Shōkū | Seizan tradition

Shōkū (1177-1247)
Shōkū (1177-1247)

1. Shōkū | Seizan tradition

Shōkū (証空, November 30, 1177 – December 24, 1247) was a disciple of Hōnen, founder of the Jōdo-shū Buddhist sect, who founded his own school of Pure Land Buddhism – Seizan School.

Shōkū often went by the name Seizan as well, however the name derives from the western mountains of Kyoto where Shōkū often dwelt.

Shōkū later succeeded Jōhen, another disciple of Hōnen, as the head of a former Shingon Buddhist temple, Eikan-dō,

established a separate branch of Jōdo-shū called the Seizan branch, and completed the transition of Eikan-dō from a Shingon temple into a Jōdo-shū one.

2. Biography

According to the temple's biography, Shōkū was born into a noble family, but by 14 years of age took an interest in Buddhism.

In one legend, his mother stood before a famous bridge to have his fortune told.

At that time, a monk passed by chanting the Lotus Sūtra, which convinced her that he should be a priest.

It was then that Shōkū studied under Hōnen for 23 years.

Later in life, he became a disciple of Jōhen, who had recently converted from the Shingon faith to the Jōdo-shū faith, subsequently converting the Eikan-dō as well.

Later Shōkū took over as head of this temple, and fully converted the temple into a Jōdo shū temple, and began the Seizan branch.

After Hōnen (1133-1212) had died, Shōkū also studied Tendai and esoteric Shingon Buddhism extensively with a focus on Pure Land teachings and practices.

Shōkū didn’t follow the example of “Exclusive Nembutsu and no other ascetic practices” promoted by other popular Pure Land schools.

He wrote an extensive commentary on the Taima Maṇḍala at the invitation of the head priest of Taima-dera temple.

The temple biography mentions that Shōkū was very intense in his study and practice, and would recite the nembutsu up to 60 000 times a day, in addition to other ascetic practices.

Shōkū described his practice as shiraki no nembutsu ("unvarnished nembutsu"), meaning that after studying the Buddhist Sūtras extensively, and engaging in other Buddhist practices, one should then recite the nembutsu with their whole heart.

This echoes the words of Hōnen that one should study Buddhist teachings, but then return to the humble self to be saved by Amida Buddha.

This approach to Pure Land Buddhism won favour among the established Tendai sects, and so Shōkū was one of the few of Hōnen's disciples who was not exiled or executed in the year 1227, during the Karoku Persecution.