Hōnen, a.k.a Honen Bo Genku, (法然; 1133-1212) is credited with the establishment of Jōdo (Pure Land) Buddhism as an independent sect in Japan. He initially studied at the famous temple of Enryakuji atop Mount Hiei, later leaving it to spread his own unique message of salvation to the general population. Hōnen is easily one of the most famous figures in Japanese Buddhism and, unlike his now well-known disciple Shinran, he was renowned in his own day.
Hōnen was born in 1133 in Mimasaka (present day Okayama Prefecture) and became a trainee monk at the Tendai complex on Mt. Hiei, aged twelve, after the murder of his father. During his time on Mt. Hiei he studied the Buddhist canon extensively and gained a reputation as an excellent scholar. However Hōnen’s vigorous studies appear to have been motivated by a dissatisfaction with the Tendai path in which he was ostensibly training. According to biographers, one day he came across Genshin’s Ojoyoshu, which aroused his interest in Pure Land Buddhism and led him in turn to Shan-tao’s Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching) where he discovered the passage:
Simply to bear wholeheartedly in mind the name of Amida whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down; whether one has practiced a long time or short; never abandoning this name from one moment to the next is called the rightly established act because it accords with that Buddha’s vow.
On reading this he became convinced that the Pure Land path was the only one suited to people in the age of mappo:
«In an excess of rejoicing, although there was none to hear, I cried in a loud voice: «In the past, when Amida Buddha was still engaged in practice as Dharmakara , he had already established this practice for persons of limited capacity like myself!» Joy pierced me to the marrow, and my tears fell in torrents.» (Jurokumonki)
As a result of this revelation Hōnen left Mt.Hiei and moved to Hirodani in Nishiyama. Later he moved to Otani on Higashiyama mountain east of Kyoto. He would spend the rest of his life there, except for a period between 1207 and 1211 when he was exiled to Shikoku (due to his disciples converting two of Emperor Gotoba’s ladies in waiting). During the rest of Hōnen’s life he gained many followers and his teachings increasingly drew criticism from the Buddhist esthablishment in Nara and on Mt. Hiei. His written response, the Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu (Passages on the Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow), effectively declared an independent Jōdo (Pure Land) sect for the first time in the history of Buddhism.
Hōnen had many disciples but the most influential were Shoko-bo (1162-1238) founder of the Chinzei lineage which became the Jodo Shu orthodoxy, Shoku the founder of the Seizan lineage, and Shinran (1173-1262) who inspired the formation of the separate Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land Sect).
Hōnen was said to recite the nembutsu thousands of times a day in his later years. In fact, he died in 1212 whilst reciting the nembutsu.
Analysis of various historical documents by the Jodo Shu Research Institute suggests several obvious characteristics of Hōnen’s personality:
- a strict master
- introspective and self-critical
- a bold innovator
- a critic of scholasticism
- a man more concerned with solving the problems of daily life rather than worrying about doctrinal matters
On the latter point Hōnen expressed unusual concern over the spiritual welfare of women. In teaching to them, regardless of social status (from aristocracy to prostitutes), he particularly rejected the significance of menstruation; which wider Japanese religious culture considered to cause spiritual defilement. As a consequence the role of women in the Jodo sects has often been greater than in some other Japanese Buddhist traditions.
About himself Hōnen reportedly said:
the wisdom to teach others. Ku Amida Butsu of Hosshoji, though less intelligent, contributes in leading the people to the Pure Land as an advocate of the nembutsu. After death, if I could be born in the world of humans, I would like to be born a very ignorant man and to diligently practice the nembutsu.(Tsuneni Oserarekeru Okotoba — Common Sayings of Honen)
Hōnen’s teachings are briefly summarised in his final work, the Ichimai Kishomon (One Sheet Document):
«In China and Japan, many Buddhist masters and scholars understand that the nembutsu is to meditate deeply on Amida Buddha and the Pure Land. However, I do not understand the nembutsu in this way. Reciting the nembutsu does not come from studying and understanding its meaning. There is no other reason or cause by which we can utterly believe in attaining birth in the Pure Land than the nembutsu itself. Reciting the nembutsu and believing in birth in the Pure Land naturally gives rise to the three minds (sanjin) and the four modes of practice (shishu). If I am withholding any deeper knowledge beyond simple recitation of the nembutsu, then may I lose sight of the compassion of Shakyamuni and Amida Buddha and slip through the embrace of Amida’s original vow. Even if those who believe in the nembutsu deeply study all the teachings which Shakyamuni taught during his life, they should not put on any airs and should practice the nembutsu with the sincerity of those untrained followers ignorant of Buddhist doctrines.I hereby authorize this document with my hand print. The Jodo Shu way of the settled mind (anjin) is completely imparted here. I, Genku, have no other teaching than this. In order to prevent misinterpretation after my passing away, I make this final testament.»
Unlike the Jodo Shinshu sect, the Jodo Shu maintain a priesthood who formally undertake to keep the Buddhist precepts. In addition it is considered that the nembutsu should be said as much as possible. Hōnen’s practical advice on practicing the nembutsu was:
«If, because it is taught that birth is attained with but one or ten utterances, you say the Nembutsu heedlessly, then faith is hindering practice. If, because it is taught that you should say the Name without abandoning it from moment to moment, you believe one or ten utterances to be indecisive, then practice is hindering faith.As your faith, accept that birth is attained with a single utterance; as your practice, endeavour in the Nembutsu throughtout life.»
- Sho-on Hattori, A Raft from the Other Shore — Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo Shu Press, Tokyo, 2000)
- Takahashi Koji, «Senchakushu no seikaku ni tsuite: tokuni hi ronriteki ichimen o chushin to shite.» in Jodokyo no shiso to bunka, Etani Festschrift (Kyoto: Dohosha, 1972) Hōnen