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Rennyo (蓮如)
Portrait of Rennyo, painted during the Muromachi Period
School Jodo Shinshu Buddhism
Other names Kenju (兼寿)
Nationality Japanese
Born 1415
Kyoto, Japan
Died 1499
Osaka, Japan
Senior posting
Title Restorer of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, 8th monshu of the Honganji
Predecessor Zonnyō

Rennyo (蓮如?) (1415–1499) was the 8th Monshu, or head-priest, of the Honganji Temple of the Jōdo Shinshū sect of Buddhism, and descendant of founder Shinran. Jodo Shinshu Buddhists often referred to as the restorer of the sect (Chūkō no so (中興の祖?) in Japanese). He was also known as Shinshō-in (信証院), and posthumously Etō Daishi (慧灯大師). During the conflict of the Onin War and the subsequent warfare that spread throughout Japan, Rennyo was able to unite most of the disparate factions of the Jodo Shinshu sect under the Honganji, reform existing liturgy and practices, and broaden support among different classes of society. Through Rennyo's efforts, Jodo Shinshu grew to become the largest, most influential Buddhist sect in Japan.

Rennyo is venerated along with Shinran, and liturgical reforms he implemented are still in use today in Jodo Shinshu temples. Further, Rennyo's letters were compiled and are still recited in Jodo Shinshu liturgy.

Rennyo maintained a complex relationship with the Ikkō-ikki peasant revolts, which were frequently by Shinshu followers, restraining them at times while also teaching and attending to their religious needs.[1]


Early life

Born as Hoteimaru (布袋丸), later Kenju (兼寿), Rennyo was the son of the 7th abbot or monshu of the Hongan-ji Temple, Zonnyō (存如, 1396–1457). At the age of 18 his father had fathered a son out of wedlock with a servant whose name is unknown. Being that Zonnyo was of a much higher rank and stature in society, Rennyo's mother was sent away when he was only 6 years old. Several times throughout his life he attempted to find his birth mother with no result. Also, Rennyo frequently quarreled with his step mother, Nyoen (? -1460). In turn, his step mother Nyoen attempted to have her own son Ogen (1433–1503) installed as the successor to the Honganji. However, Rennyo's uncle, Nyojo (1402–1460), dismissed the idea and Rennyo ultimately succeeded as the 8th monshu.

Early Ministry

Following his installation as 8th head priest at Hongan-ji in 1457, Rennyo focused his efforts in proselytizing in Ōmi Province, an area dominated by the Bukkō-ji and Kinshoku-ji branches of Shinshū. Due to timely support from the Katada congregation, Rennyo was able to expand the Honganji's presence. These congregations in Omi Province were frequently composed of artisan-class followers, who were able to provide crucial funds and protection.[1][2] During his early ministry Rennyo would frequently distribute religious texts to congregations as well as inscriptions of the nembutsu (recitation of Amitabha Buddha's name). These inscriptions frequently used the so-called "10-character nembutsu" or Jūjimyōgō (十字名号?) :[1]

Kimyō Jin Jippō Mugekō Nyorai

"I take refuge in the Tathagata of Unobstructed Light Suffusing the Ten Directions".

Soon Rennyo's influence spread into Mikawa Province, an area traditionally dominated by the Senju-ji branch of Shinshū. He did this by making many appearances in these areas and presenting groups with his own commentaries on Shinran's works.

The monks of the Enryaku-ji (the head temple of the Tendai School located on Mt. Hiei) noticed Rennyo's successes in the provinces around Kyoto. In 1465, Mt. Hiei sent a band of sōhei (warrior monks) to the Hongan-ji and destroyed most of the temple complex. The attacks were justified by claims that the Jōdo Shinshū movement was heretical. The actual motivation for these attacks was likely financial.[2] Mt. Hiei had significant interests in Ōmi Province that included properties and businesses, and felt they needed to prevent Jōdo Shinshū's growth before they felt the economic effects. However, due to the wealth of the congregations Rennyo had converted in the area, enough money was raised to bribe the Mt. Hiei warriors in exchange for peace. The contingency to this was that Hongan-ji must become a member of Mt. Hiei's temples, thus entering them into yearly dues they had to pay Mt. Hiei. Rennyo was very nervous during this period, for just when Hongan-ji was at the pinnacle of uniting the disbanded factions of Shinran, Mt. Hiei reduced the Ōmi temple to rubble.

In any case, the Hongan-ji was almost entirely destroyed before armed men from the Takada congregation were able to chase away the attackers. According to one account, Rennyo was able to fleet at the last minute due to timely assistance from a cooper who saw the attackers coming, and led Rennyo out through the back.[2]

The years immediately following the attack of 1465 forced Rennyo to live a nomadic life. Shortly after he settled among the Katada community, Mt. Hiei threatened to attack again and he fled again until he took refuge under Miidera, a powerful rival temple to Mt. Hiei (ironically, both Tendai sect). However, this protection was not enough, and Mt. Hiei attacked the Takada congregation, forcing Rennyo to move further. Due to the Ōnin War in Japan, the central government was unable to restrain Mt. Hiei and its monastic army.[1][2] He could not depend on any outside forces to protect his congregations. None of this stopped Rennyo's mission, as he continued to amass more converts in new areas such as Settsu Province and Yoshino Province. In 1469 he would make a trip to the Kantō region, where he found the Shinshu orders there open to his new and refreshing teachings. This was despite the fact that Senjuji dominated the region.

Flight to Hokuriku and Recovery

When pondering where to rebuild Hongan-ji, Rennyo made a pivotal move and decided to build it as far away from the influence of Mt. Hiei as possible, by rebuilding the Hongan-ji in Echizen Province (present-day Fukui Prefecture), at a village called Yoshizaki (吉崎). This was a remote area conveniently located near a coastal route, with a number of Jodo Shinshu congregations from other sects already present. Rennyo initially proselytized to these congregations in the form of speaking tours, but eventually shifted toward pastoral letters. Many of the letters later compiled by Rennyo's followers date from this period of time. These letters proved effective because they were written in clear, comprehensible Japanese, could be read before a congregation, and were effective in clarifying the meaning of Shinran's original teachings.[1][3]

When Rennyo did visit congregations, he would often sit among the congregation rather than on the raised dais, earning him further respect.

Meanwhile, Rennyo sought to curb some of the more egregious behavior of Shinshu followers in order to improve their standing in the larger Buddhist community. He instituted okite (?, "Rules governing the community") which included such items as:[1]

  • To not slander the teachings of other schools (rule #2)
  • Not to proclaim Jodo Shinshu teachings while adding other teachings outside the tradition (rule #5)
  • Not to denigrate the provincial governor or constable (rule #6)
  • Not to eat fish or fowl during services. (rule #9)
  • Not to indulge in gambling. (rule #11)

Once established Yoshizaki, known today as Yoshizaki Gobō (吉崎御坊?, "Yoshizaki Hermitage"), flourished and adherents from surrounding provinces came to hear Rennyo speak. The congregation became so big that along the way to the new Hongan-ji there were hundreds of lodges set up and run by Shinshū priests to lodge the travelers.

However, as Rennyo drew more followers, including lower-ranking samurai, he became embroiled in a power-struggle in Kaga Province between two brothers of the Togashi family. These followers, who banded together to form the Ikkō-ikki movement, sided with Togashi Masachika in 1473, though they eventually turned on him by 1488. Rennyo kept a delicate balance by maintaining positive relationships with the ruling Ashikaga shogunate in Kyoto and exhorting followers to follow proper conduct in civil society, while at the same time, ministering to the congregation and protecting them from governmental wrath when they rebelled against the authorities.[1]

Return to Kyoto

By 1475, Rennyo returned to the Kyoto provinces with such a following that Mt. Hiei could no longer pose a credible threat to Jōdo Shinshū again. Rennyo had secured such status in the Jōdo Shinshū ranks that he had to begin issuing pastoral letters (or, ofumi) in place of appearances to congregations.

During this time, Rennyo established a new form of liturgy (gongyō), incorporating elements that would eventually become the core of Honganji Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism. He also rewrote many Buddhist texts into kana, the simple, phonetic Japanese characters, making the texts more accessible for the common person. In 1496, Rennyo sought solitude and retired to a rural area at the mouth of the Yodo River, where he built a small hermitage. The area was known for its "long slope," or "Ō-saka" (大阪) in Japanese. Contemporary documents about Rennyo's life and his hermitage were thus the first to refer to this place by the name Osaka. Rennyo's isolation did not last long, however; his hermitage grew quickly into a temple and surrounding temple town (jinaimachi) as devotees gathered to pay him homage and to hear his teachings. By the time of Rennyo's death three years later (in 1499), the complex had come to be known as the Ishiyama Hongan-ji, and was close to the final shape which would prove to be the greatest fortified temple in Japanese history.


Rennyo believed he was restoring his ancestor Shinran's original teachings, which he summed up in a short creed known as the Ryōgemon (領解文?, "Statement of Conviction"):[1][4]

We abandon all indiscriminate religious practices and undertakings (zōgyō zasshu) and all mind of self-assertion (jiriki no kokoro), we rely with singleness of heart on the Tathāgata Amida in that matter of utmost importance to us now—to please save us in our next lifetime. 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. We gratefully acknowledge that for us to hear and understand this truth we are indebted to our founder and master [Shinran] for appearing in the world and to successive generations of religious teachers in our tradition for their profound encouragement. We shall henceforth abide by our established rules (okite) as long as we shall live. --Translation by Professor James C. Dobbins.

The Ryogemon is still recited in modern-day Shinshu liturgy as a summation of Jodo Shinshu beliefs.

However, Rennyo's teaching also differed from Shinran's in subtle ways:[1]

  • Rennyo frequently used the term anjin (安心?, "peace of mind") alongside the term shinjin (信心?, "true-entrusting") that Shinran used.
  • Rennyo de-emphasized the prohibition against veneration of Shinto kami, and taught they were manifestations of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in keeping with medieval Japanese viewpoints.
  • Rennyo further elaborated on the notion of kihō ittai (機法一体), whereby the deluded person is united with Amida Buddha through the nembutsu.
  • Rennyo emphasized the notion of "gratitude", such that every invocation of the nembutsu after the first one expressed gratitude at being assured rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. In his letters, he described this as go-on hōsha (御恩報謝?, "Indebtedness to the Buddha Amitabha")

Writings and Liturgy

As part of Rennyo's reforms, he elevated the status of Shinran's hymn, the Shōshinge (正信偈?, "Hymn of the True Faith"), which was originally printed in Shinran's magnum opus, the Kyogyoshinsho. The Shoshinge is the primary liturgy used in Jodo Shinshu services, apart from Buddhist sutras, and is recited every morning at 6:00am at the Nishi Honganji temple services.[5][6]

Further, Rennyo Shonin was the author of several works relating to Jōdo Shinshū doctrine. His most influential work is his collection of letters to various Shinshu monto (lay groups), popularly known as Gobunshō (御文章?, "Compositions") in the Nishi Hongan-ji tradition, and Ofumi (御文?, "Compositions") in the Higashi Hongan-ji tradition. These letters have the status of scriptural texts and are traditionally used in Shinshu daily liturgy; the most well-known letter is the Hakkotsu no Sho (白骨の書?, "Letter on White Ashes") which is a reflection on the impermanence of life and the importance of relying on Amida Buddha's Vow. This letter is frequently read aloud during Jōdo Shinshū funeral services.

Rennyo's disciples also recorded things he said in a collection called the Goichidai Kikigaku (御一代記聞書?, "A Record of Things Heard"), which provides later followers with some insight into his personality and beliefs.


Such was Rennyo's importance in reviving Shinran's teachings that he is revered by devotees as the 'second founder' of the Jōdo Shinshū tradition. For example, Rennyo's image is typically venerated in Jodo Shinshu shrines to the left of Amitabha Buddha (while Shinran is usually enshrined to the right).

Rennyo is credited with bringing Jodo Shinshu teachings to a wider audience through proselytization, and also through his letters, which provided accessible, clear explanations of Shinshu doctrine in comparison to Shinran's writings which used Classical Chinese.[3] Rennyo articulated and clarified Shinran's teachings, provided a simple code of conduct, and reformed the temple hierarchy and liturgy.

At the same time, however, there is ongoing debate amongst sectarian scholars as to whether Rennyo's legacy was good for the Jōdo Shinshū or not. On the one hand Rennyo gave the disorganized Shinshū movement a coherent structure, translated Shinran's teachings into simpler language, and developed a common liturgy. On the other hand, the process of institutionalization which Rennyo accelerated arguably damaged Shinshū's egalitarian origins and led to a disjunction between priest-scholars and lay-devotees contrary to Shinran's intention. Furthermore, Rennyo introduced certain doctrinal elements of the rival Seizan Jōdo Shū tradition into the Shinshū, and tolerated Shinto kami belief to a greater extent than Shinran. Ultimately though, such debates are moot, as without Rennyo's efforts the Shinshū would almost certainly have fragmented and been absorbed by other sects.

Further, Jodo Shinshu sects that remained independent of the Honganji, such as the Senju-ji sect, do not recognize Rennyo's reforms and innovations.

His 500th memorial service was observed in 1998. (- see Dobbins & Rogers references below.)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Dobbins, James C. (1989). "Chapter 9: Rennyo and the Consolidation Of The Shinshu". Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253331862.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Rogers, Minor (1991). "Chapter 2, Initiation: Ōtani Hongan-ji". Rennyo: The Second Founder of Shin Buddhism (Nanzan Studies in Asian Religions Series). Asian Humanities Pr. ISBN 0895819309.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Rogers, Minor (1991). Rennyo: The Second Founder of Shin Buddhism (Nanzan Studies in Asian Religions Series). Asian Humanities Pr. pp. 263–264. ISBN 0895819309.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Ryogemon by LA Honganji Temple". Retrieved 2015-06-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "An Introduction to the Shoshinge, Manitoba Buddhist Temple". Retrieved 2015-06-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "FAQ Jodo Shinshu, Intl. Honganji Center". Retrieved 2015-06-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


External links