The Seven Patriarchs of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism


The Seven Patriarchs of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism

Master Shinran singled out seven masters or Patriarchs of Pure Land Buddhism in the millennium prior to his own, beginning with the writings of Bodhisattva Nāgārjuna and continuing to his own mentor, Master Hōnen (Genku).

His own Dharma name, Shinran, is derived from the Japanese spellings of the names of the second Patriarch, Bodhisattva Vasubandhu (seSHIN) and the third Patriarch, Master T'an Luan (DonRAN).

For Shinran the teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha and the Seven Patriarchs are the manifestation of Amida's Compassionate Vow.

Shinran's selection of the seven masters is traditionally attributed to the following:

1) Each of the Seven Patriarchs was himself an aspirant for Birth in the Pure Land,

2) Each left writings on the Nenbutsu teaching,

3) Each of their interpretations is distinguished and essential in the history of the deliverance of the Nenbutsu.

The Seven Patriarchs eulogized by Master Shinran in his collection of hymns, Koso Wasan, are:

1. Nāgārjuna (Jp. Ryuju) (ca 2nd-3rd c. C.E.).

The work of Nāgārjuna which is cited in connection with Pure Land Buddhism is the 'Chapter on Easy Practice' in the Ninth Chapter of the Discourse on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages.

In the Easy Path to enlightenment described by Nāgārjuna one calls the names of the Buddhas, and he especially singles out calling the name of Amida Buddha.

He quotes the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha as follows:

"If anyone contemplates me, recites my name, and takes refuge in me, he will instantly enter the Stage of Assurance and subsequently attain the highest perfect Bodhi."

In his JUNIRAI, or Twelve Adorations, Bodhisattva Nāgārjuna professes his deep devotion to Amida Buddha.

2. Vasubandhu (Jp. Seshin) (ca. 4th cent. C.E.)

Bodhisattva Vasubandhu's contribution to Pure Land Buddhism lies chiefly in his formulation of a Nenbutsu practice.

He cites five practices for Pure Land birth:

Worship of Amida, Praise of Amida, Aspiration for Birth in the Pure Land, Contemplating the Pure Land, and Transferring Merit.

Vasubandhu’s opening words in his Discourse on the Pure Land, were especially singled out by Master Shinran as fundamental:

"O World-Honoured One, I, with single-mindedness, take refuge in the Tathagata whose unhindered Light exhaustively fills the ten quarters and aspire to be born in the Land of Peace and Bliss."

3. T'an-luan (Jp. Donran) (476-542 C.E.)

Master T'an was born in the present Shanhsi Province (山西省 Sanseisho, Shanxisheng) in north China, and entered the priestly life at the age of 15. He soon distinguished himself in the Mādhyamika doctrine of the Four-discourse school.

Later, when he became interested in the Great Collection Sutra (Daishukyo) and wished to write a commentary on it, he became ill.

He then turned to Taoism seeking health and longevity, and went to see T'ao Hung-ching (452-536), the greatest Taoist authority of that time.

T'an-luan was given Taoist scriptures in 10 scrolls but, on his way home, he met with Bodhiruci from India at Lo-yang, the capital of China:

This Indian monk, who was a great Tripitaka master, admonished him that even if one gained longevity, he would still be bound to Samsāra, and that the Buddha-Dharma was the true way to eternal life.

So saying, he gave T'an-luan Pure Land scriptures, which were believed to be the Contemplation Sutra or Vasubandhu's Discourse on the Pure Land (Jodoron) or both.

According to tradition, T'an-luan put both the Buddhist and Taoist texts in the fire to see which would survive. Sure enough, the Buddhist text was not burnt, and so he took refuge in it.

Later in 531, Bodhiruci produced a translation of the Discourse on the Pure Land, on which T'an-luan wrote an extensive commentary, Ojoronchu. This commentary is an important Pure Land classic providing a basis for the doctrinal systems of Tao-ch'o (Doshaku), Shan-tao (Zendo), Shinran and others.

What is important about Master T'an Luan's contribution to the development of Pure Land Buddhism is:

(1) the single-minded way he set about defining Pure Land practice;

(2) his absolute reliance on the Other Power of Amida Buddha to bring the aspirant to birth and Buddhahood in the Pure Land; and

(3) the fact that he turned his devotion into a mass movement.

(4) Tan-luan is also credited for having developed the six-character phrase Namo Amituofo / Namu Amida Butsu) (from Sanskrit to Chinese) used throughout Pure Land Buddhism today.

Master T'an-luan's San Amida Butsu Ge (Gatha in Praise of Amida Buddha) inspired many of Master Shinran's own hymns.

4. Tao-ch'o (Jp. Dōshaku) (562-645 C.E.)

He entered the priesthood at the age of 14 and became well-versed in the Mahā Parinirvāṇa Sūtra. At 40 visited the temple of Tan-luan where he read an inscription in praise of T'an-luan (Donran) and became a serious aspirant for the Pure Land.

Tao-ch'o stayed at the temple and practiced the Nenbutsu as many as 70,000 times a day. He lectured on the Contemplation Sutra more than 200 times, and propagated the Pure Land teaching extensively.

He emphasized the difficulty of the Path of Sages which was based on one's self-power and recommended the Nenbutsu practice to all beings.

Tao-ch'o followed T'an-luan in cautioning us against impure faiths which were not sincere, single-minded and continuous.

On the contrary, the pure faith as given by Amida is characterized by sincerity, single-mindedness and continuity. These three are mutually related.

Tao-ch'o, revising Nāgārjuna's Difficult and Easy Paths by employing T'an-luan's distinction between self-power and other-power, divides the whole of Buddhist teachings into the Sacred Path (a.k.a. the Path of Sages) and the Pure Land Path.

The former leads to attainment in this world by one's own efforts, and the latter to attainment in the Pure Land through the Other Power of Amida Buddha.

He states that no one in the Dark Age of the Last Dharma (Jp. "Mappo") can attain enlightenment by means of the Sacred Path and that only the Nenbutsu of the Pure Land Path is effective in leading one to Buddhahood.

In his only surviving work, the An Le Chi, ostensibly a commentary on the Contemplation Sutra but really a wide-ranging exposition of Pure Land thought, Master Tao-ch'o attempted mainly to answer criticisms of Pure Land thought and practice, primarily from the Ch'an (Jp. Zen) camp.

For example, the critics asked how simply reciting Amida's name could possibly have such powerful effects.

The answer to this was simple: there is no power inherent either in the reciter or in the words recited. The power was with Amida Buddha alone, and the power of His Primal Vow was all that was needed to bring the devotee to the Pure Land.

5. Shan-tao (Jp. Zendō) (613-681 C.E.)

Shan-tao was born in present Zhucheng city in China. When young, he entered the priesthood and devoted himself to the study of the Lotus Sūtra and the Vimalākriti Sūtra.

One day he saw a painting of the Pure Land, which led him to aspire for birth there. He visited Mt. Lu and other places to study and practice the Pure Land teaching. For several years he lived at Wu­chen Temple (Goshinji) on Mt. Chung-nan (Shunan) and devoted himself to the contemplation of Amida and the Pure Land.

  When he was about twenty years of age, he went to see Tao-ch'o (Dōshaku) (562-645), and became his disciple. According to scholarly opinion, Tao-ch'o's instructions continued from 629 to 636, that is, from the ages of 17 to 24.

While attending the master's lectures on the Contemplation Sutra, he diligently practiced contemplation as prescribed in this sutra and finally attained the Buddha-visualization samādhi.

He is said to have copied the Amida Sutra more than 100,000 times and made more than 300 paintings of the Pure Land.

Later he went to Ch'ang -an to spread the Pure Land teaching. He continued to practice contemplation and recitation, along with strict observance of the precepts.

  In Shan-tao's time, the Contemplation Sutra was popular among Buddhist scholars, but their interpretations were unacceptable to Shan-tao. He wrote a four-fascicle commentary on this sutra and clarified the standpoint held by his predecessors, T'an-luan and Tao-ch'o.

When EmperorKao Tsung issued an order to build a niche for a statue of Mahā Vairocana  at the Lung-men caves in Honan Province, Shan-tao was appointed supervisor. His influence was so great that thousands of people took refuge in Amida and practiced Nenbutsu.

  While following T'an-luan and Tao-ch'o, he developed his own system of practice which centred on recitative Nenbutsu. His line of Pure Land teaching, known as the Shan-tao School, was widely practiced in China and was later transmitted to Japan.

One of the greatest contributions which Shan-tao made to the development of Pure Land Buddhism was his clarification of the soteriological meaning of Nenbutsu.

At that time, there were some masters of the Path of Sages who rejected the view that ten recitations of the Name - according to the Contemplation Sutra - are the cause of birth in the Pure Land, claiming that it could only become a remote cause of birth there.

Their assertion was based on the theory presented in Asanga's discourse on Mahāyāna teaching that when Shakyamuni encouraged recitation of Amida's Name as the cause of birth in the Pure Land, he actually meant that such a practice alone would only lead to birth at some time in the future. Those masters misinterpreted Nenbutsu as a mere act of aspiration lacking in practice.

Shan-tao refuted them, saying, "The ten times' Nenbutsu taught in the Contemplation Sutra contains ten aspirations and ten practices. How?

'Na-mo' means 'taking refuge in'; it also means 'aspiring (for birth in the Pure Land) and transferring (the merit of practice towards it).

‘Amituófó’ is the 'practice' (to be transferred for birth). For this reason, one can surely attain birth."

  Great masters of other schools shared the view that Amida was a Nirmanakaya Buddha. One of the reasons for advancing this theory is that Amida can be perceived even by ordinary people and Hīnayāna sages.

Reasoning in accordance with scriptural evidence, Shan-tao refuted them and determined that Amida is a Sambhogakaya Buddha manifested as the reward for his Vows.

He pointed out that the Contemplation Sutra mentions the welcoming of 'the Tathagata Amida... together with innumerable transformed Buddhas'; this also is clear evidence that Amida is a Sambhogakaya Buddha.

  Shan-tao divided Buddhist practice into two: right acts and miscellaneous acts.

Right acts accord with the teachings of the Pure Land sūtras, and the miscellaneous ones do not. Right acts are as follows:

1) Chanting: single-mindedly chanting sutras such as the Contemplation Sutra, the Amida Sutra, and the Larger Sutra;
2) Contemplation: concentrating on Amida and his land of bliss;
3) Worshiping: single-mindedly worshiping Amida;
4) Recitation: single-mindedly reciting his Name;
5) Praising and making offerings: single-mindedly praising Amida and making offerings to him.

Of the five right acts, the fourth is the most important and is called the 'act of right assurance'; the rest are called the 'auxiliary acts'.

Concerning the act of right assurance, Shan-tao explains that it is to call the Name of Amida with singleness of mind, whether one is walking, standing, sitting or lying down, without interruption and irrespective of the duration of this practice. Such an act is called the 'act of right assurance,' because it accords with the Buddha's Vow.

Shan-tao's Pure Land tradition was inherited by Hōnen, who founded the Jōdo school in the 12th century.

Master Shan-tao's gatha (verses), Kisamboge, is a powerful statement of aspiration for Buddhahood through the Other Power of Amida Buddha.

Master Shan-tao's famous Parable of the White Path has remained a treasured fable over the centuries, explaining, in story fashion, salvation by Amida Buddha in the Pure Land.

6. Genshin (a.k.a. Eshin Sozu) (942-1017 C.E.)

Genshin was also popularly known as  Eshin Sozu because he lived in Eshin-in at Yokawa on Mt. Hiei.

He lost his father when young, and went up to Mt. Hiei to study Buddhism under Ryogen in Tendai Monastery. At the age of 15, he was appointed special lecturer on the Lotus Sutra; his intelligence and eloquence surprised all the audience.

He could have enjoyed great reputation, but spent a secluded life in Yokawa, practicing the Pure Land way and writing discourses.

Genshin is most famous for his treatise, 'Collection on the Essentials for Attaining Birth,' [Jp. Ōjō yō-shū 往生要集],  a collection of the important passages pertaining to the matter of birth in the Pure Land, which exerted great influence on the popular imagination in the Heian period and became one of the first books to be printed in Japan. This is an encyclopaedic work drawing from many sutras and commentaries from India and China.

When he completed this work he sent a copy to China in 986; the monks there were very surprised, and praised him as the "little Śākyamuni of Japan." This work laid the foundation for Japanese Pure Land teaching.

His descriptions of the terrors of hell and the wonders of the Pure Land, aimed at wakening religious aspiration to Nenbutsu practice, had great influence.

Genshin, like many sages of the Japanese Pure Land tradition, began as a Tendai Buddhist and became devoted to the Nenbutsu, or the "calling of the Name" of Amida Buddha (Namu Amida Butsu), as a sole practice (in Tendai Buddhism, the Nenbutsu was but one of many self-power practices).

In his late years, he was conferred with the title of Shōsōdzu 少僧都 (minor second grade) but remained in obscurity, dedicating himself to the exploration of Buddhist truth.

Late in life Master Genshin founded a small retreat on Mt. Hiei (the location of the main Tendai monastery) called Yokawa, where he taught sole reliance upon Amida Buddha through the Nenbutsu of Other Power.

He left more than thirty works, including A Discourse Determining the Essentials of the One-Vehicle Teaching, A Collection of Important Passages Briefly Discussing Contemplation of the Mind, the Mahāyāna versus Abhidharmakośa, and the Invocation on the Twenty-five Samādhis.

Master Genshin's "Yokawa Hogo" is a succinct expression of his faith in Amida Buddha.

7. Hōnen (a.k.a. Genku) (1133-1212 C.E.)

The vital role Hōnen played centres upon his complete rejection of the possibility of effective self-power practice of any kind and his sole reliance on Other Power, i.e. the Power of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow.

With Hōnen, the unfathomable workings of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow of boundless compassion were brought to life in Japan.

Though he was well versed in the entire Buddhist Canon, Master Hōnen was awakened at age 43 to the sole practice of Nenbutsu recitation after studying Master Shan-tao's writings and the Three Pure Land Sutras.

He instantly realized Amida's saving power and took refuge in him. Hōnen left the mountain to live in Kyoto and began to propagate the Nenbutsu teaching among people of all walks of life.

This way he became the founder of the Jōdo-shū tradition, and his foremost pupil, Master Shinran, founded Jōdo Shinshū.

In 1198, at the request of the Lord Chancellor Fujiwara Kanezane, he composed the Sentaku hongan nenbutsu-shū 選択本願念仏集, which presents the essentials of the Nenbutsu teaching.

Publication of this work means declaration of the independence of the Nenbutsu school. Soon, the popularity of his teaching invited the jealousy of monks of other schools.

His teaching is characterized by exclusive recitation of the Nenbutsu, Namu Amida Butsu, "Homage to Amida Buddha"; he discarded as futile all other methods of Buddhist practice, such as meditation and even Bodhi-mind, the aspiration for enlightenment. The reason for this is that the Nenbutsu originates from and is supported by Amida's Primal vow.

Master Hōnen left seventeen poems, which express his single-minded faith in Amida Buddha and his birth to come in the Pure Land.

When Master Hōnen was nearing death a follower asked him, "Write me something with your own hand, something which you think will be good for me, in order that I may keep it as a memento." The result, the famous One-Page Testament of Master Hōnen, was dictated by him two days before he returned to the Pure Land.