Why Did Shinran Say He Was “Neither Priest Nor Lay”?

The Key to Understand His Sole Mission in Life

Q: I have heard that Shinran referred to himself as “neither priest nor lay,” but what does that mean? Why would he say such a thing?

A: Almost everyone today thinks of Shinran as a priest or monk, but that is far from the truth. In his master work Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment, he wrote that he was neither priest nor lay,” and clearly stated “I am not a priest.”

Honcho kosoden (Biographies of Eminent Japanese Priests) by the Rinzai* monk Shiban (1676?1710) contains biographies of over 1,600 Japanese priests, the famous and the unknown, going back to Buddhism’s first introduction to Japan. Shinran’s name is not among them.

Based on that omission, one so-called historian actually advanced the idea that Shinran must be a fictitious character. Later studies of Shinran’s handwriting and discoveries of other historical materials showed that to be an unfounded lie, and today the idea has no credence whatsoever.

Then why did Shiban neglect to include Shinran? Was he so ignorant that he had never heard of such a holy man? The seventy-five volumes of his master work rule out that explanation, especially when we consider that many of the names he included belong to unknown priests. The omission probably came about not through Shiban’s ignorance of Shinran, but just the opposite: he must have known quite well that Shinran himself had declared himself to be no priest.

Since even a member of another sect knew long ago that Shinran was not a priest, the depth of ignorance and lack of understanding shown by Shin Buddhists today who blithely assume that he was indeed a priest is all the more astounding.

Shinran often said that he wanted to be like Kyoshin Shami of Kako. Formerly a learned and virtuous priest of the Kofukuji temple in Nara, one day Kyoshin fell in love with a woman and left the temple, gave up the life of a priest, married, and went to live on the banks of the river Kako in present- day Hyogo prefecture, where he and his wife made their living ferrying people to and fro. Shinran apparently was deeply drawn to that serious-minded man of learning and virtue who, in an age of insistence on strict adherence to Buddhist precepts, remained true to himself to the end.

Shinran devoted his life solely to spreading truth. He never took priestly orders, never lived in a temple, never officiated at funerals and memorial services or did any of the other tasks associated with the Buddhist clergy. That is why he declared, “I am not a priest.”

I, Shinran, do not spread any novel teachings. I only believe in the teachings of [Sakyamuni] Buddha and tell others about them too.

Shinran devoted himself to the accurate and swift transmission of Amida’s Vow to as many people as possible. Steadfast in his dedication to proselytizing and writing, he had no time for any other job, which is why he also said he was not a layperson.

Truly, throughout his life Shinran was “neither priest nor lay.”

(Petals of Shinran, Cherry Volume, Chapter 21)

Footnote: Rinzai: A school of Zen Buddhism

by Kentetsu Takamori Translated by Juliet Carpenter

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #26 | 2013, Why Did Shinran Say He Was “Neither Priest Nor Lay”?

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