Honen's Religious Conversion

In the Encyclopedia of Religion, Lewis Rambo defines conversion as ga dynamic, mutlifaceted process of change. For some, that change will be abrupt and radical; for others, it will be gradual.h (Eliade, 73) Such a process could aptly describe Honen's religious experience on both counts. At the age of forty-three, upon encountering Shan-tao's writings, he experienced an abrupt conversion. Yet this conversion process was also a gradual one which fermented over the years from his first study of Genshin's Ojoyoshu on Mt. Hiei to his formative experience at age forty-three to his final awakening in his later years while writing the Senchakushu. Although, Honen went out on his own to form his own unique doctrine and did not switch affiliation to another, pre-existing school as is a common conception of the word gconversion,h he did undergo two transformations which Rambo further points to as key to the conversion process: total change in all other aspects of life and a new awareness for the well-being of others.(Eliade, 77) These two aspects would certainly characterize Honen's experience at forty-three, in the radical change to his life by leaving the comfortable confines of Mt. Hiei and in his new mission of bringing the message of Amida's salvific power to the common people. Therefore, within the following context, we will describe Honen's embracing of the exclusive nembutsu and abandoning of Mt. Hiei at age forty-three as his "conversion experience". We will then designate the deep experience he had in his later years while writing the Senchakushu as his "final awakening".

In contrast, many scholars today posit Honen's religious conversion in his later years. According to Inoue Mitsusada, Honen's religious conversion is in his establishment of the senchaku hongan nembutsu (selection of the nembutsu in the original vow). More concretely, it is after leaving Mt. Hiei in 1175 and before the lectures on the Jodosanbukyo at Todaiji in 1190. (Inoue, 307, 323) In this matter, however, it would seem best to rely on Honen's own words. As seen in his Shichikajo kishomon (Seven Article Pledge), Honen recalls that the one great event in his life was his taking refuge in the exclusive nembutsu at age forty-three.

For a long period, I have recited the nembutsu and followed Shakyamuni's teachings on it. In this time, I have not said anything to go against people's hearts or to shock their ears. In the thirty years since I have begun teaching people about the nembutsu, nothing unfortunate has happened to them in their daily lives.

Honen spoke these words at the age of 72 in 1204 during the period when the Tendai school was oppressing his nembutsu teaching. The passage, therefore, refers back thirty years to 1175 when Honen first began teaching the nembutsu. For Honen, then, we can see that taking refuge in the exclusive nembutsu at age 43 was the seminal point in his spiritual journey. Therefore, the various biographies would seem accurate in their correspondence to Honen's own remarks on his religious conversion.

Honen makes the same type of recollection in the Senchakushu:

Long ago, I [a monk of humble accomplishment] chanced to read this book [Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching) ] by Shan-tao and came to learn something of its teaching. Thereupon, I resolutely abandoned the other practices and took refuge in the nembutsu. (Senchakushu, Chapt. 16)

In this passage, Honen does not refer to any dates as to when he took refuge in the exclusive nembutsu. However, if Honen wrote the Senchakushu at age 66, then it would be reasonable to understand the time glong agoh as when he was 30 to 40 years old. If the Senchakushu was written in 1198, the year 1175 is more than 20 years earlier and could be referred to as glong agoh by Honen.

These two recollections and the similar descriptions in the aforementioned biographies point to Honen's religious conversion taking place at the age of forty-three in 1175. They also affirm that this was the main turning point in his spiritual life. They also state that Honen's conversion was not a gradual change but a sudden one as expressed through Honen's direct encounter with Shan-tao in a dream. The dates of his descent vary among the biographies. Some mark it as 1174 (Shui Kotokuden-e, Honen Shonin-e), while others refer to it as 1175 (Honen Shonin Denki, Honen Shonin Gyojoezu). In either case, these dates generally concur with the ones of his religious conversion.

Conversion Experience

If one goes by the Daigobon Honen Shonin denki, the two major factors influencing Honen's religious experience and his resulting personal transformation were his reading of Genshin's Ojoyoshu, which first aroused his interest in Pure Land Buddhism and in Shan-tao, and his reading of Shan-tao's commentary, which led him to embrace the nembutsu exclusively. Quotations from the Ojoyoshu led Honen to the Commentary on the Meditation Sutra where he discovered therein the following passage:

Simply to bear wholeheartedly in mind the name of Amida whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down; whether one has practiced a long time or short; never abandoning this name from one moment to the next is called the rightly established act because it accords with that Buddha's vow.(T. 1753, 37:272).

Honen felt that he had finally discovered the ultimate path by which ordinary people could achieve the peace of assurance in eventual birth in the Pure Land. Concerning that moment of discovery, it is said that he experienced the following:

In an excess of rejoicing, although there was none to hear, I cried in a loud voice: "In the past, when Amida Buddha was still engaged in practice as Dharmakara [Bodhisattva], he had already established this practice for persons of limited capacity like myself!" Joy pierced me to the marrow, and my tears fell in torrents. (Jurokumonki, JZ. 17:66)

According to traditional biography, it was then that Honen left Kurodani on Mount Hiei wearing black robes. In Japan, black robes are only for the youngest, junior monks. Therefore, when Honen left Mt. Hiei in black robes, he was making a statement against the hierarchy among Buddhist monks and proclaiming his itinerancy. Furthermore, during the Kamakura period, the masters of the new Buddhist sects, namely Honen, Dogen, Nichiren and Shinran, while establishing new systems of thought, seemed not to have created any hierarchical color systems for monk's robes. Therefore, the significance of Honen wearing a black robe as he left Mt. Hiei was his feeling that he was leaving the official monkhood to preach the Pure Land doctrine to the ordinary people of the day.

Honen went to stay with Yurenbo Ensho1 who lived in Hirodani in Nishiyama in the western section of Kyoto and then moved to Otani on Higashiyama mountain in the eastern part of the capital after Ensho's death. Except for a five-year period of exile in the wake of opposition to his teachings, Honen would spend the rest of his life in seclusion at Otani.

Final Awakening

From this exodus from Mt. Hiei through the lectures at Todaiji and the Gyakushu seppo sermons, Honen's religious experience deepened, until in his later years, he experienced nembutsu samadhi. Nembutsu samadhi is traditionally attained through concentrating one's mind on a visualized image of Amida Buddha and the Pure Land. In Honen's case, he focused on exclusive recitation of the nembutsu which led to an experience of seeing Amida Buddha and the Pure Land.

Honen wrote about this experience in the Sanmai-hottokuki which is found in a number of different versions. One is contained in the Daigobon Honen Shonin denki, an older version of Honen's biography, and another in the Genku Shonin Shinniki. There are also versions contained in Shinran's Saiho Shinnansho and Ryukan's Chionkoshiki. Additionally, Honen speaks of this experience in Chapter 16 of the Senchakushu which was thought to be written when he was sixty-six. These comments relate that the reason why Honen relied on Shan-tao was that he was the teacher who attained nembutsu samadhi.

According to the Sanmai-hottokuki, Honen experienced this samadhi and saw the Pure Land several times between 1198-1206. In the main body of the Sanmai-hottokuki, Honen himself speaks of his visualizing of the sun, water, ground and various physical aspects of the Pure Land as taught in the Meditation Sutra (Sanmai-hottokuki, SHZ. 863-65). Traditional biographies support the idea that Honen's composition of the Senchakushu emerged from this personal religious experience. Since this period roughly corresponds to time when the Senchakushu is thought to have been written, it is entirely possible that such experiences influenced its composition (Sanmai-hottokuki, SHZ. 863-865; Takahashi, 187-207). Honen's assertion in the last chapter of the Senchakushu that Shan-tao was a manifestation of Amida Buddha is perhaps also understood in light of these visualization experiences. This final religious experience of Honen's life is, therefore, seen as the foundation for his seminal work, the Senchakushu , and also as the final fruit of his religious conversion at age forty-three.


1. According to Ito Yuishin's Jodoshu no Seiritsu to Tendai (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1981, pp.55-56), there are four reasons for Honen abandoning Mt. Hiei. Additionally, Ito insists that Honen left Mt. Hiei for Seizan Hirodosani to meet Yurenbo who was an exclusive nembutsu practitioner of the Shan-tao lineage.


Eliade, Mircea, ed-in-chief. The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. IV (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987).

Inoue Mitsusada Nihon Jodokyo seiritsushi-no kenkyu (Tokyo:Iwanamishoten, 1956).

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).


Honen emits light from his eyes and body during the dark night (Honen, anya-ni me-ya shinchu-yori hikari-o hassuru) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 8, section 4.

Honen witnesses a manifestation of Shan-tao (Honen Shonin, Zendo daishi no raigen-o haisu) from Zojo-ji, Tokyo.

Through reciting the nembutsu, the Pure Land and Seishi bosatsu appear (nembutsu-ni yori gokuraku-ya seishi bosatsu-o genzuru) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 7, section 23-24.