We can determine how deeply introspective the Venerable Master was from the following passage in the Ichinen Tannen Mon’i (On the One Recitation and the Many Recitations), written in his later years:
A bombu is an ignorant being filled with base desires. Greed, anger, hatred and jealousy constantly rise within him, and do not cease until the last moment of life.
The Venerable Master identified with being a bombu who burns with “base desires” (bonno) until the very moment of death. Further, in his Shozomatsu Wasan (Japanese Poems on the Three Periods (of the True, Semblance and Decay of the Dharma), he wrote:
How difficult to renounce my evil nature…
My mind is like snakes and scorpions,
And since even the good I try to do
Is tainted with the poison (of “self-centered effort”),
It must be called the practice of an idiot.
We see the Venerable Master’s deep introspection in these ways where he states that the practices that he cultivates are not true, and further, are “tainted with the poison (of self-centered effort)” (zodoku no zen) and therefore, are “the practices of an idiot” (koke no gyo).
And as the Venerable Master is quoted as saying in Article Two of the Tannisho (Notes Lamenting Differences), “…since I am incapable of any practice whatsoever, hell will definitely be my dwelling,” he came to the realization that because he could not perform any spiritual practices by which he could become a Buddha, he was an evil-laden person who had nowhere to go but hell.
There is an old Japanese saying, “Correcting our errors from seeing the errors of others,” but actually becoming aware of our own errors is extemely difficult. Although we are always making mistakes, isn’t our attitude that nothing we do is wrong? Isn’t that what we are truly like? In contrast, the Venerable Master was a person who looked deeply within and saw his real self.
Because that was the sort of person he was, although he surpassed everyone on Mt. Hiei in study and religious practice, the Venerable Master’s agony must have been that he was unable to perform any religious practice—that he was, after all, absolutely unable to attain enlightenment through his own efforts.
I believe the deadlock that the Venerable Master came to on Mt. Hiei—the strong awareness that he could not remove the bonno in his mind and heart and attain the Buddha’s enlightenment through his own efforts—was due to that deep self-reflection.
Further, I believe understanding his deeply introspective attitude is the key to understanding the Venerable Master’s teaching.
When the Venerable Master was 29 years of age (during 1201 AD) and came to a deadlock on Mt. Hiei, he decided to seek the guidance of Shotoku Taishi (574 – 622 AD) whom he had revered for a long time. He expressed his reverence for Shotoku Taishi in his Shozomatsu Wasan in the following words, “…the king of the dharma in our country (Japan), Shotoku Taishi…”
The Venerable Master decided to seclude himself for 100 days in a temple named Rokkaku-do in Kyoto. He did so because that temple was built by Shotoku Taishi, and because Shotoku Taishi was considered the incarnation of the object of reverence in that temple, Kuse Kannon Bosatsu. (The object of reverence in that temple today, however, is Nyoirin Kannon Bosatsu.)
Early on the morning of the 95th day of his seclusion, the Venerable Master had a dream. That dream lead him to Master Honen (1133 – 1212 AD), who was then living at a hermitage in Yoshimizu.
In his Kyogyoshinsho (Teaching, Practice, Shinjin and Attainment) the Venerable Master recorded the events of that time in the following way:
I, Gutoku shuku Ran (“ignorant short-haired disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha (Shin)ran,” i.e., the Venerable Master Shinran), abandoned the miscellaneous practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow during the Shinyu year of Kennin.