Rennyo was a Japanese Pure Land Buddhist priest and eighth head priest of Honganji (1457–1489), the central institutional complex of the Jōdo Shinshū tradition. He is often considered the “second founder” of the tradition due to his efforts in propagating the Jōdo Shinshū teachings; expanding the institution; and negotiating conflicts with the military, political, and religious authorities of the time. His prowess as an institution builder and religious teacher laid the foundations for Jōdo Shinshū to become one of the largest Buddhist denominations in Japan.
Rennyo was born as the first son of Zonnyo (1396–1457); the seventh head priest of Honganji; and was a ninth-generation descendant of Shinran (1173–1262), the founder of Jōdo Shinshū. Neither the name nor background of Rennyo’s mother is known, but it is believed that she may have been a servant attending at Honganji. When Rennyo was six years old, his mother left Honganji, perhaps because of Zonnyo’s official marriage in 1420. There are no further records of her after that time. In 1431, at the age of 17, Rennyo was ordained at Shōren-in, one of the major monzeki (noble cloister) temples of the Tendai school. Rennyo received transmission of the Jōdo Shinshū lineage from Zonnyo. At Honganji, Rennyo assisted his father’s missionary work.
In 1457, Rennyo was appointed as the eighth chief abbot of Honganji, which had been established at the mausoleum of Shinran on the outskirts of Kyoto. Under Rennyo’s leadership, Honganji began to expand its institutional reach beyond the areas surrounding the capital. However, the rapid growth of Honganji met with interference by the forces of the Tendai school on Mt. Hiei. In 1465, Honganji was destroyed by Enryakuji priests, and Rennyo was forced to retreat from Kyoto.
After leaving Kyoto, in 1471, Rennyo reestablished Honganji in the city of Yoshizaki, located on the border of Echizen and Kaga provinces (currently Fukui and Ishikawa prefectures). In order to propagate the teaching effectively to the faith communities scattered around Japan in rural areas, Rennyo wrote numerous instructional letters (ofumi, or gobunshō) in which he explained Shinran’s teaching in colloquial Japanese, and distributed six-character myōgo scrolls of Amida Buddha’s name (na-mu a-mi-da-butsu) as the main object of worship. He also reformed ritual practice by adopting the recitation of Shōshinge (The Hymns of True Faith) and Wasan (Japanese Hymns), both composed by Shinran, as a standard religious service to be performed by priests and lay followers together.
In Yoshizaki, Rennyo first put his institutional vision into practice by redeveloping the area into a religious township equipped with residences for both priests and lay followers. The town provided lodgings and other services, rapidly attracting large numbers of pilgrims mainly from the northern provinces as far away as Dewa and Ōshū (modern-day Tohoku region). His success at Yoshizaki, however, also drew him into conflicts with local religious and political authorities. In order to avoid these conflicts, he decided to leave Yoshizaki in 1475. After exploring various sites, Rennyo relocated Honganji to Yamashina, directly east of Kyoto.
Construction of the Yamashina Honganji started in 1478 and took five years to complete. The site included massive buildings of Shinran’s Memorial Hall and Amida Hall side by side, which would become the standard architectural form of the temple henceforth. Rennyo also developed the surrounding area into a jinaichō (temple-city) as he did at Yoshizaki, but on a much larger scale. In 1489, Rennyo, at the age of 75, ceded the position of head priest of Honganji to his fifth son Jitsunyo (1458–1525). Rennyo remained active in missionary work after his retirement. He directed the construction of another large temple, the Ishiyama Gobō in Settsu, Ōsaka, completed in 1497 as an outpost for further institutional expansion to the western regions.
Rennyo died in 1499 at the age of 85. His cloistered title is Shinshōin. In 1882, Emperor Meiji (1852–1912) awarded him the title of Great Master Etō (Etō Daishi).
Solomon George FitzHerbert
In both eastern Tibet and in Mongolia, the Buddhist cult surrounding the figure of Ling Gesar (Gling ge sar) or Geser Khan in Mongolian versions is an outgrowth of Gesar’s standing as the eponymous hero of an elaborate oral epic tradition. Today, the epic and the Buddhist cult exist side by side in a relationship of symbiosis. Gesar’s sanctification as an enlightened being—as the combined manifestation of the Three Bodhisattva Lords and as an “emissary” or “manifestation” of Padmasambhava—whose tricksterism is enacted on behalf of the forces of goodness, justice, and the White Side in its perennial battle against the forces of evil, injustice, and the Dark Side—is both an outgrowth but also a source of nourishment for the epic tradition as it has continued to adapt and develop up to our own times.
The Gesar/Geser epic, in all the three main regions in which it survives (eastern Tibet and its neighboring regions, the Mongolic regions as far west as Kalmykia, and Ladakh and neighboring regions), is a living and mobile tradition of oral recitation and improvisation. The available textual corpus of this epic is very large, though none of it is very old (the oldest available epic texts in Tibetan are from the 17th century and in Mongolian are from 18th century). Thanks in part to sustained state patronage in the PRC, there are now over 200 published volumes of non-duplicating Gesar epic narrative and song, mostly from eastern Tibet. A lot of this material is of a directly oral provenance. Many modern volumes are the direct transcriptions (with some editing) of the oral repertoires of contemporary bards, some of which have been very lengthy. To take one example, the recorded repertoire of the bard Samdrup (Bsam grub) (1922–2011) was over 3,000 hours long, much of which has now been published. As for literary versions, the authors of Gesar epic texts often make explicit the debt that their tellings owe to oral renditions that they have heard. The mid-18th-century author of the famous Horling Yülgyé (Hor gling g.yul ’gyed), for example, mentions that he based his telling on the oral repertoires of “some twenty bards,” several of whom he cites by name. Due to the heterogeneity and sheer volume of this available textual corpus, it is hard to make categorical assertions about the relationship between Buddhism and the epic tradition, since that relationship varies from version to version. However, some general observations may be offered. In the ritual cult devoted to Gesar that evolved from the epic tradition, matters are somewhat clearer. In the ritual texts devoted to Gesar—which are mostly offering texts—the unruly polyphony of the epic (many bards, many characters, many perspectives) is replaced with a neater integrated vision, in which the hero is praised as a totalizing culture hero and enlightened lord—a hero in every register, both worldly and spiritual, both chivalric and shamanistic.