Why are most Japanese Buddhist priests not celibate?

unlike any other Buddhist country, apparently. It all seems to boil down to one person in one particular circumstance leading to huge consequences, as is sometimes the case:
“Shinran’s most influential innovation was his open, unabashed abandoning of celibacy…Shinran… paved the way for hereditary succession to the leadership of the sect… This stable leadership succession was of particular importance during the turbulent times in which the sect originated and consolidated its following”
Buddhism A History by Noble Ross Reat pg 203- 204
It doesn’t explain what, if any, religious justification he had for this, but it does say that he thought most of the trappings of the priesthood and religious practice were pointless so I suppose that could be it.


  1. Thomas said,

    June 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    I studied this guy a lot back in college.

    The gist of Shinran’s teachings was that we live in an age (called mappo 末法) where human beings are no longer able to achieve enlightenment through their own actions. Lucky for humans, there was a Buddha long, long ago named Amida. Before achieving buddhahood, Amida promised that he would not become a Buddha until he first found a way to save all sentient beings from samsara (cycle of birth-death-rebirth). So he created a heaven-like realm called Jodo (浄土, often translated ‘Pure Land’), and anyone who invokes his name will be reborn in this Pure Land in their next life. The Pure Land is perfectly conducive to achieving enlightenment, so once you are there, buddhahood is guaranteed within a few lifetimes.

    So the idea of mappo makes your own actions irrelevant. Amida’s promise means you are saved, even if you are a murderer. All you need to do is say Amida’s name (ie, chant the ‘nembutsu’: Namu Amida Butsu) and you will be saved. Actually, I think Shinran even went so far as to say that the nembutsu was unnecessary, but I’d have to look it up to be sure. Anyway, Shinran got married, and Jodo Shinshu priests after him got married and this devotional style of Buddhism became very popular, so it stuck.

    If you’re interested in Shinran, I recommend the book “Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan” by James C. Dobbins.

  2. alexcase said,

    June 2, 2012 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for the detailed information, much clearer than the book I paid good money for! Despite the logic of his arguments, I imagine there must actually have been some limits on the behaviour of priests, so I wonder why celibacy in particular got the chop.

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