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Shonin (Genku) Honen’s life and work
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Shonin (Genku) Honen
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Biography of Shonin (Genku) Honen

Hônen is the patriarch of Japanese Amidism, or the School of the Pure Land (Jôdo-Shû). In his forties, he was exposed to the Pure Land teachings of the great Chinese Master Shan-tao, of which he became the propagator and chief representative in Japan. His focus on the practice of nembutsu, or invocation of the Name of Amida, gave rise to the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan through the work of his disciple Shinran and the School of True Pure Land (Jôdo-Shin-Shû). His teachings are the focus of Honen The Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings And Official Biography (World Wisdom, 2006). Hônen's writing, "The buddha of boundless light & taking refuge in the right practice" is included in Pray Without Ceasing .

The sketch of Hōnen Shōnin below is adapted from Joseph A. Fitzgerald’s
preface to Honen The Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings And Official Biography
(World Wisdom, 2006).

Namu Amida Butsu
“Save me, O Amida Buddha” [1]

For the twelfth century saint, Hōnen Shōnin, founder of the many-branched Jōdo (“Pure Land”) school of Buddhism in Japan, this is the all-in-all of spiritual salvation.

Only repeat the name of Amida with all your heart. Whether walking or standing, sitting or lying, never cease the practice of it even for a moment. This is the very work which unfailingly issues in salvation, for it is in accordance with the Original Vow of that Buddha. (Hōnen, quoting Zendō [Chinese: Shan-tao])
Hōnen paid respect to the forms of Buddhism that existed in his day, and he recognized antecedents to his views, most notably the great Chinese Pure Land teacher Zendō, but fundamentally his message was a departure, a new beginning. [2] According to Hōnen, the old ways and forms of Buddhism are legitimate—as each relates to the teachings of the historical Buddha, Shākyamuni—but they pertain to a golden age that is no more. We live, to quote a recurring phrase of Hōnen’s, in “these latter degenerate days,” when man is no longer up to the discipline and teachings of past doctrines.

The answer for mankind today, Hōnen teaches, is the practice of the Nembutsu—the repetition of Namu Amida Butsu, accompanied by faith in the saving power of Amida’s name. For Amida Buddha made a vow, which he fulfilled innumerable ages ago, that each person who calls upon his name with faith but ten times, or even once, shall be born into his Pure Land of Bliss. The practice of Nembutsu is simplicity itself; it requires neither proficiency, nor intelligence, nor virtue (though it does not reject any of these things); it requires only repetition and faith, faith in the saving power of the vow that Amida Buddha made. “Here we surely have something just suited to our several capacities, have we not?” (Hōnen)

Amida made his vow and attained Enlightenment eons before the life of the historical Buddha, Shākyamuni, but it is thanks to Shaka (as the Japanese call Shākyamuni) that Amida’s name shall be remembered for all time: “Preserve well these words,” Shaka said to Ānanda, his favorite disciple. “I mean preserve well the name of the Buddha of Endless Life [Amitāyus, a term for Amida].” Here one enlightened being (Shaka) preserves for posterity the memory of an earlier enlightened being (Amida). [3] Hōnen, though he would have certainly rejected the comparison, likewise has helped to preserve the name of Amida. So beautiful and so simple, his words on Amida have been heard by millions, and Amida’s name has been on their lips because of him.

* * * *

At the level of faith there is no difference between a common-born man and a noble-born man; the path Hōnen preaches is for the two equally. Someone once suggested to Hōnen that his practice of the Nembutsu was better than the Nembutsu practice of a man who was his attendant. With evident anger Hōnen responded, “Well, to what purpose have you all along been listening to the doctrine of the Pure Land? That Awanosuke [his attendant] over there, when he asks the Buddha to save him, saying, ‘Namu Amida Butsu,’ does just the same as I do when I offer that petition. There is not the slightest difference between us.”

Hōnen’s openness toward the common man, and his drastic simplification of religious doctrine and practice, was a departure from the priest centered, doctrinally-oriented Buddhism of the day. Hōnen was himself a priest, from fifteen years of age until the day he died, and never in all that time did he disparage the institution of the priesthood. There were, nevertheless, priests and scholars of the established Buddhist sects who watched Hōnen with a wary and concerned eye, for they believed the rapid “ten-thousand fold” spread of his Nembutsu doctrine threatened to overwhelm their distinctive traditions.

Eventually concern led to persecution, and persecution led to exile by order of the Emperor, when Hōnen was already an old man. His response was characteristic: I have labored here in the capital these many years for the spread of the Nembutsu, and so I have long wished to get away into the country to preach to those on field and plain, but the time never came for the fulfillment of my wish. Now, however, by the august favor of His Majesty, circumstances have combined to enable me to do so.

After several years of exile, Hōnen was pardoned, thanks to the intercession of admirers in the uppermost ranks of society. He returned to the capital city just in time to die there, and by death attain Ōjō, or birth into Amida’s Pure Land. He died, in the year 1212 A.D., at the ripe and auspicious age of eighty, the same age at which Shākyamuni left life in the body.

The influence of a great man often increases with death. Since the death of Hōnen Shōnin, nearly eight hundred years ago, it is not an exaggeration to say that countless millions of souls have been touched at a profound level by his words and deeds. According to Japan’s Ministry of Education, the number present-day practitioners of the Jōdo faith, including its many sub-sects, [4] approaches twenty million. One can be inspired by the teachings of Hōnen, but if nothing else one should be intrigued to learn more about a man whose message has meant so much to so many. Hōnen was a man who spoke to all people, to the religious specialist and to the fisherman. May it be possible for Hōnen to continue to speak to those high or low—to anyone who wishes to hear of his path for salvation.

1.  Alternate translations include: “I entrust myself to Amida Buddha”; “Praise to the Buddha Amida”; and “I take refuge in Amida Buddha.”

2.  Just as Shankara was not the first to discuss the Vedānta, so Hōnen was not the first to discuss the Pure Land: there was a Pure Land school in China from at least the fifth century A.D., and in Japan as well the Pure Land was known. It was Hōnen, however, who added intensity, urgency, and uniqueness to the Pure Land path: what before had been mere seeds or starts burst into bloom, as he brought focus and clarity to nascent teachings, and as he pruned away all extraneous practices in order to focus on what he saw as the “one thing needful,” the recitation of the Nembutsu.

3.  For an explanation of the perhaps surprising preeminence of Amida over the historical Buddha, see Frithjof Schuon’s article, “Dharmakara’s Vow” published in Treasures of Buddhism (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Books, 1993), pp. 153-165.

4.  The largest sect, by far, is the Jōdo Shin Shū [“True Pure Land Path”]. Other sects are not as large, but still thrive. Of the Jōdo sects, the Jōdo Shū [“Pure Land Path”] is the most closely aligned with the personage and teachings of Hōnen, and claims, therefore, to be the most orthodox. 

Articles on Shonin (Genku) Honen
 TitleSourceAuthor 1Author 2SubjectWW HTMLWW PDFExternal Link
Honen: The Founder of the Jodo SectHonen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official BiographyFitzgerald, Joseph A. Buddhism
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