Honen lived during a period that corresponds to the second, third and fourth Crusades in the West, three hundred years prior to the Protestant Reformation. The mid-Heian period, golden age of classical Japan under the rule of the Fujiwara Chief Ministers of State, was coming to an end, and the real power of government was shifting from the aristocracy to the warrior class as a result of a long period of civil warfare. For some time, the emperor had held little real power, the actual government having been for a long time in the hands of the Fujiwara ministers. From the end of the eleventh century, the reigning emperor was controlled by the retired or cloistered emperor.
A significant political change occurred in 1085, when Emperor Shirakawa abdicated in favor of Emperor Horikawa to rule from behind the scenes, thus initiating what is called the period of cloister government or insei, a time of rule by retired emperors. The Fujiwaras did not take this usurpation of their power peacefully and there ensued a long internecine struggle. One result of the insei system was the establishment of two de facto imperial positions: the ruling emperor, whose role was chiefly ceremonial, and the ex-emperor, who wielded actual power. Factional conflicts multiplied. For example, there was continual feuding between the emperor and the ex-emperor, between the Fujiwara Chief Minister of State and the ex-emperor, and among ranking members of the nobility.
The result was a weakening of the aristocratic power structure, which facilitated the rise of the warrior class. Major battles took place, in which power was steadily gained by leading military families. In the 1158 battle of Heiji, the Heike or Taira emerged as the predominant warrior clan. Their heyday, however, lasted only a scant twenty-five years, ending shortly after the lifetime of their leader, Taira no Kiyomori (1118-1181). In 1185 the Heike were defeated by their chief rivals, the Genji or Minamoto clan, at the battle of Dan no Ura. The Genji held power for seventeen years under the leadership of the successive shoguns, Minamoto no Yoritomo, Yoriie and Sanetomo. Power was then seized by the Hojo family, former retainers of the Genji clan, who ruled as hereditary regents to the shogun.
In addition to political upheaval, the late Heian period was also marked by a series of natural disasters. The year after Honen's birth in 1134, a huge storm struck Kyoto and swept away many houses in the city. In Kamonochomei's Hojoki (An Account of My Hut), we can read of the great fire of 1177 which razed a third of Kyoto. Famines occurred in 1150, 1153, 1155, and in 1181. The 1181 famine was the worst. According to the Hojoki, over twenty thousand people starved to death and hundreds of corpses were strewn along the banks of Kyoto's Kamo river. This unsettled period was accompanied by a sense of fear and uncertainty, and thus it is not surprising that people saw in such events proof that the world had indeed entered the degenerate age of the final Dharma (mappo). It was to this age that Honen's Pure Land message spoke eloquently.
Honen lived and practiced for thirty years on Mt. Hiei overlooking Kyoto. Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei was the headquarters of the Tendai Sect and the most influential religious center in Japan. It was also a formidable political power. From the time of the eighteenth abbot Ryogen, higher clerical ranks had become increasingly monopolized by the sons of aristocratic families. Earlier standards for the selection of ruling abbots and for the promotion of monks such as personal probity, years of practice, scholarship and the like were gradually relaxed and eventually abandoned altogether. In their place, aristocratic birth had become the sole important factor. A monk of humble origins could never rise up through the clerical ranks, no matter how earnestly he strove. Many nobles became monks as a route to gaining worldly advantage. Also, like other major temples, Enryaku-ji maintained warrior monks to protect its expensive landholdings.
At this time the Tendai Sect had been in existence for about three and half centuries and that a fundamental schism had already occurred. In 993, at Enryaku-ji the main temple on Mt. Hiei, there arose a great conflict between the Enchin and Ennin parties on Mt. Hiei. This conflict led to the mutual destruction of their temples with the Ennin group fleeing the mountain and establishing itself at Miidera, on the other side of Mt. Hiei. Subsequently, the rival Sanmon faction of Mt. Hiei and Jimon faction of Miidera formed, and the two continued to fight each other often violently over the years.
In addition to this, when Honen entered the Tendai Sect, there was also a succession struggle over the next abbot of Enryaku-ji as well as another violent conflict between the high status, scholar monks and the ordinary monks who tended to daily matters. Further, in 1145, the warrior monks of the two major temples in Nara, Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji, attacked one another. The following year, the monks of Onjo-ji, the head temple of the Jimon faction, attacked Mt. Hiei. The year after that, the armed monks of Enryaku-ji came down from the mountain carrying the sacred and much feared palanquin of the deity of the Hie Shrine to demand from the retired emperor the exile of Taira no Tadamori and his son Kiyomori, whose retainers had attacked an official of the Gion Shrine, which was allied with Enryaku-ji. Thus Mount Hiei was not necessarily a place conducive to peaceful meditative practice.
The shift of political power from the aristocracy to the warrior class, corruption on Mt. Hiei, and the succession of natural disasters contributed to a sense of uncertainty which made the people look earnestly for a source of peace and salvation. It is no wonder then that Buddhism underwent a genuine revitalization during the early phases of the Kamakura period (1192-1333). Honen was one of the key figures in this revolutionary Buddhist revival.
Hojoki, Nippon Bungaku taikei, 30 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1957) 30.
McCullough, William H. and Hellen Craig, trans. A Tale of Flowering Fortunes : Annals of Japanese Aristocratic Life in the Heian Period (eiga monogatari) (Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 1980)
Akashi Taro Tadatsuna achieves Birth on the battlefield (Akashi Taro Tadatsuna, senjo-de ojo-o togeru) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 26, section 6.
Young Honen enters the Jihobo Hall of Mt. Hiei (Seishi Shonen, eizan-no-jihobo-ni hairu) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 3, section 4.