In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki told his North American convert students that their practice path would be that of “neither layman nor monk,” a quasi-monastic style of practice without the traditional support of a lay congregation or wealthy sustaining patrons. Even while pursuing Buddhist practice, students had to meet the exigencies of lay life: maintaining jobs, friendships, family commitments, and the rest. This “center-based” model is something that nearly every practice community has been working on ever since. What is not so well known is that Suzuki’s model of “neither layman nor monk” comes from another, earlier master: Shinran (1173–1262), one of Japanese Buddhism’s most celebrated figures.

Shinran was the founder of Jodo Shinshu, or Shin Buddhism, as it is known in English—the Japanese stream of the Pure Land tradition that originated in India and came to encompass one of the largest bodies of practice in East Asia. Shin Buddhism first appeared in the West in the late 19th century, and the teacher, writer, and translator D. T. Suzuki, best known for his works on Zen, wrote extensively in the 1960s about the Shin tradition; but its practices, including chanting the name of Amida Buddha, are only now becoming widely recognized in North America among convert Buddhists.

Before Shinran, much of Buddhism in Asia had subscribed to a clear hierarchy that situated priests above laypeople. Shinran broke with this tradition in two distinct ways: He was the first ordained Japanese priest to marry openly, and he was the first to act as a priest and simultaneously live as a family man, wearing robes and ministering to laity but absolutely refusing to live in temples. In looking back at his own life, he declared, “I am neither monk nor layman.” His innovations in lifestyle and religious status opened the way for Shin Buddhism’s radical egalitarianism, which did not consider lay life to be an impediment to religious attainment and allowed women to be fully ordained earlier than many other schools. It was a path that would reveal possibilities for the ongoing development of Buddhism in the West.

Like his contemporaries Zen master Dogen (1200–1253) of the Soto-shu [Soto school] and Nichiren (1222–1282) of the Nichiren-shu, Shinran began his career as a monk on Mount Hiei, the headquarters of the dominant Tendai school. All three saw the Tendai ecclesiastical order as riddled by corruption, with too many monks who sought wealth and fame, and hid their wives and girlfriends while excluding women from the sacred precincts of Mount Hiei.

In 1203, Honen (1133–1212), a monk who had recently rejected the Tendai authorities, was teaching a new path of Pure Land practice in which laypeople and the ordained were seen as equals on the spiritual path. This practice could be pursued by anyone, whether as an ordinary member of society, married with a family, or as a celibate renunciant. All that the path required was nembutsu practice, or chanting the name of Amida Buddha, “Namu Amida Butsu.” Through this practice, Honen taught, one would be fully embraced in boundless compassion. Two decades into his monkhood in the Tendai sect, Shinran had difficulty believing that such a path would work. To attain liberation, didn’t one have to renounce this world, let go of attachments, and complete a difficult path of practice? Yet prior to his abandoning the offcial doctrines of the Tendai School, Honen had been one of the most widely respected monks of his day, so Shinran felt there could be some validity to this new approach. 

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