Amitābha Buddha
Amitābha Buddha

1. Jōdo-shū

Jōdo-shū ("The Pure Land School"), also known as Jōdo Buddhism, is a branch of Pure Land Buddhism derived from the teachings of the Japanese ex-Tendai monk Hōnen.

It was established in 1175 and is the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan, along with Jōdo Shinshū.

2. The Founder: Hōnen

Hōnen (1133-1212) was born in 1133, the son of a prominent family in Japan whose ancestry could be traced back to silk merchants from China.

Hōnen was originally named Seishimaru after the Mahāsattva Seishi (Sanskrit Mahāsthāmaprāpta).

After a rival official assassinated his father in 1141, 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 famous monastery of Mount Hiei.

Hōnen was well respected for his knowledge and for his adherence to the 5 Precepts, but in time, Hōnen became dissatisfied with the Tendai teachings he learned at Mount Hiei.

Influenced by the writings of Shandao (613-681), Hōnen devoted himself solely to Amitābha as expressed through the practice of nembutsu.

In time, Hōnen gathered disciples from all walks of life, and developed a large following, notably women, who had been excluded from serious Buddhist practice up to this point. This included fishermen, prostitutes and fortune tellers.

Hōnen also distinguished himself by not discriminating against women who were menstruating, who were thought at the time to be unclean.

All of this caused concern among the religious and political elite of Kyoto and eventually Emperor Go-Toba issued a decree in 1207 to have Hōnen exiled to a remote part of Japan and given a criminal's name.

Some of Hōnen's followers were executed, while others, including Benchō, Ryūkan and Shinran, were exiled to other regions of Japan away from Hōnen.

Eventually, Hōnen was pardoned and returned to Kyoto in 1211, but died soon after in 1212, just 2 days after writing his famous One-Sheet Document.

3. After Hōnen

Chion-in Main Hall

Chion-in Main Hall

Because Hōnen and his disciples were largely exiled to remote provinces, and due to differences in background and monastic training, the teachings began to take on regional differences.

Some sub-sects died out quickly, while others survive through the modern era.

The main branch of Jōdo Shū started under Hōnen's disciple Benchō, who was exiled to Chinzei on the island of Kyushu.

There, Benchō actively preached Hōnen's doctrine while refuting what he considered deviations taught by other disciples.

Another monk named Ryūchi became his disciple for a year, and then spread Benchō's and Hōnen's teachings throughout Japan before reaching the capital at Kamakura.

Ryūchi helped to legitimize the "Chinzei branch" of Jōdo Shū as the mainstream one, and is credited as the 3rd Patriarch accordingly.

He also referred to Benchō, his teacher, as the 2nd Patriarch after Hōnen.

Ryūchi also met with Renjaku-bo, whose own teacher Genchi had been another disciple of Hōnen.

Renjaku-bo felt that Genchi and Benchō had been in complete agreement, so he willingly united his lineage with Ryūchi's, helping to further increase its standing.

Jōdo Shū through the Chinzei lineage continued to develop until the 8th Patriarch, Shōgei (1341-1420) who formalized the training of priests (rather than training under Tendai or Shingon lineages), thus formally establishing it as an independent sect.

4. Doctrine

Chion-in Buddha Amida

Buddha Amida

Jōdo-shū is heavily influenced by the idea of Mappō or the "Age of Dharma Decline".

The concept of Mappō is that over time society becomes so corrupt that people can no longer effectively put the teachings of the Buddha into practice anymore.

In medieval thought, signs of Mappō included warfare, natural disasters and corruption of the Saṅgha.

The Jōdo-shū school was founded near the end of the Heian period, when Buddhism in Japan had become deeply involved in political schemes, and some in Japan saw monks flaunting wealth and power.

At the end of the Heian, warfare broke out between competing samurai clans, while people suffered from earthquakes and series of famines.

Hōnen sought to provide people a simple Buddhist practice that anybody could use toward enlightenment, no matter how degenerate the times.

He taught devotion to Amitābha as expressed in the repetition of his name - "Namo Amida Butsu"- known as the Nembutsu.

Through Amitābha's compassion a being could be reborn in the Pure Land (Sanskrit: Sukhāvatī) where they could pursue Enlightenment more readily.

Hōnen did not believe that other Buddhist practices were wrong, but rather, they were not practical on a wide-scale, especially during the difficult times of the late Heian.

Repetition of the Nembutsu is the most fundamental practice of Jōdo-shū, which derives from the Primal Vow of Amitābha.

In home practice, or in temple liturgy, the Nembutsu may be recited in any number of styles including:

  1. Jūnen ("10 Recitations") - reciting the nembutsu ten times, with the last drawn out.
  2. Nembutsu Ichie ("Nembutsu Gathering") - reciting the nembutsu as many times as possible in a sitting, regardless of number.
  3. Nembutsu Sanshōrai ("3 Intonations of Praise") - a style involving 3 drawn-out recitations of the Nembutsu, followed by a bow. This is repeated twice more for a total of 9 recitations.

However, in addition to this, practitioners are encouraged to engage in "auxiliary" practices, such as:

  1. observing the 5 Precepts,
  2. meditation,
  3. the chanting of sūtras
  4. good conduct.

There is no strict rule on this however, as Jōdo-shū stresses that the compassion of Amitābha is extended to all beings who recite the Nembutsu, so how one observes auxiliary practices is left to the individual to decide.

The Infinite Life Sūtra is the central Buddhist scripture for Jōdo-shū Buddhism, and the foundation of the belief in the Primal Vow of Amitābha.

In addition to this, the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra and the Amitābha Sūtra are important to the Jōdo-shū school.

The writings of Hōnen, contained mostly in the Senchaku-Hongan-nembutsu-shū (often abbreviated to Senchaku-shū), are another source for Jōdo-shū thought as is his last writing, the Ichimai-Kishōmon ("One-Sheet Document").

Most of what is known about Hōnen and his thought is attributed through sayings collected in the following century, the Senchaku-shū, and letters to his students and disciples.

Jōdo-shū, like other Buddhist schools, maintains a professional, monastic priesthood, who help to lead the congregation, and also maintain the well-known temples such as Chion-in.

The head of the Jōdo-shū school is called the Monshu in Japanese, and lives at the head temple of Chion-in, Kyoto, Japan.

5. Sub-sects

Chion-in Amida-dō

Chion-in Amida-dō

The main Chinzei branch of Jōdo-shū was maintained by the so-called "2nd Patriarch" and disciple of Hōnen, Benchō.

However, other disciples of Hōnen branched off into a number of other sects and interpretations, particularly after they were exiled in 1207:

1) Shōkū founded the Seizan branch, which structured the Buddhist teachings into a hierarchy with the Nembutsu at the top. Because his teachings were compatible with the dominant Tendai sect, Shōkū was not exiled.

2) Ryūkan, one of Hōnen's elderly disciples, emphasized the efficacy of the Nembutsu as practice and encouraged its frequent recitation, leading to his teachings being called the "many callings school" or Tanengi. He was exiled to eastern Japan where he died en route.

3) Kōsai went as far that taught the idea that a single recitation of the Nembutsu was all that was necessary. His doctrine of "once-calling" or Ichinengi created considerable controversy, and Hōnen eventually disavowed Kōsai and his teachings. He was later exiled to the island of Shikoku.

4) Chōsai, the last of Hōnen's direct disciples, felt that all practices in Buddhism would lead to birth in the Pure Land.

5) Another disciple, Shinran (1173-1263), founded Jōdo Shinshū, which diverges somewhat doctrinally, but otherwise is heavily influenced by Hōnen and his teachings.

In Jōdo Shinshū, Hōnen is considered the 7th Patriarch.

Jōdo Shinshū is currently the most widespread off-shot of the original Jōdo-shū teachings. They renounced any other Buddhist practice except Nembutsu and also the priesthood.