The Controversy Behind Shinran and His Son Zenran

The founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (the Buddhist sect I am affiliated with), named Shinran, had a number of challenges in his life, but probably the most difficult challenge was between himself and his own son, Zenran (善鸞 1217 ? – 1286 ?). Zenran was also frequently referred by this Buddhist name Jishin-bō (慈信房).

The trouble between Shinran and Zenran began late in life after Shinran had been pardoned from exile, and returned to Kyoto in the last years of his life. According to Professor Dobbins in Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan, the trouble began when some members in the Kanto Region (near modern-day Tokyo) promoted the idea that since they were saved by Amitabha Buddha, they no longer needed to be good.  They would indulge in all the evils they wanted since they were covered by the compassion of Amitabha’s vow to save all beings.  This is often called antinomianism or “license evil”, which Shinran discouraged. Zenran was sent to help lead the community there and speak for Shinran, however that’s when things took a turn for the worse.

I was reading through the letters of Shinran, translated here, and there are some interesting letters that Shinran exchanges with followers, and with his own son.  For example, in this letter, year unknown, Shinran described his frustration and concern with Zenran/Jishin-bō:

I have been informed that, following the various things that Jishin-bo has said, the minds of the people have been shaken in different ways. This is deeply distressing. You should entrust all things to the working of the revered Buddha. If conditions [for teaching the nembutsu] in that area have been exhausted, you should think about moving to another place. If you accept what Jishin-bo is saying – that I have instructed people to spread the nembutsu by relying on outside people as powerful supporters, which I have never said – it will be an unmitigated error. The Buddha has taught beforehand that, as the custom of the secular world, there would be attempts to obstruct the nembutsu; hence, you should not be taken aback by it. You should never, under any circumstances, take the various things Jishin-bo is saying as coming from me. Concerning the teachings, he is making groundless remarks. You should not give him your ear. I hear of incredibly erroneous views; it is deplorable….It appears to have been of no value whatever that they have for a long time copied and possessed various writings. I think that Essentials for Faith Alone and the various other writings have now become useless to them. The teachings that they carefully copied out and kept are now all worthless to them. I have heard that all the people, following Jishin-bo, have discarded those splendid writings. I lament this deeply.

It appears that Zenran became heavy-handed and attempted to co-opt local authorities in spreading the nembutsu, while at the same time asserting his own religious authority.  In this letter addressed directly to Zenran/Jishin-bō, year unknown, Shinran is furious at Zenran for trying to claim that Zenran has an exclusive teaching from Shinran (in order to assert his claim to authority), and that past religious work is therefore invalid:

I find it indeed deplorable that people in the various areas are saying in different ways that it is meaningless for people of the countryside to have all been saying the nembutsu for years. Although they have copied and possessed various writings, how have they been reading them? It makes me feel extremely apprehensive.

I have heard that about ninety of the people who had gathered around Chutaro of Obu have all followed you and abandoned the lay-monk Chutaro, because you, having traveled there from Kyoto, declared that only the teaching you have heard here is true and that all their saying of the nembutsu for years is meaningless. How has such a thing come about? It appears to me that, in short, their shinjin had not been settled. How is it that so many people could have been shaken? I find it lamentable. Since there are rumors of this kind, there must also be many false statements. Further, since I have heard that I am being accused of favoritism, I made great efforts to write down the meaning of Essentials of Faith Alone, On the Afterlife, and Self-power and Other Power, and also the Parable of the Two Rivers, and to distribute them to people. But I hear that they have all become useless. How have you been teaching the people? I hear you are saying incomprehensible things and am troubled by it. Please explain matters to me in detail.


I have duly received your reports concerning Shinbutsu-bo, Shoshin-bo, and Nyushin-bo. Although I find it deeply lamentable, there is nothing I can do about it. It is also beyond my powers to correct others who do not have the same mind. Since people are not of the same mind, it is useless to say one thing or another. At this point, you should not speak about others. Please take this fully to heart.

Shinran clearly denies that he gave Zenran any special teachings in this letter to another follower:

…thus I have spoken for long years. In spite of this, at the words of a person like Jishin, the nembutsu practicers of Hitachi and Shimotsuke all were shaken at heart and went so far as to cast away all those wholly dependable, authoritative writings which I exhausted my strength in copying out in great numbers to send to them. Hearing of this, I know it is useless to speak about details.

To begin, I have never heard such statements as Jishin’s or even the terminology he uses, much less learned them; hence, what he says cannot be something I taught him privately. Further, I have not instructed Jishin alone, whether day or night, in a special teaching, concealing it from other people.

However, in spite of Shinran’s denials, and stern warning to Zenran, clearly the situation did not improve.  Finally, Shinran resorts to disowning his own son, as captured in this letter composed in 1256:

Further, I have never heard and do not know such statements concerning the teaching as you are making or even the terminology you use. Nevertheless, you have been telling others that I taught them to you privately one night, and so, concerning me also, the people of Hitachi and Shimotsuke are all saying that I have lied to them. Therefore, there shall no longer exist parental relations with you.

Further, it is inexpressibly shocking that you are making groundless accusations about your mother, the lay-nun. The woman of Mibu came bringing a letter that she said she received from you; she left the letter here. I have this letter of yours. In this letter as it stands, it is written that you have been deceived by your “stepmother”; it is indeed deplorable. It is a shocking falsehood to say, while she is still alive, that your mother – whom you call “stepmother” – has been deceiving you.

Further, in the letter to the woman of Mibu you make statements about your birth without knowing anything about it; these are utterly incomprehensible falsehoods. I lament this deplorable matter.

It is distressing that you have spoken such lies and that you have petitioned the Rokuhara and Kamakura magistrates concerning them. Falsehoods of this kind are worldly matters and thus may be dismissed as such. Even so, telling lies is wretched, and how much more grievous is it to mislead others regarding the great concern of birth in the land of bliss, casting the people of the nembutsu in Hitachi and Shimotsuke into confusion, and to make groundless accusations about your father.

I have heard that you likened the Eighteenth Primal Vow to a withered flower, so that all the people have abandoned it. This is truly the offense of slandering the dharma. Further, to favor the five grave offenses and to harm people by misleading them is lamentable.

The offense here of disrupting the sangha is one of the five grave offenses. To make groundless accusations about me is to murder your father; it is among the five grave offenses. I cannot fully express my grief at hearing these things. Hence, from now on there shall no longer exist parental relations with you; I cease to consider you my son. I declare this resolutely to the three treasures and the gods. It is a sorrowful thing. It rends my heart to hear that you have devoted yourself to misleading all the people of the nembutsu in Hitachi, saying that [what they have been taught] is not my true teaching. Rumors have reached as far as Kamakura that I have instructed you to denounce the people in Hitachi who say the nembutsu. It is deeply deplorable.

Here, Shinran summarizes some of what Zenran is accused of doing:

  • Telling followers in Shimotsuke and Hitachi provinces to abandon the existing nembutsu practice taught by Shinran.
  • Instead, Zenran promoted his own teachings and practices, though the letters do not explain what these are.
  • Third, Zenran conspired with local officials to promote his teaching over other teachings.
  • Fourth, Zenran effectively disavowed his own mother calling her his step-mother, in order to further his teachings.

It’s not clear why Zenran went to such bizarre lengths to assert his religious authority over the followers in the Kanto Region, but it’s clear that it caused a great deal of doubt, confusion and turmoil there, and Zenran simply refused to comply with this father.  Thus, he was ultimately disowned.

It’s not clear what happened after that, though it is implied that the issue was ultimately resolved.  Strangely, there is a Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist sect that still reveres Zenran as the second patriarch, after Shinran called the Izumo-ji sect (出雲路派).  The head temple, Gōshōji, in Fukui Prefecture has a website here in Japanese, but in speaking of the history of the temple, it only explains that the property once belonged to Zenran and was given to future generations.  So, even then, perhaps Goshoji doesn’t want to speak of Zenran too much.

So, anyhow, that’s a closer look at the controversy and disaster that befell the Jodo-Shinshu community under Zenran’s authority, and the efforts Shinran went to put an end to it.  It’s a sad tale in Shinshu history, but an important reminder of the need to avoid too much authority in the hands of one person.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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