Ippen | Ji-shū

Ippen statue | Shōjōkō-ji, Fujisawa, Japan
Ippen statue | Shōjōkō-ji, Fujisawa, Japan

1. Ippen

Ippen Shōnin (1239–1289) was a Japanese Buddhist itinerant preacher (hijiri) who founded the Ji-shū ("Time sect") branch of Pure Land Buddhism.

Ippen insisted that his practice was made for the Age in which he lived and so gave it the name Ji, which means period or time.

2. Life

Ippen was born as the second son of Michihiro Kōno from the powerful local clan in Iyo Province (Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture) on the island of Shikoku.

Ippen entered the Buddhist priesthood when he was 10 years old, and first practiced in Tendai tradition under Kedai Shōnin, but later under Shōdatsu Shōnin of the Seizan branch of the Pure Land Buddhism.

When his father died, the 25-year old Ippen returned to secular life and assumed family responsibilities. He got married and became head of the household.

Having returned to his hometown, he spent a life as a half-priest half-layman.

When he was 33 years old, however, he made up his mind to wander all over Japan.

Ippen agreed fully with Hōnen and Shōkū in regarding Amida as the unique and absolute object of reverence and that when one calls upon Amida’s name with his whole heart he is saved by Amida, who in the hour of death comes to welcome him to the Pure Land.

One new feature in his teaching, however, was that instead of appealing to the teaching of his predecessors as the standard for his own system, he appealed directly to Amida himself for confirmation of the truth:

He did this in 1275 through the oracle of the deity at the Kumano shrine, whom he thought was a manifestation of Amida.

There he prayed to the Kami of the shrine for 100 days. On the last day, the oracle spoke to him,

The 6 mystic characters (na-mu-a-mi-da-Butsu) represent the universal absolute Dharma, and all things human and material are nothing but absolute reality.

All action free from affliction is the realization of that absolute reality. The person who comes to know this is most excellent.

Ippen’s heart swelled with joy at hearing these words. They so strongly confirmed his own previous convictions that he at once set out to proclaim his faith to the world.

Ippen (1239–1289) statue | Yugyō-ji Temple

Ippen (1239–1289) statue
Yugyō-ji Temple

Ippen and a band of his followers travelled all over the country, putting the names of new believers into a registration book (kanjincho) and giving out cards on which were inscribed the 6 characters of the nembutsu.

In this way, Ippen continued forward the tradition of the Nembutsu Hijiri, like Kūya and Ryōnin, who brought the nembutsu to the masses.

Ippen and his friends travelled throughout the country proselytizing with their ecstatic Nembutsu Dance, and won a wide following among common people.

Other practices associated with the Ji-shū include scheduled sessions of chanting, the handing out of slips of paper with the Nembutsu written on them, and keeping a register of the converted.

Although Ippen’s teaching is derived from the Pure Land stream, he shows certain differences, such as his sense that faith as an activity of the corrupt mind is utterly powerless to effect human salvation.

Ippen felt one must reject oneself entirely, committing all to Amida. So in the very act of repeating his sacred name, salvation comes without hindrance.

Furthermore, we can see a clear trace of the Zen influence upon Ippen’s thought:

This is illustrated in a well-known conversation between him and the famous Zen priest Hōtō Kokushi. When Ippen remarked,

When I invoke the sacred name, there is neither myself nor the Buddha, but merely the invocation,

Hōtō Kokushi noticed Ippen’s understanding of the Zen transcendence of all limitation of thought.

Ippen's insistence on constant traveling and giving up of family and possessions led to his nicknames: Traveling Saint (Yugyō Shōnin) and Holy Man of Renunciation (Sute hijiri).

In 1289, at the age of 51, he passed away at Kannon-dō Hall at Kōbe (Shinkō-ji Temple, Hyōgo Ward, Kōbe City).

3. Doctrine

Ippen's doctrine was primarily influenced by Shōkū, founder of the Seizan branch of the Pure Land Buddhism, who

insisted that the various Buddhist practices contain no more than a portion of the merit of the single practice of the nembutsu and serve merely to lead people to recite the Nembutsu.

However he was also strongly influenced by the non-dualism of Zen and even received Dharma transmission as a Zen master from Hōtō Kokushi.

4. Legacy

Before his death Ippen burnt all his writings, saying that "they have all become Namu Amida Butsu (devotion to Amida Buddha)", but copies were kept by some of his disciples.

An English translation of his writings is: No Abode: The Record of Ippen.

After Ippen's death many of his disciples appear to have committed suicide, throwing themselves into the sea in the hope of being born in the Pure Land.

Such phenomena perhaps help to explain the limited spread of the Ji-shū, and certainly the ecstatic fervour of the early Ji-shū seems to have militated against mainstream acceptance.

5. Second Patriarch

It was Shinkyō Shōnin (1237–1319), also known as Ta-A Shinkyō who in reality established the denomination following Ippen.

His birthplace may have been Ōita or Kyōto. His life before he met Ippen is hardly known to us. He was given the name Ta-Amidabutsu (= Ta-A) as the 1st disciple of Ippen and travelled with him for 12 years.

After Shinkyō, successive Shōnins (Patriarchs) of Yugyō-ji Temple have been called Ta-A, too. Yugyō-ji Temple is the current Head temple of Ji-shū school, started by Ippen.

Shinkyō Shōnin played a significant role in organising the followers and systematising the Ji-shū Order after Ippen passed away.

Because Ippen wandered from place to place, there had been no repetitive continuity in opportunities to receive teachings.

Shinkyō therefore opened Dōjō-s (practice centres) in various places and made efforts to train priests and improve propagation methods.

Due to his illness, he had stayed alone at Muryōkō-ji Temple in Taima (Minami Ward, Sagamihara City) for 15 years since 1304.

Even during this period, he devoted himself to the development of Ji-shū Denomination by writing the Dōjō-sēmon (the Written Vows for Dōjō-s) in order to propagate Ippen’s teaching.