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. Hongwanji (“Temple of the Original Vow”) is the headquarters of the Hongwanji denomination of Shin Buddhism (Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha) and is known as Nishi (“West”) Hongwanji.
The Hongwanji developed from a modest temple built at the site of Shinran Shonin’s mausoleum. For further information about the early history of the temple, see the Hongwanji history Web page.
In relatively recent history, the Shin sect has spread worldwide. 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 (head of the Hongwanji), 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.
Although this temple can be found on lists of Japan’s most important temples, when we visited it, there was no admission fee, probably because its largest, oldest, and most important building, the Goeidō (Founder’s Hall), was being restored. Once the restoration is complete, I imagine Nishi Hongwanji will again become a full-fledged tourist attraction.
Since the main gate, the Goeidō gate, is currently closed, we entered by the Amidadō Gate, and the Amidadō was directly in front of us. To our left was a gift shop, which we entered, at least in part, I think, to see if anyone would charge us for admission. As no one did, we bought a guidebook about the temple (¥840). When I later got a chance to actually peruse it, I discovered that we had only scratched the surface of the buildings in the temple precinct and had totally missed some of the outlying features. Perhaps we can be excused for missing the Hiunkaku (“Flying Cloud Pavilion”), a National Treasure that sits beside a pond inside a walled section in one corner of the precinct, but I can’t imagine how we failed to discover a much larger pond and garden immediately behind the Amidadō. In our defense I can only say that our time was somewhat limited, and some of the paths around the precinct were obstructed by construction barricades. Moreover, some of the buildings in the precinct were part of Ryukoku University, some were purely administrative, and one was the Hongwanji Chuo Kindergarten.
Another National Treasure, the Shoin, seems to contain most of the halls and chambers pictured in the book, but if it was open to the public, we missed the entrance (the main entrance was not open).
map shows the location of the temple in relation to nearby sites in Kyoto,
including the train station. Our hotel, the
Rihga Royal, is located several
blocks south on Horikawa-dori, just north of the rail line.
the left is the gift shop where we bought a guide book. In the background is the
Amidadō. Rebuilt in 1760, the Hall of Amida Buddha measures 37 x 42
m, with a height of 29 m. A wooden statue of Amida Buddha is enshrined in the
center, flanked by portraits of the Seven Patriarchs from India, China, and
Japan. During the restoration of the Goeidō, the statue of Shinran Shonin
has been moved to the Amidadō, which is being called the Somido because it
temporarily houses the statues of both Amida Buddha and Shinran Shonin until the
completion of the restoration, which is scheduled for 2008.
of the temple precinct. The two dark-blue-roofed buildings in the center are the
Goeidō (left) and Amidadō. The largish building
in the lower right corner of the precinct is the Sampai Kaikan. The Hiunkaku is
in the lower left corner.
to the Audience Chambers, which I believe to be part of the Shoin, another
National Treasure, which contains a Main Audience Hall and numerous smaller
chambers, including the Chamber of Sparrows, Chamber of Wild Geese, and Chamber
of Chrysanthemums. The Chambers of Waves, Tigers, and Drums are the oldest of
the Shoin Chambers and are an Important Cultural Asset. The Shiro Shoin Chambers
is a suite of three rooms divided by sliding screens and traditionally used by
the Monshu as an audience chamber for receiving guests.
“canopy” that protects the Goeidō during restoration.
This massive structure, standing 31.1 m tall, is composed of six segments
weighing 2300 tons and covering 7248 square meters. The segments were slid into
place over the Founder’s Hall. The canopy is buttressed on the front side only,
relying on a cantilevered construction for support. For environmental purposes,
each pillar is filled with 330 tons of water for stability. The support
structure has been left open in front (left in the photo) to provide natural
conditions for the legendary gingko tree in front of the Goeidō.
with a display of worn-out and replacement roof tiles. The roof is covered with
a total of 115,000 tiles. By November 2000, the tiles had been individually
removed by skilled technicians and scrupulously examined to determine age of
production. Reusable ones will be returned to the roof. Ridge ornaments
(finials) prevent water from entering around the edge of the roof. Each weighs
one ton and consists of 40 segments. It took two days to remove each by crane.