Rennyo and the Shin Believer
by Philipp Karl Eidmann

The Hongwanji had fallen into a state of near-ruin when in the fifteenth century Rennyo accepted the office of Patriarch. He had studied for some years in the great temples of other sects and was a man of wide learning. It is, however, his very remarkable personality more that his intellectual achievements make him rank as the actual founder of the Shin sect.

Rennyo had inherited, of course, a body of doctrine from his ancestor Shinran, but it was an inheritance that brought no followers with it. The teachings of Shinran were virtually in their last throes. Even Koshoji and Senshuji, the headquarters of the other branches of the Shin Sect, were about to pass the field of living religion.

This was all stopped by Rennyo who made Shin Buddhism the chief religion in Japan.

Rennyo had been reluctant to accept the position of eighth Patriarch of the Hongwanji. But once he entered his office, he set to work with all his energy. He traveled far and wide in Japan preaching to common people, debating with clerics of other sects, and establishing temples and teaching halls. He often converted whole congregations from other sects and with their clerics they would enter the Hongwanji order. The Hongwanji grew like wildfire through the whole of Japan.

Rennyo’s learning contributed to this sudden rise of Hongwanji but it was Rennyo himself who captivated the hearts of the people. Here was a saint, a truly remarkable man, a model to be copied; and it was Rennyo not the Hongwanji people were converted to! Rennyo decried the situation, and insisted that he had no disciples. Time after time, Rennyo fled the congregations that idolized him, and he took every means at his command to correct this dangerous tendency in Shin Buddhism. For Rennyo was not a demagogue, preaching what people wanted to hear. Whatever he said, the man who stood before them was a saint of obvious attainment, over-flowing with loving-kindness (anupampa). He scolded them; he criticized them; he belittled them; and they loved it.

Not only did he use his pulpit to correct his followers, but he also wrote hundreds of letters to every part Japan teaching the correct interpretation of Shinran’s doctrine. Many of the letters were, following Rennyo’s death, collected into five books, which have added to the body of Hongwanji scriptures.

Rennyo’s Epistles as they are included in the canon number eighty-five. These were composed at many times, and with no special intention of they’re being gathered for publication. This each is directed towards some specific problem, and there is not clear order of purpose to their composition.

By chance, the first letter in the collection of Rennyo’s Epistles opens with the words:

“Now, among those who practice the thought of the Buddha in the True Teachings it is often the situation that there is no comprehension of the principles of the law. Therefore I have, in general, set forth its substance. “

This “substance” had, according to Rennyo, two aspects: religious and secular.

He meant that the spiritual awareness of Shin Buddhists bears a relation to both the ultimate religious truths and to the ordinary truths of every-day living. Rennyo, throughout his career, found it necessary to expound these two truths to maintain the integrity of the Hongwanji tradition.

Thousands of new converts from other sects had but little knowledge of Buddhism, and even less of the Pure Realm tradition. Others, like the dharma-bums of today, wanted to use Buddhism as a camouflage for their own egocentric and lustful ignorance. They did as the wished, said what they wished, and called this the teachings of the Buddha, though it was nothing more than their own pig-headed desires put into practice.

Had Rennyo been interested only in numbers, he would not have considered this matter so serious; but the important growth of Shin, he felt, lay not in the number of people who call themselves followers of Shinran. Rennyo said once in this connection:

“Speaking of the great prosperity of this sect, it is not a matter of the number of people in the assembly and the depth of its solemnity. If anyone, even though it is but a single person, gets faith, this is “great prosperity” for our sect. Therefore he left this: This great prosperity of solely practicing the true practice comes from the power of the thought of the brethren who left.”

Accordingly, Rennyo struggled to lead his followers to understand the importance of peace of mind and of a good moral life.

The equal importance of these two is clearly seen in Rennyo’s Confession of the Received Understanding (Ryogemon), which is sometimes called the Shin Creed. The first half of the Confession deals with the content and nature of the spiritual awakening. The last sentence enjoins a proper moral life:

“Our having heard this noble truth is, we gratefully remember, through the eminent benevolence of our saintly patriarch in arising in the world and that of succeeding masters in profoundly urging reform, and therefore, properly established laws shall we observe all our lives long.”

The word “law” (okite) refers to church laws or commandments, and not to the law of the country. According to Shin doctrine, it is not the business of the church to enforce government law. Shinran told his followers to obey government law or, if they object to the laws of a government, to go to some other country with laws more to their liking. But church and government have different missions: they may be parallel, they may be like two wings of a bird of two wheels of a cart, but if you put both wheels on the same side of the cart, there will be trouble. Thus it is that church organization is only concerned with church law.

The word okite has a long tradition in Shin, and has been the subject of much controversy. Many people insist that if the Hongwanji tradition has a body of church commandments it really teaches a doctrine of the internal power (jiriki).

In many of his Epistles, Rennyo discusses the rules of precepts which Hongwanji followers are expected to observe. In some letters these are laid out in clearly numbered sentences; in others they are woven into the body of the letter. Different letters have different numbers of precepts depending on the particular situation to which the letter is directed. Best known of Rennyo’s summaries of the precepts (okite) is the Epistle on the Precepts (ekite no sho), which is the sixth letter in the second book of his Epistles. It reads:

“Now if there is a person, who having heard the substance of the awakening of faith by the External Power within the stream, has fixed and determined it, and, according to his awakening of faith, sets it at the bottom of his heart, he shall not discuss it in comparison with other Teachings or other people. Moreover, he is not, in the lanes and highways and even in his dwelling, to utter it praises openly and without concern.

“Next, he is not to be rude and short towards his rulers and governors, saying I have received the awakening of faith, he is to be more and more exacting in pubic affairs.

“Moreover, he is not to despise the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas because these are all included in the six syllables Namo Amida Buddha.

“Especially he should think, towards the outside, that the government law is important and, depositing the awakening of faith by the External Power in his innermost heart that this it to be the source of his sense of duty to the world.

“You should lay to your heart that this it the substance of the laws which are established in this present stream. Verily, verily!”

Two things can be extracted from this Epistle: 1) certain church commandments for the followers of Shin, and 2) the essence and spirit of these commandments.

In this particular letter Rennyo defines six precepts:

i) One’s own awakening of faith is not to be discussed in comparison with that of other sects or with people outside.

ii) One is not to cheapen it by broadcasting it indiscriminately in public.

iii) One is not, on the basis of having attained the awakening of faith, to feel one no longer has obligations to civic rulers and governors.

iv) One is to faithfully execute every obligation in public affairs to one’s community.

v) One is to recognize the importance to civil law.

vi) One is not to disparage the various gods, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, which are worshipped by others but not by the Shin follower.

Of these church commandments, all are self-explanatory except that referring to the Shinto gods. In Rennyo’s time a number of over-zealous Shin followers descended on various Shinto shrines and destroyed them. This caused great difficulties for the Hongwanji because the government was especially disturbed. Rennyo, accordingly, urged his followers not to attack Shinto. However, he did not imply by this commandment that Shin followers should worship Shinto deities. Shin Buddhism has persistently refused to accord worship to the Shinto gods.

The observance of these and other church laws is, according to Rennyo, to flow naturally from one’s awakening of faith. The keeping of such precepts is not a practice leading to the awakening of faith; the keeping of the precepts is an outcome of one’s religious experience. One does not keep them because one practices the Thought of the Buddha (Nembutsu); but because one practices the true Thought of the Buddha one keeps them!!

The awakening of faith is the source whence flows the believer’s sense of duty to the world at large.

Shinran, of course, had established no church body, and after his death his various disciples preserved these teachings according to their understanding.

Shinran’s disciples slowly systematized their followers into congregations and in time a number of small denominations developed to propagate these teachings. Each tried to preserve correctly the doctrines of Buddhism handed down through Shinran, but differences arose both in doctrine and ritual.

Such differences, of course, are on the whole, minor; and the schools of Shin Buddhism do not regard each other as schismatic or dissident. All schools regard the others as orthodox and the clergy may transfer from one to another just as simply as and American teacher transfers from the school system of one state to another state.

The difference today in the ten schools of Shin Buddhism may best be conceived as a difference in rite. Since Shinran did not intend to found a sect, he naturally made no special provisions for rites and rituals. He, himself used in his devotions, the rituals of his teacher, Honen. Following Shinran’s death, however, his disciples tended to develop rituals centering on his teachings. Thus specific rites developed over the centuries, and there was usually a relation between the rite and the identity of the terminology in explaining the doctrines.

The Hongwanji tradition is thus identified by a ritual and a doctrinal unity. This unity has its chief basis in the mediaeval saint Rennyo who carried Shin teachings across most of Japan.

Rennyo created a special ritual, which was used by all his followers and friends; and he sought doctrinal unity by sending numerous epistles on these teachings through out the country to explain the teachings of Shinran. These epistles were, following Rennyo’s death, inserted in the ritual.

The Hongwanji tradition, then, represents in one sense, the ritual of Rennyo; but it also has the doctrinal unity, which centers on his explanation of the teachings of Shinran. The Hongwanji tradition is represented by such sect headquarters ad the Nishi Hongwanji, Higashi Hongwanji and Koshoji. These auto cephalic sects have an inner unity, which transcends their external autonomy.

Now, if there is a person who, having heart the substance of the awakening of faith by the External Power within this stream, has fixed and determined it, and, according to his awakening of faith, sets it at the bottom of his heart, he shall not discuss it in comparison with other Teachings of other people. Moreover, he is not, in the lanes and highways and even in the places of his dwelling, to utter its praises openly and without concern.

Next, he is not to be rude and short towards his rulers and governors, saying, “I have received the awakening of faith”; he is to be more and more exacting in public affairs.

Moreover, he is not to despise the various gods and the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas because they are all included in the six syllables “Namu Amida Butsu.”

Especially he should think, towards the outside, that the government law is important and, depositing the awakening of faith in his innermost heart, it is to be the source of his duty to the world.

You should lay to your heart that this is the substance of the laws, which are established in this present stream. Verily, verily! (Epistle, book ii, number 6)

Abandoning all varying deeds, divers practices, and the notion of an internal power, with single-pointedness of mind in Amida Tathagata do we now place our trust that we may be liberated as to our lives in the future, which are the matter of first importance.

At the very moment we so place our trust, out rebirth is certain and liberation, is, we know, assured and determined, and therefore we joyfully say our calling of his name which we think to be in thanksgiving and grateful acknowledgement of his compassion.

Our having heard this noble truth is, we gratefully remember, through the eminent benevolence of our saintly patriarch in arising in the world and that of succeeding masters in profoundly urging reform, and therefore, properly established laws shall be observed all our lives long.

He thought: A person who, not having faith, is in possession of important scriptures, is like a child having a sword; though a sword is useful, if it is held by a child, he might cut his hand of injure himself. It useful to a person suited to having it. (281)

If those people who would teach and reform others first fix and determine their own awakening of faith, and thereupon read the Holy Scriptures, those who hear will also get faith. (14)

Some listen to sermons without thinking them directed towards themselves but with the idea that they’re liable to pick up a verse of the Law that they can peddle to people, as if it were something they have stated. (82)

Speaking of the great prosperity of this sect, it is not a matter of the number of people in the assembly and the depth of the solemnity. If anyone, even though it be but a single person, gets faith, this is the great prosperity of for our sect. Therefore he left this: The great prosperity of the sole practice, the true practice, comes from the power of the thought of those who are left. (121)

Rebirth is an individual struggle. It is a matter of each person individually believing the Law of the Buddha and being saved in the life to come. To think that it is the business of someone else is to know nothing of one’s self, thus has Rennyo taught. (171)

There are things done as good, but which are bad; there are things done as bad, but which are good. Though we do something good, it is bad, if thinking, I have done something good relating to the Principles of the Law, what we call the ego is present. Though we do something bad, if our mind is broadened to take refuge in the Main Vow, that thing, done as bad, becomes a truth of the way, as he taught. Therefore Rennyo taught the sacrificing (sic, It is difficult to understand the use of this word here. Perhaps PKE was referring to a dualistic mind, or the dependence on ritual) mind as bad. (189)

The sagely Resident…stated: if, seeing people who have fixed and determined the awakening of faith, one thinks that he must become like them, he shall indeed. Thinking and giving up with “just like that” is a wretched matter. In the Law of the Buddha, giving up one’s self and longing after that, searching for that, is the fact of getting faith in one’s heart. (194)

As to the birth which is non-birth,-----as the birth into the Highest Happiness is not a wandering through the three worlds, this birth into the Highest Happiness is called the birth which is non-birth. (37)

A person in the Law of the Buddha has remarked: When you are young, take interest in the Law of the Buddha; when you are old your will and footsteps are not equal to it, and weary—while you are young, take interest. (63)

When the Hongwanji expanded suddenly in the time of Rennyo, the eighth patriarch, the administrative and doctrinal problems multiplied. Many of the converts had hitherto had only nominal relations with Buddhism. The long established sects had taken little interest in the spiritual welfare of the common people, and thus the converts of Shin had frequently little background in Buddhism.

This was a genuine challenge to Rennyo, the Good Teacher Friend [kalyana-mitra; zen-ji-shiki] to preside as head of the Hongwanji, for few doctrinal positions require a better grounding in Buddhism than does Shin. Until one comes to understand the Sanron and the Kegon world-interpretation, Shin is entirely incomprehensible. Only a few of the converts brought such a background with them; the majority were converted from ignorance and superstition.

Such a background was fertile ground for trouble. Moreover, the ordinary converts, and even some of the clergy, were often fanatic with the earnestness of the convinced convert. Various heresies and politically dangerous situations developed. Rennyo met these crises with firm determination, and in each case resolutely took whatever action was necessary for the preservation of the Hongwanji. Often an apology was sufficient to straighten matters out, but once at least he found it necessary to pay a huge fine for blasphemy of the Shinto deities; and the Hongwanji was constantly under attack for treason.

With a serious crisis always at hand, Rennyo made every effort to strengthen the power of the Hongwanji as an ecclesiastical body. In this way he hoped to control more strictly the converts to the sect and thus preserve the Hongwanji’s integrity and prestige.

One of the results of Rennyo’s activities in this connection was the policy of disfellowshipping those who might bring the Hongwanji’s name into bad repute. Fellowship was denied to those who had untraditional beliefs, or who misinterpreted Shin along antinomian lines. This refusal to fellowship was not, as in Christianity, an implication that they were forever to be confined to hell; it was merely freeing them to follow their own inclinations as they wished with the Hongwanji accepting no social, political of religious responsibility for their future actions.

Often people who had been disfellowshipped would see readmission to the Hongwanji congregations. On such occasions they confessed their errors and bound themselves henceforth to follow the Hongwanji traditions. The specifically promised that they would henceforth obey all the laws (okite) which the Hongwanji might, according to its proper right, establish for Hongwanji followers.

Such church commandments, of course, are not meant to apply to any but the followers of the Hongwanji. Even in this case the commandments are freely accepted and may be freely abandoned. But, to accept them and to try to observe them is a requirement laid down by the Good Teacher Friend as the price of his acceptance of the responsibility of teaching these people.

Because of the unusual conditions of his times, Rennyo set out more church laws than any other Good Teacher Friend before him in the Hongwanji, and more perhaps than any other after him as well. Rennyo’s commandments are scattered, for the most part, through his writings. Some times three or four are given out together, but more often Rennyo promulgated one at a time as the occasion demanded.

In the fifth exient of bummei (1473), however, Rennyo codified eleven church commandments into Rule of Bummei; these properly established laws are:

  1. The various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not to be defamed.
  2. The various sect-teachings are not at all to be slandered.
  3. On the basis of the behaviour within our Teaching, one is not to be critical of other teachings.
  4. Though actually there are no abominations within the Law of the Buddha, one is to avoid those of other Teachings and of the public.
  5. Those in our teaching are not, when they praise the Law of the Buddha, to use, according to their own inclinations, untraditional words and names.
  6. Those who do the Thought of the Buddha are to respect the rulers and governors of their lands and not slander them.
  7. Ignorant persons are not, according to their own opinions and without self-restraint, to utter praise of the principles and laws of our Teachings to other teachings.
  8. One is not, without having oneself fixed and determined the awakening of faith and only on the hearsay of some one else, to utter praise of the Entrance to the Law by the Awakening of Faith.
  9. At the times of the assembly and meeting for the Thought of the Buddha one is not eat fish nor fowl.
  10. On the days for the gathering of the assembly of the Thought of the Buddha, one is not to loose one’s senses through liquor.
  11. Among those who do the Thought of the Buddha there is to be no gambling.

These eleven precepts are not, of course, intended to supplant the various precepts laid down by the Buddha, nor are they supposed to be derived from the Buddhist scriptures. They have their validity in the authority of Rennyo’s position as a teacher, and that is their sole authority. But all who wished to formalize a teacher-disciple relationship with Rennyo, were bound to accept these as governing their actions. In this way, these commandments are binding still upon Shin followers.

--K (The “K” here is for Kusada Sensei who transcribed this for Rev Eidmann and his IBS students sometime in the early 1970’s-Rev. Ulrich)

August 16, 2010