Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Monday, April 27, 2009

River of Fire, River of Water - An Introduction to Shin Buddhism

I recently finished reading the book "River of Fire, River of Water" by Taitesu Unno. This book provides an introduction to the Pure Land tradition of Shin Buddhism. In Japan, more people are followers of Shin Buddhism then of any other branch of Buddhism such as Zen or Shingon.

If you are interested in learning about the Shin tradition, then this is a pretty good book. The Buddhist terminology and philosophy can get a bit confusing and tedious at times, especially near the end of the book, but overall I learned a lot from it.

Pure Land Shin Buddhism is based on the belief in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha. Those who have faith in Amida Buddha will be born in Amida Buddha's Pure Land.

Pure Land Buddhism has been around along time and came to Japan from China. But a distinct school of Shin Buddhism was originally established in Japan by the monk Honen. Honen was a Tendai monk from Mt. Hiei, a center of Buddhist monastic study northeast of Kyoto. In 1175, he broke from this established center of monastic learning and proclaimed the establishment of an independent Jodo or Pure Land school.

Pure Land practice had long been a part of the established schools including those of Mt. Hiei. But Honen made the contemplation of Amida and the Pure Land a separate and distinct path that could be followed by all people including the common people and not just for those who followed the monastic path.

One of Honen's followers, Shinran (1173-1263) continued propagating the Pure Land belief after Honen's death. It was Shinran's decedents and followers that created the dominant Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism that is the largest school in Japan today.

In real simple terms, Honen and his Jodo Shu school believed in the Nembutsu, the invocation of Amida Buddha's name, Namu Amida Butsu, as the way for those to travel to Amida's Pure Land. Shinran's school of Jodo Shinshu emphasized strong faith in Amida and that it was not even necessary to chant Amida's name but the mere the thought of the Nembutsu with strong faith was sufficient.


  1. When I first visited Japan in 1995, I thought Buddhism is Buddhism. It wasn't until I started visiting the many Temples in Japan did I realize that Buddhism is not homogeneous. The strength of the personalities that formed these sects must have been profound.

  2. Yes, there were some very charismatic leaders. Dogen for Zen, Honen and Shinran for Shin Buddhism, and Kobo Daishi for Shingon Buddhism.

  3. Thanks T for descriptive summary about Buddhism. I got Idea which I had never had before, I knew only by name from some few historical books available in East Africa.

  4. You're welcome Chib. Yeah, probably not too many Buddhist books or temples in East Africa.

  5. Jenn.8:01 AM

    I'm Jenn from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
    I really like this blog since I lOve Japan very much!
    I'm about to start doing a project that will last for a year...and have to pick something i will be glad researhing about it for that time...I'm thinking about Japan and it's history since i MUST write about history but i'm not sure what exactly to search and write about. So if you have any suggestions since you know so much about Japan please let me know. sorry for my bad English btw xD
    I hope you'll answer soon.
    and it has to be long, i mean that project should be like a small bOok, so i was thinking to pick some period in Japanese history but not still sure what :/

    -take care!

  6. You should probably start by reading a basic book on Japanese history from ancient times to at least 1868. Then you will have a good overview and be able to select a period that interests you. I personally like the Edo or Tokugawa period (1600 to 1868). This was a very unique time in Japanese history and many classic Japanese traditions were developed during this time such as the Geisha, Japanese plays such as No and many others.

  7. Hello,

    Do you really think, just by devoting yourself and sayinng the name of Amida you can achieve your buddhahood? Wouldn't it be more realistic to belive in the buddhahood which lies in your self and not to deppend on someones other buddhahood for exaple the one from Amida? I mean instead to look far away first of all look at your self!
    you are fully endowed with your boddhahood

  8. @ Basco:
    I am far, far from an expert on this subject. However, I feel it is far more complex than just "saying" the name will help you achieve Buddhahood. In addition, I believe all religions are far more complex than anyone will ever know. There is no right religion, there is no wrong religion, there is no right way, there is no wrong way. That is just my own philosophy.

    Thank you for commenting. :)