Kakunyo & the Making of Shin Buddhism


A review of Kakunyo and the Making of Shinran and Shin Buddhism, by Christopher Thane Callahan.

Modern and contemporary histories of Shin Buddhism have centered almost exclusively around the figure of Shinran (1173-1263). This focus on Shinran is shaped, paradoxically, both by Tokugawa-period efforts to define Shinshū as a sectarian institution and modern efforts to overcome the institution and so recover a “pure” form of Shinshū. The notion that Shinshū begins with Shinran comes to us not from Shinran himself, however, but from his great-grandson Kakunyo (1270-1351), who establishes Honganji as the center of Shinshū practice and whose biography of Shinran shapes our image of the founder to this day. Christopher Callahan’s “Kakunyo and the Making of Shinran and Shin Buddhism” offers us a compelling “biography of the biographer” (p. 19) and skillfully demonstrates the complex liturgical and discursive functions of Kakunyo’s major works: his ritual manual, the Hōon kōshiki (‘Ceremonial lecture on responding to benevolence’), and his illustrated biography of Shinran, the Shinran den’e. Callahan’s dissertation is one of just a handful of scholarly treatments of those members of Shinran’s family through whom his lineage was transmitted, and the first major study of Kakunyo. It makes a persuasive case for the value of shifting our attention away from religious geniuses and toward the “secondary figures” (p. 16) whose labor establishes the reputation of those geniuses.

Working to Callahan’s advantage here is the fact that Kakunyo’s own life is full of drama and intrigue. In Chapter 1, “A Biography of the Biographer,” Callahan lays out the events of Kakunyo’s life, from his early education under Tendai teachers (p. 24) — including not one but two episodes in which his youthful beauty attracts the attention of a senior monk, leading to an abduction or attempted abduction (pp. 28­­-29) — to the transformative encounters with Shinran’s disciples Nyoshin and Yuien (pp. 31-32) that would inspire Kakunyo’s “conversion to the Pure Land path” and subsequent “journey to discover the message of his great-grandfather” (p. 31), and on through the turbulent decades that followed as Kakunyo struggled to establish his familial claim to Shinran’s gravesite and then to establish the gravesite as the center of the Shinshū community (p. 21). Callahan draws on a rich set of resources in developing his biography of the biographer: not only the illustrated biographies produced posthumously by Kakunyo’s own direct disciples (the Bokiekotoba, by his son Jūkaku, and the Saishukyōjūekotoba, by his disciple Jōsen), but also the memoirs of Kakunyo’s son Zonkaku, with whom Kakunyo had a somewhat strained relationship, as well as legal documents and family records produced as a result of ongoing disputes around the ownership of the Ōtani memorial site (pp. 20-21). As a result, Callahan is able to develop a detailed account of the fight for Ōtani, which is unmentioned in the biographies. What emerges is a fascinating picture of Kakunyo’s resilience: when his uncle and antagonist Yuizen destroys the gravesite and flees with the memorial image and relics, Kakunyo takes this as an opportunity to “reimagine” the memorial site as a temple (p. 51), taking “creative control of the ‘image’ of Shinran, an image he had crafted in his biographies” (p. 51); we see him follow the same pattern near the end of his life, when the original manuscript of the biography is destroyed in a fire — he promptly produces a new edition which “refashioned his early work in a manner that fit with his fully articulated orthodox vision of Shinran, his teaching and the community” (p. 73). While we are used to looking past Kakunyo to Shinran, in this chapter Callahan shows us how the facts of Kakunyo’s life are imbricated in our vision of Shinran.

In Chapter 2, Callahan turns his attention to Kakunyo’s Hōon kōshiki. Kōshiki have an important place in the history of Japanese Pure Land generally — Genshin’s Nijūgo zanmai shiki is usually identified as the first instance of the genre (p. 86) — and the Hōon kōshiki in particular is an important Shinshū liturgical text. Despite this, Callahan tells us, it has “received little notice,” perhaps precisely because of its status as “a ritual text in a community that is largely perceived as having little concern for ritual” (p. 76). Callahan animates the Hōon kōshiki by reading it as a “ritual biography” (p. 76). It functions as biography, he argues, insofar as it effectively narrates the “‘life’ of Shinran’s teaching” (p. 83), from his promulgation of Pure Land practice in his life through the ongoing salutary effects of his “transformative guidance” (p. 83). It functions as ritual biography, Callahan argues, insofar as it works to “re-shape reality” (p. 93) by establishing a complex set of karmic relationships, or kechien (p. 85). These relationships are organized under two broad headings: “in” the text and “by” the text. The relationships crafted in the text are relationships of identity between Shinran and Amida (or more precisely, between Shinran’s virtue and Amida’s benevolence) (p. 96), and between Shinran and Śākyamuni, both figured as “fundamental teachers” (honshi) (p. 97). The relationships crafted by the text are affective relationships between the practitioner and Shinran (doubling for both Amida and Śākyamuni) (p. 98), and among practitioners who have “gathered with a common object of devotion” (p. 85). The desired affect here is hōon, which is often glossed as gratitude, and which Callahan translates more exactingly as “responding to benevolence” (p. 100). The notion of hōon is a major focus of the third chapter.

Callahan argues at the end of Chapter 2 that Kakunyo “redefined Shin Buddhist piety and the practice of the nembutsu” as hōon, positioning it as “the essential religious practice fundamental for birth in the Pure Land” (p. 100); in Chapter 3, “Transforming Memorial Services into Founder Worship,” he reaffirms this: “it can be said that Kakunyo reconceived all ritual and religious practice in terms of gratitude” (p. 142). Under Kakunyo’s influence, the memorial service becomes the primary ritual form through which to express gratitude, or “respond to benevolence”; this is accomplished, Callahan suggests, through Kakunyo’s careful construction of a liturgy that has a “dialogic character” (p. 128): “Kakunyo’s Hōon kōshiki repeatedly reaches out to the audience, asking rhetorical questions, inviting their participation in the narrative performance” (p. 129). By centering the memorial service, Kakunyo also centers the memorial site, and of course the person memorialized there. The second part of Chapter 3 focuses on how Kakunyo uses the memorial services to shift the focus of the devotional gaze away from Hōnen and other patriarchs (p.148), training it on Shinran exclusively.

In the fourth and final chapter, Callahan takes up the Shinran den’e, paying particular attention to the changes Kakunyo makes to the biography over the course of various editions, revealing what Callahan calls an “evolving biographic vision” (p. 153); in the same way that his larger work seeks to return to Kakunyo, this Chapter seeks to return the Biography to its “moment of production” (p. 167). Callahan’s approach here is distinguished by his attention to genre and literary form (p. 183). He shows that the Biography can be read as drawing on three distinct medieval genres: the denki, or record of transmission (p. 185); the shō, or record of teachings (p. 188); and the engi, or record of the origins of a sacred site (p. 190). This last item reveals how the Biography works to interweave the life of Shinran with the life of Honganji (p. 191). Callahan goes on to suggest that the Biography can be read as ordered spatially rather than chronologically (p. 200); he illuminates a pattern of departure and return undergirding the Biography, and argues that members of the Shinshū community are enjoined to reproduce that pattern in their own regular journeys to Honganji (p. 202).

Callahan’s study leaves us convinced that Kakunyo, to whom the tradition pays so little regard, is the major force in the creation of the Shinran whom the tradition remembers so faithfully. The dissertation takes an overlooked secondary figure and reveals how interesting he is as a personality. And it takes two understudied texts and brings them to life, using the Hōon kōshiki to reveal the ritual heart beating within a tradition that purports to have no interest in ritual and uncovering an elegant and cohesive skeleton structuring the Biography, a text that has elsewhere been described as just a patchwork (p. 192). This is essential reading for those interested in the development of Shinshū praxis and will be provocative, productive reading for anyone interested in religious biography.

Melissa Anne-Marie Curley
Department of Religious Studies
University of Iowa

Primary Sources

Kashiwara Yūsen, Chiba Jōryū, Hiramatsu Reizō, and Mori Ryūkichi, eds. Shinshū shiryō shūsei, 13 vols. Kyoto: Dōbōsha, 1974-183.
Takakusu Junjiro and Watanabe Kaikyoku, eds. Taishō shinshū daizōkyō, 85 vols., Tokyo: Taishō Issaikyo Kankōkai, 1976.

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2011. 228 pp. Primary Advisor: Ryūichi Abe.


Image: Kakunyo making the Shinran den’e. 重文『慕帰絵詞(ぼきえことば)』〔部分・行状絵を制作する覚如〕 南北朝時代・観応2(1351)年 京都・西本願寺所蔵. Collected by the Nishi Hongan-ji, Kyoto.

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