The senseis or their assistants lead a study group at the temple once a month. I had the pleasure of attending the August session, which focused on Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499), eighth head priest of the Hongwanji branch of the Jodo Shinshu.
After chanting the Juseige and meditating for about 20 minutes, the eight participants convened to hear an overview of Rennyo’s life by MA Joe Schwab, followed by our reading aloud and discussing some of Rennyo’s letters. According to the authors of his biography, Minor L and Ann T. Rogers, these “were his chief instrument in his efforts to translate and convey the subtlety of Shinran’s teaching in language familiar to ordinary men and women in late medieval Japan.”
Joe started by saying, “We wouldn’t be sitting here without Rennyo. Shinran’s teachings would have died without the ‘Great Restorer,’” as Rennyo was called. There was little sign of a religious organization remaining at the time of Rennyo’s birth, some 150 years after Shinran’s death. Rennyo was the one who propagated Shinran’s teachings. He traveled, cultivated local leaders, as well as ordinary citizens and shared his letters with them to be used as teaching tools. He distributed scrolls of the Nembutsu to the temples and dojos where the religion was practiced. He also taught participants to chant the Shoshin Ge at their services. Through these efforts, he significantly increased interest in Jodo Shinshu and in having temples where people could meet to learn more about the Dharma.
One of the themes in the letters, which was emphasized in the group discussion, was that of “merit.” Before Shinran, people would recite the Nembutsu and engage in other practices in order to gain merit towards a favorable rebirth. Even during Rennyo’s time large groups of people would make long pilgrimages to a temple he had constructed, seemingly to gain merit. In volume 1, letter 8, Rennyo said, “However, since these pilgrimages appeared to be of no benefit, meaning, or purpose whatever, I have closed this temple to them starting this year.”
What do we turn to for a favorable rebirth if not merit? According to Letter 3, “The fundamental point in the Teachings of Jodo Shinshu is not the necessity to eliminate one’s evil thoughts or the attempt to stop the rise of evil thoughts and attachments. We should believe that we repeat the Nembutsu* while we have life for the purpose of expressing our gratitude and thankfulness because rebirth for us hopeless beings is through this Power of Faith.”
Faith is described in Letter 1 is what happens “after one gains a thorough understanding of the difference between Self-Power and Other-Power…” When this occurs, “there will be an exceptional difference in the heart that recites the Nembutsu for the purpose of expressing gratitude for the Grace of Amida Buddha.” In letter 5 Rennyo provides additional clarification. “Also understand that you need only to recite the Nembutsu for the purpose of expressing gratitude to Amida without respect to time or place, your rebirth, this time, is assured without fail.”
Today Rennyo’s letters should be read by those who would like a deeper understanding of the teaching of Shinran Shonin. For those who want to dig deeper into these questions, Rennyo’s letters can be found here.
*Namo Amida Butsu. Per letter 5