The Venerable Master Shinran (hereafter Venerable Master) was born near the capital city of Kyoto during 1173 CE (Joan 3). This was during the latter part of what is referred to as the Heian Period (794-1192 CE). His father was Hino Arinori, a member of the Hino family, a branch of the Fujiwara clan.
According to tradition, the Venerable Master was born on the 1st day of the 4th lunar month, which is May 21st according to our modern calendar.
The Venerable Master lost both parents as a child, and was initiated as a monk during the spring of 1181 CE, when he was nine years of age. He climbed Mt. Hiei, then the center of Buddhist study and practice, and concentrated on Buddhist practice.
Enryaku Temple on Mt. Hiei is the main temple of the Tendai Buddhist denomination established by Saicho(767-822 CE). The Tendai denomination is primarily focused on performing religious practice, the goal of which is to discard all selfish and willful thoughts (referred to as bonno) through “self-centered effort” (jiriki).
The Venerable Master spent twenty years on Mt. Hiei, single-mindedly devoting himself to the Tendai teaching. Although he must have practiced to a degree beyond the capability of most, because he was so severe with himself, he did not feel his practice was doing any good.
The Venerable Master was filled with anguish because he could not reach a state of satori enlightenment which would remove his selfish and willful thoughts. This is not to say that the Venerable Master did not strive earnestly enough, or that he failed in his practice. Rather, it points to how sincere he was, and how deeply he delved into himself as a human being.
During the year 1201 CE, when he was 29 years of age, after performing the most difficult of religious practices on Mt. Hiei, the Venerable Master reached an impasse. He felt he could not continue following the Tendai teaching any further, and determined to seek the way to follow by secluding himself for a hundred days in a temple named Rokkakudo. The Venerable Master is said to have decided to seclude himself there because Rokkakudo was established by Shotoku Taishi (574-522 CE), and that the object of worship in that temple was Kusekannon Bosatsu. The Venerable Master venerated Shotoku Taishi, who was considered to be the “Japanese Buddha” and was the form that Kusekannon Bosatsu took in order to appear in this world.
At dawn of the 95th day of the Venerable Master’s seclusion, he received a suggestion from Shotoku Taishi in the form of a dream. Because of that suggestion, the Venerable Master went to see Master Honen (1133-1212 CE) who then had a hermitage in the Yoshimizu area of Kyoto.