THE VENERABLE MASTER SHINRAN , the man looked up to as the founder of the Jodo-Shinshu denomination of Buddha-dharma, was born during the 3rd year of Joan (1173 AD) at a place called Hino, located southeast of the city of Kyoto.
The names he is said to have been given at birth include Matsuwakamaro, Tsurumitsumaro and Matsumaro. Most scholars seem to agree, however, that his name at birth was Matsuwakamaro. The date of the Venerable Master’s birth is not completely accepted by all scholars, but is generally considered to be the 1st day of the 4th lunar month, which has been converted in modern times to March 21 of the Western calendar.
His father was Hino Arinori, a member of a branch family of the Fujiwara nobility. His mother is said to be Kikkonyo, a member of the Minamoto warrior clan, but there is no historical evidence of this. The Venerable Master is said to have been separated from his father when he was four years of age and from his mother by death when he was eight, but there is no evidence for either of these assertions. During the spring of 1181 AD, when he was nine years of age, his uncle, Hino Noritsuna, brought him to a well-known monk of that time, Jien (also known as Jichin), who initiated the Venerable Master into the Buddhist monkhood. He was given the name Hannen, climbed Mt. Hiei–then the center of Buddhist learning–and began studying the teachings and performing the religious practices of the Tendai school of Buddha-dharma.
The Tendai school of Buddha-dharma was founded on Mt. Hiei in Japan by a monk named Saicho (767 – 822 AD). When the Venerable Master went there to study, the monks were organized into three groups: gakusho, doso and doshu. It is not exactly clear what function each group performed, but generally the gakusho were scholars, the doso conducted ceremonial services and the doshu did menial
In a letter written by the Venerable Master’s wife, Eshinni-ko (1182 – approx, 1270 AD), the Venerable Master “…was a doso on Mt. Hiei.” Further, according to a passage in a work by the Venerable Master’s grandson, Master Kakunnyo (1270 – 1351 AD), titled, Godensho (Notes on the Honorable Life (of the Venerable Master Shinran), the Venerable Master “received the teaching propagated by Ryogon (Temple) located in Yokawa.” The full name of this temple is shuryogon-in. Yokawa is an area on Mt. Hiei, and very likely, the Venerable Master was a doso there.
Very little is known about what the Venerable Master did during the twenty years that he spent on Mt. Hiei. It can be assumed, however, that he followed all the Tendai religious practices performed there at that time, and studied the doctrines of that Buddhist school. Based on his accomplishments later in life, I believe he attained a level of religious study and practice that was unmatched by the other monks. In spite of the life-and-death struggle that he engaged in, however, the Venerable Master did not gain the conviction that he had “left the world of delusion and entered the way to enlightenment.” One of the reasons for this may have been because Saicho’s spirit had disappeared from Mt. Hiei by then. The level of religious practice and study performed there had fallen, and the Venerable Master may have been extremely disappointed in the religious environment that he found himself. I believe, however, that the basic reason was his deep self-reflection which lead him to feel he had come to a dead-end in his search for enlightenment.