Honen Shonin (Honen Bo Genku)

Honen Shonin (Honen Bo Genku)
Honen Shonin (Honen Bo Genku)
A Japanese Buddhist philosopher and the founder of the Jodo Shu (Pure Land Buddhism), Honen Shonin was born in the Mimasaka province on the southern part of Honshu Island, Japan. His father, Uruma Tokikumi, was a provincial official, and his mother was from the Hada clan, her family being descended from Chinese silk merchants. Honen was their only child.

Uruma was appointed to police Mimasaka and in 1141 was assassinated by Sada-akira, an official sent by the emperor Toba. On his deathbed Uruma told his eightyear-old son not to avenge his death but to become a monk and honor his father’s life with good deeds. Honen became a monk in the following year at a monastery run by an uncle and at the age of 15 began studying for the priesthood at Enryakuji, near Kyoto.

Honen became convinced to dedicate the rest of his life to Buddhism. Honen Shonin spent 12 years there and was recognized as one of the brightest students. Early on during his time at Mount Hiei, Honen Shonin became influenced by the “Pure Land” doctrine and left Mount Hiei in 1175, going on to study at the Kurodani temple, where he was taught by Ajari Eiku. He gradually moved away from the Tendai sect.

After his training, Honen worked for the monk Genshin, author of Ojoyosho (Essentials of salvation), and learned more about the Pure Land doctrine. He rapidly became one of the leading propagators of the doctrine, abandoning the Tendai sect. This Pure Land doctrine, which Honen first postulated in 1175, effectively setting up his Pure Land sect, saw Jodo as the Pure Land, which humans could enter only after long periods of prayer.

On a spiritual level Honen felt that man was unable to attain salvation through his own efforts but could only be saved by relying on forces outside himself. One had to accept that faith could come only through the original vow of Buddha. Some of these teachings were not new and came from the works of Genshin, under whom he had studied, and also the Chinese Pure Land philosopher Shan-tao (known in Japan as Zendo), who wrote the Kuan-ching-su (Commentary on the Meditation Sutra) in the seventh century.

In 1198 Honen wrote his major work, the Senchaku hongan nembutsu-shu (Collection on the choice of the nembutsu of the original vow), sometimes known as Senchaku-shu. It involved the classification of all Buddhist teachings in two sections: Shodo (Sacred way) and Jodo (Pure land).

The former involved the inner character of people with Buddha, demonstrating that enlightenment could be achieved by good behavior, meditation and knowledge, as well as by abandoning, the evils of the world. Honen was convinced that sin, avarice, and lust would remain in many people, making it impossible for him or many others to achieve salvation this way. Therefore people like him would have to follow the Pure Land path in which salvation would be achieved by a vow to Amida Buddha, the lord of the Sukhavati.

This involved faith expressed by repeating the name of Amida with the utmost sincerity—on one occasion Honen is known to have repeated the name of Amida as many as 60,000 times a day. One of Honen’s most famous pupils was Shinran (1173–1262), who adapted the teachings and later claimed that a single sincere call of the name of Amida was sufficient for a person to receive salvation.

His departure from the Tendai sect and his attack on the Buddhist hierarchy were not without controversy. By the late 1190s Nonen, who had moved to Otani, in Kyoto, attracted many listeners. By 1204 he had some 190 disciples, some being samurai, and also had support at court from powerful people such as the imperial regent, Kujo Kanezane (1149–1207).

This led to complaints being made against Honen, especially by the temple of Kofukuji in Nara. They petitioned that Honen should be exiled as some of his supporters, undoubtedly, it was claimed, had attacked rival Buddhist temples that did not support Amitabha.

Honen was exiled for a year to the island of Shikoku in 1206, along with eight of his closest adherents, by the monks from Mount Hiei, and Shinran was also exiled; some of their supporters were not so fortunate and were beheaded. He was forced to use the nonclerical name Fujii Motohiko and was forbidden to return to Kyoto.

Honen traveled around distant provinces to refine and spread his teachings but was unable to meet again with Shinran. In 1210 Honen finally returned to Kyoto, where he built the temple of Chionin, and he died in 1212. He was given the posthumous title Enko Daishi. In 1680 the Honen-in Temple was built in Kyoto to preserve his memory. The Pure Land sect is now the second largest in Japan, in terms of the number of adherents, while those who follow the teachings of Shinran are the largest sect.