Genshin, We Hardly Knew You

I am happy to report that I finally finished my book on Genshin (源信, 942 – 1017), a 9th century Japanese Buddhist monk who was a big influence on later Pure Land Buddhist thought. Genshin is often referred to as a “patriarch” in Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, but available information about Genshin in English (and even Japanese) is thin and circumspect and reflects later interpretation by Buddhist authors (and their Wikipedia editors). Weirdly, past authors and editors praise Genshin a lot, but frequently inject their own viewpoint. In other words, history is written by the winners.

Portrait of monk Genshin, d. 1017, attrib. to himself, property of Shōjūraigōji temple photo by Tani Bunchō et al.日本語: 谷文晁ほか / Public domain

Since it was surprisingly hard to find out what Genshin’s own teachings and viewpoints, the book proved super helpful in looking past the empty praise of later generations to the real Genshin. At least, the most we can glean from his writings and historical relics of the time.

Genshin, I learned, was first and foremost a Tendai Buddhist. He was ordained as a child and grew up training as a monk in a wholly Tendai-Buddhist environment on Mount Hiei. He never contradicted this either. His participation in debates with rival schools, his writings on various topics and even the writings that proved popular later about the Pure Land of Amida Buddha were all done from a fairly orthodox Tendai viewpoint.

To Genshin, the Pure Land path was always meant to be a holistic one. Later Pure Land authors tended to cherry-pick Genshin’s comments that the nembutsu (reciting the name of Amida Buddha) was an effective practice, but that was clearly not Genshin’s intention when you take his writings as a whole. As a Tendai Buddhist monk, Genshin’s primary focus was on meditation practices, and Tendai Buddhism has a ton of them, ranging from traditional “Zen-like” meditations to grueling 90-day retreats that involve walking all day around a statue. The original founder of Tiantai Buddhism in China (Tendai in Japan), named Zhi-yi, catalogued many kinds of meditation in his great work, the Mohe Zhiguan (摩訶止観, lit. “The Great Śamatha-Vipaśyanā Meditation”) in various categories. So, even when Genshin wrote about rebirth in the Pure Land as an endgoal, he was speaking from a Tendai-Buddhist standpoint which involved:

  • The primacy of meditation practices (in its various forms)
  • The Pure Land as one stop on the larger path toward full Buddhahood (as defined in the Lotus Sutra, which was central to Tendai thought).

Professor Rhodes is careful to point out in the book that later Buddhist writers, in discussing Genshin, were tackling unique challenges in their own era, so they looked for solutions where they could find them (hence their efforts were sincere if not a bit misguided), but after centuries and centuries, this has all gotten kind of muddled and the picture of Genshin is confusing and at times subtly misleading. Plus Tendai Buddhism today is greatly diminished from its heyday in the 10th century when it was practically the de facto state religion, so not a lot of people today would necessarily care what Genshin’s opinion was and wasn’t. For all intents and purposes he is a footnote in Japanese-Buddhist history now.

But Genshin was a highly respected scholar in his time who somehow managed to evade the growing collusion between politics and religion, and keep his reputation clean, while also providing important ideas and writings to the growing Pure Land Buddhist movement in Japan (and even sending his writings back to the mother temple in China on Mount Tiantai). He saw the ongoing breakdown of Japanese society as a sign of the coming Age of Dharma Decline and sought to help people as best he could by synthesizing the writings of past scholars in China and India into a comprehensive guide to seeking refuge in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. He was uniquely qualified due to his training and he carried out his goals like few others in his time did.

Thus even now, when Pure Land Buddhist followers (Jodo Shu, Jodo Shinshu, etc) in Japan and abroad recite the nembutsu, there is a small echo of Genshin’s influence still there.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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