Pure Land in Japan
Honen, Shinran & Ippen


 
In the early thirteenth century, shortly after the founding of the Kamakura shogunate, there appeared a Tendai monk, Honen, who rejected traditional Pure Land Buddhism in favor of a bold, new interpretation that became the basis of his new school of Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo-shu). Although Honen (1133-1212) was a learned monk trained at Mount Hiei [the headquarters of Tendai Buddhism], because this was a time at which it was widely believed that Buddhist teaching and practice had entered an age of decline (mappo), he no longer thought that full enlightenment was a practical possibility, and he explicitly rejected even the aspiration toward enlightenment (bodaishin), which had long been regarded as the essential first step toward Buddhist liberation. Honen’s rejection of traditional practice was sweeping, and he declared that except for the nembutsu [i.e. the mantra Namu Amida Butsu], all other practices were useless. [Sources of Japanese Tradition (Volume 1), 213]

 
 
Honen’s “One-Page Testament”
The method of final salvation that I have propounded is neither a sort of meditation, such as has been practiced by many scholars in China and Japan, nor is it a repetition of the Buddha’s name by those who have studied and understood the deep meaning of it. It is nothing but the mere repetition of the “Namu Amida Butsu,” without a doubt of His mercy, whereby one may be born into the Land of Perfect Bliss. The mere repetition with firm faith includes all the practical details, such as the three-fold preparation of mind and the four practical rules. If I as an individual had any doctrine more profound than this, I should miss the mercy of the two Honorable Ones, Amida and Shaka [i.e. Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha], and be left out of the Vow of the Amida Buddha. Those who believe this, though they clearly understand all the teachings Shaka taught throughout his whole life, should behave themselves like simple-minded folk, who know not a single letter, or like ignorant nuns or monks whose faith is implicitly simple. Thus without pedantic airs, they should fervently practice the repetition of the name of Amida, and that alone. [Sources of Japanese Tradition (Volume 1), 226]
    As radical as Honen was in his innovations, it was Shinran (1173-1262) and Ippen (1239-1289), two of his spiritual descendants, who pushed the issue of simplicity even beyond Honen’s position. Although they never disputed Honen’s teachings openly, their interpretations differed from his understanding of the nembutsu as a means to rebirth that required human initiative and effort. While studying at Mount Hiei as a young monk, Shinran underwent a spiritual crisis in which he came to doubt the efficacy of his own efforts to gain perfection. Morality was of limited effect, as were ritual actions; nothing, it seemed, could eradicate the deep-seated imperfection of being human. When Shinran left Mount Hiei and the path of the sages, he turned to Honen’s new teaching of the exclusive nembutsu, but he came to see that even chanting Amida’s name was a matter of individual effort and therefore of limited effect in gaining full salvation. His dilemma was resolved when he realized that salvation was not won through human effort but was granted by Amida Buddha, the compassionate one who vowed to save all people, regardless of their moral standing or religious achievements. By rejecting all practices performed through one’s own effort (jiriki), Shinran went even further than his teacher by suggesting that chanting the nembutsu should not result from deliberative effort but from the saving action granted by Amida. Monastic discipline and other religious rituals were no longer necessary, and while in exile with Honen, who had been banished to the northern province of Echigo for his heterodox teaching, Shinran openly married a woman and later had children by her. “If even good people can be reborn in the Pure Land,” he said, “how much more the wicked man.” [Sources of Japanese Tradition (Volume 1), 215-6]
     
    A Record in Lament of Divergencies
    Shinran
    Saved by the inconceivable working of Amida’s Vow, I shall realize birth in the Pure Land”: the moment you entrust yourself thus to the Vow, so that the mind set upon saying the Name (nembutsu) arises within you, you are brought to share in the benefit of being grasped by Amida, never to be abandoned.
          
    Know that the Primal Vow of Amida [i.e. the 18th vow, which promises rebirth in the Pure Land to those who recite the nembutsu] makes no distinction between people young or old, good or evil; only the entrusting of yourself to it is essential. For it was made to save the person whose karmic evil is deep-rooted and whose blind passions abound.
           Thus, entrusting yourself to the Primal Vow requires no performance for good, for no act can hold greater virtue than saying the Name. Nor is there need to despair of the evil you commit, for no act is so evil that it obstructs the working of Amida’s Primal Vow. ...
     
    Even a good person can attain birth in the Pure Land, so it goes without saying that an evil person will.
     
    Though such is the truth, people commonly say, “Even an evil person attains birth, so naturally a good person will.” This statement may seem well founded at first, but runs counter to the meaning of the Other established through the Primal Vow. This is because a person who relies on the good that he does through self-power fails to entrust himself wholeheartedly to Other Power and therefore is not in accord with Amida’s Primal Vow, but when he abandons his attachment to self-power and entrusts himself totally to Other Power, he will realize birth in the Pure land.
           It is impossible for us, filled as we are with blind passions, to free ourselves from birth and death through any practice whatever. Sorrowing at this, Amida made the Vow, the essential intent of which is the attainment of Buddhahood by the person who is evil. Hence the evil person who entrusts himself to Other Power is precisely the one who possesses the true cause for birth. [
    Sources of Japanese Tradition (Volume 1), 227-8]
        Ippen studied in Kyoto under one of Honen’s leading disciples and later returned to his home in Shikoku, where he married and carried out his duties as both a monk and a head of a household. In 1263, at the age of twenty-five, he came to doubt the spiritual quality of his householder’s life and, thinking that he should go to the mountains to practice asceticism, set out on a pilgrimage that took him to Zenkoji, a popular destination for pilgrims in what is now Nagano City. ... During his travels, he devised a means of propagating the nembutsu by asking people to recite the nembutsu just “once” (ippen) and, when they did so, giving them a fuda, a paper talisman on which was written the Chinese characters for “na-mu A-mi-da Butsu.” … The talismans distributed by Ippen signified assurance that the recipient was sure to be born in the Pure Land. Ippen’s standard appeal was to ask each person to accept the talisman, awaken one moment of faith, and utter the nembutsu. While at Kumano Shrine on one of his many travels, Ippen made his appeal to a monk, but the monk surprised Ippen by refusing the offer on the grounds that he did not feel the arising of faith. Ippen insisted that the monk accept the talisman even if he lacked faith, and the monk obliged, but Ippen wondered whether what he had done was effective and legitimate.
         
         
        That night, the Kumano deity appeared to him and told him that rebirth was not determined by his act of propagation or the faith of the recipients but by the decisive power of Amida. Therefore, Ippen distributed his talismans without regard for whether people had faith. Ippen thus represents the furthest point of development among the Pure Land innovators: Honen rejected all practices but the nembutsu; Shinran rejected the nembutsu of self-power but retained the importance of faith in Amida’s other power; and Ippen, in a supreme act of faith, dispensed with faith as a spiritual requirement. [Sources of Japanese Tradition (Volume 1), 216-7]