As part of my process toward ordination, I’ve been learning a lot about liturgy in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, which I’ve posted about here and here. However, I’ve also come to realize that a lot of the liturgy and the teachings I’ve learned actually were articulated by Rennyo, not Shinran the founder. So, I spent a lot of time this past week researching the life and teachings of Rennyo in particular.1
Rennyo was the 8th “guardian” (monshu 門主) of the Honganji temple and its lineage, and he was a direct descendant of Shinran. Rennyo lived a difficult life, he was separate from his mother at an early age, he was nearly killed a few times during the warfare of Onin War and subsequent collapse of Japanese society. Further, he had five wives and 20+ children, but lost many of them to warfare, disease, famine, etc.
The teachings of Shinran had spread to the countryside over the centuries, but remained a kind of back-water “peasant movement” with different sects and organizations. Early communities usually ran out of people’s homes or small dōjō (道場, “practice halls”).
Rennyo, Shinran’s descendant, had a gift for articulating Shinran’s teachings in a way that was easier to grasp for regular lay-people. His letters to followers, called the gobunshō (ご文章) or ofumi (御文) are still used in Jodo Shinshu liturgy, including the famous Letter on White Ashes. Rennyo’s letters were revered because they could be easily read aloud in remote congregations, and were effective at distilling Shinshu teachings. Shinran is the founder of Jodo Shinshu, but if you read his writings, they’re kind of obtuse. He originally wrote in classical Chinese, and his magnum ops the Kyogyoshinsho, is long and difficult to read. I managed to read it once, but can’t remember what I read.
For example, in one of Rennyo’s more famous letters, he explained Shinran’s teachings like so:
We rejoice in knowing that our birth in the Pure Land is assured and our salvation established from the moment we rely [on the Buddha] with even a single nembutsu (ichinen), and that whenever we utter the Buddha’s name thereafter it is an expression of gratitude and indebtedness to him.
The notion of gratitude was further emphasized by Rennyo than Shinran, while Rennyo was more open to other religious practices common in Japan.
Rennyo also restored the Honganji temple (now divided into Nishi and Higashi Honganji temples) from its minor position as a backwater sect, bullied by other Shinshu sects and warrior monks from other more powerful Buddhist sects into the most widespread and influential Buddhist sect in Japan even to this day.
Surprisingly though, Rennyo is often overshadowed by Shinran, especially those new to Shinshu. After being at the temple for years, I admit I knew almost nothing about him. But having researched him a little bit using Professor Dobbins excellent book, I have a renewed appreciation for his contributions. 🙂
1 …and then I had another one of my Wikipedia “rampages”, where I go and update lots of articles. I rewrote quite a bit of the Rennyo article, among others. 😉