The Restorer of Jodo-shinshu Buddhism
Rennyo Shonin was a descendant of Shinran Shonin and the eighth Monshu (head priest) of the Hongwanji in Kyoto; he was called Hoteimaru in his childhood and later named Kenju. When he was six years of age, his mother, who was a maid serving Zonnyo (the seventh Monshu), left him to live in obscurity. At the age of seventeen, he received his ordination from Sonno at the Shoren-in Temple. While studying the teachings of Jodo Shinshu from his father, he assisted in spreading the Dharma in Omi Province (present-day Shiga Prefecture) and Northern Japan. In 1457, when he was forty-three, he became the Monshu and continued his missionary activity in the Omi area.
Displeased with the growing popularity of Rennyo’s movement, warrior-monks of the Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei attacked and destroyed the Hongwanji in 1456; so then he moved to Kawachi (eastern Osaka Prefecture) and from there on to Omi Province.
In 1471 he built a temple, a new center for his activities, in Yoshizaki in Echizen Province (Fukui Prefecture), and he succeeded in attracting a large number of followers. He initiated a unique way of transmitting the Dharma through the use of letters (see OFUMI, or GOBUNSHO), which were widely read among the followers and contributed enormously to the dissemination of the teaching throughout the country, even among the illiterate.
The growth of Shin Buddhism in Northern Japan, however, often led to conflicts with local manor lords and governors, culminating in the “ikko-ikki uprisings” in Echizen, Kaga and Etchu Provinces. In order to avoid further conflicts, Rennyo withdrew from Yoshizaki in 1475 and moved the center of his activities to the Osaka-Kyoto area. At the suggestion of his disciple, Dosai, he built the Founder’s Hall (1480) and the Amida Hall (1481) in Yamashina, east of Kyoto. This became the foundation of the Hongwanji institution.
In 1489, he retired as the Monshu, leaving this position to his fifth son, Jitsunyo. With undiminished missionary spirit, in 1496 he built a temple in Ishiyama, Osaka – at the site where Osaka Castle now stands – and spent the rest of his life there. When he became ill in 1498, he returned to Yamashina, where he passed to the Pure Land the following year at the age of eighty-five.
Later in 1882, Rennyo was awarded the posthumous title, Eto Daishi (lit. “Master of the Lamp of Wisdom”) by Emperor Meiji.
At the height of his propagation activities, Rennyo edited and published the Shoshinge and Jodo Wasan as the standard service book for everyday use by all people. With the addition of The Letters, this form of service has been and continues to be held daily at Jodo Shinshu family homes, sanghas, and temples.
As a guide for correct understanding of the Shoshinge, Rennyo wrote Shoshinge-ta’i (An Outline of the Shoshinge). Rennyo’s Dharma-messages, casual remarks, and records of his day-to-day pursuits were later compiled into Rennyo Shonin Goichidaiki-kikigaki (The Sayings Recorded on the Life of Master Rennyo) in 1580 by Jitsugo, his tenth son.
(adapted from the Introduction to “Letters of Rennyo” by Hongwanji International Center- Kyoto 2000)