During his time studying in the special training area of Kurodani, Honen encountered the teachings of Genshin's Ojoyoshu which over the previous 100 years had become popular, especially the practice of groups of twenty-five monks visualizing Amida Buddha together (nijugozanmai).(Kikuchi, 1-34) Honen's teacher Eiku always took the opportunity to lecture on the Ojoyoshu, giving detailed explanations on its methods of practice.(Jodo Homon Genrusho, T.84:196). From this background, therefore, we can surmise that during this time Honen intently practiced visualization of Amida Buddha.
Genshin (942-1017), also called Eshin Sozu, wrote the Ojoyoshu in 985, at the age of forty-four. Honen wrote four commentaries on the Ojoyoshu, an index to the importance he placed upon this work. The Ojoyoshu, in ten chapters, consists of a collection of passages from sutras and commentaries regarding birth in the Pure Land. It urges rejection of the present defiled world and aspiration for the Pure Land and discusses a variety of practices including the nembutsu for attaining birth in the Pure Land. The final section addresses questions concerning birth in the Pure Land. The Ojoyoshu is noted for its descriptions of the six realms of transmigration and of the marvels of the Pure Land. Among these, the description of the horrors, of the various hells, and of the wonders of the Pure Land are especially vivid and compelling. This immensely popular work seems to have done much to inspire longing for the Pure Land in order to avoid rebirth in the realms of suffering, particularly the hells, and to promote Pure Land practices, notably in connection with the time of death.(Ishida, 125-158) Of the ten joys of the Pure Land described in the Ojoyoshu, one is that the nembutsu practitioner will, at the moment of death, be welcomed by Amida Buddha and his attendant bodhisattvas and be escorted by them to the Pure Land. In the Pure Land, one will be able to see Amida Buddha face to face, practice under his direct teaching, and thus be assured of eventual enlightenment.(Ishida, 158-70) Dying persons were often encouraged to meditate on a statue or painting of Amida in their final moments. The descent of Amida Buddha and his attendants to welcome a dying person was frequently depicted in a genre of Pure Land painting known as raikozu.1 Such paintings became extremely popular in the century following Genshin's death. The influence of the Ojoyoshu on Heian aristocratic culture can be seen in the literature of the times, for example, in the Eiga monogatari, an account of the Chief Minister Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) under whom Fujiwara power reached its zenith.2 It also had an impact on Buddhist architecture, in particular the famous Byodo-in in Uji near Kyoto. Originally a villa built by Michinaga, it was transformed in 1052 by Michinaga's son Yorimichi into a temple depicting the splendors of the Pure Land.
On the one hand, for Genshin, the nembutsu still chiefly meant meditative practice aimed at visualizing Amida Buddha and the Pure Land rather than recitation of Amida Buddha's name. Of the five practices for attaining birth in the Pure Land set forth in the Treatise on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wang-sheng-lun), a central Pure Land treatise, the Ojoyoshu stresses in particular the practice of visualizing Amida Buddha. On the other hand, however, Genshin referred to himself as "an ignorant person" and, though his primary emphasis was on visualized meditation, he set forth simplified forms of practice, including the verbal nembutsu.
Honen shared in common with Genshin his self-identification as an ignorant, deluded person; his concern for an accessible form of nembutsu practice; and his focus on the salvific power of Amida Buddha's original vow (hongan). All three of these elements would undergo further development in Honen's thought. Honen wrote three commentaries on the Ojoyoshu. (SHZ.3-26) The Ojoyoshu was Honen's introduction to the Pure Land teachings, the starting point of a journey that would lead him to the teaching of the Chinese Pure Land master Shan-tao.
1. A famous example, the Haya Raiko (Speedy Salvation by Amida and His Bodhisattvas) is preserved at Chion-in in Kyoto. See also Murayama Shoichi, Jodokyo Geijutsu to Mida Shinko (Tokyo: Shibundo, 1966).
2. Translated by William H. and Hellen Craig McCullough as A Tale of Flowering Fortunes : Annals of Japanese Aristocratic Life in the Heian Period. (Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 1980).
Andrews, Allan The Teachings Essential for Rebirth (Tokyo: Sophia University Press, 1973).[a study of the Ojoyoshu]
Ishida Mizumaro, Gokuraku Jodo e no izanai (Tokyo: Hyoronsha, 1676).
Kikuchi Yujiro, "Kurodani Bessho to Genku", Genku to Sono Monka (Hozokan: Kyoto, 1985).
Hell and the Pure Land (Jigoku Gokuraku-zu) from Konkai Komyo-ji, Kyoto.