Hōnen (法然)

Portrait of Honen by Fujiwara Takanobu, 12th Century
School Jōdo-shū school of Pure Land Buddhism
Lineage Tendai, Sammon lineage
Other names Genkū (源空)
Born May 5, 1133
Kume, Okayama Prefecture, Japan
Died February 29, 1212
Kyoto, Japan
Senior posting
Title Founder of Jōdo-shū

Hōnen (法然, May 13, 1133 February 29, 1212) was the religious reformer and founder of the first independent branch of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism called Jōdo-shū (浄土宗, "The Pure Land School"). He is also considered the Seventh Jōdo Shinshū Patriarch.

Hōnen became a Tendai initiate at an early age, but grew disaffected and sought an approach to Buddhism that anyone could follow, even during the perceived Age of Dharma Decline. After discovering the writings of the Chinese Buddhist Shandao, he undertook the teaching of rebirth in the pure land of Amitābha through nianfo or "recitation of the Buddha's name".

Hōnen gathered a wide array of followers and critics. Emperor Tsuchimikado exiled Hōnen and his followers in 1207 after an incident regarding two of his disciples in addition to persuasion by influential Buddhist communities. Hōnen was eventually pardoned and allowed to return to Kyoto, where he stayed for a short time before his death.


Early life

Hōnen was born to a prominent family in the city of Kume in Mimasaka Province. 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 Seishimaru after the bodhisattva Seishi (Sanskrit Mahāsthāmaprāpta). In 1141 Hōnen's father was assassinated by Sada-akira, an official sent by Emperor Horikawa to govern the province. 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."[1]

Fulfilling his father's wishes for him, Hōnen was initiated into his uncle's monastery at the age of nine. From then on, Hōnen lived his life as a monk, and eventually studied at the primary Tendai temple at Mount Hiei near Kyoto. Clerics at Mt. Hiei took the bodhisattva vows and then undertook 12 years of training at Mt. Hiei, a system developed by the Tendai founder, Saichō.

While at Mt. Hiei, Hōnen studied under Genkō (源光), Kōen (皇円) and later, with Eikū (叡空). Under Kōen he was officially ordained as a Tendai priest, while under Eikū he received the name Hōnen-bō Genkū (法然房源空). In speaking of himself, Hōnen often referred to himself as Genkū, as did his close disciples.

Departure from Mt. Hiei

Hōnen studying the three scriptures of the Tendai school at 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, Hōnen 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.[2]

During this period, Hōnen read a Pure Land Buddhist text called the Commentaries on the Amitayurdhyana Sutra (Chinese: 觀經四帖疏; pinyin: Guānjīng Sìtièshū) authored by the Chinese Pure Land master Shandao, notably the statement, "Only repeat the name of Amitabha 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." This commentary persuaded Hōnen to believe that nianfo, called nembutsu in Japanese, was all one needed to enter Amitābha's pure land. Previously, nianfo was recited along with other practices, but Shandao was the first to propose that only nianfo was necessary. This new appreciation and understanding prompted Hōnen to leave Mt. Hiei and the Tendai tradition in 1175.[3]

Beginnings of a New Sect

Honen - public preach, Chion-in version, 14th century

Hōnen relocated to the district of Ōtani[3] 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.[4] Hōnen was a man of recognition in Kyoto, and many priests and nobleman allied with him and visited him for spiritual advice.[5] Among them was an imperial regent named Kujō Kanezane (1149–1207). The increasing popularity of his teachings drew criticism from noted contemporaries as Myōe and Jōkei among others, who argued against Hōnen's sole reliance on nembutsu as a means of rebirth in a pure land. Additionally, some disciples interpreted Hōnen's teachings in unexpected ways, leading to disreputable behavior, criticism of other sects, or other forms of antinomianism.

In 1204, the monks at Mt. Hiei implored the head priest 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 Emperor Toba II to sanction Hōnen and his followers.[6] The temple provided the emperor with nine charges alleging unappeasable differences with the so-called eight schools. Hōnen's detractors cited examples of his followers, such as Gyoku and Kōsai, who committed vandalism against Buddhist temples, intentionally broke the Buddhist precepts, or caused others to intentionally turn away from established Buddhist teachings.[7]

Richard Bowring condenses these charges into two general forms. First is the nature of a single practice. Hōnen's emphasis on the single practice of nembutsu denied the usefulness of all other Buddhist practices. The sole emphasis on Amitābha was also coupled with discouraging the traditional worship of the kami. The second charge was that Hōnen placed the most lowly layperson on equal footing with the wisest monk, rendering the entire monastic establishment as useless.[8]

In response, Hōnen censured Kōsai's single-nembutsu teaching and his followers agreed to sign the Shichikajō-kishōmon (七箇条起請文, "Seven Article Pledge"), which called for restraint in moral conduct and in interactions with other Buddhist sects.[9][10][11]

The clamour surrounding Hōnen's teachings dissipated for a time until 1207 when Toba II implemented a ban against exclusive nembutsu, stemming from an incident where two of Hōnen's most prominent followers were accused of using nembutsu practice as a coverup for sexual liaisons. As part of the ban, Hōnen and some of his disciples, including Shinran, were exiled, while the priests responsible for the conversion, Juren and Anrakubo, were executed.[12] Hōnen is said to have responded:

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.[13]

Exile and the Final Years

Hōnen was exiled to Tosa, but the movement in Kyoto had not thoroughly gone away. While in exile, Hōnen spread the teachings to the people he met - fishermen, prostitutes, and the peasantry. In 1211 the nembutsu ban was ultimately lifted, and Hōnen was premitted to return to Kyoto. In 1212, the following year, Hōnen died in Kyoto, but was able to compose the One-Sheet Document (一枚起請文 Ichimai-kishōmon) 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:[14]

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:[14]

[I lack] the wisdom to teach others. Ku Amida Butsu of Hosshō-ji, 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 Hōnen)



Hōnen's main document expounding his Pure Land doctrine is the Senchaku Hongan Nenbutsushū written in 1198 at the request of his patron Lord Kujō Kanezane (1148–1207). The document was not widely distributed by Hōnen's request until after his death. The only other document from Hōnen is his last testament, the Ichimai-kishōmon (一枚起請文) or "One-Sheet Document". Most of Hōnen's teachings are recorded by his disciples, or recorded later by Buddhist historians in the 14th century.


Hōnen's teachings are briefly summarized in his final work, the One-Sheet Document:

In China and Japan, many Buddhist masters and scholars understand that the nembutsu is to meditate deeply on Amida Buddha and the Pure Land. However, I do not understand the nembutsu in this way. Reciting the nembutsu does not come from studying and understanding its meaning. There is no other reason or cause by which we can utterly believe in attaining birth in the Pure Land than the nembutsu itself. Reciting the nembutsu and believing in birth in the Pure Land naturally gives rise to the three minds (sanjin) and the four modes of practice (shishu). If I am withholding any deeper knowledge beyond simple recitation of the nembutsu, then may I lose sight of the compassion of Shakyamuni and Amida Buddha and slip through the embrace of Amida's original vow. Even if those who believe in the nembutsu deeply study all the teachings which Shakyamuni taught during his life, they should not put on any airs and should practice the nembutsu with the sincerity of those untrained followers ignorant of Buddhist doctrines.

I hereby authorize this document with my hand print. The Jōdo Shū way of the settled mind (anjin) is completely imparted here. I, Genkū, have no other teaching than this. In order to prevent misinterpretation after my passing away, I make this final testament.[15]

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

If, because it is taught that birth is attained with but one or ten utterances, you say the Nembutsu heedlessly, then faith is hindering practice. If, because it is taught that you should say the Name without abandoning it from moment to moment, you believe one or ten utterances to be indecisive, then practice is hindering faith. As your faith, accept that birth is attained with a single utterance; as your practice, endeavor in the Nembutsu throughout life.
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... (Hōnen quoting Shan-tao)[16]


By 1204 Hōnen had a group of disciples numbering around 190.[3] This number is derived from the number of signatures found on Shichikajō-kishōmon (七箇条起請文, Seven Article Pledge), a guideline for rules of conduct in the Jōdo Shū community to assuage concerns by other groups. Key disciples who signed the pledge include:

A number of disciples went on to establish branches of Pure Land Buddhism, based on their interpretations of Honen's teachings.


  1. "Life of Honen, Jodo Shu homepage". Archived from the original on 2013-10-31. Retrieved 2008-11-23.
  2. Hattori, Sho-on (2000). A Raft from the Other Shore: Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism. Jodo Shu Press. pp. 7–8, 13. ISBN 2-213-61738-4.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Dobbins, James C. (1989). Jōdo Shinshū: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Indiana University Press. pp. 13–18. ISBN 0-253-33186-2.
  4. Fitzgerald, chapters 15 and 16
  5. Fitzgerald, chapter 14
  6. Morell, Robert E. (1983). Jokei and the Kofukuji Petition, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 10 (1), 6-38
  7. 興福寺奏狀(全) @ 活在恩海裡 :: 痞客邦 PIXNET ::興福寺奏状 Archived December 3, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
  8. Bowring, Richard. Religious Traditions of Japan: 500-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 247.
  9. Jodo Shu Research Institute, Jokaku-bo Kosai (1163-1247) The Single Calling
  10. "Shichikajo-kishomon (Seven Article Pledge)". Archived from the original on 2012-02-20. Retrieved 2009-08-31.
  11. 七箇條起請文
  12. Bowring, 251.
  13. Fitzgerald, 119
  14. 1 2 "A Personal Portrait of Honen". Archived from the original on 2013-07-21. Retrieved 2009-08-31.
  15. Honen, Ichimai-kishomon (The One Sheet Document), Jodo Shu Research Institute 1996-2002
  16. Fitzgerald, 20


  • Dobbins, James C. (1989). Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Bloomington, Illinois: Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253331861; OCLC 470742039
  • 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
  • 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)
  • Fitzgerald, Joseph A. (2006). Honen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography. World Wisdom. ISBN 1-933316-13-6. 
  • Augustine, Morris J., Kondō, Tesshō, trans. (1997). "Senchaku hongan nembutsu shū": a collection of passages on the nembutsu chosen in the original vow compiled by Genkū (Hōnen), Berkeley, Calif.: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. ISBN 1-886439-05-2
  • Jokai Asai (2001). Exclusion and Salvation in Honen's Thought: Salvation of Those Who Commit the Five Grave Offenses or Slander the Right Dharma, Pacific World Journal, Third Series, Number 3, 125-156. Archived from the original
  • Sho-on Hattori, A Raft from the Other Shore: Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism, Jodo Shu Press, Tōkyō, 2001, ISBN 4883633292
  • Sōhō Machida, Renegade monk : Hōnen and Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999, ISBN 0520211790
  • Jonathan Watts, Yoshiharu Tomatsu, Traversing the Pure Land Path: A Lifetime of Encounters with Honen Shonin, Jodo Shu Press, Tōkyō, 2005, ISBN 4-88363-342-X
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