LETTERS OF THE NUN ESHINNI: Images of Pure Land Buddhism in Medieval Japan, by James C. Dobbins. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004, 261 pp., with b/w illustrations, $60 (cloth).

In 1921 a cache of papers was found in the archives of the Nishi Honganji temple in Kyoto. They were written by a little-known Buddhist nun named Eshinni (1182-1268?) and consisted of 21 manuscript pages. Some were sutra copies, but the others were letters. The earliest letters were written in 1256 when she was about 74 years old, the last one in 1268 when she was 86.

They were written to her daughter, Kakushinni (1224-1283), and contained a wide variety of information — recollections, religious testimony, accounts of dreams, descriptions of famine and sickness, comments about servants, complaints of old age, reflections on death and the next life — and reminiscences of Shinran (1173-1262), celebrated Buddhist innovator and founder of the Shinshu school, True Pure Land Buddhism.

She could reminisce with some authority because Shinran had been her husband and Kakushinni was probably his daughter. Indeed, without this distinguished connection, Eshinni would be even less known than she is.

That a Buddhist priest could marry at all was one of Shinran’s many innovations. From a Buddhist point of view, marriage meant Shinran’s abandonment of clerical celibacy and a rejection of those strenuous religious practices he had followed as a priest at the Buddhist monastic complex on Mount Hiei outside of Kyoto.

At the same time it also marked his faith and reliance on Amida Buddha as offered in Pure Land Buddhism. In addition, the marriage may well have been hastened by Shinran’s being banished from both Mount Hiei and the capital because of his association with the new religion Pure Land Buddhism, from which he would later form his own new “true” version.

Just how many wives the new tenets allowed is unknown, but Eshinni is the only one documented. And, in any event, her contemporary worth does not lie in her doctrinal position but in the details of her letters. In this finely studied edition of the letters, James Dobbins gives not only the first complete translation but also indicates the real value of the correspondence.

“In few other works can one discover the everyday world of a resourceful woman living in the provinces during Japan’s thirteenth century.” The letters “are wide-ranging and eye-opening. They are a window into a reality now long past.”

In undertaking this edition of the letters, Dobbins is well qualified. His specialty is Pure Land Buddhism and he is the author of “Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan” (2002). In addition he is a specialist in theories of medieval Japanese Buddhism with a special interest in the traditional Buddhist icons.

There have been three prior translations of Eshinni’s letters. Those of Taitetsu Unno and Alice Unno in 1970, of Kakue Miyaji in 1976, and Yoshiko Otani in 1990. These, though variously valuable, are partial or abridged translations, or from modern Japanese paraphrases rather than from the original letters themselves.

In addition to his full translation, Dobbins offers an extended essay on Eshinni’s world as gleaned from the letters themselves and an interesting section on why such a seemingly simplified doctrine as that of both Pure Land and True Pure Land Buddhism(s) should have had such an extraordinary appeal in medieval Japan.

One of the reasons was certainly the sheer awfulness of medieval life for all except an exalted few, and the sheer comfort of the land promised by the Amida Buddha after one had slogged through this one. Pure Land Buddhism was perhaps the only “democratic” organization in all Japan, in that anyone could join and anyone could recite the nembutsu, the very recitation of which was all one needed to eventually enter the long-awaited Pure Land itself.

To us, reading the letters now, well over 700 years after they were written, the greatest pleasure is perhaps being able to hear a real, personal voice coming from that void. This distant voice is now all that is left of a plain, simple, vigorous, feeling person.

Just imagine, 700 years from now, someone somehow discovering a selection of your e-mails miraculously preserved in the wastes of time.

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