- Letters of the Nun Eshinni: Images of Pure Land Buddhism in Medieval Japan
Late in 1921, twenty-one manuscript pages were discovered wrapped in old newspapers in a corner of the Nishi Honganji archive. These proved to be long unknown letters written by Eshin (commonly referred to as Eshinni or Eshin the nun), the wife of [End Page 542] Shinran, to their daughter Kakushinni. The publication, a year and a half later, of an annotated edition of the letters, including plates of all the manuscript pages, opened a new chapter in the study of early Shin history. In all, the sheaf, often referred to as Eshinni monjo, includes ten letters on eighteen pages and a passage from the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life Buddha written out in Japanese. All the pages are in Eshinni's own hand and were written between 1256 and 1268, when she was between seventy-four and eighty-six years old and living in Echigo. Several of the letters are actually yuzurijō—brief documents indicating the transfer or disposition of property, including servants—and only two deal with Shinran at any length, but in these pages we hear the voice of the person who shared various aspects of his life. For this reason, in the eighty years since their discovery, the manuscripts have undergone repeated editing, annotation, and translation into modern Japanese.
Basic questions concerning Eshinni and her relationship with Shinran remain open to conjecture today. Where was she born, and what was her family background? Neither question has been answered definitively, although she was most likely born either to an aristocratic family in Kyoto or to a wealthy provincial family in Echigo, where Shinran was exiled. When did she and Shinran meet and marry? Probably in Kyoto before his exile, but possibly after his banishment; the circumstances are debated. In either case, Eshinni may well not have been the mother of Shinran's first child or his first wife. He even may have had a wife at the time of his marriage to Eshinni. Other questions also remain puzzles. When Shinran returned to Kyoto from the Kantō region at about the age of sixty, Eshinni may have accompanied him, or may have chosen to remain in Kantō. In either case, she moved back to Echigo years before Shinran's death, and Shinran and Eshinni lived the final period of their extraordinarily long lives—possibly nearly three decades—apart from each other. What does seem clear is that Eshinni was suitably well-educated, as one would expect of a woman of aristocratic birth who had lived at least part of her early life in Kyoto; she was propertied later in life, presumably through inheritance from her own family; and she possessed the personal abilities and independence to oversee her land and servants, even in old age, at times amid famine and epidemic.
The book under review comprises five chapters in two parts. Part 1 (chapters 1-2) consists of a discussion of Eshinni's biography with summaries of the debates regarding it and a highly readable annotated translation of all ten of her letters. In general, the author, James Dobbins, does not seek either to present new theories or to argue a particular perspective of Eshinni, but rather outlines the most broadly accepted opinions and current consensus. Part 2 (chapters 3-5) comprises three chapters focusing on various aspects of "Eshinni's world." Chapter 3, "Pure Land Buddhism and the Medieval Experience," argues that the Pure Land Buddhist tradition flourished in medieval Japan because its teachings of an ideal world after death available to all was particularly suited to an agrarian populace in a hierarchical society during deeply uncertain times. Dobbins himself notes that his account of the reasons for the spread of Pure Land teachings is not new, but his depiction of the medieval landscape is meticulous and vivid. Perhaps comparative considerations with other Buddhist traditions or other periods would have clarified his case for the signal relevance of the...