The Monk Who Dared: An Historical Novel About Shinran
Ruth M. Tabrah
Press Pacifica: Kailua, Hawaii, 1996.
329 pp., $15.95 (paper).
When the emperor of Japan asked Shinran, the founder of the Jodo Shin (True Pure Land) sect of Buddhism, to recite a poem summing up his experience of monastic life, the monk surprised them both:
Like a fledgling attempting to fly against the wind,
Snow weighting its fragile wings,
Powerless as I try to help myself.
After a long silence, the emperor said, “You are no ordinary monk,” and bestowed upon him a beautiful brocade robe. Later the same emperor would send Shinran into exile for his heretical activities.
As Shinran’s poem suggests, the story of the birth of Pure Land Buddhism in twelfth-century Japan began with failure and disillusionment. Shinran spent twenty years as a monk before renouncing the Tendai Buddhist path to become a disciple of Honen, a teacher who advocated the practice of nembutsu—invoking the name of Amida Buddha—as the one sure path to salvation. Both Honen and Shinran felt that neither the “difficult practices” of Tendai Buddhism nor the path of scholarship had brought them any closer to enlightenment.
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