Tannishō and Pure Land tradition | Detailed Intro

Tannishō and Pure Land tradition | Detailed Intro

Of the three canonical scriptures of the Pure Land schools, the Larger Sutra is the first mentioned in Japanese historical documents. Early references to this sutra appear in writings of Shōtoku Taishi (574–622), and lectures on it were delivered at the Imperial court in 640 and 652 by the Japanese monk Eon.

The remaining two Pure Land scriptures, the Contemplation Sutra and the Smaller Sutra, first appear in the records of the Shōsōin dating from the Nara period (710–793).

The calling of the Nenbutsu , or the sacred Name of Amida Buddha (Amitābha), was introduced into Japan by Ennin (Jikaku Daishi, 794-864) after his return from study in China, but it was still combined with other meditational and ritual practices of the Tendai sect.

Later, during the Heian period (794–1185), Kūya Shōnin (903–972) popularized the Nenbutsu among the common people of Kyoto,

while Genshin (Eshin, 942–1017), by compiling the Ōjōyōshū (Essentials of Rebirth), was responsible for widening its influence throughout the country.

At the beginning of the Kamakura period (1192–1333), Hōnen Shōnin (Genkū, 1133–1212) founded a separate Pure Land sect, the Jōdoshū, and preached sole reliance on the calling of Amida’s Name.

Finally, Shinran Shōnin (1173–1262), by placing the emphasis on faith transferred by Amida to the devotee, brought the development of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan to its consummation.

Although he refused to recognize any disciples, Shinran had, in fact, many ardent followers, including Yuienbō, the author of the Tannishō.

Yuienbō was born at some date unknown to us and lived in Kawada, northeast of present-day Tokyo. He died in 1289, twenty-seven years after the decease of Shinran.

The Tannishō was probably written about 1280. Yuienbō’s reason for writing the tract is given in the text itself: to refute deviations from the true faith that had arisen among Shin followers after Shinran’s death.

The Tannishō has continued to exert a profound influence on Japanese life and thought ever since it was written.

In the Muromachi period (1333–1573), Rennyo Shōnin (1415–1499), eighth patriarch of the Honganji, who is regarded as the re-establisher of the Shinshū, added the following postscript to the Tannishō:

This sacred scripture is one of the most valuable texts of our school. Those insufficiently matured in faith should not be allowed indiscriminately to read it.

In the Tokugawa period (1603–1868), Myō-on-in Ryōshō (1788–1842) made a special study of it, while in the Meiji era (1868–1912) it was a source of inspiration to Kiyozawa Manshi (1863–1903), a Shin Buddhist thinker.

Since then its influence has spread to other Buddhist sects, including Zen, so that the famous philosopher Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945) said that if only two books were left in the world “it would be enough for me if I had only Shinran’s Tannishō and the Records of Rinzai.” (He called it “Shinran’s Tannishō” because so much of the work is direct quotation of Shinran.)

The book falls into two parts, each preceded by a Foreword, and is followed by an Afterword.

The Afterword comprises three sections in which Yuienbō again quotes from Shinran, Hōnen, and Shandao (Zendō; 613–681), and to this was later added the above Postscript by Rennyo Shōnin.

The first part of the book, from the opening to the tenth passage, consists of Yuienbō’s personal recollections of the words of Shinran himself, as received directly from the Master.

The second part, from the eleventh to the eighteenth passage, gives Yuienbō’s own refutation of those deviations of faith that had arisen after Shinran’s death, quoting in support of his argument further sayings of the Master.

Following the Afterword but before the Postscript there is an Appendix giving details of the wrongful punishment and exile of Hōnen, Shinran, and other followers. Being of great historical and biographical interest and importance, this section has also been translated here.


During the reign of retired Emperor Gotoba (1180–1239), Hōnen Shōnin (1133–1212) spread the Nenbutsu teaching of the other-power based on Amida’s Original Vow.

Thereupon the monks of Kōfukuji in Nara petitioned the Imperial Household, indicting Hōnen on charges that some of his disciples committed a misdemeanour.

The following were the accused, who were found guilty on the groundless evidence of hearsay: Hōnen and seven of his disciples were exiled, and four of his disciples suffered capital punishment.

Hōnen Shōnin was sentenced to exile in the county of Hata in Tosa province (present-day Kōchi prefecture) and as a criminal was given the name of “Fujii Motohiko, male, aged seventy-six” and so on.

Shinran [Shōnin] was sentenced to exile in Echigo province (present-day Niigata prefecture) under the criminal’s name of “Fujii Yoshizane, aged thirty-five.”

Jōenbō was exiled to Bingo province (present-day Hiroshima prefecture); Chōsai Zenkōbō to Hōki province (present-day Tottori prefecture); Kōkabubō to Izu peninsula (present-day Shizuoka prefecture); and Gyōkū Hōhonbō to Sado Island (part of present-day Niigata prefecture).

Although Kōsai Jōgakubō and Zennebō [Shōkū] were also sentenced to banishment elsewhere, the ex-Daisōjō, Jien (1155–1225) of Mudōji [on Mount Hiei] offered to keep them under his custody.

Thus eight persons in all were sentenced to exile. The four who suffered capital punishment were Saii Zenshakubō, Shōganbō, Jūrenbō, and Anrakubō.

These sentences were passed by the Hōin (a high monastic title) Sonchō, who held the second court rank.

Now that Shinran had been defrocked and given a secular name, he was neither a monk nor a layman. He therefore adopted the character Toku (“bald-headed”) for his family name, and this was subsequently given official approval. The judicial document is said to be kept even now in the registration office. After his exile, Shinran always signed his name: “Shinran the Bald-headed.”


This sacred scripture is one of the most valuable texts of our school. Those insufficiently matured in faith should not be allowed indiscriminately to read it.

Shaku Rennyo

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