Gotan-e, Shinran’s Birthday

Posted by:

K. Ken Fujimoto

We observe Gotan-e, the birthday of Shinran Shonin in May. This is a relatively new major service. This service was first observed at the Hongwanji, our mother temple in Kyoto at the end of the 19th Century. It may seem odd to say that it is relatively new when it has been observed for over a hundred years, but in the context of the history of our tradition and the fact that though it was observed at the mother temple then, it took time for the practice to spread to local temples throughout Japan. This was also about the time that the bulk of the first generation immigrants were coming to the United States from Japan. This meant that most of the people who came over and started our temples were not familiar with the practice of observing Shinran’s birth with a major service. This became a tradition for us much later.
Buddhism does not usually emphasize birth and places more importance on the memorial dates. There are a number of reasons for this. Anything with a beginning must have an end. Birth means that death is inevitable. The importance is in what one does between the beginning and the end. One may have an auspicious birth, but if they do things in the course of life that make life miserable for the people of that time, are they worthy of being celebrated? No matter how lowly a birth a person may have, if they make life better for people, should they not be remembered? Because of this, Buddhism places greater emphasis on the memorial because it comes after the person has made contributions to the life of the people around them. The scale of the contribution does not matter as long as it is there for the people with karmic links with them.
The particular contribution for which Shinran Shonin is honored is his interpretation of the Nembutsu teaching. He never started off planning on creating a new school of Buddhism, but those who received the teaching through him felt that it was unique enough to be distinguished from the teachings of his teacher, Honen, and his other disciples.
The uniqueness of that teaching can be seen in the title that we associate with him, Shonin. Many people seem to think that was his last name, but that is not the case. Shonin is often translated as Saint, but he would probably have been very upset at this. Shonin (聖人)could be understood as meaning “holy person.” Shinran’s writings reflect an understanding that would totally deny this view. However, at the same time this title can be seen as being very reflective of him and his teachings.
This may seem to be an odd statement, but it is because, though the character can be taken to mean holy or sacred, when it is read in Japanese as hijiri(ひじり). Hijiri can be understood to mean “not knowing.” Therefore, shonin (聖人)can be taken to mean as the person who does not know.
A person who does not know and realizes that he does not know is a person willing to listen and accept that which is rather than trying to make things fit his understanding of things. Being able to listen and accept honestly and sincerely may seem simple, but is extremely difficult to do. Shinran was able to do this and accept and hear the call of the Namo Amida Butsu, the call to awaken and accept the compassion that is embracing us in its myriad forms each and every instant of our lives. This does not mean that everything is fine all the time, but that even the hardships of life can be learning and growing experiences for each of us.
This is the teaching he dedicated his life to share. This is why we celebrate his life.
© April 25, 2016