Queering Shinran

Jeff Wilson on what one medieval monk can teach us about creating inclusive communities today.

Jeff Wilson2 January 2024
Photo by coward_lion / Alamy Stock Photo

Shinran, a radical thirteenth-century Japanese monk, exile, and refugee, founded the Jodo Shinshu tradition. A people’s Buddhism, it was specially created to be a way of including those who are marginalized and oppressed in dominant society. As a result, Jodo Shinshu has a comparatively good track record on LGBTQ+ issues: we were the first Buddhists to perform same-sex marriages, to provide pastoral care to gay people by trained chaplains, to host PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) groups, and to officially denounce homophobic maneuvers by politicians. But plenty of people still question whether they belong in the Jodo Shinshu community because of our deeply heteronormative culture. 

Considering the queerness in Shinran’s life and teaching allows us to rethink inclusivity as a fundamental Buddhist practice. His legacy was enormous: approximately one in every three people in Japan has a Jodo Shinshu family background, and his teaching changed how Buddhism is practiced. Yet during his own lifetime, he was shunned, persecuted, and marginalized. 

If we think of queerness as being in defiance of the societal status quos, Shinran arguably lived queerly by the understandings of his own time and place. He opposed the standard Buddhist division of society into monastics and householders, a distinction based on codes of proper sexual behavior. He violated the monastic precepts by marrying and raising children, and he violated the lay path by shaving his head, wearing robes, chanting sutras, and preaching the dharma. In declaring that he was “neither monk nor layman,” Shinran was publicly stating a type of queerness. His lifestyle didn’t fit into the accepted social categories. 

This isn’t the only queer aspect of Shinran’s story. When Shinran suffered a crisis of confidence, he went in search of answers, secluding himself at a chapel, where a statue of Prince Shotoku was enshrined. Shotoku was an early supporter of Buddhism in Japan and is considered an incarnation of the bodhisattva Kannon, or Avalokiteshvara. On the ninety-fifth day of Shinran’s retreat, Shotoku appeared to Shinran in the form of Kannon, declaring that since it was Shinran’s karma to violate the precepts, Shotoku would take the form of Shinran’s wife, act as his life partner, and lead him to the Pure Land. 

Shinran believed Eshinni, the woman he later married, was this incarnation of Shotoku, and he had no qualms proclaiming she was a female guise of one of Japan’s most famous men. Shinran reflected on Shotoku’s gender fluidity:

In India, Prince Shotoku
Was born as Queen Srimala,
And in China appeared
As Master Hui-ssu.

He appeared in China
To benefit sentient beings;
He was reborn five hundred times
As both man and woman.

In other words, to Shinran, Shotoku has no essential gender; as a bodhisattva, he transcends gender by being whatever gender the situation requires. Shinran understood that gender isn’t a permanent aspect of the self: it’s temporary, changeable, situational. At the same time, the historical Shotoku was certainly a man, and it was this Shotoku who appeared as a bodhisattva to Shinran and promised to become his wife. 

Shinran continued to revere Eshinni until his death. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that Shinran experienced same-sex desire in the way we conceptualize such things today, in claiming that he was a monk married to a prince in the form of a woman, Shinran approached the border of queerness.

Shinran also rejected established Buddhist sects’ doctrines, which taught that since even “evil” people might be reborn in the Pure Land through Amida Buddha’s power, “good” people who follow the rules would certainly go there. In other words, it was the norm in Shinran’s time that people who donated to temples, meditated, followed the precepts, and didn’t rock the boat were put at the center and told they were the “right” Buddhists, while those who couldn’t do these things were told they were inferior and “evil,” though they might be helped by Amida Buddha, eventually. But Shinran flipped this classic interpretation and its marginalizing logic on its head, famously teaching, “Even a good person attains birth in the Pure Land, so it goes without saying that an evil person will.” 

Among other uses, “evil” is society’s term for the marginalized. Historically, those in power decide who does and does not have societal value, and those that they seek to oppress, exploit, or exclude get labeled “evil.” For example, LGBTQ+ people have been called “evil” to justify their persecution and exclusion. We can extend Shinran’s teaching to say that since even straight people are liberated through the Pure Land, of course LGBTQ+ people are. 

Shinran understood that Amida Buddha exists to liberate all beings from suffering. Amida cares about suffering, not about how society defines “good” and “evil.” Those labeled “evil” are typically the ones who have the most obstacles placed in their path to happiness and spiritual practice. So Amida first liberates those people whom society labels as evil and unwanted.

Shinran’s life and teaching are a guide as we try to make our communities into spaces of acceptance and solidarity. When we cultivate genuine inclusivity, we produce the four divine attitudes: compassion, sympathetic joy, loving-kindness, and equanimity. However, inclusivity is more than an attitude: it’s an active practice. When we change our behaviors so that others feel genuinely included, we’re doing spiritual practice. We’re following Shinran, who empowered people of all occupations and social classes as fellow practitioners in the lay-led communities that he established.

It’s in community that we learn about ourselves and grow. Other community members can be our bodhisattvas, since they support us, and our interactions with them teach us about who we truly are. The sutras teach that bodhisattvas come to us in infinite forms so that we can receive the dharma. Sometimes they appear as women when we need to hear the dharma from a woman. Sometimes they appear as men when we need to hear the dharma from a man. Sometimes they appear as nonbinary people when we need to hear the dharma from someone who’s nonbinary. If our community isn’t inclusive, then we can’t learn from all the beautiful forms that bodhisattvas take, and our community is diminished and incomplete. 

Shinran says that true Buddhist practice is expressing gratitude for the benefits we receive from others. When we realize how benefited we are by the presence of gay, bi, trans, asexual, and other community members, we don’t include them to earn our compassion merit badge—rather, we include everyone because we’re so thankful for the generosity of their presence. 

Like Shinran, we need to reach out to people where they are and show them they have a valued place with us. Inclusive community spaces strive for active welcome. When we apply this welcoming viewpoint, we discover that LGBTQ+ people should not be grudgingly given a little space within fundamentally straight Buddhist institutions; they should be recognized as being especially the sort of people that Amida seeks to embrace and liberate. We should prioritize listening to their experiences, sharing in the dharma with them, and expressing gratitude that everyone, queer and straight, is included.

Jeff Wilson

Jeff Wilson

Jeff Wilson is an ordained minister in the Hongwanji-ha tradition of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and a professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo. He is the author of Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness, among other books.