It cannot be doubted that Rennyo Shonin (1415–1499), the eighth head priest (monshu) of the Hongwanji, is the most outstanding figure in the history of Jodo Shinshu, second only to its Founder. We often refer to him as “Rennyo the Restorer,” because he revived the dying head temple and united its scattered followers, establishing the Hongwanji as the largest Buddhist sect in Japan. More importantly, Rennyo looked to Shinran Shonin in order to weed out divergent and heretical views among Shinshu priests, reinstating the Founder’s writings as the doctrinal standard of Jodo Shinshu. It is no exaggeration to say that, without Rennyo, the flame of true nembutsu would have been snuffed out in the turmoil of feudal Japan.
Like the Founder, Rennyo Shonin dedicated his entire life to the spread of the Other-Power teaching. An extraordinary scholar, he translated numerous scriptures into kana so that the common people could read them, built temples, and encouraged followers in hundreds of letters. Through his guidance, many people found release from the bondage of birth-and-death through trust in Amida Buddha. His own heartfelt gratitude for Amida’s salvation was evident in his personal life, and yet he never boasted of his accomplishments. No wonder the common people revered Rennyo Shonin, and looked up to him as the manifestation of Kannon Bosatsu, the bodhisattva of compassion.
It is unfortunate that some scholars today who lack shinjin have criticized Rennyo Shonin. In attempting to prove that he corrupted Jodo Shinshu doctrine, and was at variance with the Founder’s teaching, they fall into serious historical and doctrinal error. For an excellent and accessible refutation of these groundless claims, including an account of the Shonin’s life, see Misunderstandings of Master Rennyo, by Soai University professor emeritus Dr. Eiken Kobai. Without understanding the spiritual conviction that motivated Rennyo, we cannot hope to make sense of his place in Shinshu history.
Rennyo Shonin was born in the Pure Land many centuries ago, but his light lives on in the letters, sayings, and poems he left behind. In the upcoming posts, I will be making a journey through Goichidaiki Kikigaki, the formal compilation of Rennyo’s recorded words. This will be a personal work, with each post presenting a saying followed by my reflection on its meaning, drawing on the words of Master Shinran and the seven patriarchs of the Pure Land when appropriate. I will be quoting the translation by Elson Snow, first published in Pacific World (New Series, No. 10, 1994). My intention is to show how faithfully Rennyo transmitted the teaching he received from Shinran, so that we of this Last Dharma Age could benefit from it. I hope that my thoughts will not detract from the true wisdom contained in each and every one of these wonderful aphorisms. Be very sure that any useless words are solely my own, and should not be confused with those of the Shonin.
We are fortunate indeed to walk the path to the Pure Land in the footsteps of Rennyo Shonin. I hope that those who follow my posts will take his most profound wish to heart:
When someone in the future
Let him deeply trust
In Amida’s Vows.