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The Monk Who Dared: An Historical Novel About Shinran

By Ruth M. TabrahSarah Fremerman

The Monk Who Dared: An Historical Novel About Shinran
Ruth M. Tabrah
Press Pacifica: Kailua, Hawaii, 1996.
329 pp., $15.95 (paper).

When the emperor of Japan asked Shinran, the founder of the Jodo Shin (True Pure Land) sect of Buddhism, to recite a poem summing up his experience of monastic life, the monk surprised them both:

Like a fledgling attempting to fly against the wind,
Snow weighting its fragile wings,
I struggle
Powerless as I try to help myself.

After a long silence, the emperor said, “You are no ordinary monk,” and bestowed upon him a beautiful brocade robe. Later the same emperor would send Shinran into exile for his heretical activities.

As Shinran’s poem suggests, the story of the birth of Pure Land Buddhism in twelfth-century Japan began with failure and disillusionment. Shinran spent twenty years as a monk before renouncing the Tendai Buddhist path to become a disciple of Honen, a teacher who advocated the practice of nembutsu—invoking the name of Amida Buddha—as the one sure path to salvation. Both Honen and Shinran felt that neither the “difficult practices” of Tendai Buddhism nor the path of scholarship had brought them any closer to enlightenment.

Today the devotional Pure Land sects claim the largest membership of all Buddhist sects in Japan, while in the West, Pure Land teachings have most often been viewed as an anomaly, a sort of theistic Buddhism-made-easy. More than a few Western scholars have expressed the view that the doctrine of salvation through nembutsu faith appears directly to contradict Shakyamuni’s teachings of liberation through human effort.

Ruth Tabrah’s historical novel The Monk Who Dared, based on Shinran’s early life, does much to help us gain a deeper understanding of Pure Land teachings. It dramatizes the young Tendai monk’s long struggle to attain enlightenment, and the inward transformation that occurs when he meets Honen—a spiritual leap from reliance on his own efforts to a realization of the universal, all-embracing compassion of Amida, the Buddha of infinite life and light. Near the end of the novel, we find the hero exiled to a rugged northern province of Japan, alone in a temple library, collecting evidence to present as the historical basis of support for his master’s teachings, which the emperor and the traditional Buddhist sects have all denounced as heresy. In a different sense, Tabrah is doing the same for Shinran in this novel—seeking to legitimize his life and teachings for a somewhat less than sympathetic Western audience.

Tabrah doesn’t have to look far to find material for a novel: Shinran’s tumultuous life story reads like fiction, with his family’s noble bloodline and subversive political connections, his dramatic abandonment of the life of a traditional monk, and his controversial marriage to a former imperial consort. In Shinran’s time monks often secretly visited consorts at night. A town populated almost entirely by women stood at the foot of Mt. Hiei, the bastion of early Japanese Buddhism. Though most of the Japanese Buddhist clergy have since followed his example, Shinran was the first Buddhist monk in Japanese history to openly marry and have a family.

Tabrah herself is a longtime practitioner of Shin Buddhism, and her novel unabashedly presents itself as what might be called “inspirational fiction.” How historical it actually is remains a matter for conjecture: Buddhist scholars might point to other versions of the same events in Shinran’s life. In focusing only on his early years, the novel also ends before some of the messier events in his life have occurred—for example, his disowning of his son for spreading heretical teachings, or the doctrinal conflicts with Honen’s other disciples that led to the present-day schism between the Jodo and Jodo Shin sects of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. The plot develops quickly, and the author reports on her characters with little comment, letting their actions speak for themselves. When the eight-year-old Shinran, then Hanen, first enters a temple to become a monk, he soon grows accustomed to his new surroundings:

. . . by summer it seemed to him he had always lived here. The temple compound was now his world. He had swept every corner of it, he was sure. He woke each morning with anticipation for everything except the sweeping. “Why was this considered so important?” he kept asking his fellow novices. They could not answer him. He had already asked his teacher but he could not make sense of Shohan’s answer: “To do such is one more way of finding out who and what you really are.”

Even the bare outline of events from Shinran’s life forms a compelling story, but the novel offers something even more useful for aspiring Buddhists—a glimpse of his inner struggle, the despair that leads a person to give up on the power of human effort and throw himself on the mercy of the Buddha. The essence of Shin Buddhist faith is, in this respect, much like Christian faith, and with different names this novel might be mistaken for the biography of a Christian saint. The storyline is familiar—spiritual yearning, inner conflict, despair, and finally salvation through grace. Paradoxically, Shinran’s deepest failure is the beginning of his enlightenment. For Americans, used to pursuing success in spirituality or any other field, this offers a peculiar irony. There is no way to fail at Shinran’s new practice of nembutsu—we sense, in fact, that without failure his conversion would not have been possible.

This affectionate portrait of Shinran, the monk turned “stubble-headed ignoramus,” is touching to read, but it also leaves us with many unanswered questions. In some ways Shinran’s transformation through faith never entirely convinces us: Why do his old fears and desires still cling to him? Are fear and desire permanent fixtures in the human psyche after all? What does this mean for us? But maybe it’s good that we are left with some uncertainty. Shinran’s story provokes us to question everything we thought we understood about Buddhism. That, no doubt, would have pleased him.

Sarah Fremerman spent the past seven years as a nun at Kyoto Kitayama Shudo-in, a monastery in Kyoto, Japan. Currently she is director of Nembutsu Sangha, a Buddhist center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

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