeasurable light'.
Nembutsu: Saying 'Namo Amida Butsu'
Primal Vow: Amida Buddha's forty-eight Vows, especially the eighteenth Vow, revealing his true intention, that all who trust in him will be born in the Pure Land and become Buddhas at the end of this life
Shinjin: the entrusting heart

The best news to read each day is to be discovered in our immediate vicinity; those with whom we share our lives, for example, or the garden - or just by going for a rambling walk around our neighbourhood.

Needless to say, the really striking thing about the daily news, our neighbourhood, other people, our garden and our own lives is that they all portend the one immutable fact of life - change. No matter how friendly people may be one day, the next day they can become an enemy; no matter how wondrous a few mushrooms may be emerging in morning mist, by lunch time they have disappeared.

This inexorable reality surely drives most sensitive people to an urgent quest for the infinite and this quest eventually changes our focus from the illusions of the world to the wondrous and growing joy in discovering the unconditioned reality. Already, a sense of indebtedness grows within us, not just for the infinite but also for those evanescent things in our daily life, which, themselves, paradoxically urge us to seek eternal truth. It is natural for human beings to want to express this awe - this joy - in some way and it is something of this to which Shinran Shonin2 alludes when he suggests that we may want to 'respond to' the source of our wonder. Even so, Shinran has something much more vital and specific in mind.

The teaching of Shinran was inherited from his predecessors, Shakyamuni Buddha and the masters of India, China and Japan. We will encounter these masters in the second volume of hymns, the Koso Wasan.

This Buddhist way is called 'the true Pure Land teaching' (Jodo Shinshu), a term first used by the Chinese master Fa-chao (766-822), who was influenced by the Chinese Jodo Shinshu dharma master Shan-tao (613-681). It is very straightforward and ultimately easy to understand, even without knowing basic Buddhist concepts.

The compassion of Amida Buddha manifests itself in the Name (Namo Amida Butsu)3, which is a transliteration of the original Sanskrit phrase and means 'take refuge in Amida Buddha'. It is the call to us from the depths of reality, the Primal Vow (hongan).

When we assent to the call of the Vow without any misgiving, 'Other-Power' shinjin (tariki no shinjin) finds a secure and exclusive place in our lives and is expressed as the nembutsu of gratitude.

The Way of Jodo Shinshu in a nutshell can be found in the opening words of the Tanni Sho, a famous and much loved Jodo Shinshu text:

'Saved by the inconceivable working of Amida's Vow, I shall realise birth in the Pure Land': the moment you entrust yourself thus to the Vow, so that the mind set upon saying the nembutsu arises within you, you are immediately brought the share in the benefit of being grasped by Amida, never to be abandoned.'

These truths will be unfamiliar to people encountering the teaching for the first time. Hence, the purpose of Shinran's writings is to explain and celebrate how this comes to be, and just what it means for us. As we read his words, and listen to his voice, our understanding will grow.

The question arises as to just how we should 'repay the Buddha's benevolence': an inclination that we cannot resist when Amida Buddha's entrusting heart has arisen within our hearts. Shinran's wife Eshinni reports - in one of her letters4 - that Shinran had a very clear idea about this, and it is this:

There are two aspects of repaying the Buddha's benevolence. One is the nembutsu, saying the Name: Namo Amida Butsu; the other is to 'accept the teaching oneself and lead others to accept it.' Namo Amida Butsu means 'take refuge (namo) in the infinite light and life (amida5) Buddha (butsu)'. We will learn to understand it better as we explore Shinran's hymns. More than anything, it is the joyful and natural cry that comes from a heart set free by Amida Buddha's dharma.

The best way to hear and celebrate the call of the Vow is to make use of the resource that has been bequeathed to us by Shinran and his eminent successor Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499). This is the collection of Shinran's poems or hymns in three volumes (sanjo wasan) - the subject of these essays. So, let us begin our quest and enjoy for ourselves these songs of light, liberation and joy .

1: The Collected Works of Shinran, Volume I, (Kyoto: Jodo Shinshû Hongwanji-ha, 1997) [CWS], p. 325. The three volumes of Hymns (Sanjo Wasan), which form the basis of these essays, are on pages 321 to 429, inclusive.

2: Shonin is an honourific term that is used with Shinran's name. It's meaning is similar to the more familiar Indian term mahatma, 'great soul'.

3: 'Namo Amida Butsu' means means 'Take refuge in Amida Buddha'. Shinran emphasised the Sanskrit term amitabha (immeasurable light) as the principal meaning of Amida. To be more precise, Namo Amida Butsu means 'take refuge in the Tathagata (Buddha) of unhindered light filling the ten quarters' and 'take refuge in the Tathagata of inconceivable light.'

NOTE: The Collected Works of Shinran, which is the source of the translation of Shinran's hymns and other writings on this website, renders Namo Amida Butsu as Namu-amida-butsu. But, of course, there is no difference in the meaning of the phrase and they are merely alternate pronunciations of the same Chinese characters. In practice the phrase is pronounced in various ways, for example in abbreviated form as Namandabu, etc.

4: The Life of Eshinni, Wife of Shinran Shonin by Yoshiko Ohtani, pp. 95-6.

5: Amida is a contraction of two Sanskrit words: amitabha, immeasurable light and amitayus, immeasurable length of life. Sanskrit, a classical Indian language, was often used to record ancient Buddhist teachings and ideas for posterity.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


Back | HOME | Next