Name In Japanese: 一遍上人
Pronunciation: ippen shōnin
Period: 1234 to 1289
Ippen Shōnin was a Buddhist itinerant preacher who founded the Ji-shu (Time sect) branch of Pure Land Buddhism. Ippen is said to have been born at Hōgon-ji, a temple in today’s Dōgo, Matsuyama. However, since he was born into the Kōno family, a maritime clan which was then based in Hōjō outside Matsuyama, he was likely born there. After he became famous, his birthplace was probably ‘moved’ to the fashionable Dōgo for the purposes of early tourism.
The young Ippen studied Tendai Buddhism on Mt. Hiei in Kyōto, and then Pure Land Buddhism at Dazaifu in Fukuoka on Kyūshū. But when his father died when Ippen was 25 years old, he gave up his religious studies, married and became head of the household, although he continued to make pilgrimages. The Illustrated Life Story of the Venerable Ippen records that Ippen visited the temple in the middle of the Kamakura period.
On one of these to Kumano in Wakayama, Ippen received a revelation that enlightenment could be achieved by reciting the name of Amida, the principal buddha in Pure Land Buddhism. Ippen devised a religious practice involving chanting the name while performing an ecstatic dance, called nembutsu, which became wildly popular with common people. The nembutsu was performed at regular times, hence its name the “time sect”. With a band of followers, Ippen travelled all over Japan, urging people to give up their families and possessions. He came to be known as the Traveling Saint, and the Holy Man of Renunciation. Images of Ippen show an intense, skeletally thin man in a posture of supplicant prayer.
Before he died, Ippen burnt all his writings, but copies were kept by some of his disciples. After his death, many of his disciples committed suicide, throwing themselves into the sea in the hope of being reborn in the Pure Land. The cult-like practice of wild dancing and the self-destructive denouement meant that Ippen’s sect failed to last beyond the lifetime of its guru, although his name is still revered around Japan.
In 1292, three years after Ippen’s death, Hōgon-ji, was rebuilt by one of Ippen’s disciples. The main hall and several buildings burned down in 2013 although the original gate remains. The other buildings have been rebuilt in a new configuration.