Married Life in Shin Buddhism
At the 43rd London Eza
Shin Buddhism (Jodoshinshu in Japanese, meaning ‘The True School of Pure Land Buddhism’) can be defined as a Buddhist school for lay people. In Shin Buddhism even priests are allowed to marry and there is no essential distinction between priests and lay followers.
It is now confirmed as historical fact that the founder of Shin Buddhism, Shinran (1173-1262), was married to Eshin-ni (1182- some time after 1268). Eshin-ni is presumed to have been the daughter of a Lord, Miyoshi Tamenori, from Echigo province. Bearing in mind her literary ability and beautiful handwriting, as demonstrated in her letters, known as Eshin-ni Monjo, she must at very least have come from a family of considerable affluence. Shinran Shonin’s marriage to Eshin-ni may have taken place after his banishment to Echigo (1207). They are believed to have had five or six children.
The Otaniichiryukeizu (The Lineage of the Family Otani), a historical document compiled by Rev. Jitsugo about two hundred years after the death of Shinran Shonin, states that, before his marriage to Eshin-ni, Shinran Shonin had been married to Tamahi-no-hime, another lady who may have been the daughter of the Regent, Kujo Kanezane, a follower of Honen Shonin. There is no other historical document, however, to support this. Some scholars say these two ladies may well have been one and the same person.
The subject of today’s talk, ‘marriage’, involves any number of fields of study, such as biology, psychology, literature, sociology, economics, politics, ethics, philosophy, theology etc. A talk lasting a mere 40 minutes can only touch on a very small part of the whole. I would like simply to focus on the spiritual meaning of marriage and make reference to certain Buddhist texts.
Firstly let me introduce you to an interesting story, a dialogue between Gautama Buddha and King Prasenajit of Koshala, which, as some of you may remember, I also quoted a few years ago in my talk entitled What is Buddha? King Prasenajit and his wife, Queen Mallika, were devout followers of Gautama Buddha. Through their conversation and the King’s subsequent audience with Gautama Buddha we can learn something about the Buddhist idea of marriage.
One day King Prasenajit went to the World-honoured One (i.e. Gautama Buddha), sat down next to him and said: “World-honoured One, when I was with Queen Mallika up in a high building [in the palace], I asked her, ‘Mallika, do you have anyone that you love more than yourself?’ To which, World-honoured One, Queen Mallika answered, ‘My Great King, I have no one that I love more than myself. Great King, do you have anyone that you love more than yourself?’ When questioned in this way, Oh World-honoured One, I said to Queen Mallika, ‘Mallika, I don’t have anyone that I love more than myself”‘. On hearing this, the World-honoured One realised what the king was trying to ask him, and answered King Prasenajit by means of the following poem:
“Your thoughts can go anywhere.
But wherever you may go,
you will never find anyone that you love more than yourself.
So it is that each person loves himself best.
Thus, one who knows that each person loves himself most
should not harm others.”
The conversation between the King and Queen must have been a rather serious affair, because they both knew that the essence of Buddha’s teaching lay in going beyond selfishness and selfish attachment, beyond the various ways in which we try to cling tenaciously to our world, to our views of the world, to our senses or intellect, to our selfish desires or to our own notion of self. Although we cannot know for certain, maybe the King and Queen were experiencing some serious marital problem of their own when they came to the conclusion that neither of them had anyone they loved more than themselves. Each of them, though married, must have felt dreadfully lonely.
King Prasenajit and Queen Mallika were, however, very honest with themselves and with one another. As a result of their conversation, the King decided to come to the Buddha and ask this question about self-love. He was very brave, I think, to do so as a layman seeking after truth. He actually confessed his selfishness to the Buddha and the Buddha accepted the King just as he was, with all the great compassion of the Enlightened One, simply telling him that one who knows that each person loves himself most should not harm others.
In married life two different people live together. They are from different families and environments, have different experiences and philosophy and different ways of thinking and living. When they pursue their own interests and desires without being aware of how self-centred they are, they harm each other, however confident they may be of their love for one another. This is because their way of loving is self-centred. Usually they think their partner is exactly as they imagine him or her to be.
“Not to harm others” is not so easy. Not to harm others is to love them just as they are, without the intrusion of any self-centred attachment or discriminatory feeling. How to love people is a part of the art of living and needs a measure of mental training. Firstly we should recognise how self-centred we ourselves are and how much we have been actually harming others and then we should try to love others just as they are, making sure we also respect those aspects of other people that are in fact beyond our grasp. Such pure love as is revealed in Gautama Buddha’s attitude in this story is very difficult to put into practice. It is also very difficult to appreciate completely the full extent of another person’s love. Both are equally essential.
King Prasenajit and Queen Mallika, one can imagine, were very happy to find themselves embraced in such love as Buddha revealed through his verse. Gautama Buddha’s words certainly opened up a new dimension to them, one where the King and Queen, though conscious of how self-centred they themselves were, were nevertheless able to love and respect one another, secure in their awareness of Gautama Buddha’s great love and compassion.
Awakened to Buddha’s unconditional love supporting them, they could now go forward in deep gratitude, loving each other just as they were, but at the same time realising, with deep penitence, their own selfish natures. This is a good example of married life lived at the time of Gautama Buddha. This lovely story can also be seen as a prelude to the development of Shin Buddhism as a Buddhist school for lay people.
The following is a quotation from The Life of Shinran Shonin, a historical document compiled by Kakunyo (1270-135 1), the third Head Priest of Honganji. Its original name is The Honganji Shonin Shinran Den-e (The Biography of Shinran, the Shonin of Higashi Hon ganji, with Ilustrations). It is a very formal document that is read out in majestic tones at the most important ceremony of the year known as Hoonko. This chapter refers to Shinran Shonin’s marriage.
The Life of Shinran Shonin, Chapter 3.
On 5th of April in the 3rd year of Kennin (1203), [Shinran] Shonin had a revelation in the form of a dream that came to him in the night at the hour of the Tiger (4:00am). According to the Record, “Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara of the Rokkakudo manifested himself [before Shinran Shonin] in the guise of a holy monk whose dignified countenance was serene and noble. He was seated quietly in a huge white lotus flower, being dressed in a white Buddhist robe (kasãya), and spoke to Zenshin (i.e. Shinran) in a dignified way: ‘When you find yourself bound by your past karma to come into contact with the female sex, I will incarnate myself as the most beautiful woman and become the object of your love; and throughout your life I will be your helpmate by adorning you with dignity and on your death I will lead you to be born in the Land of Bliss.’ The Bodhisattva continued, ‘This message is my vow. Zenshin, thou shalt expound the meaning of this vow to the world and make all sentient beings realise it.’ At this point Zenshin, still in a dream, looked eastward, facing the front of the Rokkakudo, and perceived a range of high mountains, on the highest peak of which could be seen billions of sentient beings gathering together. He addressed them as commanded by the Bodhisattva and then, just as he felt he was coming to the end of his address, he came out of the dream.”
When we think about the meaning of this vision, as described in the Record, we notice it symbolises an auspicious beginning to the flourishing of the True School (Shin Buddhism) and to the expansion of the teaching of Nembutsu. On a later occasion [Shinran] Shonin tells us: “Buddhism originated in the West and moved eastward. The fact that we now have its sacred books in this country is entirely due to Prince Jogu (i.e. Prince Shotoku), whose great virtue was higher than mountains and deeper than the ocean. During the reign of Emperor Kimmei of our Imperial Court, Buddhism was brought here from across the sea along with those SUtras and ~ästras on which Pure Land Buddhism is based. If in those days Prince [Shotoku] had not spread his benevolence far and wide, how could ordinary ignorant people ever have encountered the [Original Prayer of] Universal Deliverance? As the original abode of Prince Shotoku was Avalokite~vara Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva revealed this august original abode through the human form in which he incarnated himself in order to make known his vow to advance the cause of Buddhism. “And again, if my Great Master, the Venerable Genku, had not been banished to a remote province by the authorities, how should I ever have lived a life of banishment? If I had not lived a life of banishment, how could 1 have hoped to have the opportunity to teach those people who live in the countryside far away from the centre of culture? For all this I am very grateful to my Venerable Teacher. “My Great Master, the Venerable Genku, was no other than an incarnation of Bodhisattva Mahãsthämaprapta, while Prince [Shotoku] was an earthly manifestation of Avalokitesvara. It is under the guidance of these two Bodhisattvas, therefore, that I am now teaching the Original Prayer of the Thatagata. Thus the True School (Shin Buddhism) has arisen and the doctrine of Nembutsu is spreading. This, however, is all due to the instruction of the Holy Ones and has nothing to do with any thoughts of mine, ignorant being that I am. The essence of the weighty vows offered by those two august persons is for us to recite the name of the One Buddha single-mindedly. Buddhist followers these days should not make the mistake of serving only the two secondary figures who stand by the Buddha; let them revere the Buddha himself directly.” Shinran Shonin, in order to show his gratitude for Prince Shotoku’s great benevolence which allowed Buddhism to spread across the world, simply pays his respects to the Prince whilst revering the Buddha.
For a long time historians were quite suspicious about this description of Shinran’s vision. However, the discovery of a fuller historical document, The Record of Shinran’s Dream by Shinbutsu, one of Shinran’s disciples, recently confirmed the fact that Shinran Shonin did indeed have just such a dream. The document pertains to the “Record” that appears in the Chapter 3.
The important point is that Shinran Shonin saw his wife as Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. For Shinran Shonin his wife was an incarnation of Avalokitesvara whilst his teacher, Honen Shonin, was a manifestation of Mahästhämaprapta Bodhisattva or of Amida Buddha himself. What does all this actually mean? At this point I think I should perhaps briefly explain about Bodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara, Mahãsthãmaprapta, MañjusrI and Samantabhadra. These Bodhisattvas that appear in Mahayana texts symbolise the working of Buddha in their own ways. Avalokitesvara and Mahãsthãmaprãpta, for example, symbolise the two essential aspects of Amida Buddha, Avalokitesvara representing Amida Buddha’s unconditional love whilst Mahãsthãmaprapta represents his wisdom. That to Shinran Shonin his own wife and his teacher were these two Bodhisattvas means that they were for him incarnations of Amida Buddha, or in other words manifestations of his Dharma-body or Eternal Life itself.
The most important part of the quotation is the verse Shinran Shonin received from Ava1okite~vara: ‘When you find yourself bound by your past karma to come into contact with the female sex, I will incarnate myself as the most beautiful woman and become the object of your love; and throughout your life I will be your helpmate by adorning you with dignity, and on your death I will lead you to be born in the Land of Bliss.’ For Shinran Shonin his wife was Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the most beautiful of helpmates who would continue to protect him throughout his life and who would ultimately lead him at the very end of life to be born in the Pure Land.
Shinran Shonin experienced this vision two years after his encounter with Honen Shonin. The faith-experience Shinran Shonin had on meeting his master for the first time led him on to new horizons where he could view people around him as actual bodhisattvas, working to help him follow the path that leads to the Pure Land.
The pure faith of entrusting ourselves to Amida Buddha enables us to go beyond the wall of self-consciousness and see all beings as light coming from beyond our own self-consciousness. Thus, whenever they meet people, Shin Buddhists feel infinite gratitude for their help in leading them to the Pure Land. At the same time they were also deeply aware of how selfish and guilty they themselves are because of their behaviour being governed by blind passions. People around them are beams of light coming from Amida Buddha, shining like stars in the sky.
The following is from The Letters of Eshin-ni, a collection of letters addressed by Eshin-ni, Shinran Shonin’s wife, to her youngest daughter, Kakushin-ni. Eshin-ni, living in Echigo, wrote this letter to Kakushin-ni, who lived in Kyoto, soon after receiving a letter from her daughter about Shinran Shonin’s death. This letter shows that Eshin-ni, too, revered her husband as Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva.
From The Letters of Eshin-ni, Letter 3.
I received your letter, dated 1st of December last year, shortly after the 20th of the same month. There is no doubt that your father (Shinran) was born in the Pure Land, and there is no need for me to repeat this.
Your father, having left Mt. Hiei, remained in retreat for one-hundred days at the Rokkakudo, and prayed for Rebirth in the Pure Land. Then, on the dawn of the ninety-fifth day Prince Shotoku appeared to your father in a vision and showed him the way. Thereupon your father immediately left the Rokkakudo, before dawn, and called on Honen Shonin to be shown the way of attaining Rebirth in the Pure Land. And just as he had previously confined himself for one-hundred days at the Rokkakudo, he now visited Honen every day, rain or shine, for one-hundred days, regardless of the difficulties that confronted him. He heard the Master teach everyone the same thing, no matter whether they were good or evil, telling them that in order to attain birth in the Pure Land they should follow just the one path [of Nembutsu] in order to become liberated from [the suffering of] birth-and-death. Your father cherished these words deep in his heart and whenever people made remarks of any kind about the nembutsu, he would always answer, “Wherever my Master Honen goes, I shall follow him, no matter what others may say — even if he said he was going to hell, I would accompany him. The reason is that, being the sort of person I am, someone who has been floundering in the world of delusion from time immemorial, I, Shinran, would have absolutely nothing to lose by doing so.
When we were at Sakai-no-go in Shimotsuma, Hitachi province, I had a dream as follows. The scene seemed to be the inaugural ceremony of a [new] temple. The temple faced east and it must have been an evening festival, because the light of a candle stand was burning brightly in front. To the west of the candle stand and in front of the temple there was something resembling a toni and from its horizontal timber were hung [two] images of Buddha.
One image did not have the ordinary face of the Buddha — all was light and the centre of light seemed to be emanating from the head of the Buddha — and I could not see any figure. There was nothing but rays of light. The other image clearly showed the face of Buddha. I asked, therefore, “What is the name of this Buddha?” I didn’t know who answered but there came the reply, “That one which shows only light is Honen Shonin. He is none other than Mahästhãmapräpta Bodhisattva.” So I asked again, “Who then is the other image?” “That is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. He is none other than Zenshin (Shinran).” When I heard these words, I awoke with surprise and I realised that it was all a dream. But I had heard that such dreams should never be revealed to others and 1 also thought that no one would believe me, even if I did relate it. So I did not speak of it to anyone. I did tell your father, however, about Honen Shonin in my dream, and he said, “There are various kinds of dreams, but this is a truthful dream that relates what is real. Dreams like this, revealing Honen Shonin to be the incarnation of Mahasthämaprãpta Bodhisattva, have frequently been reported in various locations. Mahästhãmaprãpta Bodhisattva is a bodhisattva of infinite wisdom and that wisdom is manifested in the form of light.”
Although 1 never told your father about the dream in which 1 saw him as the incamation of Avalokite~vara Bodhisattva, from that time on 1 no longer regarded your father as an ordinary person. I hope that you too think of him as I do. Thus, regardless of how he died, 1 believe that there is no doubt about his birth in the Pure Land. Like you Masukata, too, was at the bedside when your father died – even though they are bound together karmically as father and son, that too was an especially deep karmic happening and I am so happy when I think of it.
I have no time to discuss the contents of this letter in detail. However, it is wonderful to see not only that Shinran Shonin revered his wife as Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva but also that Eshin-ni respected her husband, Shinran Shonin, as Avalokitesvara as well.