How I love the Letters of Rennyo Shonin!
There was a time when I so busy building a life and a career that I was exhausted by the end of every day. I tried to chant a sutra but the most important thing I managed to do was to quietly read one of Rennyo Shonin’s Letters – the Gobunsho.
There are several translations of Rennyo’s letters available today. I am not sure if the translation that I read, and personally like the best, is still available. This translation can be found between pages 271 and 390 in the Shinshu Seiten, which was published by the Buddhist Churches of America in 1978. Another translation is part of a volume in the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai English Tripitaka Series. As well as that, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha has published an excellent but abridged translation.
I like the Shinshu Seiten translation because somehow I feel that it conveys something of the warmth of Rennyo’s character. I know that Rennyo maintained affable, friendly relations with the members of his temple. Indeed, I feel that you can tell from the collection of his sayings (Goichidaiki-kikigaki) that this is how things were from his followers’ point of view, too.
Everyone will know that Rennyo was the eighth Gomonshu or Abbott of the Hongwanji, which was the head temple of the Jodo Shinshu School. He lived from 1415 to 1499. At the time that he took up the office (when he was forty-three years old) the membership of the Hongwanji was tiny. But it grew exponentially under his leadership.
Early in his life, when he became aware of the weighty responsibility that would fall upon him, Rennyo engaged in deep study of the writings of his ancestor Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu. It was not very long before Rennyo began writing letters to Hongwanji members about the teaching of Jodo Shinshu.
Rennyo’s message in his letters seems to me to revolve around a single moment in Shinran’s life. This moment was the epitome of his teaching and experience. It occurred when Shinran entered the gate of the Primal Vow – or, as the eighteenth Vow of Amida Buddha is sometimes also called, the ‘Vow of the sincere and entrusting heart’.
About this event, Shinran wrote in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho:
I, Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Shakyamuni, discarded sundry practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow in 1201. (CWS, p. 290)
That is when Shinran truly began to say the nembutsu, the Name in the Primal Vow; the nembutsu of thanksgiving.
Taking refuge in the Primal Vow is taking refuge in Amida Buddha. In his letters Rennyo advises us repeatedly to give up sundry religious practices and devotion to other Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and gods, and take refuge in Amida Buddha alone. When that happens, then we will truly say the nembutsu.