This post is something of a twofer.
Last month, Shin Buddhist scholar Dennis Hirota delivered the Ryukoku Lecture at the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Prof. Hirota is rather well known in both the academic and practitioner communities largely due to his translation work, much of which is used on a near daily basis in North American Shin Buddhist communities.
I’m finally getting around to uploading audio of his lecture series to the IBS podcast. I’ve also included a short “preview” of this series in movie form and have posted it to the IBS’s YouTube channel. So, part one of this post’s twofer is the “institutional promotion side,” i.e., the IBS is releasing more podcast files, go listen, support the Institute, yay team!
Now for the second part. During his talk, Prof. Hirota mentioned in an off-hand sort of way that Eshinni, Shinran Shonin’s wife and a central player in the early days and formation of the Jodo Shinshu school in Japan, may have been a member of Honen’s group before Shinran. I’d never heard this before, so I did what any good Buddhist would do I tweeted about it, and a few folks replied that they’d never heard that either. The following day, Prof. Hirota talked a bit more about this issue (and it’s the central bit of that short YouTube clip), clarifying what he meant, what the textual basis of this claim is, and situating it within the larger context of his talk.
At the risk of alienating my readers who don’t particularly care about the subtleties of Shin Buddhist history or thought, I’ll do my best to keep this brief. Eshinni was the wife of the founder of the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism. Little was known about her until a trove of her letters were discovered in the early part of the 20th century in one of the main Shinshu temples in Kyoto. As many folks know, women’s history is often cast as second fiddle to the history of men, so bringing Eshinni’s story to the forefront has shed invaluable light on the history of our tradition.
It is one of these letters that is at the heart of Prof. Hirota’s comments. He notes that in one letter, Eshinni is writing about her experiences with Honen and Shinran, and midway through the verse she switches verb forms. This switch isn’t really translatable; one form denotes something that happened in the past whereas the other denotes something that happened in the past that you had direct experience of, a linguistic subtly that has no English equivalent. I’ll let Prof. Hirota explain that one himself, but it’s this sort of thing that has lent support to the idea that Eshinni knew Honen before her marriage to Shinran.
Her marriage to Shinran is not particularly news, of course. But discovering that she may have been with this Pure Land group that Honen founded before Shinran himself is more than a little interesting. I don’t know what all the implications are, but to me it suggests that she was already engaged with Pure Land practice before she met her future husband, and who knows what sort of influence this may have had on Shinran, particularly as he was just starting out on his path, one that eventually lead to his complete re-conceptualization of Buddhist practice. Of course, who can say? I want to refrain from reading too much into this or of romanticizing their relationship. But, regardless, finding these little bits of unrecorded history is the stuff of scholar-Buddhist-geeky-dreams!
First of all, we’re talking about a central figure within in a specific Buddhist school, so we’ve got the obscurity factor going. (Obscure in a “general Buddhist” sense, not a Shin Buddhist sense, mind you.) Secondly, Prof. Hirota’s discussion is all about how to properly translate a text. So even if you’re not particularly interested in the question of who met whom when, you may want to geek out on the question of what verb tense Eshinni was using in her letters and what the implications are. Moreover, the translation question is always a good way to spark debate between scholars, and there’s the hint of such debates in Prof. Hirota’s comments. The history buffs will be happy to hear about the discovery of a trove of 13th century letters hidden away in a warehouse in Kyoto. And, to tie it all up, we’re talking about the significance of a woman within the development not only of the Shin Buddhist community but in the development of Shinran’s thinking, that is, bringing a woman front and center rather than being relegated to the sidelines of history.
So, this is all good geeky stuff. If you’re that kind of geek. If you’re not that kind of geek, well, maybe you’re this kind of geek. Either way, enjoy!