Shinran (b. 1173–d. 1262) was an obscure figure in his own time, but his teachings became the basis of the largest Buddhist tradition in Japan, the Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land school). As befits his status as one of the most important thinkers in Japanese Buddhist history, articles and books on him in Japanese are legion. Yet studies of Shinran in English (indeed, in European languages in general) on the whole suffer from a curious paradox. On the one hand, there are many articles and books about Shinran in English, and on the other hand, there is not a widespread appreciation of Shinran’s importance or the subtlety of his religious thought among the larger Buddhist studies or religious studies academy. Furthermore, perhaps the majority of those resources that are available are of limited value to the general historian operating outside of a Shinshū context. The irony is that because Jōdo Shinshū arrived in the West more than one hundred years ago, and has a long and robust scholarly tradition of doctrinally oriented Shinshū studies (Shinshū Gaku) that has been promoted by generations of Japanese scholar-ministers operating in North America, many of the studies of Shinran available to the English-speaking public are by Shinshūu partisans. Much of this work is impressive, yet ultimately such scholarship is concerned with identifying normative concepts and practices for believers, and operates with assumptions and precommitments that would not be acceptable to all researchers. Although the contributions of many people working in Shinshū studies are admirable, this bibliography on the whole steers away from such insider research toward publications that will be of use to both sectarian scholars and the larger scholarly public.
Works in this category are meant to demonstrate some of the breadth of work that has been done on Shinran. Dobbins 1989 is particularly recommended for newcomers to Shinran and the Jōdo Shinshū tradition as it ably positions him within the larger issue of Pure Land Buddhism’s development in medieval Japan. For those working in Japanese, Akamatsu 1961 is a solid resource. Bloom 2007, on the other hand, will also help nonspecialists but is especially useful for advanced scholars already familiar with major concerns in Shinran’s thought. Ueda 2004 looks at Shinran’s approach to karma, whereas Gira 1985 focuses on the issue of conversion. Various attempts have been made to examine aspects of Shinran’s mental universe, such as Lee 2007, which looks at the tension between devotion to Amida alone and veneration of other figures; Yasutomi 1996, which likewise finds competing narratives in Shinran’s historical awareness; and Keel 1995, which suggests Shinran’s idiosyncrasies may be sufficient to categorize him as non-Mahayana.
Akamatsu, Toshihide. Shinran. Jinbutsu sōsho 65. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1961.
An older but still useful examination of Shinran’s life.
Bloom, Alfred. The Essential Shinran: A Buddhist Path of True Entrusting. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2007.
Bloom’s volume consists primarily of excerpts from previous translations of primary sources by or about Shinran, arranged to illuminate his views on various doctrinal subjects. Also includes biographical material. Another useful overview by Bloom is “Shinran’s Way,” in Buddhist Spirituality II: Later China, Korea, Japan, and the Modern World, edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori (New York: Crossroad, 1999).
Dobbins, James. Jōdo Shinshū: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Dobbins ranges widely over the first 250 years of Jōdo Shinshū history, in the process offering a good overview of Shinran, his influences (especially Hōnen), and his mark on history. Also available in a 2002 paperback edition from the University of Hawai’i Press.
Fugen, Kōju. “Rennyo’s Theory on Amida Buddha’s Name and Its Relationship to Shinran’s Thought, Part 1.” Pacific World 3 (2001): 71–93.
Although the focus of this two-part article is Rennyo, in part 1, Fugen thoroughly explores the influence of Shinran—and particular interpretations of Shinran—on Rennyo regarding his understanding of the six-character phrase Namu Amida Butsu.
Gira, Dennis. La sens de la conversion dans l’enseignement de Shinran. Paris: Editions Maisonneuve et Larose, 1985.
Gira’s study focuses especially on the crucial subject of conversion as the key to Shinran’s thought—he shows that Shinran’s abandonment of self-power in favor of complete reliance on Amida’s power to save sentient beings was a radical understanding of the Buddhist path in medieval Japan.
Keel, Hee-Sung. Understanding Shinran: A Dialogical Approach. Freemont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1995.
Keel differs from many interpreters of Shinran in being both Korean and Christian, and thus provides a fresh alternate take on his subject. His argument that Shinran’s thought falls outside the traditional Mahayana perspective has proven to be controversial and provoked much additional discussion, pro and con.
Lee, Kenneth Doo Young. The Prince and the Monk: Shōtoku Worship in Shinran’s Buddhism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.
Lee’s examination of the role of Shōtoku Taishi, a famous early Buddhist figure and punitive incarnation of Kannon Bodhisattva, in Shinran’s thought and experiences demonstrates the degree to which his quasi-monotheistic focus on Amida Buddha nevertheless did not prevent him from drawing on general Japanese patterns of worship of various figures.
Ueda, Yoshifumi. “Freedom and Necessity in Shinran’s Concept of Karma.” In Living in Amida’s Universal Vow: Essays in Shin Buddhism. Edited by Alfred Bloom, 103–121. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2004.
Ueda shows that Shinran focuses on karma as something inherited from the past that inescapably taints all of one’s efforts, until one is embraced by Amida Buddha. Reprint of an essay originally published in The Eastern Buddhist in 1986.
Yasutomi, Shinya. “Shinran’s Historical Consciousness.” Japanese Religions 21.1 (1996): 137–162.
Yasutomi divides Shinran’s historical awareness into two separate, somewhat complementary aspects based on his beliefs about mappō (the final age of the Buddha’s teachings) and about Amida Buddha’s transcendent role in history.
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