Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

Buddhism for All Japanese

Higashi-Honganji Temple in Kyoto, Japan
Higashi-Honganji Temple in Kyoto, Japan.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in Japan and in Japanese ethnic communities around the world. It is a school of Pure Land Buddhism, the most common form of Buddhism in all of Eastern Asia. Pure Land originated in 5th century China and centers on a practice of devotion to Amitabha Buddha. Its emphasis on devotion rather than arduous monastic practice makes it particularly popular among laypeople.

Pure Land in Japan

The dawn of the 13th century was a turbulent time for Japan and Japanese Buddhism. The first shogunate had been established in 1192, bringing with it the beginning of Japanese​ feudalism. The samurai class was coming into prominence. Long-established Buddhist institutions were in a period of corruption. Many Buddhists believed they were living in the time of mappo, in which Buddhism would be in decline.

A Tendai monk named Honen (1133-1212) is credited with founding the first Pure Land school in Japan, called Jodo Shu ("Pure Land School"), although monks at the Tendai monastery at Mount Hiei had engaged in Pure Land practices for some time before that. Honen believed the time of mappo had begun, and he decided that complicated monastic practice would just confuse most people. Therefore, a simple devotional practice was best.

The primary practice of Pure Land is the chanting of the nembutsu, which is the recitation of Amitabha's name: Namu Amida Butsu—"homage to Amitabha Buddha." Honen emphasized many repetitions of the nembutsu in order to maintain a devotional mind at all times. He also encouraged people to follow the Precepts as well as meditate, if they could.

Shinran Shonin

Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), another Tendai monk, became a disciple of Honen. In 1207 Honen and Shinran were forced to leave their monastic order and go into exile because of misbehavior by other of Honen's disciples. Honen and Shinran never saw each other again.

When his exile began Shinran was 35 years old, and he had been a monk since he was 9. He was still too much of a monk to stop teaching the dharma. He began teaching in people's homes. He also married and had children, and when he was pardoned in 1211, he could not return to monastic life.

Shinran came to believe that relying on many repetitions of the nembutsu revealed a lack of faith. If one's faith were true, he thought, calling upon Amitabha just once was enough, and further repetitions of the nembutsu were just expressions of gratitude. In other words, Shinran believed in an absolute reliance on "other power," tariki. This was the beginning of Jodo Shinshu, or "True Pure Land School."

Shinran also believed his school should not be run by any monastic elite. Or run by anyone at all, it would seem. He continued to teach in people's homes, and congregations began to form, but Shinran refused the honors normally given to teachers and also refused to appoint anyone to be in charge in his absence. In his old age he moved back to Kyoto, and a power struggle began among the congregants over who would be leader. Shinran died soon after, the matter unresolved.

Jodo Shinshu Expands

After Shinran's death, the leaderless congregations became fragmented. Eventually, Shinran's grandson Kakunyo (1270-1351) and great-grandson Zonkaku (1290-1373) consolidated leadership and created a "home office" for Jodo Shinshu at Honganji (Temple of the Original Vow) where Shinran was entombed. In time, Jodo Shinshu came to be ministered by clerics who were neither laypeople nor monks and who functioned something like Christian pastors. The local congregations remained self-supporting through donations from members rather than rely on wealthy patrons, as other sects in Japan usually did.

Jodo Shinshu also stressed equality of all people —men and women, peasant and noble—within Amitabha's grace. The result was a remarkably egalitarian organization that was unique in feudal Japan.

Another descendent of Shinran named Rennyo (1415-1499) oversaw an expansion of Jodo Shinshu. During his tenure, a number of peasant revolts, called ikko ikki, broke out against landed aristocrats. These were not led by Rennyo but were thought to be inspired by his teaching of equality. Rennyo also placed his wives and daughters in high administrative positions, giving women greater prominence.

In time Jodo Shinshu also organized commercial ventures and became an economic force that helped the Japanese middle class expand.

Repression and Split

The warlord Oda Nobunaga overthrew the government of Japan in 1573. He also attacked and sometimes destroyed many prominent Buddhist temples to bring Buddhist institutions under his control. Jodo Shinshu and other sect were repressed for a time.

Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun in 1603, and shortly after that he ordered Jodo Shinshu be split into two organizations, which became Higashi (eastern) Hongangji and Nishi (western) Hongangji. This division is still in place today.

Jodo Shinshu Goes West

In the 19th century, Jodo Shinshu spread to the Western Hemisphere with Japanese immigrants.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Jodo Shinshu Buddhism." Learn Religions, Oct. 20, 2021, O'Brien, Barbara. (2021, October 20). Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "Jodo Shinshu Buddhism." Learn Religions. (accessed March 25, 2023).