Genshin | Biography



Genshin (942–1017), also known by the title Eshin Sōzu, was a Japanese Buddhist priest of the Tendai sect and patriarch of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism.

He was among the first promoters of the Nembutsu chanting in Japan in 10-11th centuries. Genshin was a Tendai teacher, but considered one of the forerunners of the later Japanese Pure Land schools.

Genshin was born in the village of Taima in Yamato Province (modern Nara prefecture) to a family of provincial gentry named Urabe.

By his mid-teens he had entered the Tendai priesthood and had become a disciple of Ryōgen (Jie Daishi, 912–985), one of the most eminent clerics of the age.

Little is known of Genshin's early career except that he presided at an important Tendai ceremony in 973 and 5 years later, when he was 36, wrote a learned treatise on Buddhist metaphysics (Abhidharma), the Immyōronsho shisōi ryaku-chūshaku.

Shortly thereafter, Genshin's interests seem to have changed.

In 981 he wrote a work on a Pure Land Buddhist theme, the Amida Butsu byakugō kambō (Contemplation upon Amida Buddha's wisdom-eye), and in 985 he completed the work for which he is chiefly known, the Ōjōyōshū (Essentials of Pure Land rebirth).

The Ōjōyōshū was one of the first works on a Pure Land theme to have been composed in Japan.

It signalled not only a shift in Genshin's interests but also the beginning of a transition in the history of Japanese Buddhism.

In this work Genshin quotes 654 passages from some 160 Buddhist scriptures on the most important themes of Pure Land Buddhism

- on the sufferings of the 6 paths of transmigration and especially the torments of hell, on the pleasures and advantages of Amida (Skt., Amitābha) Buddha's Pure Land,

- and on the way to achieve transmigration rebirth into Amida's Pure Land, the cultivation of Nembutsu (reflection on the Buddha).

This latter subject is treated in voluminous detail:

There are descriptions of methods of difficult, meditative Nembutsu (kannen nembutsu, visualizing Amida's form and meditating on his essence),

of easy, vocational Nembutsu (shōmyō nembutsu, calling on the name of Amida Buddha in deep devotion), of Nembutsu for 90-day sessions, and of Nembutsu for the hour of death.

The faith that should accompany Nembutsu and abundant confirmation of its efficacy and merits are set out as well.

Throughout the work, Genshin repeatedly deplores the sufferings of this world and urges his readers, whether they are rich or poor, laity or clergy, to seek emancipation through reliance on the compassion of Amida Buddha.

The Ōjōyōshū became one of the most popular works on a Buddhist theme in the history of Japanese literature.

In the year following the completion of the Ōjōyōshū, Genshin and other Pure Land devotees, both clergy and laymen, formed a devotional society called the Nujugo Zammai-e (Nembutsu Samādhi Society of 25).

Genshin's Ōjōyōshū no doubt served as an inspiration and guide to the devotional exercises of this society.

In Genshin's life and works can be seen the beginning of a shift in Japan from elite, monastic Buddhism to popular, devotional Buddhism.

The Ōjōyōshū itself is an attempt to reconcile these 2 types of faith.

It teaches, for example, that Meditative Nembutsu is the highest form of spiritual cultivation, because it can bring about Enlightenment in the present life,

but that simple Vocational Nembutsu is excellent also, especially for laypeople and sinners, because it can result in rebirth in the next life into Amida Buddha's Pure Land and eventual Enlightenment there.

Thus Genshin's major significance lies in his contribution to the growth of a Pure Land movement in Japan.

For the common people, he vividly depicted the Pure Land Buddhist worldview of painful transmigration in this world versus the bliss of Amida's Western Pure Land, instilling a fear of the former and deep longing for the latter.

To the intelligentsia and clergy, he introduced the vast literature of continental Pure Land Buddhism and an elaborate structure of Pure Land, especially Nembutsu, theory and practice.

For all Japanese, he offered the possibility of salvation based only on sincere devotion and simple Nembutsu practice.

Genshin's teachings were a major inspiration for Hōnen (1133–1212), founder of the Jodō Shū sect of Japanese Buddhism, and Genshin is considered one of the 7 patriarchs of the Jodō Shinshū sect.