the eshinni honen connection

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!

9 thoughts on “the eshinni honen connection

  1. I thought that it was common knowledge among Shinshu scholars in the West that Eshinni was likely part of Honen’s community pre-Shinran. Certainly it is widely recognized in Japanese Shinshu studies. Just goes to show you the value of these cross-cultural forums that the IBS holds. Y’all are doing good work out there.

    What I want to know, and have been puzzling over for years without getting a good answer from any Shinshu Gaku specialist, is where the “ni” in Eshinni came from (and Kakushinni, for that matter). Was it bestowed by Honen (quite possible)? By Shinran (also possible, but perhaps less likely)? If so, when? What was the significance at the time? This seems to be a major issue not only for the question of women’s role in the early Shinshu movement (and Japanese religious history) but also for the development of clerics within Shinshu history as a whole. Can you guys invite a speaker from Japan who can speak to these issues? Maybe Imai Masahara? Pretty please:)

    Thanks for posting the Hirota stuff, btw.

  2. Now, this is my kind of geekery 🙂

    I just finished up two quarters of classes on Classical Japanese so I know just enough to be very excited by what Hirota Sensei points out in the video.

    Will there be more video of the keynote made available? Or, will the podcast also include text so folks who can follow along with the text can see what verb tenses/kanji etc., he is referring to?

    I’m curious to see what may come of this insight, especially for reframing the early history of Shinshu as not being so male dominated. I’d read Dobbins translation of the Letters before, and I was annoyed that in his introduction he almost disparaged Eshin-ni for having a “populist” approach as opposed to Shinran’s supposed intellectual and sophisticated take. If Eshin-ni’s participation in Shin predates Shinran, then all sorts of neat reversals become possible…

  3. I believe that Imai Masaharu has written about all of the issues mentioned here, in his lecture series later published as a book under the title, “Eshini samatte donna kata?” Feel free to contact me by email in a couple of weeks if you want me to try and dig up some specific references from Imai’s work.

  4. Fascinating! When I read your tweet I was wondering if the evidence was textual or based on external sources. This explains it. Thanks for putting the clip on YouTube.

  5. Thanks very much for the tip, Daniel, that’s very helpful. I have a couple of Imai’s books but not that one, I’ll look for it when I’m over there again for IASBS next year.

  6. Thank you for this post: add me to the geek list.
    Just a couple of thoughts on what Jeff said…
    SHINRAN, eSHIN, zenRAN, kakuSHIN. Just going by names the best guess that Eshin was a name given by Shinran, the title ‘ni’ given at the same time.
    Honen ‘allowed’ the marriage of his disciple on the condition that he give up his name and title given to him at Mt Hiei. If Eshin-ni had any equivalent name or title (unlikely I would say)she would have given that up too.
    I don’t think it is far fetched that when he declared himself as neither monk nor lay, and took the name Shinran he considered his wife no different than himself in standing and called her Eshin-ni.
    Eshin as a name could be read of as “blessed with belief” but if read with reference to Shin in Shinran it could be read as “blessing to Shinran”, which is so blushing why would you read it another way.
    Just some thoughts from a young Jodo Shu follower.

  7. A nice theory, Stephen, but I don’t think it fits the facts very well. Shinran changed his name to Shinran (with Honen’s permission) well before his exile, in reference to a dream rather than in desire to marry. And his marriage apparently came when he was already in exile and out of communication with Honen. Anyway, we know that Shinran likely didn’t bestow the names Eshinni and Kaushinni in order to reference himself, because the kanji for “shin” in “Shinran” is not the same one used for the “shin” in “Eshinni” and “Kakushinni.” In both cases, rather, it is the “shin” in “shinjin” i.e. faith. So they are clearly Pure Land Dharma names, but they aren’t Shinran-centric. The contrast is Zenran, which does use the same “ran” as “Shinran” and thus shows that Shinran wasn’t shy about using syllables from his own name if he wanted to. But then again, the “ran” in “Shinran” and “Zenran” is taken from the “ran” in “Donran” so it may be that Zenran is recycling the “Donran” syllable rather than specifically referencing “Shinran.” So I don’t think we can use the names of Eshinni and Kakushinni to speculate with anything close to confidence about them allegedly coming from Shinran.

  8. Meek, blush very sorry. Will try not to sleep/comment again.
    But the name was probably not from Honen because
    1 He didn’t have Imperial permission to ordain people.
    2 Those that shaved their heads and lived like monks in Honen’s closest group like Awanosuke and Ku Amidabutsu weren’t given the names of monks.

    Why I like the Shinran theory better of the two is he sort of did have Imperial permission in a way.
    But I have already made enough of a fool of myself. Sorry.

  9. No, Stephen, you’re not making a fool of yourself. This is healthy discussion and nothing to worry about.

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