The Shin Bud­dhist path was founded by Shin­ran Shonin (1173–1262) dur­ing the Kamakura period, and in sev­eral cen­turies grew into one of the largest and most influ­en­tial schools of Bud­dhism in Japan, a posi­tion it main­tains today. The Hong­wanji tem­ple is the head­quar­ters of the Hong­wanji denom­i­na­tion of Shin Bud­dhism (Jodo Shin­shu Hongwanji-ha), and is known as Nishi (lit. “West”) Hongwanji.

Ori­gins

The Hong­wanji devel­oped from a mod­est tem­ple built at the site of Shin­ran Shonin’s mau­soleum. After his death, his cre­mated remains were interred at Otani in the east­ern hills of Kyoto and marked by a sim­ple stone obelisk.

Many fol­low­ers came to pay their respects, par­tic­u­larly from the dis­tant Kanto region (now the Tokyo area), and in 1272, with their sup­port, Shinran’s daugh­ter, Kakushinni, had his ashes moved to the grounds of her res­i­dence at Yoshimizu, slightly to the north. There, a hexag­o­nal chapel was built and an image of Shin­ran enshrined.

Sev­eral years later, with the death of her hus­band, title to the res­i­dence passed to Kakushinni, allow­ing her to deter­mine the future of the chapel, and in 1277, she ded­i­cated her prop­erty to the Shin move­ment as a per­ma­nent mau­soleum, to be tended by a per­son of Shinran’s lin­eage. The chapel and land became known as the Otani Mau­soleum (byodo) and was sup­ported by fol­low­ers in the Kanto area.

The first inten­dant of the mau­soleum was Kakushinni’s son, Kakue, and in 1310 he was suc­ceeded by his son, Kakunyo. Kakunyo ele­vated the sta­tus of the mau­soleum by gain­ing recog­ni­tion for it as a tem­ple, and fur­ther sought to make it the cen­ter of the Shin move­ment. It was he who adopted the name Hong­wanji (lit. “Tem­ple of the Pri­mal Vow”).

In 1336, the Otani Mau­soleum was burned dur­ing war­fare between Ashik­aga Takauji and Emperor Godaigo. Kakunyo rebuilt it, not as a hexag­o­nal chapel, but as a reg­u­lar tem­ple. In suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions, the Hong­wanji devel­oped the present for­mat of two halls, the Founder’s Hall and the Hall of Amida Bud­dha. Fac­tions formed among Shin fol­low­ers, how­ever, and most of the ten Shin denom­i­na­tions arose dur­ing this period, around cen­tral tem­ples in var­i­ous parts of the coun­try. It was not until the time of Ren­nyo that the Hong­wanji became the cen­ter of the Shin tra­di­tion, inde­pen­dent from the Tendai organization.

Ren­nyo Shonin (1415–1499)

Under Ren­nyo, the eighth gen­er­a­tion leader, the Hong­wanji grew remark­ably. After assum­ing the role as head of the Hong­wanji (now termed mon­shu), he spread the teach­ing in nearby provinces with aston­ish­ing suc­cess, com­mu­ni­cat­ing the teach­ing in force­ful, col­lo­quial lan­guage, par­tic­u­larly through the use of let­ters (Gobunsho).

The growth of Hong­wanji influ­ence in Omi (Shiga pre­fec­ture), how­ever, aroused the ire of the Tendai tem­ple on Mt. Hiei, which had tra­di­tion­ally regarded the area as within its juris­dic­tion. In 1465, warrior-monks from Mt. Hiei raided the Hong­wanji and destroyed a num­ber of build­ings, and Ren­nyo was forced to flee.

In 1471, after Omi had been occu­pied by an unfriendly daimyo, Ren­nyo set­tled at Yoshizaki in Echizen (Fukui pre­fec­ture). There, his rep­u­ta­tion as a great reli­gious leader spread, and he began to attract thou­sands of fol­low­ers. The Hongwanji-affiliated tem­ples in Echizen and the neigh­bor­ing areas grew into a polit­i­cal power, and in an era of con­stant strug­gle among daimyos, forces emerged that sought to uti­lize Hongwanji’s strength mil­i­tar­ily, or to extend its influ­ence through polit­i­cal alliances.

Ren­nyo, find­ing his move­ment becom­ing entan­gled in vio­lent strug­gle and unable to restrain his fol­low­ers, chose to with­draw. In 1474, he returned to the Osaka area, and in 1478, he selected Yamashina near Kyoto as the site for the con­struc­tion of a mag­nif­i­cent tem­ple com­plex, com­pleted five years later.

At the age of seventy-four, Ren­nyo retired as mon­shu, but con­tin­ued his work in spread­ing the teach­ing. At eighty-two, he estab­lished a tem­ple at Ishiyama on Osaka Bay, which he rec­og­nized as an ideal site for prop­a­ga­tion because of its heavy river traf­fic. The vil­lage that was to grow into the city of Osaka quickly sprang up around the temple.

By the time of his death in 1499, at the age of eighty-five, the small Kyoto tem­ple of his youth had grown into a pow­er­ful reli­gious institution.

Ishiyama Hong­wanji

The cen­tury fol­low­ing Rennyo’s death was one of tur­bu­lence and momen­tous change for both the coun­try and the Hong­wanji. The period from 1482 to 1558 is known as the age of “the coun­try at war” and was char­ac­ter­ized by inces­sant war­fare and shift­ing alliances among the feu­dal lords through­out Japan. At the begin­ning of this period, Shin fol­low­ers in Echizen and neigh­bor­ing Kaga arose to vir­tu­ally dom­i­nate those provinces, and for a cen­tury the Hong­wanji remained an obsta­cle to the ambi­tions of war­lords bent on dom­i­nat­ing the entire country.

In 1532, the Yamashina Hong­wanji was attacked and burned to the ground by the Omi daimyo, Rokkaku, and fol­low­ers of the Nichiren school. It was relo­cated at Ishiyama which, located on a slight promi­nence and sur­rounded by water­ways, occu­pied a strate­gic posi­tion of great strength. It is the site of present Osaka Cas­tle. Hong­wanji influ­ence in the area grew.

From the mid-sixteenth cen­tury, the war­lord Oda Nobunaga emerged as one of the most pow­er­ful mil­i­tary lead­ers, and his drive to con­trol the coun­try brought him into con­flict with the Hong­wanji. In 1580, after eleven years of mil­i­tary action against the Ishiyama Hong­wanji and fail­ure to achieve its down­fall, Nobunaga requested the inter­ces­sion of Emperor Ogi­machi, who medi­ated the evac­u­a­tion of Ishiyama. The eleventh mon­shu, Ken­nyo, moved the Hong­wanji to Sagi­nomori in Wakayama pre­fec­ture, and then to Kaizuka and Temma in present-day Osaka.

Return to Kyoto

Nobunaga was assas­si­nated in 1582, and it fell to one of his gen­er­als, Toy­otomi Hideyoshi, to effect final uni­fi­ca­tion of the coun­try. Hideyoshi was sup­port­ive of the Hong­wanji, and in 1591 donated the tract of land where it stands today. With the relo­ca­tion of the tem­ple halls from Temma the fol­low­ing year, the Hong­wanji returned to Kyoto.

In 1592 Ken­nyo died and was suc­ceeded by his eldest son, Kyonyo. In his will, how­ever, Ken­nyo named his third son, Jun­nyo, to be his suc­ces­sor, and with Hideyoshi’s recog­ni­tion of this will, respon­si­bil­ity passed to Jun­nyo in 1593. Kyonyo retired, but a decade later, in 1602, he received a par­cel of land slightly to the east of the Hong­wanji from the shogun Toku­gawa Ieyasu. The Hong­wanji fol­low­ing was split, and an addi­tional new tem­ple was erected. Pop­u­larly known as Higashi (lit. “East”) Hong­wanji, it became head­quar­ters of the new Otani denomination.

A num­ber of struc­tures, includ­ing the Fly­ing Cloud Pavil­ion, cer­e­mo­nial gate and Cham­ber of Waves, appear to have been moved to the orig­i­nal Hong­wanji about this time. The main halls, how­ever, were destroyed in a great earth­quake in 1596, and though recon­struc­tion was quickly under­taken, in 1617 a fire swept the com­pound and the nearly com­pleted build­ings burned. Under the direc­tion of Jun­nyo and his suc­ces­sor, Ryonyo, many of the struc­tures of the present com­pound were built; some have been rec­og­nized as National Trea­sures and Impor­tant Cul­tural Prop­er­ties, attest­ing to the Hongwanji’s con­tin­u­ing cre­ativ­ity and vital­ity. In 1994, the entire Hong­wanji precinct received des­ig­na­tion as a UNESCO World Cul­tural Her­itage Site.

Jun­nyo built the Hall of Amida, and the main audi­ence cham­ber and Shiro shoin com­plex. The recon­struc­tion of a per­ma­nent Founder’s Hall was left to Ryonyo who, in addi­tion, built the Kuro shoin cham­bers and the Mei­chodo at the Otani mausoleum.

Dur­ing this period, the Hong­wanji tem­ple orga­ni­za­tion was firmly estab­lished in con­for­mity with Toku­gawa gov­ern­ment poli­cies requir­ing hier­ar­chi­cal inter­nal struc­tures and fixed tem­ple mem­ber­ship. Fur­ther, offi­cial encour­age­ment to for­mu­late doc­tri­nal teach­ings led, in 1639, to the cre­ation of a facil­ity for schol­arly study, which was to develop into Ryukoku Uni­ver­sity, one of the old­est insti­tu­tions of higher edu­ca­tion in Japan.

Beyond National Boundaries

With the Meiji Restora­tion in 1868, Japan entered a period of rapid mod­ern­iza­tion, but it was also a time of cri­sis. The new gov­ern­ment adopted a strong anti-Buddhist atti­tude, and a move­ment to erad­i­cate Bud­dhism and bring Shinto to ascen­dancy arose through­out the coun­try. It was pre­cisely at this time that the twenty-first mon­shu, Myonyo, took office.

Myonyo was ener­getic in pro­tect­ing reli­gious free­dom and suc­cess­fully strug­gled against state con­trol of tem­ple activ­i­ties. To advance the Shin tra­di­tion, as early as 1872 he began send­ing advi­sors and stu­dents abroad to inves­ti­gate reli­gious thought and prac­tices through­out the world. In 1888, in response to inter­est among Bud­dhists in Europe and Amer­ica, the Hong­wanji pub­lished a jour­nal in Eng­lish, and also highly-regarded reports in Japan­ese on reli­gious con­di­tions abroad.

At home, he broke down the rigid hier­ar­chy of branch tem­ples and directly involved local tem­ples through­out the coun­try in gov­ern­ing the Hong­wanji. He also built schools, orphan­ages and other social wel­fare facil­i­ties, and cre­ated a pro­gram of prison and mil­i­tary chap­laincy. In 1897, the Hong­wanji began send­ing offi­cial min­is­ters to estab­lish tem­ples for Japan­ese immi­grants in Hawaii and the main­land United States.

In 1903, Myonyo was suc­ceeded by Kyonyo (Ohtani Kozui), who con­tin­ued to broaden the vision and scope of Hong­wanji activ­i­ties. He is known in par­tic­u­lar for the Otani expe­di­tions to Bud­dhist sites in cen­tral Asia, which recov­ered many texts and arti­facts from the deserts across which Bud­dhism had been trans­mit­ted to Japan over the Silk Road. Shin mis­sions in Europe started after the twenty-third mon­shu, Ohtani Kosho, made a tour in 1954. Today, the Hong­wanji is the head tem­ple for over ten thou­sand tem­ples through­out Japan and some two hun­dred tem­ples around the world.

Copy­right JODO SHINSHU HONGWANJI-HA 2002