Hōnen | Biography | 1


1. Hōnen

Hōnen (May 13, 1133 – February 29, 1212) was the religious reformer and founder of the first independent branch of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism called Jōdo-shū ("The Pure Land School"). He is also considered the 7th Jōdo Shinshū Patriarch.

Hōnen became a Tendai initiate at an early age, but grew disaffected and sought an approach to Buddhism that anyone could follow, even during the perceived Age of Dharma Decline.

After discovering the writings of the Chinese Buddhist Shandao, he undertook the teaching of rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitābha through Nianfo or "recitation of the Buddha's name".

Hōnen gathered a wide array of followers and critics.

Emperor Tsuchimikado exiled Hōnen and his followers in 1207 after an incident regarding 2 of his disciples in addition to persuasion by influential Buddhist communities.

Hōnen was eventually pardoned and allowed to return to Kyoto, where he stayed for a short time before his death.

2. Early life

Hōnen was born to a prominent family in the city of Kume in Mimasaka Province.

His father was Uruma no Tokikuni, a province official who headed up policing in the area. His mother was of the Hada clan, whose ancestry could be traced back to the silk merchants of China.

Hōnen was originally named Seishimaru after the Bodhisattva Daiseishi (Sanskrit Mahāsthāmaprāpta).

In 1141 Hōnen's father was assassinated by Sada-akira, an official sent by Emperor Horikawa to govern the province. It is believed that Tokikuni's last words to his son were:

"Don't hate the enemy but become a monk and pray for me and for your deliverance."

Fulfilling his father's wishes for him, Hōnen was initiated into his uncle's monastery at the age of 9.

From then on, Hōnen lived his life as a monk, and eventually studied at the primary Tendai temple at Mount Hiei near Kyoto. Clerics at Mt. Hiei took the Bodhisattva Vows and then undertook 12 years of training at Mt. Hiei, a system developed by the Tendai founder, Saichō.

While at Mt. Hiei, Hōnen studied under Genkō, Kōen and later, with Eikū:

Under Kōen he was officially ordained as a Tendai priest, while under Eikū he received the name Hōnen-bō Genkū:

In speaking of himself, Hōnen often referred to himself as Genkū, as did his close disciples.

3. Departure from Mt. Hiei

While studying on Mt. Hiei, Hōnen devoted his time to finding a way to bring salvation to all beings through Buddhism, but was not satisfied with what he found at Mt. Hiei.

At the age of 24, Hōnen then went to study at the city of Saga, then Nara, and stayed at such temples at Kōfuku-ji and Tōdai-ji. Still not satisfied, he returned to the libraries of Mt. Hiei and studied further.

During this period, Hōnen read a Pure Land Buddhist text called the Commentaries on the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra authored by the Chinese Pure Land master Shandao (613-681), notably the statement:

"Only repeat the name of Amitābha with all your heart. Whether walking or standing, sitting or lying, never cease the practice of it even for a moment.

This is the very work which unfailingly issues in salvation, because is in accordance with the Original Vow of that Buddha."

This commentary persuaded Hōnen to believe that Nianfo, called Nembutsu in Japanese, was all one needed to enter Amitābha's Pure Land.

Previously, Nianfo was recited along with other practices, but Shandao was the first to propose that only Nianfo was necessary. This new appreciation and understanding prompted Hōnen to leave Mt. Hiei and the Tendai tradition in 1175.

4. Beginnings of a New Sect

Hōnen relocated to the district of Ōtani in Kyoto, where he started addressing crowds of men and women, establishing a considerable following.

Hōnen attracted fortune-tellers, ex-robbers, samurai and other elements of society normally excluded from Buddhist practice.

Hōnen was a man of recognition in Kyoto, and many priests and nobleman allied with him and visited him for spiritual advice. Among them was an imperial regent named Kujō Kanezane (Fujiwara no Kanezane, 1149–1207).

The increasing popularity of his teachings drew criticism from noted contemporaries as Myōe and Jōkei among others, who argued against Hōnen's sole reliance on Nembutsu as a means of rebirth in a Pure Land.

Additionally, some disciples interpreted Hōnen's teachings in unexpected ways, leading to disreputable behaviour, criticism of other sects, or other forms of antinomianism.

In 1204, the monks at Mt. Hiei implored the head priest to ban the teachings of Exclusive Nembutsu and to banish any adherents from their principality.

In 1205 the temple of Kōfuku-ji, located in Nara, implored Emperor Toba II to sanction Hōnen and his followers. The temple provided the Emperor with 9 charges alleging unappeasable differences with the so-called 8 schools:

Hōnen's detractors cited examples of his followers, such as Gyōkō and Kōsai, who committed vandalism against Buddhist temples, intentionally broke the Buddhist precepts, or caused others to intentionally turn away from established Buddhist teachings.

The accusations were formulated into 9 Articles of Error:

1. The Error of Establishing a New Sect
2. The Error of Designing New Images for Worship
3. The Error of Slighting Śākyamuni
4. The Error of Neglecting the Varieties of Good Deeds
5. The Error of Turning One's Back on the Holy Gods of Shinto
6. The Error of Ignorance Concerning the Pure Lands
7. The Error of Misunderstanding the Nembutsu
8. The Error of Vilifying the Followers of Śākyamuni
9. The Error of Bringing Disorder to the Nation

In response, Hōnen censured Kōsai's single-nembutsu teaching and his followers agreed to sign the Shichikajō-kishōmon ("7 Article Pledge"), which called for restraint in moral conduct and in interactions with other Buddhist sects.

The clamour surrounding Hōnen's teachings dissipated for a time until 1207 when Toba II implemented a ban against Exclusive Nembutsu,

stemming from an incident where 2 of Hōnen's most prominent followers were accused of using Nembutsu practice as a cover-up for sexual liaisons:

During the absence of Toba II, the priests Anrakubō and Jūren led the Emperor's ladies in a Pure Land devotional service that continued throughout the night.

The jealous Emperor was furious and acceded to the demands to punish them and all sect.

As part of the ban, Hōnen and some of his disciples, including Shinran, were exiled, while the priests responsible for the situation, Jūren and Anrakubō, were executed.

Hōnen is said to have responded:

I have laboured here in the capital these many years for the spread of the Nembutsu, and so I have long wished to get away into the country to preach to those on field and plain, but the time never came for the fulfilment of my wish.

Now, however, by the august favour of His Majesty, circumstances have combined to enable me to do so.

5. Exile and the Final Years

Hōnen was exiled to Tosa, but the movement in Kyoto had not thoroughly gone away.

While in exile, Hōnen spread the teachings to the people he met - fishermen, prostitutes, and the peasantry.

In 1211 the Nembutsu ban was ultimately lifted, and Hōnen was permitted to return to Kyoto.

In 1212, the following year, Hōnen died in Kyoto, but was able to compose the One-Sheet Document (Ichimai-kishōmon) a few days before he died.

6. Character

Analysis of various historical documents by the Jodō Shū 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 Jōdo-shū sects has often been greater than in some other Japanese Buddhist traditions.

About himself Hōnen reportedly said:

I lack the wisdom to teach others. Ku Amida Butsu (?-1228) of Hosshō-ji, 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. (- Common Sayings of Hōnen)

7. Writings

Hōnen's main document expounding his Pure Land doctrine is the Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shū written in 1198 at the request of his patron Lord Kujō Kanezane (1148–1207).

The document was not widely distributed by Hōnen's request until after his death.

The only other document from Hōnen is his last testament, the Ichimai-kishōmon or "One-Sheet Document".

Most of Hōnen's teachings are recorded by his disciples, or recorded later by Buddhist historians in the 14th century.

8. Quotations

Hōnen's teachings are briefly summarized in his final work, the 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 3 minds (sanjin) and the 4 modes of practice (shishu).

If I am withholding any deeper knowledge beyond simple recitation of the Namu Amida Butsu, then may I lose sight of the compassion of Śākyamuni 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 Śākyamuni 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 Jodō Shū way of the settled mind (anjin) is completely imparted here.

I, Genkū, have no other teaching than this.
In order to prevent misinterpretation after my passing away, I make this final testament."

/January 23, the 2nd Year of Kenryaku (1212)/

Hōnen's practical advice on practicing the Nembutsu can be summed up in these 2 statements:

If, because it is taught that birth is attained with but one or 10 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 10 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 throughout life.

Only repeat the name of Amida with all your heart. Whether walking or standing, sitting or lying, never cease the practice of it even for a moment. This is the very work which unfailingly issues in salvation... /Hōnen quoting Shandao/.

9. Disciples

By 1204 Hōnen had a group of disciples numbering around 190:

This number is derived from the number of signatures found on Shichikajō-kishōmon (7 Article Pledge), a guideline for rules of conduct in the Jōdo Shū community to assuage concerns by other groups.

Key disciples who signed the pledge include:

Benchō (1162–1238), founder of the main Chinzei branch of Jōdo-shū. Often called Shōkō. Exiled in 1207 to Kyushu.

Genchi (1183–1238), Hōnen's personal attendant, and close friend of Benchō.

Shōkū (1147–1247), founder of the Seizan branch of Jōdo-shū. Not exiled.

Shinran (1173–1263), founder of the Jōdo Shinshū branch of Pure Land Buddhism. Exiled to Echigo Province in 1207.

Ryūkan (1148–1227), founder of the many-recitation or Tanengi branch of Jōdo-shū.

Chōsai (1184–1266), founder of the Shōgyōhongangi branch of Jōdo-shū which believed that all Buddhist practices can lead to rebirth in the Pure Land.

Kōsai (1163–1247), promoted the controversial Ichinengi, or "single-recitation" teaching of Jōdo-shū. Expelled from Honen's community before the exile of 1207.

Gyōkō (?), another proponent of Ichinengi doctrine. Exiled to Sado in 1207.

Rensei (1141–1208), formerly a notable samurai named Kumagai no Jirō Naozane who had fought in Genpei War at the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani and killed the Heike leader Taira no Atsumori (1169–1184).

Kansai (1148–1200).

Shinkū (1146–1228).

Anrakubō (? -1207), executed during the purge of 1207.

Jūren (?), executed along with Anrakubō in 1207.

A number of disciples went on to establish branches of Pure Land Buddhism, based on their interpretations of Honen's teachings.