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Review of Pure Land Buddhism Part 4:
The Life and Teachings of Honen


                      Honen was the founder of the Jodo Shu, or Pure Land school and was the first of the Kamakuran reformers. He was born in Mimasaka Province (modern day Okayama Prefecture) as the son of a local samurai. Unfortunately, in the year 1141, the local estate manager for the retired emperor murdered Honen’s father over a land dispute. Honen was only eight years old at the time. It is said that, as he lay dying, Honen’s father begged Honen not to desire revenge or resort to violence but rather to renounce the world and seek enlightenment instead. It is not known what happened to his mother. What is known is that he went to the local Bodaiji temple to live with his uncle, his mother’s younger brother, who was the resident monk there. At age 13, in the year 1145, the talented young man was sent to study at Mt. Hiei, where he was ordained as a Tendai monk two years later. In 1150, disillusioned by the worldliness and brutal power struggles of the warrior monks (sohei) at Enryakuji, the main temple at Mt. Hiei, he moved to the Kurodani area in the western part of the mountain. In Kurodani he studied with Eiku, a disciple of Ryonin, and took the name Honen. There, except for occasional excursions to study in Kyoto or Nara, he spent the next 25 years deeply immersed in the Pure Land teachings and practices that were popular there, especially those of Genshin taught in the Ojo-yoshu. It is said that during this time he read the entire Buddhist canon multiple times (Nichiren says seven) in order to determine the best means of salvation in the Latter Age of the Dharma.


                      In 1175, at the age of 42, Honen chanced upon a passage in Shan-tao’s Commentary on the Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life that he felt clarified everything. The passage asserted that one should simply chant the nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu, single-mindedly at all times, and that this was the practice that accorded with the original vow, or 18th vow, of Amitabha Buddha. This became the inspiration for Honen’s insistence on the exclusive practice of nembutsu. It was even claimed that Honen received confirmation of this new form of Pure Land practice from Shan-tao himself in a dream. Honen soon left Kurodani and moved to the city of Kyoto. He eventually settled in the district known as Otani. There he began to teach all who would listen about the exclusive practice of nembutsu that he insisted could save all people in the Latter Age of the Dharma. According to Honen, all people, without any qualification except faith in Amitabha Buddha, could become assured of rebirth in the Pure Land. In 1186, Honen was given the chance to present and defend his teachings before the leading Buddhist scholars of his day in what is referred to as the Ohara Debate. From that point on his popularity increased and even many of the aristocracy became his followers, including the Fujiwara Regent, Kujo Kanezane (1148-1207). Though Kanezane was deposed in 1196, he continued to be a powerful patron and defender of Honen. Honen’s major work, the Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu, the Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu and the Original Vow, was supposedly written at his request in 1198.


                      But not everyone was impressed by Honen’s teachings. The growing popularity of Honen’s movement and the excesses of some of his followers particularly distressed the monks of Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei. In 1204 they petitioned Emperor Gotoba (1180-1239) to have Honen’s exclusive nembutsu movement suppressed. The Tendai monks were especially disturbed by the antinomian tendencies of Honen’s disciples Gyoku and Junsai (aka Anraku). Gyoku had achieved notoriety by teaching that one need only say the nembutsu once in order to be saved, and that any practice beyond that was superfluous. Junsai had the dubious reputation of being the handsomest monk in Japan and was quite popular with the noble ladies of Kyoto. Honen and his movement had the sympathy of many at court, so no action was taken against him or his followers at that time. Honen himself repudiated the doctrine of “once-calling” and supposedly expelled Gyoku. He also refuted the idea that by relying on the nembutsu one could continue to indulge in wrongdoing. However, both these ideas seemed to be implied in his own teachings on the saving power of even a single recitation of nembutsu. In order to rein in the excesses of some of his disciples, Honen had them sign a seven-article pledge. The pledge is interesting in that it reveals the kinds of abuses of the Pure Land teachings that his followers were prone to. The seven articles consisted of the following:


          1. You must not, in your devotion to Amida, through ignorance of the sutras and commentaries, adversely criticize the principles of either Shingon or Tendai, or despise the other buddhas and bodhisattvas.

          2. The ignorant must not get into angry disputes with men of profound knowledge, who differ from them in the theory and practice of religion.

          3. You must not foolishly and narrow-mindedly insist that people of a different faith and practice from your own give up their distinctive religious practices. Never mock them.

          4. You must not, in the name of the nembutsu, which you say requires no precepts, encourage people to indulge in meat eating, wine drinking, or sexual misconduct. Never say of people who strictly practice the religious disciplines prescribed by their sect, that they belong to the so-called “miscellaneous practicers,” nor that those who trust in the Buddha’s Original Vow never need be afraid of wrongdoing.

          5. Ignorant people who are not yet clear in their own minds about moral distinctions, must not willfully press their own ideals upon others, departing from the sacred teachings of the sutras, and opposing the opinions of their teachers. You must not lead the ignorant astray by getting into quarrelsome disputes with them, which can only bring upon you the derision of the learned.

          6. A dullard yourself, you must not undertake preaching about the Way, and in ignorance of the Wonderful Dharma, expound all sorts of mistaken doctrines sure to have an adverse influence on ignorant clergy and laypeople.

          7. You must not set forth your own opinions contrary to the teaching of the Buddhas, wrongly calling them the views of your teachers.

          (adapted from Honen the Buddhist Saint, p. 551)


                      This did not stop the abuses and excesses however. Nor did it quell the criticisms from the Buddhist establishment. In 1205 a new petition requesting the suppression of Honen and his disciples was presented to Retired Emperor Gotoba (he had retired in the past year) from Kofukuji temple. This petition pointed out nine problems with the Pure Land movement of Honen:


          1. Starting a new sect without government permission.

          2. Painting a doubtful picture representing Amida’s light as illuminating only those who call upon his name, but turning away from those who practice other religious disciplines.

          3. Despising Shakyamuni Buddha who impartially taught multifarious doctrines.

          4. Putting a stop to all religious disciplines.

          5. Rejecting all the gods.

          6. Obscuring the Pure Land sutras and commentaries, which teach that other practices might also lead to the same goal.

          7. Misrepresenting the meaning of the nembutsu by teaching over reliance on the Original Vow to the exclusion of other good practices.

          8. Corrupting the clergy by causing them to neglect monastic discipline.

          9. Disturbing the public order.

          (adapted from Ibid, p. 562)


                      Once again, the imperial court did nothing. Unfortunately, the indiscretion of two of his monks, Juren and the aforementioned Junsai, brought about a new crisis in 1206. While Retired Emperor Gotaba was away on a pilgrimage to the Kumano shrine, these two monks held an all night service at the palace at the invitation of some ladies of the court, two of whom were said to have been ordained without permission. It is not certain that anything untoward occurred, but to have monks staying overnight at the palace and ordaining court ladies without any supervision or permission was too much of a scandal to ignore. The enemies of the Pure Land movement finally got their wish in 1207 as the court ordered the execution of Juren, Junsai, and two other disciples, and the laicization followed by exile of Honen and seven of his disciples. Thanks to his influential friends, like the former regent Kujo Kanezane, Honen’s exile was comparatively mild. He was sent to the province of Tosa on the island of Shikoku and by the end of the year he was pardoned. He was not allowed to return to the capital however, and so he lived just outside Osaka for four years. In 1211 he was allowed to return to Otani in Kyoto, where he died the following year in 1212.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick 2004.

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