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by Ryuei Michael McCormick > Historic Buddha > Mahayana > Lotus Sutra > Blog

Review of Pure Land Buddhism Part 5:
The Pure Land School after Honen


                      In 1212, the very year that Honen passed away, his main work the Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu (Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu and the Original Vow), was published for the first time. Now the teachers of the established schools of Buddhism were truly outraged, and this time at Honen himself. Prior to his death, Honen may have had his enemies, but most viewed him as an orthodox Tendai monk with a single-minded focus on vocal nembutsu practice and the desire to share it with as many people as possible. In this sense, he fit the mold of earlier Pure Land popularizers like Gyogi or Kuya. Aside from that, he continued to uphold the precepts, he was well known as an ordination master, he participated in the rites of esoteric Buddhism, and he even kept a record of his deep meditative experiences and visualizations which were like those taught in Genshin’s Ojo-yoshu. With the publication of the Senchaku Shu, however, it became clear that the excesses of his disciples might actually have been in accord with the more radical ideas that Honen had kept to himself and his inner circle. The Senchaku Shu was roundly condemned, even by those who had formerly held Honen himself in high esteem for his scholarly acumen and personal integrity even as they had looked askance at the Pure Land movement he had inspired.


                      The first serious critique of Honen was by Koin (1145-1216) of the Onjoji Temple of the Tendai school. He wrote the Jodo Ketsugi Sho (Discerning the Meaning of the Pure Land) in which he critiqued Honen for saying that only the nembutsu could lead to rebirth in the Pure Land. Koin asserted that the Lotus Sutra led to instant rebirth in the Pure Land and that even the Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life spoke of attaining rebirth in the Pure Land through the recitation of the Mahayana sutras in addition to the nembutsu. Pure Land hagiographies of Honen claim that Honen himself convinced Koin that he was in error, converted him to the Pure Land cause, and that Koin then burned the Jodo Ketsugi Sho himself.


                      A more substantial critique came from Myoe Koben (1172-1232) of the Kegon School (the older Nara school of Buddhism based on the Flower Garland Sutra). The very year of the publication of the Senchaku Shu he produced the Zaijarin (Refuting the Evil Dharma) to refute it, and one year later he wrote the Zaijarin Shogonki (Supplementary Writing to Refuting the Evil Dharma). Myoe’s critique was reinforced in 1225 in the Tendai monk Josho’s work Dan Senchaku (Denouncing the Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu). A summary of these critiques is given in A History of Japanese Religion:


          Koben’s main grievances were that Honen had ignored the ‘aspiration to enlightenment’ (bodaishin), which Koben considered to be fundamental to all Buddhism, and that Honen had outrageously compared the Gate of the Holy Path - the Tendai, Shingon, and Kegon sects - to a band of robbers. (The doctrine of the aspiration to enlightenment implies that all living things possess the potential for enlightenment and that they need to arouse and realize that potential.) Koben also claimed that Honen rejected the attainment of enlightenment in this life as a Difficult Practice and insisted that the nembutsu alone was sufficient to ensure rebirth in the Pure Land, there being no need for the aspiration to enlightenment. Yet for Koben, there could be no Buddhism without the aspiration to enlightenment.

          Koben described Honen as ‘chief destroyer of the Law in the present age,’ ‘the greatest enemy of Buddhism in the three worlds of the past, present, and future,’ and ‘a great misleader of sentient beings.’ In their objections and the vehemence of their rhetoric, the writings of Koin and Josho resembled those of Koben; together these works fueled the controversy surrounding nembutsu practice and the community of nembutsu believers.” (p. 176)


                      Ryukan (1148-1227), one of Honen’s closest disciples, rose to the challenge of countering these refutations. In response to Josho’s Dan Senchaku, he wrote the Ken Senchaku (Revealing the Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu). The response of Josho and the Tendai school in 1227 was to destroy Honen’s tomb and burn the wood blocks used to print the Senchaku Shu. This was done with the consent of the imperial court. In addition, the court exiled Ryukan and many other members of the Pure Land movement. Though Ryukan himself did not advocate it, the court especially wanted to get rid of those disciples of Honen who taught the radical doctrine of once calling, like Jokakubo Kosai (1163-1247).


These refutations and persecutions did not put a stop to Honen’s Pure Land movement. His disciples continued to spread his teachings and gain sympathizers both among the common people and the nobility, and in time even many of the temples of the established schools, such as Tendai and Shingon, became centers of Pure Land practice and devotion following the teachings of Honen.


The mainstream of Honen’s Jodo Shu or Pure Land School is considered to be the Chinzei branch of Shokobo Bencho (1162-1238). He met Honen in Kyoto in 1197 and became his disciple in 1199. From 1204 until his death he propagated Honen’s teachings in northern Kyushu. Unlike the more radical disciples of Honen, Bencho taught that one should continue to chant the nembutsu throughout one’s life as opposed to relying on the single recitation of nembutsu, or once-calling. In addition, he taught that it was possible to attain rebirth in the Pure Land through other practices besides the nembutsu in accordance with the other vows of Amitbaha Buddha. Because his teaching was not so radical or exclusive, he had an easier time gaining support from the Tendai establishment. He is considered to be the second patriarch of the Jodo Shu after Honen.


                      Ryochu (1199-1287) was a Tendai monk who became Bencho’s disciple in 1236. He later moved to Kamakura and received the patronage of Hojo Tsunetoki, the fourth regent, and established the Komyoji Temple there in 1243. He is considered the third patriarch of the Jodo Shu. Ryochu and his disciple Gyobin would later come into conflict with Nichiren in Kamakura. Gyobin in particular made several accusations against Nichiren to the shogunate that led to Nichiren’s near execution at Tatsunokuchi in 1271.


                      There were many other disciples of Honen who also succeeded in spreading his teachings. Zenne Shoku (1177-1247) is notable for bringing about the acceptance of Honen’s teaching among the aristocracy in Kyoto and for founding the more Tendai oriented Seizan branch of the Jodo Shu. One of his grand disciples was Ippen (1239-1289) the founder of the Ji (Timely) school of Pure Land Buddhism that was one of the strongest of the Pure Land schools until the 16th century. Shinran (1173-1262), the founder of the Jodo Shinshu, was also a disciple of Honen. In fact, he was among those exiled in 1204. From the 16th century on the Jodo Shinshu became the most powerful and influential of all the Pure Land schools and one of the largest of all the schools of Japanese Buddhism to this day.


                      It should be pointed out, however, that until the time of Shogei (1340-1420), the seventh successor of Honen in the Chinzei branch, the Jodo Shu was considered a sub-sect of Tendai and was not able to ordain it’s own monks or maintain temples not affiliated with Tendai. From the point of view of Nichiren, the Pure Land movement had not been successfully refuted since its followers abounded and the movement lived on, now hosted by the Tendai temples themselves who had gone from critiquing it to accommodating it. Seeing the mass popularity of Honen’s teachings and the support given it by its former opponents Nichiren had this to say in his earlier work the Shugo Kokka Ron (Treatise on Protecting the Nation) about the previous critiques of Koin, Myoe, and Josho:


          Many books have been written with the aim of refuting this evil doctrine, such as Discerning the Meaning of the Pure Land, Denouncing the Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu, and Refuting the Evil Dharma. Although the authors of these books are all well-known Buddhist monks of high virtue, they have not thoroughly revealed the fundamental reason why the Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu discredits the True Dharma. Contrary to their intention, therefore, they only helped to propagate the book. They are like a light drizzle during a severe drought, that helps to kill the trees and grasses instead of reviving them, or like cowardly soldiers placed in the front lines of a battle, who only serve to encourage the powerful enemy. (WNS: D1, p. 4)


                      Nichiren hoped to make up for this with a more powerful critique grounded on faith in the Lotus Sutra and a call to return to Tendai orthodoxy in his Shugo Kokka Ron (Treatise on Protecting the Nation) written in 1259 and in his magnum opus the Rissho Anokoku Ron (Treatise on Spreading Peace Throughout the Country by Establishing the True Dharma) in 1260. Now that we have reviewed the background of the target of Nichiren’s critique we can return to the Rissho Ankoku Ron itself.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

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