Hōnen | Biography | 2


Hōnen teaching people


Hōnen (1133–1212), more fully Hōnen Shōnin Genkū, was a Japanese Buddhist priest and reformer, and the founder of the Jōdo Shū sect of Japanese Buddhism.

Hōnen's life reflects the changing times in which he lived as well as his role in those changes.

He was born in the 4th month of 1133 in Mimasaka province (modern Okayama prefecture) into a provincial military family.

The military clans of Japan were then embroiled in a struggle with the nobility for control of agricultural lands, and in 1141 Hōnen's father, Uruma Tokikuni, was killed in a skirmish over possession of a local manor.

The young Hōnen was sent to a nearby Tendai Buddhist temple, the Bodaiji (lit. "Bodhi temple"), probably for protection from his family's enemies.

Hōnen seemed a promising candidate for a clerical career and was therefore sent in 1145 to continue his novitiate at the Tendai main temple of Enryaku-ji on Mount Hiei near Kyoto.

His training went well, and in 1147, at the age of 14, he was formally ordained into the Tendai priesthood.

Hōnen was a serious and dedicated monk:

His early biographies reveal that in the years following his ordination he read the entire Buddhist Canon 3 times and mastered not only the Tendai doctrines but those of the other contemporary schools as well.

Conditions then, however, were every bit as unsettled on Mount Hiei as elsewhere in Japan and hardly conducive to a life of study and contemplation:

The great national struggle between the nobility and the provincial military clans (the same struggle that had claimed the life of Hōnen's father) was rapidly increasing in intensity,

and the monastic establishments of the day, including the Tendai order, had become deeply involved in this struggle:

Not only was political intrigue rife on Mount Hiei, but numbers of monks had been organized into small armies that engaged in constant brawls with the monastic armies of other temples and with the troops of the Taira military clan, which had by then occupied Kyoto, the capital.

In 1150 Hōnen sought refuge at the small Tendai retreat of the saintly master Eikū (d. 1174) located at Kurodani Temple (Konkaikōmyō-ji) on the flanks of Mount Hiei.

Eikū's small community was a centre of Pure Land Buddhist devotion.

Hōnen spent 25 years there studying the Pure Land scriptures and cultivating Nembutsu Zammai, a meditational trance (Samādhi ) in which the devotee concentrates upon Amida Buddha (Skt., Amitābha or Amitāyus), the Buddha of the Western Pure Land.

The worship of Amida Buddha had been growing in Japan since the late 10th century, when the Tendai monk Genshin (942–1017) published his compendium on Pure Land thought and practice, the Ōjōyōshū (Essentials of Pure Land rebirth):

This Buddhism, which had enjoyed wide popularity in China from the 6th century CE, teaches the existence of a purified Buddha field, a "Pure Land" presided over by Amida Buddha and situated far to the West of the known world.

Those who wholeheartedly devote themselves to this Buddha can be saved by rebirth in this Pure Land after death. Those reborn there will receive the status of a Bodhisattva and achieve their own Enlightenment and Buddhahood in but one final lifetime.

The appeal of this kind of Buddhism was growing in Hōnen's time because of a deepening conviction at all levels of society that Japan and all the world had entered the Age of the Decadent Dharma (Jap., Mappō) —

- a desperate time predicted in the scriptures when the Buddhist establishment, teachings, and even the spiritual capacities of humankind would plummet and the world would be plunged into strife and natural calamity.

This conviction was based not only upon an assessment of the decadent monastic institutions and bloody civil conflicts of the age in Japan but also upon consideration of the appalling conflagrations and famines that ravaged the capital district in those times.

Because none could achieve emancipation through his own efforts in the traditional ways of discipline, works, and wisdom, the only recourse was rebirth in the Western Pure Land through devotion to Amida Buddha.

The swelling tide of Pure Land faith in Hōnen's time was further augmented by its appeal to a new groups of population that had until then been largely disenfranchised from participation in the Buddhist quest— common people and especially the rural folk.

Hōnen also found spiritual solace in Pure Land faith. While at Kurodani Temple he absorbed himself in the Pure Land scriptures and in cultivation of the Samādhi of meditation upon Amida.

This practice was a legacy of Genshin's Ōjōyōshū, which teaches a fervent contemplation (meditative visualization) upon Amida's resplendent body while invoking his name with the formula "Namu Amida Butsu" ("Homage to the Buddha of Limitless Light"), and repeatedly circumambulating his image.

The primary goal of this practice was an ecstatic realization of the non-dual Buddha mind—that is, a profound Enlightenment experience.

A secondary goal was to assure one's rebirth into the Pure Land by achieving a perfect vision of Amida as he would appear in welcoming descent at the moment of one's death.

Hōnen did not, however, find spiritual satisfaction in these exercises even after many years at Kurodani. His later writings reveal that he was convinced that he himself dwelt in an Age of Decadent Dharma:

He considered the achievement of Enlightenment by himself or his contemporaries to be all but impossible, and even the attainment of a perfect vision of Amida to be impractical.

In this conviction, Hōnen had recourse to an alternative Pure Land teaching:

In addition to the extremely arduous Nembutsu Zammai, Genshin had also prescribed a practice of simply calling upon the name of Amida Buddha (Nembutsu invocation),

- constantly and with deep devotion, but especially at the moment of death, in the hope of thereby eliciting Amida's compassion and being brought by him for rebirth into the Pure Land.

Within orthodox Tendai circles, this was considered a practice inferior to Nembutsu Zammai and suitable only as a last resort for sinners and others incapable of the correct practice.

Hōnen became convinced that this last resort was the only resort for him and his contemporaries.

This conviction was based not only on his own experiences but also on the teachings of the great Chinese Pure Land master Shandao (613–681), whom Hōnen discovered in Ōjōyōshū.

Shandao emphatically taught, and Hōnen came to agree, that calling upon Amida Buddha's name was not an inferior practice at all, but the practice especially designed by Amida for the salvation of otherwise hopelessly damned humankind during the Age of the Decadent Dharma.

In the spring of 1175, at the age of 42, Hōnen acted upon his new conviction:

He left Eikū's Tendai retreat, took up residence in the suburbs of the capital, and began to teach and practice the exclusive cultivation of Nembutsu invocation.

This marked a definitive departure of the Japanese Pure Land movement from its traditional Tendai home. Hereafter it would pursue an independent course both doctrinally and as a community.

The Jōdo Shū sect of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, which became the first independent Pure Land Buddhist community in East Asian history, dates its founding from this time.

During the next quarter century, Hōnen taught widely and wrote voluminously on the way of the Pure Land. He gathered around himself a small community of disciples and lay followers.

He also became one of the most respected clerics of his age, preaching and ministering to nobility, lecturing at the national temple, Tōdai-ji, and becoming the personal chaplain to the regent to the throne, Kujō Kanezane.

Hōnen's most important composition during this period was the Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu shū (Treatise on the selected Nembutsu of the original vow):

Composed in 1198 at the request of the regent Kanezane, this work establishes the principles of an independent Pure Land movement with regard to both theory and practice.

It divides Buddhism into 2 paths:

a) Difficult Path to Enlightenment, impractical in an Age of Decadent Dharma
b) Easy Path for all, that of rebirth in the Pure Land

Moreover, Hōnen's work maintains the legitimacy of a Pure Land school (Jōdo Shū) and designates this school's Patriarchal Lineage and Scriptural Canon.

It also demonstrates that, among all possible means to Pure Land rebirth, the Nembutsu of calling on Amida's name is the practice especially selected and guaranteed by Amida Buddha because it is the easiest practice, available to all.

Further, the Senchaku Shū repeatedly urges its readers to keep the Nembutsu constantly on their lips so as to avail themselves of rebirth into Amida's Pure Land and emancipation from the sufferings of both this life and countless future trans-migrations.

Hōnen's following and influence had by now become so great as to be seen as a challenge by the established monastic orders:

His Pure Land teachings rejected the fundamentals of their faith and his claim of legitimacy for the Pure Land School flew in the face of one of their most cherished presumptions: that only the Emperor could establish a legitimate Buddhist institution.

These resentments took a serious turn in 1204 when the monks of the Tendai order petitioned their abbot to suppress Hōnen's movement.

Hōnen responded by imposing on his disciples a 7 Article Pledge (Shichikajō-kishōmon):

- to abstain from such excesses as criticizing other schools of Buddhism, encouraging violation of the Buddhist precepts (on the pretext that those who rely on the Nembutsu need have no fear of committing evil), and spreading heretical doctrines while falsely claiming them to be those of their master Hōnen.

This mollified the Tendai establishment for a time, but in the following year (1205) the powerful Kōfuku-ji order of Nara presented a formal petition to the Cloistered Emperor Go-Toba, accusing Hōnen's movement of 9 specific heresies and infractions and demanding its suppression.

This Kōfuku-ji petition (Kōfuku-ji Sōjō ) accused Hōnen and his followers of:

1. Presuming to establish a new Buddhist school or sect
2. Making new and unauthorized Icons
3. Neglecting Śākyamuni Buddha
4. Condemning practices other than Nembutsu
5. Rejecting the Shintō gods
6. Distorting the Pure Land teachings by rejecting practices other than Nembutsu as means to rebirth
7. Misrepresenting Nembutsu by rejecting the superior meditative and contemplative Nembutsu in favour of the inferior Nembutsu invocation
8. Rejecting the Buddha's monastic community and discipline
9. Instigating disorder and rebellion in the nation

No immediate action was taken by the Emperor, and Hōnen might well have weathered this storm, for he was highly regarded in court circles.

But late in 1206 two of his disciples engaged in an indiscretion that had serious repercussions:

During the absence of Go-Toba, 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 of the Kōfuku-ji monks.

Early in 1207, Jūren and Anrakubō were executed, the cultivation of Exclusive Nembutsu was prohibited, and Hōnen and several of his disciples were exiled to distant provinces.

Hōnen was not allowed to return to the capital until late in 1211, and he died shortly thereafter in the first month of 1212.

2 days before his death, he dictated to his disciple Genchi (1182–1238) his final testament (Ichimai Kishōmon). It begins thus:

"My teaching is neither the contemplative Nembutsu taught by the wise of both China and Japan, nor is it Enlightenment by means of learned meditative Nembutsu.

It is nothing other than to utter 'Namu Amida Butsu' for the purpose of rebirth in the Pure Land without a single doubt of achieving that rebirth."

He died with the Nembutsu on his lips and, according to his disciples, amid auspicious signs of Pure Land rebirth. He was 79.

These events were grievous impediments to the Pure Land movement, but they did not stem what was to become a great tide of Pure Land faith:

Several of Hōnen's chief disciples, notably Benchō (1162–1238) and Shinran (1173–1263), carried his message to the provinces and organized Pure Land communities.

These later became established as the influential Ji Shū and enormously popular Jōdo Shū (Pure Land) and Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land) sects.

Though Hōnen initiated sweeping changes in the religious life of Japan, he was not a revolutionary:

He was a highly respected cleric in his day, admired for his scholarship and revered for his piety by clerics and laity alike. In some ways, he was deeply conservative:

Although he urged on his followers the exclusive cultivation of Nembutsu invocation, he himself never abandoned his Monastic Vows of chastity and poverty, and to the end of his life he cultivated contemplative Nembutsu.

Yet he definitively broke with the monastic, elitist Buddhism of his times.

He provided both the intellectual foundations and the inspired personal leadership for the first independent Pure Land Buddhist movement.