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  • Rennyo and the Roots of Modern Japanese Buddhism
  • Carol Richmond Tsang
Rennyo and the Roots of Modern Japanese Buddhism. Edited by Mark L. Blum and Shin'ya Yasutomi. Oxford University Press, 2006. 320 pages. Hardcover £35.99.

Rennyo (1415-1499), the eighth leader of the Honganji branch of Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land Buddhism), was a towering figure in the history of that sect. Often called the reviver or second founder of Shinshū Buddhism, he clarified or redefined the teachings and organization of the sect, creating the institution led today by the West and East Honganji temples in Kyoto. In 1998, sect members and academics celebrated the five-hundredth anniversary of his death, by Japanese count, with numerous publications, symposia, religious services, a museum exhibition, and other activities.

Rennyo and the Roots of Modern Japanese Buddhism, published under the auspices of the International Institute of Comprehensive Shinshū Studies at Ōtani University, consists of sixteen essays written originally in English or translated from the Japanese. Seven of the translated essays were previously published in Japanese, and four of those have been adapted and translated from a collection of articles published as part of the celebration (Rennyo no sekai, ed. Ōtani Daigaku Shinshū Sōgō Kenkyūjo: Kyoto: Bun'eidō, 1998).

A large body of literature in Japanese has addressed Rennyo's life and writings, with, naturally, varying interpretations. At one extreme, especially in the postwar era, some have tended to condemn him for using his position to build a great "feudal" institution to enhance his own power, subverting the founder Shinran's teachings. At the opposite extreme, others have credited him with reinvigorating a declining religion and emphasizing within it the basic egalitarian ideal expressed in Shinran's teachings. The main issue at the heart of these particular competing interpretations is Rennyo's faithfulness to or subversion of the founder's writings, particularly Shinran's repudiation of his own religious authority by insisting that all Shinshū believers, including himself, were fellow travelers along the same path to enlightenment.

The editors of Rennyo and the Roots of Japanese Buddhism, Mark L. Blum and Shin'ya Yasutomi, intend the book to bring to an English-reading audience this question and others disputed among Japanese scholars. In this, they succeed admirably. The essays are short—only two run more than twelve pages in length—and so provide just enough depth to give the reader an introduction to the complexity of the subject. A few essays contribute a great deal more, bringing to light points of interest to a Rennyo scholar while remaining readable to a less specialized audience.

Since the essays deal with different aspects of Rennyo's life, thought, and position within the history of Shinshū, the editors have divided them into three groups. The first, "Historical Studies," places Rennyo and his work in the context of fifteenth-century Japan. The second, "Shinshū Studies," analyzes his thought and its place within the Shinshū tradition, and the third, "Comparative Religion," compares Rennyo and Shinshū with Christian traditions. An introduction explains the background of the volume and provides a brief synopsis of each article.

In the first section, essays take up such issues as the above-mentioned question of the extent to which Rennyo's teachings diverged from Shinran's, Rennyo's role as leader at a time of great economic and political upheaval, and his views on women's [End Page 517] ability to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. A few look at historical issues that touched on Rennyo's life without necessarily involving his own views. One essay discusses how the Honganji sect was seen by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century, and another looks at the charges leveled at Honganji by the Tendai complex on Mt. Hiei before the latter attacked and destroyed the original Honganji temple in 1466.

This section also includes Mark L. Blum's "Rennyo Shōnin, Manipulator of Icons," an outstanding piece of scholarship. Blum discusses the contents, uses, and implications of the images used as objects of worship in fifteenth-century Shinshū. His readings go well beyond an analysis of the dedications written on the back of sacred objects sent to branch temples...


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