Listening to Rennyo Shonin

Broome, Western Australia. Picture by Mark Healsmith

In order to attain the entrusting heart, you do not need wisdom or learning; it is not a question of whether you are rich and noble or poor and destitute, whether you are good or evil, male or female. The essential point is to give up various practices and take refuge in the right practice, that is, the nembutsu. (Rennyo, Letters fasc. 2 no. 7)

Here Rennyo Shonin summarises the experience of people who encounter the Primal Vow and accept the entrusting heart (shinjin) of Amida Buddha. It is a truly elegant summary of the teaching and example of both Honen Shonin and Shinran Shonin. It makes it clear that no one is excluded from the embrace of Amida Buddha.

There are no conditions that can exclude us from choosing to ‘take refuge in the right practice, that is, the nembutsu.’ The significance of genuine nembutsu is that we take refuge in Amida Buddha alone, without any doubt or contrivance.

With those few words, Rennyo encompasses the essential purport of Shinran’s fine collection of passages entitled The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation. That work of Shinran is, in turn, an exposition of  A Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu Chosen in the Primal Vow by his teacher, Honen. These facts illustrate the power and trustworthiness of Rennyo’s teachings. In every way we can rely on him to bring us to a sound understanding of the Dharma of Amida Buddha.

It is no accident that reading Rennyo’s Letters brings people delight, solace and salvation. It is no wonder that they continue to be read at temple services and in Shin Buddhist homes. I am reminded that the myokonin, Saichi — who was made famous by the writings of Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki Sensei — was himself an avid reader of the Letters.

Currently, there are two readily available translations of Rennyo’s Letters. One of them includes all of the traditional five-fascicle volume. It was published in 1996 by the Numata Centre for Buddhist Translation and Research. This translation is the work of Ann and Minor Rogers.

Another English translation was published by Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha in 2000 at about the time of the five-hundred year memorial commemorations for Rennyo, who died in 1499. It is mainly made up of the fifth section of the complete popular collection, with some selections from earlier in the book.

Rennyo’s importance as an ambassador and proponent of the Pure Land way, simply cannot be exaggerated. At a time in my own life, when I was extremely busy establishing myself in a new life and a new job – a period of about eight years – it was Rennyo’s letters alone that formed the entirety of my spiritual reading. I read one letter a day. So, my sense of indebtedness to him is unbounded.

Yesterday, Monday 14 May, was the 519th commemoration of Rennyo’s passing into the Pure Land. Namo Amida Butsu.

Author: George Gatenby

George is a Shin Buddhist priest and lives in South Australia