Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 99

Our teacher Genku appeared
Through the power of the Light of Wisdom,
And revealing the true Pure Land way,
He taught the selected Primal Vow.

The Wisdom Light

Honen Shonin (1133 - 1212) became a monk at the age of 9. There is no question that, in the history of the Pure Land movement, he is the most significant figure because he decisively and uncompromisingly established it as a clear lineage and movement. Until Honen's time a variety of Pure Land practices and teachings had developed - and come and gone - but his great treatise A Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu Chosen in the Original Vow (senjaku hongan nembutsu shu) clearly sets out the case for the establisment of a distinct school based on nembutsu alone. Although the movement founded on Shinran's teaching is the largest single demomination in the Pure Land way, without Honen it would simply not exist.

Honen became a monk because his father exhorted him to find the way of salvation for both of them as he lay dying from wounds inflicted in a family feud. At this time, Honen's father quoted the Dharmapada in order to make it clear that vendettas and revenge only lead to endless destruction, pain, misery and futility.

'He abused me; he beat me; he defeated; he robbed me.' The hatred in him who harbours such thoughts is never pacificed.

'He abused me; he beat me; he defeated; he robbed me.' The mind of one who has no such thoughts is always at peace.

Indeed, hatred is never pacified by hatred; it is pacified by the absence of hatred. This is an ancient law.1

Honen undoubtedly achieved this golden aspiration - so neglected in our time - during the course of his life. For he was known and admired as a monk of extraordinary virtue and compassion. However, his biography has interesting resonances with the life of Shakyamuni, beginning as it does with a traumatic and life-altering event, and continuing in a long quest to find the way to address the sufferings of the multitude.

When he was thirteen, Honen moved to Mt Hiei, but five years later he went to Kurodani and joined a nembutsu group that followed the 'Twenty-Five Samadhi Practice' that was established by Genshin. It seems, however, that Honen was unable to develop meditative practices to the extent that he thought to be necessary and, when he was twenty-four, he visited Seiryo-ji (temple) in Kyoto. This temple was famous for the fact that a carved image of Shakyamuni - that had originated in India - was enshrined there. The 'Twenty-Five Samadhi' was also practiced at this temple. Honen continued, however, to feel that he had not attained the fruition of his efforts in the quest of salvation for suffering beings.

After a sojourn in Nara, Honen returned to Mt Hiei at the age of forty-five. It was here that he decided upon a thorough search of the Buddhist canon. Some people say that he read the canon in its entirety three times, others five. In any case, it is a mammoth undertaking, since the Chinese Triptitaka is vast, the canon never having been closed. In the course of this intense search, Honen came across a single paragraph in Shan-tao's Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra that was to become the basis of his teaching and practice.

To say Amida's Name singlemindedly and continually and without interruption, whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down, however long you practice - is the rightly determining action and accords with the Buddha's Vow.2

According to Professor Fujiwara, this passage characterises the defining feature of Shan-tao's Pure Land teaching and accounts for the fact that Honen declared himself to be not only Shan-tao's disciple but to be absolutely and exclusively following Shan-tao's teaching; not the creator of any new doctrine on his own behalf. Honen uses quotations from Shan-tao's writing constantly, in much the way that Shinran Shonin uses T'an-luan. Unlike Honen, however, Shinran did not see himself as the founder of a new Buddhist lineage but as a faithful follower of the Pure Land teaching that was established by Shan-tao and his disciple Honen.

Honen was sixty-five years old when he composed his major work, the Senjaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu. The work was composed at the behest of the Lord Chancellor Fujiwara Kanezane. Honen used the book to declare the independence of the Pure Land School. The title of the book reflects the central significance of the quotation from Shan-tao above. As Shinran says in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, the book

is easily understood by those who read it. It is a truly luminous writing, rare and excellent; a treasured scripture, supreme and profound.3

In the first chaper of his book (Two Gateways) Honen reiterates Tao-cho's description of the dharma as being comprised of the 'Path of Sages' and the 'Path of Pure Land'. Following the traditional assessments, Honen reminds us that in the age of declining dharma very few people can follow the path of sages. In the second chapter (Right and Miscellaneous Practices), Honen goes on to assure us that the saying of the nembutsu is the only practice that can be taken up by us. This thesis, as Professor Fujiwara points out, is inherited directly from Shan-tao.

Having established just precisely what the path entails and the process in determining our choices, Honen then goes on to demonstrate mostly from Shan-tao's writing, just what comprises nembutsu practice and how it is the most significant and important of Shakyamuni's teachings.

Precipitated by jealousy incurred as a result of the conversion and ordination of two courtesans, an official persecution of the Pure Land School began, extending to the execution of two of Honen's disciples and the diaspora of most others of the school. Nevertheless, Honen continued his life-long practice of the nembutsu and, according to the biography that was composed by Shinran, frequently had visions of the Pure Land. In 1211, Honen was pardoned and returned to Kyoto, where he became ill.

Honen's death was witnessed by many people and was quite extraordinary. At one point he said that he had lived in India at the time of Shakyamuni and that he was, in fact, Shariputra, the disciple to whom Shakyamuni addressed the (Smaller) Amida Sutra. Two weeks before he died he called upon those present to say the nembutsu in a loud voice, and this continued until his death. There were many people present at his death, which was accompanied by many supernatural events and signs. Indeed, some of Honen's disciples who were in distant places, learnt of his death in dreams.

Honen has always been highly regarded throughout the Buddhist world - even in Tibet, so very far away. He was a scrupulous observer of the Vinaya discipline; indeed, he claimed that when he was alive in the time of Shakyamuni he had practiced strict Vinaya (Sk. dhuta). Even so, he addressed his exhortations about the nembutsu to everyone, without discrimination, including social pariahs, like prostitutes, whom he accepted as followers.

In this verse, Shinran uses the term 'Jodo Shinshu', which is here translated as 'the true intent of the Pure Land teaching'. He is referring to Honen's teaching and not to the school which came to be called 'Jodo Shinshu' in later times. After Honen's death, several controversies developed concerning the exact nature of his intentions and his teaching. Shinran used the term 'shinshu' to distinguish what he considered to be the accurate purport of Honen's teaching and described those, which he saw as aberrant, as 'keshu' (temporary teaching). He set out the 'shinshu' (true teaching) in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho and understood it to give an accurate account of what Honen taught and intended.


1: BD, p. 433.

2: See The Way to Nirvana, Ryosetsu Fujiwara, p. 154.

3: CWS, p. 291.

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