RENNYO (1415–1499), a Japanese Buddhist monk, was the eighth head priest of the Honganji temple of Jōdo Shinshū ("True Pure Land sect"). He was the eldest son of Zonnyo, the sect's seventh head priest. Since Honganji, which was then located in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto, was then affiliated with the Shoren-in belonging to the Tendai sect, it was dominated by Tendai rituals and teachings. At that time, Honganji was nearly deserted, visited by few people.
When Rennyo was six years old, his mother left the temple. At that time, she instructed him to revive the teaching of Shinran (1173–1263), the founder of Jōdo Shinshū. Following his mother's wish, Rennyo, at the age of sixteen, resolved to work for its revival. At seventeen, Rennyo took the tonsure at Shoren-in, and then went to Daijo-in, a subtemple of Kofukuji in Nara, where he studied Buddhist teachings. Rennyo subsequently returned to Honganji and studied Shinran's writings assiduously.
With the death of his father in 1457, Rennyo succeeded to the abbacy of Honganji and began to proselytize Shinran's teachings. He first concentrated his efforts in the province of Omi, which bordered Kyoto to the east. His success provoked the anger of the Tendai sect, which sent armed monks to attack Honganji. The temple was destroyed, and Rennyo barely escaped with his life. This event is called the Kanshō no Hōnan (persecution of the Kansho period). Rennyo took refuge in Kanegamori in Omi, where the villagers succeeded in routing the pursuing monks in a pitched battle.
No longer able to work in Omi, which was under the dominance of the Tendai sect, Rennyo moved his base of operation in 1471 to Yoshizaki in Echizen province, a region to the northwest of Kyoto on the Sea of Japan. There he proselytized widely using pastoral letters, called ofumi or gobunshō, written in colloquial Japanese, and he developed lay religious associations called ko to organize his followers. As a result, the number of his adherents increased dramatically. Rennyo's success sparked the jealousy of other local Buddhist groups, including those located at Heisenji and Toyohara-dera. Local warriors also began to show interest in extending their control over Yoshizaki.
In 1473, two years after Rennyo's move, rumors started that these forces were about to attack Yoshizaki. Fearing a battle, Rennyo attempted to leave Yoshizaki, but was persuaded by his adherents residing in Yoshizaki to remain and to protect the town using all necessary means. A resolution adopted at this time states the following: "After mutual discussion, it was decided that (if Yoshizaki is attacked), we must fight to protect the Buddhist dharma, even if we are to die in battle." This resolution became the basis of ikkō ikki, which were popular uprisings that sought to protect Buddhist teachings, by force if necessary.
In 1474, followers of the Takada branch of Jōdo Shinshū in the province of Kaga (next to Echizen), in league with the warrior Togashi Yukichio, tried to suppress Rennyo's followers. As a result, the people of Kaga rose up in the so-called Kaga Ikkō Ikki. The Jōdo Shinshū followers of Kaga provided Rennyo with his largest source of economic support. Rennyo justified their action, saying that "they had no choice but to begin their rebellion, since Buddhism was being attacked and nembutsu practitioners were being persecuted. Their actions are only natural." However, Rennyo did not desire more fighting. Feeling that the only way to quell the rebellion was for him to vacate Yoshizaki, he left the town in 1475. Nevertheless, the Kaga Ikkō Ikki continued. In 1488, Togashi Masachika, the constable of Kaga, was killed and the ikkō ikki took over the province.
After leaving Yoshizaki, Rennyo attempted to restore the Honganji that had been destroyed earlier by Tendai monks. He began a construction project in 1478 in the Yamashina district of Kyoto and completed it after five years. Its many marvelous buildings led people to describe it as being "just like the Buddha's land." A temple town was created around Honganji as believers flocked to settle in the vicinity of the temple. The town quickly became a thriving center of commerce and industry where, it was said, all the people are rich and live in beautiful houses.
While at Yamashina, Rennyo succeeded in unifying the many Jōdo Shinshū branches under his leadership, and his organization spread throughout Japan. Even after he retired and passed on the position of chief abbot to his son, Jitsunyo, in 1489, Rennyo remained an active proselytizer, composing many pastoral letters and constructing a temple in Osaka in Settsu province. Rennyo died in 1499 in Yamashina.
The most important writings by Rennyo are his pastoral letters (Osamu Katata has verified the existence of 252 such letters). In them, Rennyo stressed the importance of faith and argued that the nembutsu (the phrase "Namu Amida Butsu" or "I take refuge in Amida Buddha'") should be recited as an expression of gratitude to Amida Buddha, the major object of worship in Jōdo Shinshū, who vowed to save even the most evil person.
Besides his well-known pastoral letters, Rennyo composed the Shoshinge-chu, the Shoshinge tai'i, and two commentaries on a hymn written by Shinran. The Shoshinge tai'i, written in 1457 just after Rennyo became the chief abbot of Honganji, has been the object of much scholarly attention in modern times. Rennyo frequently presented his followers with autographed copies of the so-called "ten character name of Amida Buddha" (the phrase "kimyo jinjip'po mugeko nyorai," meaning "I take refuge in the Tathagata of Unhindered Light Illuminating the Ten Quarters") to be used as objects of worship. In the commentary to this work he states the following: "Amida Tathagata is also called Tathagata of Unhindered Light. This is because the saving light of Amida Tathagata cannot be obstructed by human laws" (Shinshu shogyo zensho, vol.3, p. 387). Human laws here refers to laws of the state and ethical rules, which were often employed as means of oppression. Some people felt liberated by these words and were moved to take part in antiestablishment activities, such as ikkō ikki. Perhaps for this reason, Rennyo stopped presenting his followers with the ten character name after he moved to Yoshizaki. Instead he began to present them with the six character name, "Namu Amida Butsu." At the same time, he also repeatedly admonished his followers in his pastoral letters to respect the authorities and to obey social norms and ethical rules. However, Rennyo's adherents found it difficult to forget his earlier teachings.
Rennyo also composed numerous verses in colloquial Japanese on Jōdo Shinshū doctrine. Katata has identified the existence of 316 such verses. Although not works by Rennyo, collections of his sayings and anecdotes about him, such as the Kuzen kikigaki and Jitsugo-ki, provide insight into Rennyo's character and daily life.
Rennyo's writings, including his pastoral letters, Shoshinge-chu, Shoshinge tai'i, and his verses, as well as the Rennyo shonin goichidai kikigaki, are found in Osamu Katata, ed., Shinshū shiryō shūsei (Collection of Jodō Shinshū documents), vol. 2: Rennyo to sono kyodan (Rennyo and his community; Kyoto, 1977). See also Shinshu shogyo zensho, 5 vols., Kyoto, 1940-1944. The most recent studies on Rennyo can be found in Jodoshinshu Kyogaku Kenkyujo, ed., Kōza Rennyo (Lectures on Rennyo), 6 vols. (Tokyo, 1966–1968), which includes articles on Rennyo's life and thought by leading scholars. For an English study, which includes a translation of Rennyo's pastoral letters, see Minor Rogers and Ann Rogers, Rennyo: The Second Founder of Shin Buddhism (Berkeley, 1992).
Kenshi Kusano (2005)