Honen’s Death and Ojo

1. Honen’s Last Hours and Ojo                                   

2. Dreams and Visions of Honen’s Death                          

3. Honen Last Will and Testament                                

4. Honen’s Funeral

After returning to Kyoto from exile, Honen took up residence near his former retreat at Otani on Higashiyama (Mt. Higashi). On January 2, 1212, due to the difficulties of his exile, Honen fell ill. Although his disciples had nursed him with greatest care, he had become increasingly weak in his old age. On January 23, he dictated the Ichimai Kishomon (The One Sheet Document), a record of his essential teachings, to Genchi (2,3,4). He passed away two days later on the 25th at the age of 80 (1, 5, 6, 7,8). Before his death, he is said to have donned a surplice belonging to Jikaku Daishi Ennin (794-864), the great disciple of Saicho, that had been handed down through the Kurodani precept lineage.1 He passed away peacefully, chanting the nembutsu.

Honen’s Last Hours and Ojo

From the 2nd of the New Year of 1212, Honen was feeling so poorly that he could hardly eat anything. For the past three or four years, Honen’s sight and hearing had become so dull that he could neither clearly distinguish color nor recognize voices. But now as the end approached, both senses became as sharp as before, and everyone who saw him was filled with delight and surprise. He talked of nothing but Birth in the Pure Land, repeating the name without ceasing in a loud voice, and even in his sleep his lips continued to move.
On the 3rd, one of his disciples asked him, “Do you think this means Birth in the Pure Land this time for sure?" To which he replied, "I came from the Land of Bliss, and I am sure I am going back there." Then another disciple Horen-bo asked him, "All famous priests from ancient times have left memorial temples behind them, but none has yet been built for you. Where then should we build yours?" His answer was, "If you erect a memorial to me over my grave, the influence of my teaching will be confined to one place, and not widely disseminated. But I assure you my memorial shall fill the land.  The one purpose of my life has been the universal spread of the nembutsu.
So wherever among the high class or low you find a nembutsu community, there is my memorial temple, even if it’s just the thatched cottage of a humble fisherman."

At around 8:00 in the morning on the 11th, Honen arose from his bed and in a loud voice repeated the nembutsu. All who heard were moved to tears. He said to his disciples, "Repeat the nembutsu in a loud voice. The Buddha Amida has come, and no one who repeats the name can fail to be Born in the Pure Land." And then, as he always had done, he began to speak about the merits of the nembutsu, saying, "The Bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi and many holy beings are appearing to me. Don't you see them?" When they said, "No," he urged them all to more earnestly repeat the sacred name.

At 10:00, his disciples brought him an image of Amida three feet high, and, as they put it on the right side of his bed, asked him if he could see it. With his finger pointing to the sky, he said, "There is another Buddha here besides this one. Do you not see him?" Then he went on to say,”As a result of the merit of repeating the sacred name, I have for the past ten years continually been gazing upon the glory of the Pure Land and the very forms of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. But I have kept it secret and said nothing about it. Now, however, as I draw near the end, I disclose it to you." The disciples then took a piece of cord made of five-colored strands, fastened it to the hand of the Buddha's image, and told Honen to take hold of it. Declining, he said, "This is the ceremony for most people, but it’s hardly necessary for me."

On the 20th at 10:00 in the morning, purple clouds were seen over the roof of his room. And, as a halo encircles the Buddha's head in art, there appeared a beautiful five-colored circular cloud, quite visible even to the crowds passing along the street. At the sight of them, his disciples told him, "There are purple clouds above you. Are you about to enter the Pure Land?" He replied, "This is wonderful! My Birth in the Pure Land is for all sentient beings. These good omens are
to help people towards faith in the nembutsu. Later in the afternoon at 2:00, he looked up towards the sky five or six times without blinking, His attendants asked in surprise, "Has the Buddha come?"; and Honen replied,"Yes, he has."

From the 23rd, Honen began incessantly repeating the name, calling it out in a loud voice for a half hour or an hour at a time. From 6:00 in the evening on the 24th right up to 10:00 in the morning on the 25th without the least interruption, he continued with all his might in a loud voice calling upon Amida. Five or six of his disciples assisted him in turn with their voices, until they became tired. But Honen, old and sick as he was, incredibly went right on. All those who surrounded him, both monastic and lay alike, were in tears.

From midday, his voice began to grow weaker and weaker, only at intervals did it became loud again. As he drew near to the end, he put on the nine-stripped robe of the lineage of “precepts for perfect and immediate enlightenment" (endon kai), established by Saicho, the founder of the Tendai school on Mt. Hiei, and passed down through his disciple Ennin, the great nembutsu hijiri Ryonin, and Honen’s Kurodani hermitage master Eiku. Then, he laid down with his head to the north and his face turned toward the west in the manner in which the Buddha Shakyamuni died. The lion, the king of beasts, is said to sleep this way, and so did Shakyamuni, the lord of humans. To lie down with one’s head thrown back was said to be the way evil spirits (asura), and to lie with one's face downward was to imitate hungry ghosts (preta).

Honen then recited the following passage from the Meditation Sutra: "The light (of Amida) illumines all sentient beings throughout the ten quarters, who call upon the sacred name, protects them, and never forsakes them." With these words on his lips he breathed his last, as one falls asleep. After his voice was silent, his lips and tongue continued moving over ten times, while a bright smile came over his face. His departure took place just at 12:30 on the 25th of January, 1212. He was then in his eightieth year - the very age at which Shakyamuni himself died and also in the very same calendar year of the monkey and water. With his death went out the light of knowledge from the world, as once more the Buddha's sun sank from human sight behind the western horizon. People of all classes alike mourned his death, as they would that of their own loved parents.

Chapter 37, page 635.

Dreams and Visions of Honen’s Death

On the eastern side of Honen's house, there was a fine stretch of ground with a wonderful view opening out towards the west, which a certain man had given instructions to be used for his own grave. But in December of the previous year when Honen returned to the capital, the owner gave it over to him, handing him along with his letter of presentation the title deed of the lot. Honen, on receiving the documents, threw them into the fire, with the words, "This is a gift to the Three Sacred Treasures. Oh Amida I pray you accept it." So when Honen died, they built his mortuary chapel here, and he was buried in a stone tomb beside it.

As the news spread of Honen’s death, people of all classes, moved by sincere feeling, thronged to the place like a market. Hardly able to wait, they jostled one another there in crowds every monthly memorial day. This is the spot on which Chion-in Temple, the Head Temple of Jodo Shu now stands.

There was a timber dealer living in Kyoto by the name of Taro, an ordained follower (nyudo), who had became greatly attached to Honen. At the time of Honen's death, he contributed several pillars to the building of his mortuary chapel. One day during the period of mourning, an old man visited Honen's tomb and said to his disciple, "I am a wood-cutter from Mt. Nishiyama. I had a dream this morning in which I saw a monk coming to me who said, ‘That ordained follower who contributed those pillars toward Honen's mortuary chapel has just been Born in the Pure Land. Go and get acquainted with him. That is why I have come.’ On hearing his story, Honen's disciples went at once to inquire about it, and they found that only a few days before this ordained follower Taro had due to sickness moved to a place east of Zenrin-ji Temple. So they went and found that he had been there. It seems that Taro said Honen had been constantly at his side, telling him that as he drew near the end, he should keep saying the nembutsu. This greatly rejoiced him, and finally in the small hours of the morning, he accomplished his ojo. When they learned the facts of the case, the monks and the old man were deeply impressed by the connection with the old man's dream.

Chapter 38, page 641.

Honen Last Will and Testament

Article 1: As to the mass to be said for me after my death:

Religious cultivation requires solitude. Worldly business disturbs our religious life. After my death you, my disciples and followers, should not come together for any purpose whatever, lest you get into a dispute. Quarrels often arise at such times, although the meeting may seem to promote friendship. Therefore, you had better live separately and not meet together. Each of you should stay at home and pray that you may attain your own ojo on lotus seats in the Pare Land, keeping yourselves aloof from all angry feelings. To show your appreciation of what I have done for you, do not deviate a hair's breadth from this my parting instruction.

Now I must call your attention to the matter of the mass to be said for

my soul. Do not paint a Buddha picture, or transcribe the Sutras, or make baths for people, or plan other works of charity to repay my kindness. Instead of such things, only practice the nembutsu with all your hearts and nothing else. During my lifetime my only work has been the practice of the nembutsu. Why should you, my disciples, devote yourselves to any practice contrary to my teaching? You must further take care when you practice it, not to do it in the form of the continuous practice for seven weeks [as is usual for Japanese Buddhist funerals]. But everyone by themselves separately for a day and night, or for seven days and nights immediately after my death. The continual practice of the nembutsu is apt to make people idle and rob them of courage. Do not then, my disciples and followers, disregard this instruction of mine.

Article 2: As to the property I leave behind:

After my death do not quarrel over the property I bequeath: houses, utensils, garments, dishes, etc.. From ancient times, quarrels have often arisen over property after the death of the owner. Thus brothers have often fallen out with one another over their father's inheritance, and in the same way fellow dharma farers have fought over their master's property. I cannot tolerate anything like this. My disciples must not quarrel over my property after my death. Even a layperson should be ashamed to quarrel, so how much more a monk. I have indeed very many disciples, and among them are only these seven - Shinku, Kansai, Shoku, Enshin, Choson, Kansho and Ryosei - who have rendered especially kind and faithful service to me for many years, and I wish to reward them for their many kindnesses. To Shinku, the most intimate of all, I wish to leave my main apartment, together with the annexes at Kurodani and Shirakawa, a garden at Sakashita, and a lot of ground at Rakuchu, as well as the three foot Amida image made by Jocho, and sixty volumes of printed scriptures, etc. To Kansai, I give the house which was formerly at Hirotani on Mt. Nishiyama and is now in the central part of Yoshimizu, and a lot of ground at Takahata, for which I paid only one half of the value when I bought it. To Enshin, I leave the new house in the eastern part of Yoshimizu, since it belonged to the nun of Rokujo who adopted him, and a lot of ground at Rokujo which I had already promised to give him, with a conveyance written by myself, on the condition that during my lifetime I reserve for myself the use of the property. To Choson, I give the Kakugobo Temple together with the record of the temple property when the late Nyogyo died, and a house in the neighborhood of Shirakawa which 1 bought for him. I return the old house in the western part of Yoshimizu to its original owner, whom all my disciples know very well, and I cannot give it to anyone else. A chapel which was formerly at Otani I have already given to the nun living in th

e house in the western part of Yoshimizu, as through Saison and Jojo she especially so requested. Also one or two out-houses which I repaired a few years ago I leave to the owner of the house in the western part of Yoshimizu, to which they belong. I have no other property or houses than those mentioned above, and I can give nothing to anyone else. I hereby affix the names of these three other disciples with whom I have not been associated so long - Junsai, Jikinen and Gonsai - to whom appeal can be made by way of confirmation of this document. Too numerous even to mention are the many who have come to me morning and evening from all quarters seeking the way of salvation.

It is a general rule that when a monk or nun dies, his or her property belongs to the community of which they are members, and so I have divided my property among my disciples. Do not forget, my disciples, these two points which I have carefully stated as above, to be observed by my followers after my death. If you are truly grateful for the favor I have bestowed upon you, you will not fail thankfully to observe these instructions. As water and milk always live on good terms with each other, so should all my disciples live in perfect harmony after my death. This is all I wish to say.

Signed Genku, April 8th, 1198.

Chapter 39, footnote #1, page 654.

Honen’s Funeral

As Honen was drawing near the end, he repeated to his disciples the terms of his will written in 1198: “Build no memorial temple to me. If you want to show your feeling towards me, do it not by holding meetings in my honor, but let each of you their gratitude for what I have done for them by practicing the nembutsu privately. I fear that if you gather together in crowds, it may only result in strife and discord." Nevertheless, Horen-bo, besides encouraging the individual practice of the nembutsu, followed the usual custom and proposed the holding of memorial services every seventh day all through the seven weeks of mourning, and it was unanimously carried out.

On the first seventh day, Shinren-bo ran the service, and Sanemune Omiya, an ordained follower and one of the highest ministers of state, served as an honorary patron, reading the following address, “It was during the lifetime of my revered master, and just on the eve of leaving my official post at the Imperial Court, that in his presence I took refuge in the ten cardinal precepts with all my heart. Now that you have gone to that other shore, I would now reverently address you on this solemn occasion, trusting that you will use your place in that Blissful Land to promote my salvation too. I hope that you will not look down on this small tribute of mine. Hoping I may be able to add a little beauty to that lotus stand on which I aspire to sit in the Pure Land, I now ring the temple bell whose rich mysterious tones re-echo there."

At the second weekly service, Gubutsu-bo presided, and the honorary patron was the grandchild of an ordained follower Jakushin, who was the President of the Bureau of Imperial Archives.

At the third, Jushin-bo presided, and Shoshin-bo Tanku, the honorary patron, gave to everyone a printed copy of an inscription made by Wang I-chih, a famous Chinese penman, containing eighty letters, arranged in twelve lines, and read the following poem:

As in past ages, footprints of the birds

Became the guides for writing Chinese words,

To Paradise, along the western way,

My footsteps guide, for this I truly pray.

At the fourth weekly service Horen-bo presided, and Ryosei, as honorary patron, read the following address :
"Our late revered teacher appeared at the beginning of the lat

ter ten thousand years of the Dharma, and promulgated the one excellent teaching of Amida. The sword of his wisdom was sharper than that of Moya (a famous Chinese swordsman), and his virtuous character was a gem of purer luster than that of the world famed mani jewel. It is now four weeks since his noble spirit launched upon that stream whose waters never return. At the time many, even in distant places, looked with wonder upon the clouds which indicated his welcome to the Pure Land, while later his many disciples near at hand breathed in the sweet perfumes wafting over his newly made grave. As I call to mind those principles of truth which he taught, a new longing possesses me to strive for ultimate enlightenment. I would in all reverence lay them to heart, and herewith give expression to the profound feelings which move me."

At the fifth weekly service Ryukan presided, and Seikan-bo Genchi as honorary patron read the following address: "Beautiful clouds covered his roof down to the very eaves. People gathered from far and near to gaze upon the scene. Sweet odors filled his chamber, which I, with many, inhaled in delighted wonder."

At the sixth service, Seikaku presided and Jichin as honorary patron read the following address: "During Honen Shonin's lifetime, being myself a son of Buddha, I often used to converse with him about the sutras, and I was always asking him to come to my temple and expound the Dharma of the Buddhas. Our affinity for each other was by no means merely casual. He seemed to have a deep desire for my salvation. This is why, on this sixth memorial service, it falls on me to offer these few words, which I do with profound respect. I hereby present these priestly robes for him to wear in the home where he has now attained ojo, as the garments which signify his emancipation. The food which I now offer is to be placed at the gateway of that heavenly castle, where he now dwells in safety, a symbol of that ecstatic joy (dhyana) which is now his. Thus may his sainted soul rise to the highest lotus-stand of the Pure Land, which was his daily yearning during the days of his flesh. May I too, another son of Buddha, who longs for the same with sincere heart, be the first to receive his warm welcome to the Blissful Land."

At the seventh weekly service, Koin, the Bishop of the Mii Temple, presided, and Horen-bo Shinku, the honorary patron, read the following address: "When my revered teacher was twenty five years of age, I pledged myself to become his disciple at the age of twelve. Now that fifty long years have rolled by, I find we are in different worlds. My heart is rent, as I think of our separation. From the time that he took up his lodgings in the thatched cottage in Kurodani on Mt. Hiei, until he moved to his quiet chambers at Shirakawa, in the eastern section of the capital, yea, through all the years, his tender training and watchful care have awakened within me a gratitude as boundless as the summer skies. In remembrance of this, I have hung a picture of Amida here, which represents him coming to welcome us to the Land of Bliss. I have also enshrined here a scroll, bearing the symbolic Shingon characters of the “womb” and the “diamond,” and may the Buddha spirit enter into them and take possession of them. I have also presented printed copies of the eight volumes of the Lotus Sutra, and a written copy of the volume of the Golden Light Sutra, an exposition of which I would now offer. Be witnesses, oh Three Treasures, to the deep sincerity of my offering."

Chapter 39, sections 1-3, pages 649-651.

When the Bishop of the Mii Temple expressed his earnest desire to become the presiding officer at the meeting, bringing with him various offerings suitable to one holding such an office, it created a rather peculiar impression upon those in charge. While the company were still in much perplexity as to the meaning of all this, the Bishop, after he had finished speaking in praise of the sacred writings, went on into a detailed statement of the reasons which had led him to burn his work called Jodo Ketsugisho (Solution to the Jodo Problem), a reply and criticism of Honen’s Senchakushu.

He said, "I am glad to have the opportunity of being present today so that I may make a public confession of the great wrong I have done to Honen Shonin by reviling his teaching. When I had an interview with h
im, he corrected a number of errors I had made, and by virtue of his teaching, I was able to settle definitely three fundamental principles for the guidance of the school to which I belong. In this way, I may call myself one of his disciples. To listen to a word of wisdom from him was enough to make me burn those three volumes which in my folly I wrote. But it is hard for me even now to keep back tears of sorrow for my ignorance, and I can hardly bear the sense of bitter remorse awakened by reflection upon it. So as some small expression of my feeling, I have brought offerings as I could, and I lay them on his tomb, kneeling before it in humble contrition. This is a tribute from the heart of a sincere disciple. Please, oh spirit of my lost master, accept my offering in the same spirit as that in which I make it." When those assembled looked upon the tears that freely flowed down his cheeks, they were all most deeply moved, and there was not a dry eye in the place.

Chapter 39, section 4, page 652.

Biographical Notes:
1. Gorinju nikki, SHZ. 868-873. This describes his life in detail after leaving Shikoku

2. Guganbon, HSD. 532.

3. Kukanden, HSD. 438-39.

4. Shijuhachikanden, HSD. 284-85.

5. Daigobon, HSD. 788-89.

6. Genkushonin Shinikki, HSD. 772.

7. Chionkoshiki, HSD. 1037.

8. Chikugobon, HSD. 495.

Honen's final moments (Honen no rinju) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 37, section 16. 

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