About Higashi Honganji

Higashi Honganji

About Higashi Honganji
About Higashi Honganji Opening Hours access information

About Higashi Honganji

What is Higashi Honganji?

Higashi Honganji, officially known as Shinshū Honbyō, is the mother temple of the Shinshū Ōtani-ha branch of Jōdo Shinshū (Shin Buddhism), whose founder is Shinran (1173-1262).
The image of Shinran is enshrined on the altar in the Founder's Hall, while that of Amida Buddha is in Amida Hall.
After the death of Shinran, a mausoleum was constructed by his close followers at Ōtani in Kyoto, and his ashes interred there, from which the present Higashi Honganji eventually came into being many years later.
Since then, with tremendous support from its followers, Higashi Honganji has been serving as a spiritual center, where one can encounter the Nenbutsu teaching as clarified by Shinran, so as to discover the meaning of life and to awaken to a true relationship with the Dōbō (those, following the same path).
Through the encounter with his teacher Hōnen (1133-1212), Shinran was able to discover the Nenbutsu Path of the Primal Vow, which transcended life and death, and so overcame suffering and anxiety in his own life.
Therefore, for those of us living in such turbulent times as these, unable to find any meaning in life or a will to live, this teaching is indeed a great light and comfort.

Ōtani Sobyō (Ōtani Mausoleum)

Shinran, who passed away at the age of ninety on November 28, 1262, was cremated at Higashiyama Toribeno in Kyoto, and his ashes were interred at Ōtani. A mausoleum was built there, in which a figure of Shinran was enshrined. This, then, is the origin of the present Higashi Honganji.

The scene of "The Establishment of Ōtani Mausoleum." This was built ten years after Shinran's passing. (Reprinted from the Honganji Shōnin Denne)

The Establishment of Honganji

The Ōtani Mausoleum was built through the cooperation of Shinran's daughter, Kakushinni, and his close followers in the Kantō area. The position of "caretaker" (rusu-shiki) was inherited from Kakushinni by her first son, Kakue, followed by her grandson, Kakunyo, who became the 3rd successor. He eventually changed the name of the mausoleum to "Honganji," which then became officially recognized as a temple. Later, Honganji became affiliated with the Tendai temple Shōren-in, where Shinran had been ordained, and began to take on the traits of that particular Buddhist school, such as having a gomadan (a place on the altar to burn small pieces of wood to invoke divine help).

The room in which Shinran received ordination at Shōren-in (Higashiyama, Kyoto)

Restoration by Rennyo

The 7th successor, Zonnyo, built two halls at Honganji: the Founder's Hall (Goei-dō), in which the image of our founder, Shinran, was enshrined and Amida Hall (Amida-dō) where the figure of Amida Nyorai (Amida Buddha) was placed. Zonnyo promoted the teaching in Ōmi province (present-day Shiga prefecture) and the Hokuriku region (on the Sea of Japan).

Rennyo, Zonnyo's son, became the 8th successor in 1457, and began to reform Honganji where "not even a single person attended," by abolishing the services and adornments of the Tendai denomination. Instead, he established the format of chanting Shōshinge and Wasan (hymns) composed by Shinran. Further, through positively introducing the teaching to Ōmi province, he was able to make connections with many followers there.

However, the Tendai monks of Mt. Hiei felt threatened by these activities and destroyed Honganji. Rennyo escaped to Ōmi province, and later began a community in Yoshizaki in Echizen province (present-day Fukui prefecture), where he continued propagation. He spread Shinran's teaching to many people, especially through easily understandable pastoral letters, called Ofumi, and by organizing local gatherings ().

When Yoshizaki became prosperous, discord with other established religious groups arose and political confrontations developed, resulting in the Shinshū followers' uprisings (ikko-ikki). Deploring the expansion of such conflicts, Rennyo left for Kawachi province (present-day Osaka prefecture) and spread the Nenbutsu teaching there.

Thereafter, with the aim of rebuilding Honganji, Rennyo headed for Yamashina, Kyoto. While spending six years there from 1478, he concentrated the efforts of his followers throughout the country so as to construct a temple complete with buildings including the Founder's Hall and Amida Hall. Followers, merchants and craftsmen gathered around the temple and established a town, which was described as being "splendid like the Buddha-land."

The 8th successor, Rennyo
The "Clearing the Gutter" letter (Ofumi) in Rennyo's own handwriting
A replica of Yamashina Honganji. (Property of the National Museum of Japanese History, Chiba prefecture)

The Battle of Ishiyama

In 1532, the followers of the Hokke-shū (Nichiren denomination), who feared the expansion of Honganji's power, suddenly attacked and burned down Honganji at Yamashina. The 10th successor, Shōnyo, fled to Osaka (Ishiyama) and established the main temple there. Just as in Yamashina, a temple town developed around Honganji.

However, around the time of the 11th successor, Kennyo, Honganji was again faced with a crisis. Oda Nobunaga, who was aspiring to bring the whole country under his rule, demanded the possession of Osaka Honganji because of its ideal geographic and strategic location. Honganji refused and fighting began in 1570. This is known as the Battle of Ishiyama. Although Honganji confronted Nobunaga through the help of followers throughout the country and feudal lords such as Mōri, it finally made peace in 1580 and Osaka Honganji was handed over to Nobunaga.

A model of the temple town of Osaka Honganji.
(Property of Nanba Betsuin Temple, Osaka prefecture)

The Split into Higashi and Nishi

Two years after Honganji had left Osaka, and after Nobunaga had died in the Honnōji Incident, Toyotomi Hideyoshi treated Honganji well, and donated land in Tenma, Osaka and later in Horikawa Shichijō, Kyoto. However, in 1592, right after Honganji had moved to Kyoto, Kennyo passed away and was succeeded by his first son Kyōnyo. A dispute concerning succession arose, however, in the following year, and Hideyoshi was asked to arbitrate. He decided that Kyōnyo should step down and hand over the position to his younger brother, Junnyo. Later, in 1602, Kyōnyo built another temple in Karasuma Rokujō, on land donated to him by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Thus, Honganji was split into two, caused originally by the conflict between the reconciliation (Kennyo) and resistance (Kyōnyo) factions in the Battle of Ishiyama and the temple in Karasuma came to be called "Higashi (East) Honganji."

Despite the split, Higashi Honganji and its followers established a firm foundation as a major Buddhist denomination in Japan. Buildings, including the Founder's Hall and Amida Hall, were destroyed by fire four times during the Edo period and were rebuilt each time. The present two halls were completed in 1895.

he 12th successor, Kyōnyo, who had appealed for a do-or-die resistance against Nobunaga, and later set up Higashi Honganji in Karasuma


After being divided into Higashi and Nishi, Higashi Honganji planned to rebuild its two halls for Shinran’s 400th Memorial Service for 1661. The Founder’s Hall, completed in 1658, was huge, almost the same size as the present one, while Amida Hall was half the size. Paintings by artists such as Kanō Sanraku and Kaihō Yushō embellished other buildings’ partitions and sliding doors.

However, about 130 years later, in 1788, a great fire ravaged the entire city of Kyoto, destroying the two halls and other buildings. With the help of followers throughout the country and materials donated by the Tokugawa shogunate, the Founder’s Hall was rebuilt in 1797, and Amida Hall in the following year. The size of the Founder’s Hall was almost the same, though Amida Hall became a little bigger. Owing to the circumstances surrounding the splitting up of the denomination into Higashi and Nishi, the Tokugawa shogunate treated the former well, and at times also donated building materials for later reconstruction in 1823 and in 1858.

However, only twenty-five years after the rebuilding of the two halls, they were again burned down with other buildings in 1823 due to an accidental fire within the premises. These were rebuilt in 1835. Both the Founder’s Hall and Amida Hall were of the same size as before.

“The Diary of the Reconstruction of the Two Halls” — a description of the 1797 reconstruction. An official record of the fire and reconstruction made by the retainers of Higashi Honganji.
Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s handwritten letter, appreciating the cooperation toward the second expedition against the Chōshū domain (present-day Yamaguchi prefecture).

In 1858, a fire broke out in a private house in Suwa-chō, north of the temple, and Higashi Honganji suffered the tragedy of losing the two halls and other buildings yet again. With Shinran’s 600th Memorial Service at hand in 1861, these various structures needed to be rebuilt quickly. With no time to wait for donations from the shogunate, two temporary halls were built in only two years. Though temporary, they were exactly the same dimensions as those built in 1835, as were the other buildings. When Tokugawa (Hitotsubashi) Yoshinobu visited Kyoto for the first time after becoming the guardian to the shōgun, he used them for his lodgings for a few months.

In the tumultuous period of the closing days of the Tokugawa shogunate, a fire caused by the Kinmon (Hamaguri Gomon) Incident of July 19, 1864, completely destroyed Higashi Honganji’s two halls once more together with the mansion in Shōsei-en Garden.

In 1879 (Meiji 12), after the confusion of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the rebuilding of the two halls finally started. For the most part, it was decided to follow the same scale and design of the halls built in 1835. However, this time, Amida Hall was reconstructed slightly larger.

Itō Heizaemon from Owari province (present-day Aichi prefecture) was the master builder of the Founder’s Hall, and Kigo Tōsai from west Kyoto, rebuilt Amida Hall. Both had participated in the rebuilding of the previous halls, and had the best techniques and creative vision of that time. Many of the other craftsmen had also had such a previous experience. It could be said that this final construction of Higashi Honganji was the last public stage for temple-shrine carpenters (do-miya daiku), who had worked in the Edo period, to exhibit their expertise.

Huge pieces of timber were donated for this operation. Beginning with the Hokuriku district, lumber-landing places were built at ports throughout the country. From there, it was transferred to Osaka, and then transported to Kyoto by train. For sawing and various other kinds of preparations, a huge tract of land south of Higashi Honganji, north of Kyoto station, was used as a workplace, and a special railway line was built to serve it. The followers in Mikawa province (present-day Aichi prefecture) undertook the roof-tile preparation, baking about 300,000 tiles and delivering them to the temple. Followers in Owari province and Osaka donated most of the more than 1,200 tatami mats for the two halls.

Owing to the contributions from these followers, in 1895, eighteen years after the announcement of the reconstruction effort, the two halls were at last completed. The reconstruction of other buildings progressed steadily and in 1911, the year of Shinran’s 650th Memorial Service, with both the White and Black Halls (Shiro and Kuro Shoin), the Founder’s Hall Gate, and the Amida Hall Gate already completed, Higashi Honganji had almost regained its former appearance.

Comparative drawings of both the 1835 and 1895 constructions. The Founder’s Hall was originally planned to be smaller than the one built in 1835, but it was finally decided to keep it the same size.
A round roof tile from the Founder’s Hall. The inscription on it was written by the 13th successor, Sennyo.
An application for donating lumber, in response to the shortage of building materials for the Amida Hall.
An application for donating lumber, in response to the shortage of building materials for the Amida Hall.
A record of followers who donated tatami mats, mostly from Osaka and Nagoya.
The ceremony of moving Shinran’s image held in 1895. Here, a festive atmosphere among the followers gathered in front of the halls can be seen.

Even though Higashi Honganji repeatedly encountered tragedies throughout its history, with fires on four different occasions, each time all the denomination’s community concentrated its aspirations, and rebuilt the two halls without reducing or simplifying its scale, but rather increased the depth of their magnificence and dignity. This represents the manifestation of the religious mind of our predecessors, which seemed to well up from deep within their hearts. The existence of the two halls is irreplaceable, conveying the hardships experienced through the history of reconstruction and reminding us of our predecessors’ respect for Shinshū Honbyō, the central practicing place of our denomination.

A large sleigh and hair rope
Both still convey the efforts and exertions of followers in those times.
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