Jodo Shinshu and Marriage

by Rimban Katsuya Kusunoki

The 1st Seattle Youth Minister’s Assistant Retreat was held in January. In a workshop, I took them to the Seattle Koyasan Temple (Shingon Sect) located on the other side of Wisteria Park. We learned about the basic teaching of Shingon sect and experienced the Shingon style of meditation. It was a great opportunity for us to learn another Buddhist sect’s teaching and practice. Through this experience we were also able to make our understanding of Jodo Shinshu teaching deeper. In a discussion Rev. Taijo, who is the head priest of Seattle Koyasan temple, asked one question. “What is the decisive difference between Jodo Shinshu sect and other Buddhist sects?” Youth Ministers Assistants tried their best to answer the questions. “Jodo Shinshu is the religion of gratitude.” “Jodo Shinshu accepts all beings as they are.” These are good answers but, they were not the decisive difference, because the other schools also have similar teachings. I also wondered what the decisive difference is. Rev. Taijo says, “Jodo Shinshu’s founder Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) married and had a family. There was no other Buddhist school’s founder who married. In Buddhism, there is a precept that doesn’t allow ordained Buddhist monks/priests/ministers to get married. Shinran Shonin got married even though he understood the Buddhist precepts. From my point of view, he is a great revolutionary of Buddhism.”

When I see Buddhism in Japan today, many Buddhist ministers, regardless of the sect they are belong, get married and have their families. But beside Jodo Shinshu ministers, Buddhist monks/priest/ministers in Japan started marrying after the Japanese Constitution was set in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). In the US I have had opportunities to meet Sri Lankan Buddhist monks, Vietnamese Buddhist monks, Buddhist monks from other countries and other sects. Of course, they are not married because they hold their precepts. They left their families and
concentrate on their Buddhist practice. On the other hand, I was born and raised in a Jodo Shinshu temple family in Japan. I haven’t had any questions or curiosities about Buddhist monk/priest/minister getting married. But when I contemplate deeply about it more, it is really a big issue.

There are no detailed records to tell us about Shinran Shonin’s marriage. He had his ordination at the age of nine. He entered Mt. Hiei and practiced there for twenty years. However, he could not find a path to attain enlightenment. Having many questions and worries, he visited the Rokkakudo temple in downtown Kyoto. One of his concerns might have been about getting married and having a family. There, he received a message from Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in his dream.

“If you, practicer, are obligated to have sexual contact with a woman through some past karma, I will transform myself into a beautiful woman and become your partner. I will adorn you with virtues throughout your life and, at your death, I will guide you to the Land of Utmost Bliss.”

This message became one of the causes for him to leave Mt. Hiei. After that, he visited Master Honen and studied Buddhism there. Honen Shonin’s teaching was that people listen to the Amida Buddha’s guidance and recite Nembutsu “Namo Amida Butsu”. Then, they were born into Amida Buddha’s Pure Land and attained Enlightenment there. Regardless, man or woman, young or old, lay person or ordained person, anybody who followed Amida Buddha’s guidance and recited Nembutsu were able to be born into the Pure Land. Let me introduce one of his words.

“Reciting Buddha’s name ‘Namo Amida Butsu’ must be the core of your life. You should stay in a monastery if it is easier for you to recite Buddha’s name. And, you should get married and live with your spouse and family, if it is easier for you to recite Buddha’s name.”

Master Honen teaches us that it is not an issue of whether we are ordained or not. It does not matter what kind of life-style we are living. Nembutsu must be the center of our life. It is the path to be born into the Pure Land and attain Enlightenment.

Although we don’t know the exact date and place, Shinran Shonin got married with his wife, Eshinni-ko. They lived their life with their children. Their life was always filled with Nembutsu. At the time, the Buddhist path was mainly for ordained people. For most lay people, they must have thought that Buddhism was completely unconnected with their life and there was no Buddhist path for them to follow. Then, using his entire life, Shinran Shonin showed them that there is the Buddhist path to follow for lay people and for people who have their spouse and
family. We can learn from Shinran Shonin and Eshinni-ko’s life-style and that it is the path for us to aim at. If he did not get married, no Buddhist path might be opened for lay people today. With this understanding, a marriage in Jodo Shinshu path is a celebration of setting out on the journey for a couple to live their Nembutsu life together.

This year is our tenth anniversary of marriage. We have been so fortunate to have had our son two and a half years ago. My wife listens to all my dharma talks. We talk a lot about temple and my ministerial activities. I am sometimes irritated to hear her comments and critiques. But it is true, because of her comments, I am able to develop as a Buddhist minister. For ten years we have been grumbling to each other and I have enjoyed my life as a Buddhist minister here. Married life is giving me the better Nembutsu life. Thus, I feel. Thank you.

Rev. Katsu