As readers might remember, I’ve been watching the Japanese DVD series hyakuji junrei (百寺巡礼 “100 temple pilgrimage”). One of the temples was called Senjuji (専修寺). Their official website is here. Senjuji is the head of the Takada-ha branch (高田派) of Jodo Shunshu Buddhism, the same school of Buddhism we go to on Sunday’s here in Seattle and I am pursuing for ordination as a lay-minister. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is also by far the largest school of Buddhism in Japan (sorry Zen guys).1
Most Westerners who encounter Jodo Shinshu through things like the Buddhist Churches of America (or Canada) and other such groups usually learn that the main temple is the Nishi Honganji in Kyoto,2 Japan, and that Shinran was the founder of our school, and that his descendant Rennyo restored Jodo Shinshu into what we see today. So, what is the Takada branch and why should I care?
You see, the history of Jodo Shinshu is a bit more complicated than Western narratives usually tell us. By the time Shinran died, a number of communities of followers existed in various parts of Japan, all trying to put Shinran’s teachings of devotion to Amitabha Buddha into practice. Most were not in direct contact with Shinran, apart from letters, because he had already moved back to Kyoto the capital after his exile had lapsed, and where he died shortly thereafter.
However a few followers were with Shinran in Kyoto when he died. Among them, his daughter, Kakushinni, and a follower named Kenchi (顕智, 1226-1310). Through Kakushinni and her grandson Kakunyo, they preserved a lineage that eventually became the Honganji branch that overseas people know. Meanwhile, Kenchi represented the large community at Takada in the Kanto region of eastern Japan. Upon his return, Kenchi along with his successor Senkū (専空 d.1343), helped expand the Takada congregrations into the most power Shinshu branch at the time.
Also, these different branches were not always opposed to one another. For example, the Takada branch helped protect and defend Kakunyo during a dispute over who would be caretaker of Shinran’s mausoleum in Kyoto.
However, by the 15th century things were different. Shinran’s descendant Rennyo, who was descended from Kakushinni and Kakunyo, tried to unify the fractured Shinshu sects into a unified Buddhist school, and reform some of the unusual practices and teachings that had slowly crept in over time. For example, the Sanmonto branch had eventually developed “secret teachings” supposedly given by the founder Shinran, and esoteric practices not originally associated with Shinran. Rennyo ultimately succeeded and took the small Honganji branch and made it into what it is today. Much of what overseas followers know from Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is through Rennyo more than Shinran perhaps.
But not all Shinshu branches followed Rennyo. The Takada branch, though diminished with time, also revived itself through the efforts of Shin’e (真慧, 1434-1512), the 10th leader. He lived roughly the same time as Rennyo, and originally they had a friendly relationship and Shin’e visited Rennyo at least once at the Honganji. However, as warfare plagued the land, and the warrior-monks of Mount Hiei began attacking Shinshu temples, Shin’e distanced himself from the Honganji in order to protect his congregation. This protected the Takada branch, but also left a bad taste between them and the Honganji.
Further, the Takada branch eventually moved its main temple Senjuji away from the Takada region to where it is today in Isshinden (一身田), which is in the city of Tsu in Mie Prefecture. Mie Prefecture was a stronghold for the Takada branch long before the temple was moved there due to the administrative improvements made by Shin’e. Senjuji exists there today.
As for the teachings of the Takada branch, the main website summarizes it like so:
Which a rough translation would be:
Amitabha Buddha made a vow to save to all beings through rebirth in his Pure Land. And in turn, the Buddha encourages us, ignorant and deluded beings (凡夫),3 to believe in this vow so that it may become the source of our rebirth into the Pure Land.
This is pretty typical Jodo Shinshu, Pure Land Buddhist teachings, so Takada-style Jodo Shinshu Buddhism differs very little from the more well-known Honganji branch. My personal guess is that they tend to differ more in terms of liturgy and organization, than doctrine, because most liturgy and ritual seen in overseas Jodo Shinshu today is through the Honganji branch, and thus through Rennyo’s reforms. However, I have no encounter with the Takada branch, so this is conjecture.
Watching the show on Senjuji on DVD though, I get the impression that Senjuji/Takada-ha definitely believes it’s carrying out the words of Shinran faithfully since its original founder was a direct disciple of Shinran, but without the “meddling” of Rennyo’s reforms in later generations. Relations between the Takada and Honganji branches seem pretty amicable these days, but I would be curious to know more about how their liturgy, untouched by Rennyo, looks today.
P.S. I did briefly encounter another branch of Jodo Shinshu when I visited Koshoji right next to the Nishi Honganji temple. However, it is very small in comparison and has been a historical ally of the Honganji temple for centuries, so it differs little.
1 That’s not to say that size of a religion is what matters though, but a lot of folks who are “into Japanese culture and Zen” tend to have a skewed idea of what Japanese culture and religion are. Zen has had an infleunce on traditional culture and sports but if you spend enough time in Japan you will see that a lot of other things have had influence too.
2 I know the Higashi (“East”) Honganji has some overseas temples, particularly in the UK but I am fairly certain that most overseas Shinshu groups are descended from the Nishi (“West”) Honganji. The differences are minor and mainly historical only.
3 The word bonbu (凡夫) is something you’ll see a lot in Pure Land literature. Pure Land Buddhism, like all Mahayana Buddhism (everything from Tibet to Japan), teaches the innate potential for all beings to become an enlightened Buddha. However, in the care of Pure Land Buddhism, it teaches that circumstances now being so removed from a living, teaching Buddha, make it almost impossible. Hence, people seek rebirth in the Pure Land which is more conducive to the Buddhist path. Thus, the term bonbu meaning “deluded and ignorant” is something that speaks more to the circumstances and environment, and not to an inherit flaw.