Hōnen Shōnin


Hōnen (法然 1133-1212) is the founder of the first independent branch of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism known as Jōdo Shū. Jōdo is Japanese for 'The Pure Land' and shū is Japanese for 'sect'. In the related Jōdo Shinshū sect, he is considered the Seventh Patriarch.


Early life

Hōnen was born in city of Kume in Mimasaka province to a prominent family. His father was Uruma no Tokikuni, a province official who headed up policing in the area. His mother was of the Hada clan, whose ancestry could be traced back to the silk merchants of China. Hōnen was originally named Seishi-maru after the bodhisattva Seishi (Mahāsthāmaprāpta in Sanskrit). In 1141 Hōnen's father was assassinated by Sada-akira, an official sent to the province to govern by Emperor Horikawa. It is believed that Tokikuni's last words to his son were, "Don't hate the enemy but become a monk and pray for me and for your deliverance." Fulfilling his father's wishes for him, Hōnen was initiated into his uncle's monastery at the age of 9. From then on, Hōnen lived his life as a monk, and eventually studied at the primary Tendai temple at Mount Hiei, located near Kyoto. Tendai training at Mt. Hiei was concerned with turning followers into clerics, underpinned by a notion that the clerics were spiritually superior to laypersons. Clerics took the bosatsukai (vows of the Bodhisattva) and then undertook 12 years of training at Mt. Hiei; a system which was developed by the Tendai sect's founder, Saichō.

While at Mount Hiei, he studied under Genko (源光), Koen (皇円) and later, with Eiku (叡空). Under Koen he was officially ordained as a Tendai priest, while under Eiku he received the name Honen-bo Genku (法然房源空). In speaking of himself, Honen often referred to himself as Genku, as did his close disciples.

Departure from Mt. Hiei

While studying on Mt. Hiei, Hōnen devoted his time to finding a way to bring salvation to all beings through Buddhism, but was not satisfied with what he found at Mt. Hiei. At the age of 24, Honen then went to study at the city of Saga, then Nara, and stayed at such temples at Kōfuku-ji and Tōdai-ji. Still not satisfied, he returned to the libraries of Mt. Hiei and studied further.

During this period, Hōnen read a work known as Kuan-ching shu (Kuan-wu-liang-shou-fo-ching-shu; "Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra" authored by Chinese Pure Land master Shan-tao. This commentary persuaded Hōnen to believe that nembutsu was all one needed to enter Amida Buddha's Pure Land. Previously, the nembutsu was recited along with other practices, but Shan-tao was the first to propose that the only the nembutsu was necessary. This new appreciation and understanding Hōnen held for nembutsu is what prompted him to leave Mt. Hiei and the Tendai tradition in 1175.

Hōnen relocated to the district of Ōtani in Kyoto where he started addressing crowds of men and women, establishing a considerable following. Hōnen attracted fortune-tellers, ex-robbers, samurai and other elements of society normally excluded from Buddhist practice. Hōnen was a man of recognition in Kyoto, and many priests and nobleman allied with him, and visited him for spiritual advice. Among them was an imperial regent named Kujō Kanezane (1149-1207). By 1204 Hōnen had a group of disciples numbering around 190, ranging from laypersons to samurai. This number is derived from the number of signatures found on his Shichikajo kishomon ('Seven Article Pledge'), a guideline for rules of conduct in the Jōdo Shū. Shinran, of course, was a member of his following. Other key disciples include:

Nembutsu Ban

In 1204 other schools were also teaching nembutsu as a component of a broader practice, but Hōnen was teaching nembutsu as the one and only means of practice. Hōnen tried to keep his teachings somewhat secretive, as he understood the ramifications. This teaching meant that he was in opposition with all the other schools of Buddhism at the time, including those sects that had different interpretations of the Pure Land. This same year the monks at Mt. Hiei implored their head priest Shinso (1167-1230) to ban the teachings of exclusive nembutsu and to banish any adherents from their principality.

In 1205 the temple of Kōfuku-ji, located in Nara, implored the Emperor Go-Toba to sanction Hōnen and his followers. The temple provided the emperor with 9 charges alleging unappeasable differences with the so-called eight schools. Hōnen's detractors cited examples of Hōnen's followers, such as Gyoku and Kōsai who committed vandalism against Buddhist temples, intentionally broke the Buddhist precepts, or caused other social unrest.

The clamour surrounding Hōnen's teachings grew fierce over the following years, when finally in 1207 Go-Toba implemented a ban against exclusive nembutsu, stemming form an incident where two of his ladies in waiting converted to Jōdo Shū while the emperor was away. As part of the ban, Hōnen and some of his disciples were exiled, while the priests responsible for the conversion, Juren and Anraku, were executed. Hōnen's 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..

Exile and the Final Years

Hōnen was exiled to Tosa, but the movement in Kyōto had not thoroughly gone away. While in exile, Hōnen spread the teachings to the people he met in exile, fishermen, prostitutes, and the peasantry. In 1211 the nembutsu ban was ultimately lifted, and Hōnen was premitted to return to Kyōto. That following year in 1212 Hōnen died in Kyōto, but was able to compose the One-Sheet Document (Ichimai-Kishomon) a few days before he died.


Analysis of various historical documents by the Jodo Shu Research Institute suggests several obvious characteristics of Hōnen's personality:

  • a strict master
  • introspective and self-critical
  • a bold innovator
  • a critic of scholasticism
  • a man more concerned with solving the problems of daily life rather than worrying about doctrinal matters

On the latter point Hōnen expressed unusual concern over the spiritual welfare of women. In teaching to them, regardless of social status (from aristocracy to prostitutes), he particularly rejected the significance of menstruation; which wider Japanese religious culture considered to cause spiritual defilement. As a consequence the role of women in the Jōdo Shū sects has often been greater than in some other Japanese Buddhist traditions.

About himself Hōnen reportedly said:

[I lack] the wisdom to teach others. Ku Amida Butsu of Hosshoji, though less intelligent, contributes in leading the people to the Pure Land as an advocate of the nembutsu. After death, if I could be born in the world of humans, I would like to be born a very ignorant man and to diligently practice the nembutsu. (Tsuneni Oserarekeru Okotoba - Common Sayings of Honen)



Hōnen's teachings are briefly summarised in his final work, the Ichimai Kishomon (One-Sheet Document):

Hōnen's practical advice on practicing the nembutsu can be summed up in these two statements:



  • Honen Shonin's life
  • Alfred Bloom - Honen Shonin’s Religious and Social Significance in the Pure Land Tradition
  • Honen biography, notes on his work, and an image
  • Hônen : "Le gué vers la Terre Pure", Senchaku-shû, traduit du sino-japonais, présenté et annoté par Jérôme Ducor. Collection "Trésors du bouddhisme". Paris, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2005. ISBN 2-213-61738-4
  • Sho-on Hattori, A Raft from the Other Shore - Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo Shu Press, Tokyo, 2000)
  • Takahashi Koji. Senchakushu no seikaku ni tsuite: tokuni hi ronriteki ichimen o chushin to shite. in Jodokyo no shiso to bunka, Etani Festschrift (Kyoto: Dohosha, 1972)
  • Dobbins, James C. Jōdo Shinshū: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Indiana University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-253-33186-2.
  • Fitzgerald, Joseph A. Honen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography. World Wisdom, 2006. ISBN 1-933316-13-6.

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