HŌNEN (1133–1212), more fully Hōnen Shōnin Genkū, was a Japanese Buddhist priest and reformer, and the founder of the Jōdoshū 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 fourth 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, 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 Enryakuji on Mount Hiei near Kyoto. His training went well, and in 1147, at the age of fourteen, 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 three 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 on the flanks of Mount Hiei. Eikū's small community was a center of Pure Land Buddhist devotion. Hōnen spent twenty-five 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 Amitayus), the Buddha of the Western Pure Land.
The worship of Amida Buddha had been growing in Japan since the late tenth 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 sixth 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 clientele 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 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 envisualization) 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 nondual 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 (invocational nembutsu ), 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 forty-two, 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 invocational nembutsu. 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 Jōdoshū 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, Tōdaiji, 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 two paths, the difficult path to enlightenment, impractical in an age of decadent dharma, and the easy path for all, that of rebirth in the Pure Land. Moreover, Hōnen's work maintains the legitimacy of a Pure Land school (Jōdoshū) 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 Senchakushū 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 seven-article pledge (the Shichikajō Seikai) 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 Kōfukuji order of Nara presented a formal petition to the Cloistered Emperor Go-Toba, accusing Hōnen's movement of nine specific heresies and infractions and demanding its suppression. This Kōfukuji petition (Kōfukuji 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 favor of the inferior invocational nembutsu, (8) rejecting the Buddha's monastic community and discipline, and (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 Anraku 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 Kōfukuji monks. Early in 1207, Jūren and Anraku 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. Two 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 seventy-nine.
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 Jishū and enormously popular Jōdoshū (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 invocational nembutsu, 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.
In addition to the Senchakushū and the Ichimai kishōmon, Hōnen wrote important doctrinal works such as the Sambukyō daii (Meaning of the three-part Pure Land canon) and the Ōjōyōshū shaku (Commentary on the Ōjōyōshū ), accounts of his meditations (Sammai hottokki and Onmusōki ), and a voluminous correspondence. These can be found in his collected works, Hōnen Shōnin zenshū, edited by Ishii Kyōdō (Tokyo, 1955).
Works on Hōnen in English are few. The best is still Hōnen, the Buddhist Saint, by Harper Havelock Coates and Ryugaku Ishizuka, 5 vols. (Kyoto, 1949). This is ostensibly just a translation of the forty-eight-chapter biography of Hōnen (Yonjūhachi kanden ) by Shunjō (d. 1335), a relatively late biography with much pious elaboration, but it is much more than that. Besides providing an excellent translation of Shunjō's biography of Hōnen prefaced by an extensive, if dated, introduction to the life, times, and thought of Hōnen, this work presents a wealth of useful information on Hōnen's life and times in notes and appendixes. A short but excellent and up-to-date treatment of Hōnen is to be found in Foundations of Japanese Buddhism, vol. 2, The Mass Movement, by Alicia Matsunaga and Daigan Matsunaga (Los Angeles and Tokyo, 1976). There is an enormous literature on Hōnen in Japanese. A good, critical biography based on contemporary sources is Hōnen, by Tamura Encho (Tokyo, 1959).
Machida Soho. Honen and Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. Translated by Ioannis Mentzas. Berkeley, 1999.
Allan A. Andrews (1987)
Hōnen (Genku, 1133–1212) was a renowned master of Pure Land Buddhism in medieval Japan. He is best known for his advocacy of the verbal nenbutsu as the exclusive practice for birth in the Pure Land paradise of the Buddha Amida. Hōnen is recognized as the founder of an independent Pure Land movement in Japan and of the Jōdoshū, or Pure Land school.
Hōnen was born in Mimasaka province (presentday Okayama prefecture) and entered the priesthood as a boy in 1141. In 1145 or 1147 he was sent to train at the Enryakuji, the preeminent Tendai monastic complex on Mount Hiei near Kyoto. There he studied a variety of Tendai traditions, but gravitated to its Pure Land teachings and practices. In 1150 he took up residence at the Kurodani hermitage on Mount Hiei, which was headed by the Tendai master Eikū (d. 1179) and devoted primarily to Pure Land practices. Hōnen explored widely other forms of Buddhism, and visited major temples in Nara and Kyoto. But the main influence on him came from the writings of the Chinese Pure Land master Shandao (613–681).
In 1175 Hōnen left Mount Hiei in order to spread the Pure Land teachings in Kyoto; he resided for many of his remaining years at Otani on the east side of the city. Over time he became a Pure Land teacher of great renown, attracting aristocrats, samurai, and clerics, as well as lowly members of society. His primary message, based largely on his interpretation of Shandao's teachings, was that invoking or chanting Amitābha (Amida) Buddha's name is the one and only practice assuring birth in the Pure Land, where Buddhist enlightenment would be certain. This teaching came to be known as the "exclusive nenbutsu" (senju nenbutsu). It is the message Hōnen articulated in his foremost doctrinal treatise, Senchaku hongan nenbutsu shū (Passages on the Selection of the Nenbutsu in the Original Vow), composed in 1198.
The established monasteries, Enryakuji on Mount Hiei and Kōfukuji in Nara, raised objections to Hōnen's movement in 1204 and 1205, and called for its ban. In 1207 the court executed four of his followers, and banished Hōnen and several disciples from the capital. Though Hōnen was revolutionary in his exclusive nenbutsu teaching, he was always an upstanding priest, observant of the Buddhist precepts, and he even administered the precepts to others. He also continued to practice Pure Land meditative visualizations throughout his life. Honen was allowed to return to Kyoto in 1211, and died at Otani in 1212. Many followers considered him a wordly incarnation of Amida's companion bodhisattva Seishi, or even of Amida Buddha himself.
Andrews, Allan A. "The Senchakushū in Japanese Religious History: The Founding of a Pure Land School." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55, no. 3 (1987): 473–499.
Coates, Harper Havelock, and Ishizuka, Ryugaku, trans. Hōnen, the Buddhist Saint: His Life and Teaching (1925), 5 vols. Reprint, Kyoto: Society for the Publication of Sacred Books of the World, 1949.
Kleine, Christoph. Hōnens Buddhismus des Reinen Lande: Reform, Reformation oder H?resie. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 1996.
Senchakushū English Translation Project, trans. and ed. Hōnen's Senchakushū: Passages on the Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow (Senchaku hongan nembutsu shū). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.
James C. Dobbins
The Japanese Buddhist monk Honen (1133-1212) is considered the real founder of Japanese Amidism in the form of the Pure Land sect, or Jodoshu.
Honen was the son of an official of Mimasaka Province whose dying wish was that Honen become a monk. Honen began his studies at the great Tendai center on Mt. Hiei. Ordained, he withdrew to the outskirts of Kyoto to lead a solitary life of meditation and contemplation. Dissatisfied with religion as he had learned it, he wanted to break with traditional religious observance. It was only in 1175, when he was 43, that he began to teach his beliefs.
In 1198 Honen formalized his ideas in the Senchakushu, an abbreviated title which, rendered in full, means "Collection of Passages on the Original Vow of Amida, in Which the Nembutsu Is Chosen above All Other Ways of Achieving Rebirth." In this work, Honen made it clear that the nembutsu, or the calling of Amida's name for his aid, was superior to all other forms of religious practice. One was saved not through one's own efforts (jiriki) but through the compassionate mercy of another (tariki), that is, Amida. Traditional methods of salvation relied on severe personal disciplines that ultimately led to enlightenment; these he called the Path of Holiness (shodo) and the Path of the Pure Land (jodo), as the heaven over which Amida presided was called. To attain the Pure Land all that was necessary was the invocation of Amida's name and complete dependence on his mercy. It was felt that for most men the Path of Holiness was beyond their capacities and that hope for salvation thus lay in the second path, which was bound to be successful since it stood beyond personal jurisdiction.
This book was written for the edification of the premier, Fujiwara Kanezane; but when it came out, it provoked the harshest of criticisms from the monks of Mt. Hiei, who destroyed all the copies they could set their hands on. They felt that Honen was turning against Tendai teachings, and he was accused of moral laxity as well.
In 1207, as a result of a misunderstanding with the emperor Toba II, Honen was exiled to Tosa. He remained there only 10 months but was not permitted to return to the capital until 1211. He died in March 1212.
Excerpts of Honen's writings are in The Buddhist Tradition in India, China, and Japan, edited by William Theodore de Bary (1969). The most authoritative treatment in a Western language of Honen's life is Harper H. Coates and Ryugaku Ishizuka, Honen the Buddhist Saint: His Life and Teaching (1925). See also Mamine Ishii, A Short Life of Honen (1932). Alfred Bloom, Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace (1965), contains pertinent material on Amidism.
Honen the Buddhist saint, New York: Garland, 1981. □