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About Honen Shonin
»Honen's Life  »Honen's Teachings
Honen's Life
Honen was born in the village of Inaoka in the township of Kume in Mimasaka province, present day Okayama Prefecture, located about four hundred miles west of Kyoto. At his birthplace now stands Tanjo-ji temple.
His father Uruma no Tokikuni was from one of the leading families in the province. He was a local official in charge of police activity to maintain public peace and order. Honen's mother was a daughter of the Hada family, whose ancestors had come from China and whose business was silk products. The Hada family was wealthy and, therefore, one of the powerful families in the province.
Tokikuni and his wife were unable to have children for a long time. In their despair, they sincerely prayed to Buddha for a child. One night Tokikuni's wife had a strange dream in which she swallowed a razor blade. Tokikuni rejoiced, because he felt it was a good omen predicting the birth of a son.
On April 7, 1133, his wife gave birth to a boy. In the huge Muku tree that stood at the west corner of Tokikuni's house, two white banners appeared out of nowhere and became caught in its branches. A few purple clouds dotted a blue sky. All these seemed to be signs of blessing on Tokikuni's family.
The son was named Seishi-maru, and he was a brave and intelligent boy. The name "Seishi" comes from the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta (Daiseishi-bosatsu), one of the attendants of Amida Buddha, who symbolizes wisdom.
In 1141, when Seishi-maru was nine years old, his father was fatally wounded by Akashi no Sada-akira. Sada-akira was a local official sent by the lord of the province, the Emperor Horikawa, to govern the area. At the moment of death, Tokikuni said to his son, "Don't hate the enemy but become a monk and pray for me and for your deliverance." This tragedy opened up a channel of religious awareness for Seishi-maru.
Seishi-maru was sent to his uncle's temple to carry out the final words of his father. His uncle, Kangaku, was a younger brother of his mother and was the head priest of Bodai-ji temple located about sixty-five miles north of Seishi-maru's birthplace. It was there that Seishi-maru began to study the Buddha's teachings. While teaching Buddhism to him, Kangaku realized that Seishi-maru had great ability and potential to learn more, so he decided to send him to Mt. Hiei, the center of Buddhist study in those days.
The Assassination of Honen's Father
Within the Buddhist Establishment
the young Honen receives tonsure and is ordained
In 1145, at the age of thirteen, Seishi-maru was sent to Mt. Hiei. First, he studied with Jiho-bo Genko in the north valley of the western section of the mountain. Then two years later he became a disciple of Koen at Kudoku-in temple. Seishi-maru was ordained by Koen and studied the Tendai (T'ien-t'ai) Buddhism of Mt. Hiei under him. But Seishi-maru was not satisfied with this, and in 1150, at the age of eighteen, he left Koen and went to study with Jigem-bo Eiku in the Kurodani valley of the same area. There Seishi-maru was named Honen-bo Genku by Eiku and began earnestly to search for the way of religious salvation.
Honen's main concern was not to achieve high social status as was that of many priests in those days. According to biographies of Honen, however, he did attain a high reputation as a monk of great learning on Mt. Hiei. But this was not what he was seeking. What he wanted was to find the way of universal salvation, the way through which everyone together can attain final liberation in the Pure Land.
In 1156, at the age of twenty-four, Honen went to Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, to learn more about Buddhism and to find this way of universal salvation. In route, he visited the Shaka-do hall at Seiryo-ji temple in Saga, a western suburb of Kyoto, to pray for success in finding this way. At the Shaka-do Hall was enshrined a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha. This statue had been brought there from China by Chonen of Todai-ji temple in Nara in 987 and was worshipped by everyone as a sacred image. In Nara, he visited the great temples such as Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji, as well as the great scholar-priests such as Kanga of the Sanron school (San-lun), Zoshun of the Hosso school (Fa-hsiang), and Keiga of the Kegon school (Hua-yen).
Breaking Away
Honen endeavors in sutdy through the dark night
Honen described his life of seeking for "the way" as follows: "Essentially Buddhism includes observation of precepts (sila), realization of concentration (samadhi), and attainment of wisdom (prajna). But I cannot accomplish these three-fold requirements. Is there any other way by which even I could be liberated? I visited many temples and priests, but no one gave me a satisfactory answer. So once again I have come back to the library at Kurodani to study harder than ever to find the way of salvation."
He read all of the Buddhist scriptures (Tripitaka) three times and Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra five times. It was Shan-tao's text which finally revealed to him the way of universal salvation. This way is the practice of nembutsu. This realization occurred when he was forty-three years old.
The nembutsu had been practiced before Honen at Mt. Hiei and in Nara, but it had only secondary meaning as a religious discipline. No one regarded the nembutsu as an independent practice. They considered it to be one of many disciplines. It was Honen that established the nembutsu as an absolutely independent practice.
After realizing the truth of the nembutsu, Honen left Mt. Hiei for Kyoto and began to spread the teaching of the nembutsu there. In the spring of 1175, he founded Jodo Shu, or the Pure Land Denomination, in Japan. The center of his teaching was at Yoshimizu, where Chion-in, the Head Temple of Jodo Shu, now stands.
A Path for All
Honen's teaching attracted many people. Those who came to Honen's center to listen to his teachings included not only priests and nobles, but also warriors, an ex-robber, fishermen and even prostitutes.
Among the priests attracted to Honen's teaching, Shoku, Shoko, and Shinran are important, because they later developed denominations of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. Shoku (1177-1247) became Honen's disciple in 1190 at the age of fourteen when Honen was fifty-eight. He studied Pure Land Buddhism under the guidance of Honen for twenty-three years and is respected as the founder of the Seizan branch of Jodo Shu. Shoko (1162-1238) came to study with Honen in 1197 when he was thirty-six years of age. After learning and succeeding to Honen's teaching, he went to Kyushu and spread the dharma of the nembutsu. He is considered the second patriarch of Jodo Shu, Honen being the first. Shinran (1173-1262) became a disciple of Honen in 1201 at the age of twenty-nine. He is regarded as the founder of Jodoshin-shu, or the True Pure Land Denomination.
The Japanese imperial family's association with Honen occurred when Honen was requested to conduct the ceremony of taking the Buddhist precepts by three emperors: Goshirakawa, Takakura and Gotoba. Among the nobility who were drawn to Honen's teaching, Kujo Kanezane was a well-known and important figure. He held various positions in the aristocratic government of the Heian period and became prime minister in 1189. Kanezane had a chance to participate in the ceremony of taking the precepts from Honen about five times. He was also instrumental in getting the place of Honen's exile changed from Tosa to Sanuki province. Further, it was Kanezane who requested 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 basic text of Honen's nembutsu thought.
Kumagai Naozane illustrates the type of warrior influenced by Honen. He was a brave warrior and had killed many people. His great fear was of going to hell after death. However, when he heard Honen's sermon that even a sinful man could attain salvation through the teaching of the nembutsu, he was moved to tears and became Honen's disciple. Masako, wife of warrior Minamoto no Yoritomo, who founded the Kamakura government, was also a follower of Honen.
Among Honen's lay followers, there was a fortune teller named Awanosuke. He was said to be a stupid but faithful devotee of the nembutsu and is considered to be the inventor of the double-stranded juzu (rosary), instead of the usual single-stranded juzu, which is popular among Jodo Shu followers. One day Honen asked Shoko, "Which nembutsu practice is better Awanosuke's or Honen's?" Shoko replied, "Of course, Honen's nembutsu practice is better than Awanosuke's." Upon hearing this, Honen reproved him, saying, "How long have you been studying the meaning of the nembutsu? There is not the slightest difference between the two, because both of us have the same intention of wanting to attain Birth in the Buddha's Pure Land." This story indicates that the value of the nembutsu lies beyond the grasp of intellectual ability.
Honen teaches a prostitute of Amida's special compassion for those mirde in bad karma
As the teaching of the nembutsu spread throughout the country, old temples such as Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei and Kofuku-ji in Nara tried to stop the nembutsu. In the winter of 1204, the priests of Mt. Hiei met together in front of the Main Hall and appealed to the Zasu (chief abbot), Shinsho, to abolish the nembutsu. Honen responded to this by making a document called the Shichikajo Kishomon (Seven Article Pledge). The main points mentioned in this document were not to speak ill of other sects, their teachings and followers; not to behave improperly; and not to teach wrong teachings that the masters (Shakyamuni and Honen) had not presented. The document was signed by 190 disciples to confirm their pledge. As a result of this document, the attack from Mt. Hiei temporarily calmed down.
Kofuku-ji, however, was not satisfied. Gedatsu-bo Jokei of Kasagi wrote the Kofuku-ji Petition that included nine errors of the Pure Land Buddhism of Honen. In October of 1205, the priests of Kofuku-ji in Nara sent the document to the Imperial court and appealed for the teaching of the nembutsu to be stopped and for Honen and his disciples to be punished. An Imperial Order was subsequently made stating that there were followers of Honen who misunderstood the master's teaching and who behaved improperly. They should be punished, but as this was their own fault of going against Honen's teaching, Honen should not be punished.
The priests of Kofuku-ji were not pleased with this. They again appealed in order to persecute Honen's disciples who were understood to have strong attachments to the nembutsu alone and to abuse other sects. A principle disciple of Honen's, Kosai, was actually thrown out of Honen's center, because he taught that one recitation of the nembutsu was sufficient to achieve salvation (ichinen-gi). His student Gyoku was also thrown out, because he propagated the conduct of breaking the Buddhist precepts and did not respect the vows of other buddhas. Attacks from Kofuku-ji were frequent after this.
The strongest attack against Honen was made on February 18, 1207, when Honen was 75 years old. This stemmed from an incident in the twelfth month of 1206, when the ex-Emperor Gotoba made a pilgrimage to the Kumano shrines. During his absence, two of his ladies in waiting, without his knowledge, attended a nembutsu service conducted by Honen's disciples Juren and Anraku and were moved to become nuns. As a result of Gotoba's ensuing rage, Juren and Anraku were sentenced to death and Honen was exiled to Tosa on the island of Shikoku.
Honen did not hesitate to accept his exile. He actually appreciated it, saying, "My exile is the expression of Imperial courtesy, because otherwise I could not bring the teaching of the nembutsu to the people who have never had the opportunity to meet me and listen to me directly." One of his disciples, Sai-Amidabutsu, told Honen not to practice the nembutsu for a while in order to prevent the old temples from attacking. However, Honen replied, "I will practice the nembutsu even if they put me to death."
Honen left Kyoto on March 16, 1207 for Shikoku. On the way, he taught the nembutsu to the people in such places as Kyo island, Takasago bay in Harima, Muro harbor and Shiaku island. His listeners included fishermen, prostitutes, warriors and villagers. At last, Honen arrived in Sanuki province on Shikoku his place of exile. At first, Honen had been sentenced to exile in Tosa province, but later ex-premier Kanezane was able to change the place to Sanuki because of its milder weather.
the followers of Enryaku-ji and Kofuku-ji rally to oppose Honen's teachings
Final Journey
Honen's final moments
On December 8, 1207, an Imperial Order was issued by which Honen was released from his exile on Shikoku island. Still not permitted to return to Kyoto, he stayed at Kachio-dera temple near Osaka for a few months. It was on November 20, 1211 that Honen was finally permitted to enter Kyoto. On January 23, 1212, he wrote the One Sheet Document (Ichimai-Kishomon) at the request of Genchi, his closest disciple. In the document, Honen stated the essence of his faith, telling followers that the nembutsu is the ultimate way of universal salvation, so make every effort to practice it without bothering with your own finite knowledge. He passed away two days later on January 25, 1212 at the age of eighty.

From A Raft from The Other Shore Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism by Sho-on Hattori, published by Jodo Shu Press and available at

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