Skip to main contentThe eight-spoked wheel of Dharma, with a graphic representation of a lotus at its center.

The Story of Shinnyo-en

For more than two thousand years, the peace giving teachings of the Buddha have spread throughout the world, where their universal truths have found new forms of expression and continue to speak to humankind in ever changing circumstances. The unique expression of the Buddha’s teachings that have been passed down through Shinnyo-en were shaped by the lived experiences of its founders, Shinjo and Tomoji Ito.

Everyday Teachings

The Shinnyo teachings are infused with a sense of warmth and humanity thanks to founding Masters Shinjo and Tomoji, who never wavered from their spiritual calling to serve and care for others even through hardship and profound personal loss. From the beginning, Shinjo and Tomoji taught in a way that would allow ordinary people to use Buddhist spiritual practices in their everyday lives to foster wisdom, compassion, and an abiding belief in their own capacity for goodness.

Today, Shinnyo‑en is led by their daughter, Her Holiness Shinso Ito, one of the few women in the world to lead a Buddhist denomination. Her Holiness Shinso has carried forward and expanded on her parents’ work for the twenty-first century.

Side-by-side formal black and white portraits in which Shinjo stands wearing traditional kimono, and Tomoji sits in a chair wearing kimono.
Shinjo and Tomoji Ito soon after their marriage. (ca. 1932)
Blue splotch watercolor illustration

Called to a Life of Spiritual Care

Blue circular stroke watercolor illustrationBlue circular stroke watercolor illustrationBlue circular stroke watercolor illustrationBlue circular stroke watercolor illustration


Shinjo and Tomoji Ito resolve to dedicate themselves to a life of spiritual service to others. This was sparked by a period of deepening spiritual practice and experience following the enshrinement of a very old Buddhist statue in their home. Shinjo resigns his position as an aircraft engineer, takes ordination, and pursues training in the Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism at Daigoji Monastery in Kyoto.

As Shinjo’s training continues and he publicly performs rites in Tachikawa, the community of practitioners forming around the Itos grows to over 200 people.

Shinjo, sits dressed in Dharma robes, conducting a ritual with fire in front of a shrine in a temple space, surrounded by congregants.
Shinjo conducting a homa service. (ca. late 1930s)


Shinjo (seated 4th from right), Tomoji, and infant Chibun (standing behind Shinjo) with the early spiritual community that would become Shinnyo‑en after their first homa ritual, officiated by Rev. Hokai Urano (seated behind table). (1936)

A group portrait in a temple space in which Shinjo, wearing Dharma robes, sits to the right of the officiating priest, Tomoji stands behind them holding infant Chibun.


During this time, the Itos also suffer the terrible loss of their infant son Chibun to a high fever. The heartbreak only strengthens their resolve to pursue a life of service to others.

Tomoji in kimono stands in front of a tree in the park holding an infant as Shinjo in a wide brimmed hat kneels next to her with a toddler; smiling families walk nearby.
The young Ito family at Inokashira Park in western Tokyo. (1935)


The Itos establish the first temple, Shinchoji, for their congregation in Tachikawa.

A temple with tiled, peaked roofs, surrounded by hedges stands across from an empty field of grass.


Shinjo (standing back row center) at completion of the Ein Initiation, conferred by chief abbot Egen Saeki (seated in front) at Daigoji monastery in Kyoto, marking his induction into the Shugendo tradition on October 27th, 1939.

A group of Buddhist priests, 3 seated, 14 standing, all wearing robes, pose for a portrait on a temple portico; the central figure wears elaborate brocade robes adorned with pom-poms.


The chief monk at Daigo-ji monastery recognizes Shinjo as a successor to the lay lineage of spiritual practice at the Daigo school of Shingon Buddhism.

A young, shaven-headed Shinjo, facing camera, sits cross-legged, wearing brocade priestly robes, with a vajra in his right hand at his heart, and a bell in his left in his lap.
Shinjo during religious training. (ca. late 1930s)


The Itos welcome the birth of Masako, their third daughter, who would later succeed Shinjo as the spiritual head of Shinnyo‑en.

A five-year-old Masako, hair cut in a short bob, wearing a checked dress, kneels on the grass before a flowering bush.
Her Holiness Shinso Ito, then Masako, as child (ca. mid‑1940s)


Shinjo (standing, fourth from right) is recognized as a master of the Dual Realm dharma transmission at Daigoji monastery in Kyoto. Shinjo had now completed both lay and monastic/priestly training at the Daigo school of Shingon Buddhism, earning the title Great Acharya.

A group of Buddhist priests wearing formal robes, some seated, the rest standing behind, pose for a portrait in the graveled courtyard of a large temple with tiled roofs.
Yellow splotch watercolor illustration

Forging a New Identity

Yellow circular stroke watercolor illustrationYellow circular stroke watercolor illustrationYellow circular stroke watercolor illustration


As wartime restrictions on the formation of religious groups lifted, Shinjo and Tomoji separate their group from the monastic tradition of Esoteric Buddhism, freeing themselves to develop innovative new methods of spiritual practice focused on integrating Buddhist teachings into lay life.

Shinjo and Tomoji, seated center, wearing priestly robes, pose for a portrait with a large, formally dressed group in front of the gate to Shinchoji temple.
Shinjo and Tomoji with the first Chiryu Gakuin graduating class. (ca. early 1950s)


The Itos renamed their spiritual community “Sangha of Truth,” a name change that signaled the development of the community as a distinct Buddhist denomination focused on lay practice grounded in monastic training.

Shinjo and Tomoji wearing priestly robes stand at the entrance to Shinchoji temple; a pillar bearing Japanese calligraphy is visible to the right.
Shinjo and Tomoji in front of Shinchoji with a plaque reading “Sangha of Truth” (1949).


During a period of extreme suspicion towards new religious groups in Japan after the war, Shinjo is placed under arrest under a false allegation. During his time in jail, Shinjo continued his teachings, counseling both prisoners and guards alike, some of whom later became members of Shinnyo‑en. At Shinjo’s trial in December of 1950 and early January of 1951, the charge against Shinjo was revoked in the face of evidence and the testimony of witnesses, leading to Shinjo’s acquittal.

Following the implementation of the new Religious Corporations Act, the congregation officially adopts the name Shinnyo‑en, meaning “Boundless Garden of Shinnyo.”

Shinjo, in a suit and glasses, stands at the open door to Shinchoji temple; a plaque with Japanese calligraphy hangs to the right of the door, beneath a tiled roof.
Shinjo standing at the gates to Shinchoji; the sign reads, “Shinnyo‑en, Temple Office.” (ca. 1950s)


The Itos son Yuichi, having long suffered from a degenerative hip disorder caused by tuberculosis, passed away after being hospitalized for nearly a year.

Shinjo, in a suit and glasses, leans over the head of a hospital bed, smiling at his teenage son Yuichi, who looks up from beneath a heavy comforter.
Shinjo at the hospital bedside of his son, Yuichi. (1952)


Just two short months after Yuichi’s passing, with their grief still painfully raw, Shinjo and Tomoji officiated over the community’s first lantern floating ceremony at Lake Kasumigaura. Lantern floating ceremonies became an annual summer event on Lake Kasumigaura until 1981, when they were moved to Lake Kawaguchi in Yamanashi.

A beaming Shinjo and Tomoji, wearing lay clothes, pose for a portrait with a smiling group of men, women, and children preparing and stacking paper lanterns.
Shinjo and Tomoji with practitioners preparing for their first lantern floating ceremony at Lake Kasumigaura. (1952)
Green splotch watercolor illustration

Turning to the Nirvana Sutra

Green circular stroke watercolor illustrationGreen circular stroke watercolor illustration


Shinjo establishes the Nirvana Sutra as the central teaching among the words of the Buddha for Shinnyo‑en.

Shinjo, with sculpting implements in hand, and Tomoji, both wearing smocks over their clothing, stand in a studio next to a very large sculpted bust of a smiling buddha.
Shinjo and Tomoji with the Nirvana image. (ca. 1957)


Inspired by a passage in the Nirvana Sutra, Shinjo and Tomoji sculpt a 16-foot long statue of the Buddha reclining as he enters final nirvana, which takes over three months to create. Master Shinjo expressed: “Creating a buddha image is not just about sculpting the physical form of buddhas. My wish is to uncover and develop the buddha nature that is inherent in all. Through this, I want to help everyone become a living buddha.”

Shinjo and Tomoji, both wearing smocks over their clothing, stand in a studio behind a large sculpted bust of a smiling buddha, with a group of five men, dressed in lay clothes, arranged in front.
Shinjo and Tomoji with members of the sangha who helped them create the Nirvana image. (ca. 1957)


After five years of planning and work, the Sesshin Training Hall is dedicated and the Great Parinirvana image is installed there as the main symbol for meditation and practice at Shinnyo‑en.

Shinjo, facing away, conducts a rite on a stage before a massive sculpture of a reclining buddha, with a group of priests seated to the left and laypeople to the right, and an audience looking on.
Shinjo leading the ceremony to inspirit the Nirvana image at Oyasono. (November 3rd, 1957)
Red splotch watercolor illustration

Reaching Out to the World

Red circular stroke watercolor illustrationRed circular stroke watercolor illustrationRed circular stroke watercolor illustration


In the summer months, Masters Shinjo and Tomoji travel to nine countries in Europe and the Middle East. They visit the World Council of Churches and Bible Societies in different countries, with special stops at the Vatican and Israel.

Shinjo in purple robes holding a folding fan and Tomoji in a sky blue kimono lead a procession of formally dressed Japanese people through the stone paved, marble pillared courtyard of the Vatican.
Shinjo and Tomoji upon their arrival in Vatican City. (1967)


Following a period of worsening health after her trip to Europe and the Middle East, Master Tomoji passes away. True to the promise she had made to Master Shinjo upon the founding of the spiritual community—Together will I walk this path with you to the very end—she had accompanied him in all of his efforts until the final days of her life. She taught by example that the path to liberation lies in accumulating small, sincere acts of service to others in our daily lives.

Tomoji, wearing a purple and yellow floral blouse, sits on a large green lawn behind a bush of blooming pink rhododendrons; a lake is visible through trees in the background.
Tomoji sits for a portrait with rhododendrons at Hardangerfjord in Ulvik, Norway. (1967)


In October, Master Shinjo travels to the United States for the first time, attended by his daughter Masako (currently Her Holiness Shinso Ito). During the trip, he met Shinnyo‑en members in Los Angeles, Chicago, Buffalo, and San Francisco. On the way back from the mainland United States, Shinjo and Masako stopped in Hawaii to visit the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, where they offered heartfelt prayers on behalf of the dead.

Shinjo and Masako in lay clothes, facing away, bow their heads in prayer before the marble wall of the Arizona Memorial inscribed with the names of the dead at Pearl Harbor.
Shinjo and Masako offering prayers at the USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (1970)


The first Shinnyo‑en sanctuaries were established outside of Japan during this period. The first to be dedicated was the sanctuary in Hawaii, followed nearly a decade later by sanctuaries in San Francisco, Taipei, and Paris.

A large modern building with a peaked roof overhanging a two story portico approached by divided staircases, the front of which bears the words “Shinnyo-en Hawaii.”
Shinnyo‑en Hawaii (1973)


Masako Ito completes her training, is given the Dharma name “Shinso,” and becomes successor to the Shinnyo Lineage.

Shinjo, white haired, in brocade robes, and Masako, in formal dress, both seated before ornate tables filled with ritual materials, jointly conduct a rite in a temple filled with monks in formal robes.
Shinjo and Shinso at Daigoji monastery in Kyoto officiating at Kukai’s 1,150th memorial service. (1984)
Cyan splotch watercolor illustration

The Next Generation Leads

Cyan circular stroke watercolor illustrationCyan circular stroke watercolor illustrationCyan circular stroke watercolor illustration


Early in the year, Master Shinjo’s health begins to fail. He restricts his activities, residing and conducting services from his room. On July 7th his condition became critical, and on July 19th Master Shinjo passed away at the age of 83.

Her Holiness Shinso Ito Assumes Responsibilities as the Head of Shinnyo‑en.

Shinjo, white haired, mustachioed, and wearing glasses, sits for a portrait in a suit, with a kindly, reflective expression on his face.
A portrait of Master Shinjo. (ca. 1980s)


Her Holiness inaugurates the first annual Memorial Day lantern floating held by Shinnyo‑en in Hawaii at Ke’ehi Lagoon.

Her Holiness stands in bright orange robes, hands in prayer, on an open-air stage near large boat-like lanterns, with yellow-robed priests behind, and a large audience beneath palm trees looking on.


Following the Tohoku Tsunami, Her Holiness and Shinnyo‑en relief volunteers deliver aid to those affected by the disaster in Iwate Prefecture.

Her Holiness, white haired and wearing an orange safety vest, bows to a group of Japanese people, some wearing masks and gloves, in a sand-covered parking lot.


Her Holiness Shinso Ito and members of Shinnyo‑en conduct prayers, rites, and ceremonies with friends in communities around the world. A Fire and Water ceremony is held at the Gallmann Africa Conservancy in Kenya as part of the Global Peace Initiative of Women conference held in Nairobi and Laikipia; a Ceremony for Peace and Friendship is conducted at Wat Paknam monastery in Thailand; the first Shinnyo Lantern Floating for Peace is held at Central Park in New York; and a Prayer for World Peace and a special fire ceremony are held at Saksaywaman in Cusco, Peru.

Her Holiness, in bright orange robes, clasps the hands of an elderly Christian priest in white robes as she looks, smiling, at a Peruvian man dressed in brightly colored traditional dress.
Her Holiness with representatives of Andean faith traditions, Christian priests, and civic leaders in Cusco, Peru for a ceremony to pray for world peace. (2014)


Her Holiness Shinso Ito is recognized for her lifelong commitment as a Buddhist leader with an honorary Doctorate of Philosophy from Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka.

Her Holiness, in a patterned jacket and dress with bright orange kesa, holding a bouquet of flowers, bows slightly to greet seated members of a congregation.
Her Holiness with Shinnyo‑en community members at New Year’s Service. (2021)
Our Story Continues