From New World Encyclopedia

Hōnen, also Honen Bo Genku (法然; 1133 - 1212), was a Buddhist monk credited with the establishment of Jodo (Pure Land) Buddhism as an independent sect in Japan. He initially studied at the Enryakuji Temple atop Mount Hiei, later leaving it to spread his own unique message of salvation to the general population. Honen served three emperors and was acquainted with aristocratic leaders. His system of religious practices did away with the old Buddhist beliefs and replaced them with the simple recitation of Amitābha (Amida in Japanese; the name of Amida Buddha) as the means of being reborn into the Pure Land. This provoked severe persecution in his later years from the established Buddhists, and his eventual exile at the age of 75. Honen is one of the most famous figures in Japanese Buddhism and, unlike his now well-known disciple Shinran, was renowned in his own day. Honen was concerned about and opened the path for the salvation of women. Consequently, Honen’s school had a large number of women followers.


Early life

Honen was born in 1133 in Mimasaka (present day Okayama Prefecture), about four hundred miles west of Kyoto. His father, Uruma no Tokikuni, was a local official, serving as a policeman or guard to protect the province. Honen was given the name Seishi-maru. The name ”Seishi” was derived from the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta (Daiseishi-bosatsu). In 1141, when Seishi-maru was nine years old, some samurai from the same feudal state carried out a night raid on his father, Uruma no Tokikuni. At the moment of his death, it was told that Tokikuni said to his son, “Don’t think of revenge; become a monk and pray for me and for your deliverance.” Following his father’s dying wish, Seishi-maru became a trainee monk at the Tendai complex on Mt. Hiei.

In 1150, at the age of eighteen, he went to study under Jigen-bo Eiku in the Kurodani Valley. Eiku gave him the monk’s name “Honen.” During his time on Mount Hiei, he studied the Buddhist canon (especially the Pure Land canon) extensively and gained a reputation as an excellent scholar and the foremost Buddhism monk in Japan. Honen was strongly influenced by Genshin's Ōjōyōshu, which aroused his interest in Pure Land Buddhism, and Shan-tao (善導 shan-dao)'s Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching) where he discovered the passage:

Simply to bear wholeheartedly in mind the name of Amida whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down; whether one has practiced a long time or short; never abandoning this name from one moment to the next is called the rightly established act because it accords with that Buddha's vow.

On reading this he became convinced that the Pure Land path was the only one suited to people in the age of mappō (the Last Days):

In an excess of rejoicing, although there was none to hear, I cried in a loud voice: “In the past, when Amida Buddha was still engaged in practice as Dharmakara [Bodhisattva], he had already established this practice for persons of limited capacity like myself!” Joy pierced me to the marrow, and my tears fell in torrents. (Jurokumonki)

Honen summarized his own belief as Senshu (specialized) Nembutsu. Nembutsu (Chinese: 念佛 nian fo; Korean: yeombul; Vietnamese: niệm Phật), literally “mindfulness of the Buddha” (interpreted as “I entrust in the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Eternal Life”) meant having an awareness of the Buddha in every moment of life.

Nembutsu had been practiced before Honen began to promote it. In the old Pure Land tradition, consciously chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha allows one to obtain rebirth in Amitabha's Pure Land of the West. However, Nembutsu had only secondary significance as a Buddhist discipline before Honen. Honen was the first to regard Nembutsu as a primary Buddhist practice.

The Propagation of Senju Nembutsu

After realizing the truth of Nembutsu, Honen left Mount Hiei and moved to Hirodani in Nishiyama, and later to Otani on Higashiyama Mountain east of Kyoto, where he would spend the rest of his life. In the spring of 1175, he founded the Jodo shu School, or the Pure Land School in Japan.

Honen taught many kinds of people and nurtured many disciples. Among them the most important were Shoku, Shoko and Shinran. Shoku (1177-1247) later became the founder of the Seizan branch of Jodo Shu. Shoko (1162-1238) founded the Chinzei branch. Shinran was the most important disciple, regarded as the founder Jodoshin-shu (school).

The Imperial family also requested Honen to conduct the ceremony of taking the Buddhist precepts for three Emperors: Goshirakawa, Takakura and Gotoba. Among the high-ranking aristocratic nobility, Kujo Kanezane was his most important follower. He participated five times in the ceremony of taking the precepts from Honen. Kanezane asked Honen to write a book about the Nembutsu, which became the Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu-shu (“Passages on the Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow”), the primary text of Honen’s Nembutsu theory.


As Honen’s teaching of Senshu Nembutsu took hold in Japan, the established Nara Buddhists tried to block the progress of Jodo-shu. Scholarly Buddhists such as those from Kegon School (華厳), the Huayan School’s Myoue (Kouben), and the Dharma-character (法相宗) School’s Jyoukei heaped doctrinal criticism on Honen. In 1204 Honen responded to these criticisms by making a document called the Shichikajo Kishomon (“Seven Article Pledge”) which was signed by 189 disciples to confirm their pledge.

While the ex-Emperor Gotoba was absent making a pilgrimage to the Kumano shrine, two of the ladies-in-waiting from his court attended a Nembutsu service conducted by Honen’s disciples, and were moved to become nuns. The ex-Emperor Gotoba sentenced the two disciple of Honen to death and ordered exiled Honen to Tosa on Shikoku Island. Honen, who was 75 years old at the time, was stripped of his status as a monk. Through the help of Kujo Kanezane, the location of his exile was changed from Tosa to Sanuki, a more comfortable place on the same island. Honen accepted his lot without complaining, and exhibited a strong determination to practice Nembutsu beyond death. After ten months, an Imperial Order released him from exile. In his later years, Honen was said to recite the Nembutsu thousands of times a day. Honen wrote the “One Sheet Document” (Ichimai-Kishomon) in which he explained the essence of the theory that Nembutsu was the ultimate way of universal salvation. He died in 1212 whilst reciting the Nembutsu.


Honen expressed deep concern over the spiritual welfare of women. In teaching them, regardless of social status (from aristocracy to prostitutes), he particularly rejected the significance of menstruation, which wider Japanese religious culture considered a cause of spiritual defilement. As a consequence, the role of women in the Jodo sects has often been greater than in some other Japanese Buddhist traditions. About himself Honen reportedly said:

[I lack] the wisdom to teach others. Ku Amida Butsu of Hosshoji, 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.(Tsuneni Oserarekeru Okotoba – (Common Sayings of Honen).

Thought and Works


Pure Land

Pure Land Buddhism (Chinese: 净土宗, Jìngtǔzōng; Japanese: 浄土宗, Jodoshu; Korean: 정토종, Jung To Jong; Vietnamese: Tịnh Độ Tông), also known as Amidism, is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism and currently one of the dominant schools of Buddhism in East Asia. It is the devotional or "faith"-oriented school of Buddhism, emphasizing rituals, and has become part of the mainstream of Mahayana Buddhism, along with Chan (Zen in Japanese).

Pure Land Buddhism is based on the Pure Land sutras first brought to China around 150 C.E. The Pure Land school first became prominent with the founding of a monastery upon the top of Mount Lushan by Hui-yuan in 402. It spread throughout China quickly and was systematized by Shan-tao (613-681).

Contemporary Pure Land traditions see the Buddha Amitābha preaching the Dharma in his Buddha-field called the "Pure Land" (Chinese, 净土; pinyin, jìngtǔ; Japanese, 浄土 jodo; Vietnamese, Tịnh độ) or "Western Pureland" (zh. 西天), a region offering respite from karmic transmigration. The Vietnamese also use the term Tây Phương Cực Lạc (西方极乐) for "Western Land of Bliss,” or more accurately, "Western Paradise." In such traditions, entering the Pure Land is popularly perceived as equivalent to the attainment of nirvana.

Amitābha is a celestial Buddha described in the scriptures of Mahāyāna Buddhism. According to these scriptures, Amitābha is a Buddha possessing infinite merits resulting from good deeds over countless past lives as a bodhisattva. He lives in another world, a "Pure Land" (Chinese: 净土, jìngtŭ) called Sukhāvatī (Sanskrit for "possessing happiness") situated in the uttermost west, beyond the bounds of our own world. By the power of his vows, Amitābha has made it possible for all who call upon him to be reborn into this land, there to undergo instruction by him in the dharma and ultimately become bodhisattvas and Buddhas in their turn (the ultimate goal of Mahāyāna Buddhism).

Amitābha's vows indicate that all who call upon him will, after their deaths, be reborn in the Pure Land regardless of their merit or their religious or worldly status. This openness and acceptance of all kinds of people has made the Pure Land belief one of the major influences in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism seems to have first become popular in northwest India/Pakistan and Afghanistan and spread from there to Central Asia and China, and from China to Vietnam, Korea and Japan.

Pure Land sutras

There are three major sutras that fall into this category. The Infinite Life Sutra, is also known as the Larger Pure Land Sutra, or the Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra (Sanskrit), and most commonly in traditional Chinese as 無量壽經, or in simplified Chinese as 无量寿经 (wúliáng shòu jīng). Alternative readings of title include: Muryōju Kyō (Japanese), 무량수경Muryangsu Gyeong (Korean) and vô lượng thọ kinh (Vietnamese).

The Amitabha Sutra (Chinese: 佛說阿彌陀經), also known as the Smaller Pure Land Sutra; and the Contemplation Sutra, or Visualization Sutra, describe the origins and nature of the Western Pure Land in which the Buddha Amitābha resides. They list the forty-eight vows made by Amitābha as a bodhisattva by which he undertook to build a Pure Land where beings are able to practice the Dharma without difficulty or distraction.

Pure Land Buddhism in Japan

Pure Land Buddhism was introduced to Japan around the seventh century C.E. During the Nara period (710-793 C.E.) the practice of Pure Land Buddhism was mainly used for memorial services for a deceased person’s soul.

During the Heian era (794-1191 C.E.), Ennin (円仁) better known in Japan by his posthumous name, Jikaku Daishi (慈覺大師), was a priest of the Tendai (天台) School. In 838, his trip to Tang Dynasty China marked the beginning of a series of tribulations and adventures. Initially, he studied under two masters and then spent some time at Wutaishan (五臺山; Japanese: Godaisan), a mountain range famous for its numerous Buddhist temples in the Shanxi Province of China. In 847 he returned to Japan, and in 854 became the chief priest of the Tendai sect at Enryakuji, where he built buildings to store the sutras and religious instruments he brought back from China. From this time forward Tendai School combined with the elements of Pure Land Buddhism.

The Fujiwara clan, who had nearly exclusive control over the regency positions for over 200 years, were strongly influenced by the idea of Pure Land Buddhism. Byōdō-in (平等院), a Buddhist temple, established by Fujiwara no Yorimichi, was built in 998. The most famous building in the temple is the Phoenix Hall or the Amida Hall.

Genshin (源信; 942–1017) was the most influential of a number of Tendai scholars active during the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Japan. He was not a wandering evangelist as Kuuya was, but was an elite cleric who espoused a doctrine of Amidism which taught that because Japan was thought to have entered mappō, the "degenerate age" of the "latter law," the only hope for salvation lay in the reliance on the power of Amitābha. Other doctrines, he claimed, could not aid an individual because they depended on "self-power" (jiriki), which cannot prevail during the chaos of the degenerate age, when the power of another (tariki) is necessary. This doctrine is documented in his treatise Ōjōyōshu ("Essentials of rebirth"), which in later copies of the text came complete with graphic depictions of the joy of the blessed and the suffering of those doomed to chaos.

Doctrine of Honen

This doctrine of Genshin (源信) is documented in Ōjōyōshu ("Essentials of rebirth"), which influenced Honen’s Buddhist theory. Genshin’s belief in Amitābha changed the Nara Age practice of using Pure Land Buddhism mainly for holding memorial services. Genshin focused on the salvation of people in this earthly life. From Honen’s perspective, however, Genshin’s concept of Pure Land was unrealistic and hard to believe. Honen reformed the traditional Pure Land Buddhism into a practical and believable one.

Another Buddhist who influenced Honen’s theory was Shan Dao (善導; 613-681 C.E.), who systematized Chinese Pure Land Buddhism. When Honen was studying the canonical scriptures, he came across one sentence in Shan Dao’s book. There were two forms of Nianfo (Nembutsu) in Chinese Pure Land Buddhism: visualizing Amitābha and reciting Amitābha. Shan Dao’s Nianfo was the latter type. Honen tried to create a more systematic Buddhist theory in his work, Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu, which was written by Honen at the request of Kujo Kanezane in 1198 and contains sixteen chapters. The essence of the book is that only through repeating or reciting the words of Namu Amidabutsu (“I completely become a devout believer in Amitābha Buddha”), people could be reborn in the Pure Land.

Nianfo (Japanese: nembutsu; Korean: yeombul; Vietnamese: niệm Phật) was Amitābha’s vow. According to the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, Amitābha was in very ancient times (i.e., in a universe existing long before the beginning of our present universe) a monk with the name of Dharmakāra. In some versions of the sutra, Dharmakāra is described as a former king who, having come in contact with the Buddhist teaching, renounced his throne. He resolved to become a Buddha and in this way to come into possession of "Buddha-field" (a world produced by a Buddha's merit). These resolutions were expressed in his “forty-eight vows” (四十八願), which set out the type of Buddha-field which Dharmakāra aspired to create, the conditions under which beings might be born into that world, and what kind of beings they will be when they are reborn there. In this forty-eight vows, Honen conceived the eighteenth vow to be essential.

Honen's teachings are briefly summarized in his final work, the Ichimai Kishomon ("One Sheet Document"):

In China and Japan, many Buddhist masters and scholars understand that the Nembutsu is to meditate deeply on Amida Buddha [Amitābha] 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 three minds [sanjin] and the four modes of practice [shishu]. If I am withholding any deeper knowledge beyond simple recitation of the Nembutsu, then may I lose sight of the compassion of Shakyamuni and Amida Buddha [Amitābha] and slip through the embrace of Amida's original vow. Even if those who believe in the Nembutsu deeply study all the teachings which Shakyamuni 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 Jodo Shu way of the settled mind [anjin] is completely imparted here. I, Genku, [Honen Bo Genku, 法然] have no other teaching than this. In order to prevent misinterpretation after my passing away, I make this final testament.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Honen, Honen's Senchakushu: Passages on the Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow. (Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu) (Classics in East Asian Buddhism) University of Hawaii Press, 1998.
  • __________. An anthology of the teachings of Honen Shonin. (Light of wisdom series) Bukkyo University, Los Angeles Extension, 1998.
  • __________. Honen the Buddhist saint. Garland, 1981.
  • Coates, Rev. Harper Havelock and Rev. Ryugaku Ishizuka. (Transl.) Honen The Buddhist Saint His Life and Teaching. (original 1925) Kodokaku, 1930.
  • deBary, Wm. Theodore, ed. The Buddhist Tradition. New York Modern Library, 1969.
  • Fitzgerald, Joseph A. Honen The Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography. World Wisdom, 2006.
  • Hattori, Sho-on. A Raft from the Other Shore - Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism Jodo Shu Press, Tokyo, 2000.
  • __________. Honen Shonin and Buddhism. Jodo Shu Press, 1992.
  • Kitagawa, Joseph. Religion in Japanese History. New York, Columbia University Press, 1966
  • Machida, Soho. Renegade Monk: Honen and Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. University of California Press, 1999.
  • Watts, Jonathan and Yoshiharu Tomatsu, eds. Traversing the Pure Land Path: A Lifetime of Encounters with Honen Shonin. Jodo Shu Press, 2005.

External Links

All links retrieved January 13, 2018.

General Philosophy Sources


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