Statue of "Rennyo the Restorer" at Kita-mido in Osaka, Japan.
|School||Jodo Shinshu Buddhism|
|Other name(s)||Kenju (兼寿)|
|Title||Restorer of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, 8th monshu of the Hongwanji|
Rennyo (蓮如) (1415–1499) was the 8th Monshu, or head-priest, of the Hongwanji 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 (or, the second founder), and for this is also referred to as Rennyo Shonin ("eminent monk"). Rennyo is responsible for a revitalization period in Jōdo Shinshū history where in which the religion was popularized for the masses. Despite being a pacifist and endorser of civil duty and responsibility, some have nonetheless conjectured, without substantiation, that his "populist" attitude and charismatic preaching indirectly and inadvertently led into the Ikkō-ikki revolts in which mobs of monks, peasants and farmers launched organized attacks on their feudal rulers. He was also known as Shinshō-in (信証院), and posthumously Etō Daishi (慧灯大師).
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, Nyoenni (? -1460)). In turn, his step mother Nyoenni attempted to have her own son Ogen (1433–1503) installed as the successor to the Hongwanji. However, Rennyo's uncle, Nyojo (1402–1460), dismissed the idea and Rennyo ultimately succeeded as the 8th monshu.
Rennyo the Restorer 
Following his installation as 8th head priest at Hongan-ji in 1457, Rennyo demonstrated leadership capabilities. He immediately began mobilizing the sect's focus in the Ōmi Province and creating converts there, an area dominated by the Bukkō-ji and Kinshoku-ji branches of Shinshū. Hongan-ji had a good supporter in that region named Hoju, who was head of the Katada congregation. He also had supporters in the town of Kanegamori, a network of friends that were of good status in society and crucial to his establishment as a competent leader. The monies generated in these regions helped to solidify Hongan-ji's defenses from sectarian attack early in Rennyo's reign.
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 the entire temple complex. The attacks were justified by claims that the Jōdo Shinshū movement was heretical. The actual motivation for these attacks was financial. Mt. Hiei had significant interests in Ōmi Province that included properties and businesses, and they 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.
The years immediately following the attack of 1465 forced Rennyo to live a nomadic life. It was not until the Yamashina Mido temple in Kyoto was built in 1480 that he would be able to take permanent residence again. All of this was occurring at the height of the Ōnin War in Japan, making security ever more an issue for Rennyo. 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. 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.
Hongan-ji Rebuilds 
Rennyo decided to rebuild Hongan-ji in Echizen Province (present-day Fukui Prefecture), a remote area that showed a lot of promise as it was near a coastal route. Once established the place 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. 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.
Meanwhile, the broader Ikkō movement, being based on the power of commoners, governed itself, and grew of its own accord, growing in influence in Kaga and Echizen Provinces, and becoming increasingly resentful of the control of the secular authorities. In 1488, they drove out the Constable of Kaga, a daimyo by the name of Togashi, and effectively took control of the entire province. The Ikkō-ikki then went on to defeat the Asakura clan warriors from Echizen, who had been sent by the shogunate to stop them.
Rennyo Shonin was the author of several works relating to Jōdo Shinshū doctrine. His most influential work is his collection of letters to various Shin monto (lay groups), popularly known as Gobunshō (御文章, "Compositions") in the Nishi Hongan-ji, and Ofumi in the Higashi Hongan-ji. 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. 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 institutionalisation 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.
His 500th memorial service was observed in 1998. (- see Dobbins & Rogers references below.)
- Kyoto National Museum (website, 1998) "Rennyo and Hongan-ji: History and Fine Arts." Accessed 30 Dec 2004.
- Sansom, George Bailey. (1958). A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 10-ISBN 0-8047-0523-2; 13-ISBN 978-0-8047-0523-3; OCLC 224793047
- Dobbins, James C. (1989). Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Bloomington, Illinois: Indiana University Press. 10-ISBN 0253331862/13-ISBN 9780253331861; OCLC 470742039
- Rogers, Minor, 'Rennyo', Nanzan Studies in Asian Religions
- Blum, Mark L. and Yasutomi Shin'ya, ed. (2006). 'Rennyo and the Roots of Modern Japanese Buddhism.' Oxford University Press.
- Ducor, Jérôme (1998). "La vie de Rennyo (1415-1499)"; The Rennyo Shônin Reader (ed. by Institute of Jodo-Shinshu Studies and Hongwanji International Center; Kyôto, Jôdo-Shinshû Hongwanji-ha International Center, 1998), p. 57-90.