This year our National Council Meeting was convened in Visalia. For several years the Institute of Buddhist Studies and the Center for Buddhist Education have been presenting symposia in conjunction with the Council meeting. This year the subject was “Buddhism and Agriculture” a topic relevant to the location of the meeting, current environmental concerns and the influence of agricultural communities on the development of the early Shinshu sangha. One of the presenters was Professor Eisho Nasu of Ryukoku University. He drew our attention to Shinran’s life in the Kanto region of Japan between 1214 and 1234. His presentation, along with the other presenters, can be viewed on YouTube at the “BCA Center for Buddhist Education” channel.
The twenty years that Shinran lived in Kanto area are an interesting part of his life. We know very little of this time in which he completed the first draft of the Kyogyoshinsho and organized the first Shinshu communities. We have some sense of what his life might have been like and perhaps the influences that helped shape his appreciation of the Buddhadharma.
Shinran lived in a turbulent time in Japanese history. The Heike Monogatari is an account of the events leading up to the Gempei war and what happened afterwards. A famous battle, Ichi-no-tani, is recorded in this book. In the battle, Kumagai no Jiro Naozane, pulls from his horse, Taira no Atsumori, a scion of the Taira clan. At first Kumagai intends to spare the life of the young Atsumori who reminds him of his own son, Kojiro. Kumagai realizes he cannot release Atsunori into the battlefield where others will kill him and determines to take Atsunori’s life himself.
“”Alas! look there ” he exclaimed, the tears running down his face “though I would spare your life, the whole country side swarms with our men, and you cannot escape them. If you must die, let it be by my hand, and I will see that prayers are said for your re-birth in bliss.” ” Indeed it must be so “, said the young warrior, “so take off my head at once.” Then Kumagai, weeping bitterly, and so overcome by his compassion for the fair youth that his eyes swam and his hand trembled so that he could scarcely wield his blade, hardly knowing what he did, at last cut off his head.” Heike Monogatari. Translation by University of Oregon
The battle of Ichi-no-tani occured in 1184. The Gempei war ended in 1185. In 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo established the Bakufu at his home in Kamakura. Shinran left Hiei and became a student of Honen in 1201. By 1203, or perhaps as early as the end of the Gempei War, Kumagai is a student of Honen and had received the name Rensei. The priest Rensei, who led military forces as Kumagai in the Gempei War, and Shinran are both close students of Honen. Honen is mention specifically in the Heike Monogatari. He is asked and allowed to ordained his friend Taira no Shigehira, who was responsible for the burning of Nara, before he was turned over to the monks of Nara.
We often think of Shinran in idyllic settings. The time he spent in Kanto may have been a meditation for him. A time to bring together his thoughts and experiences. Working with others. Sharing his appreciation of Honen. The Kanto was not far from Kamakura. Energy was being spent to develop the arable land of the large flood plain that formed the base of the Kanto region. There is still much to be discovered about Shinran. Not just through his writings but from the records of the history of his time.