Living Rissho Ankoku Ron
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 Honenís father
over a land dispute. Honen was only eight years old at the time. It is said that,
as he lay dying, Honenís 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 motherís 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-taoís 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 Honenís 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. Honenís 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 Honenís teachings. The growing
popularity of Honenís 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 Honenís exclusive nembutsu
movement suppressed. The Tendai monks were especially disturbed by the
antinomian tendencies of Honenís 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 ďonce-callingĒ 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 ďmiscellaneous
practicers,Ē nor that those who trust in the Buddhaís 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 Amidaís 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
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, Honenís 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.