The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Jodo Wasan 60

So profound is Amida's great compassion
That, manifesting inconceivable Buddha-wisdom,
The Buddha established the Vow of transformation into men,
Thereby vowing to enable women to attain Buddhahood.

The Absolute Equality of Women and Men

The Pure Land teaching is the epitome of the underlying egalitarian tendencies of the Mahayana. Leaders like Shinran Shonin and his wife Eshin-ni give practical expression to gender equality. Each regarded the other as a bodhisattva. By virtue of Amida Buddha's shinjin given to them, both were 'equal to Maitreya Bodhisattva', who will become a Buddha at his next birth.1

When it comes to conditions of gender, Shinran does not acknowledge any significant difference or obstacle to women becoming Buddhas just as they are. He clearly establishes this principle in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho:

In reflecting on the ocean of great shinjin, I realise that there is no discrimination between noble and humble or black-robed monks and white-clothed laity, no differentiation between man and woman, old and young.2

In other parts of his writing he goes further. For example, Shinran had a deep sense of gratitude and profound reverence for the Prince Regent, Shotoku Taishi (574 - 622) who was largely responsible for the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. In the Hymns on Prince Shotoku, Shinran traces Shotoku's spiritual lineage back to Queen Shrimala, a disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha:

In India, Prince Shotoku
Was born as Queen Shrimala,
And in China appeared
As Master Hui-ssu.

He appeared in China
To benefit sentient beings;
He was reborn five hundred times
As both man and woman.3

There is no significant fixed delineation here between male and female.

In the verse we are discussing now, we are told that an obstacle for women in becoming Buddhas is their morphology. Indeed, one of the titles of the thirty-fifth Vow is 'the Vow that all women attain birth in Amida's Land after becoming men'. However, it seems to me that such a title is out of keeping with Shinran's own attitude to gender equality in all of his other writings. It also seems clear that he simply did not intend a literal interpretation of it where it occurs in the thirty-fifth vow.

Each of the forty-eight vows of Amida Buddha is identified by one or more titles, rather than a number. Indeed, Shinran follows this convention and I think that is what he is doing here. In this case, he adds a footnote, as he sometimes does, to imply that the vow has a deeper meaning than its literal rendition.

Towards the end of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran quotes Nagarjuna Bodhisattva to the effect that, in reading the scriptures, we should

Rely on the meaning, not on the words.

With regard to relying on the meaning, meaning itself is beyond debate of such matters as, like against dislike, evil against virtue, falsity against truth. Hence, words may indeed have meaning, but the meaning is not the words. Consider, for example, a person instructing us by pointing to the moon with his finger. [To take words to be the meaning] is like looking at the finger and not at the moon. The person would say, ‘I am pointing to the moon with my finger in order to show it to you. Why do you look at my finger and not the moon?’ Similarly, words are the finger pointing to the meaning; they are not the meaning itself. Hence, do not rely upon words.4

The third line of the verse at the head of this essay is also the title of the thirty-fifth vow. So that line could easily be substituted for the number of the vow, which is an alternative title. In the light of that fact, the third line of this verse would read: 'The Buddha established the thirty-fifth Vow/ Thereby vowing to enable women to attain Buddhahood'.

It would be quite inconsistent with everthing that Shinran had written if he were to consider it necessary for women to become anything other than themselves in order to attain shinjin and be born in the Pure Land.

Finally, it is worth noting that for 600 years one of the ten sub-branches of the Shin Buddhist tradition, Shinshu Bukko-ji-ha,5 has not hesitated to appoint a woman as its abbot. Within the fiercely patriarchal society of that time, that, in itself, honours Shinran's own perspective that the Primal Vow does not discriminate in any way whatsoever between men and women.

1: CWS, p. 122-124 et. al.

2: CWS, p. 107.

3: CWS, p. 435.

4: CWS, p. 241.

5: Bukkoji Buddhist Temple

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


Back | HOME | Next