Selection and Rejection”

Honen’s Encounters with the Establishment

Serving Emperors

In the spring of 1175, Honen on the invitation of Emperor Takakura visited the palace to administer to him along with the court officials and ladies of high rank the Buddhist precepts of the Tendai school. A few years earlier, the retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa had also invited Honen to administer these precepts. Go-Shirakawa became deeply impressed by Honen's teaching and developed a faith quite out of the ordinary. For example, on over two hundred different occasions, he recited the sacred name of Amida a million times. In the Spring of 1192, he began to fall ill and as he grew worse day by day, he sent for Honen to come and act as his deathbed counselor. Honen accordingly went to the palace and again administered to him the precepts. He then prescribed the ceremony for the dying as a preparation for Go-Shirakawa’s Birth (ojo) into the Pure Land. Go-Shirakawa had of course paid daily attention to these things all along, but Honen kindly and gently reminded him of the truths to the deepening of his faith so that he did not tire of repeating the sacred name. Eventually, they brought him an image of Amida, and facing death with calm and undisturbed mind, he breathed his last in the act of repeating the nembutsu. He passed away in a sitting posture just like one who falls asleep, finally attaining his long cherished desire of ojo. The Emperor Go-Toba also used to invite Honen to come and conduct the ceremony of the precepts to himself and Court officials and ladies. Thus, over the years numerous various court dignitaries and officers of state took Honen as their spiritual guide.

Among the many who professed faith in the teaching of Honen, the Regent Kujo Kanezane was the most committed. He was the Minister of State during the reigns of the four Emperors Go-Shirakawa, Nijo, Rokujo, and Takakura. Then, through the first Kamakura Shogun Yoritomo's influence, he was appointed Regent, then Prime Minister in 1189, and later chief advisor to the Emperor in 1191. He was also a man of faith who embraced the nembutsu through Honen in 1177.

Honen’s Patron Kujo Kanezane
So deep was Kanezane's faith in Honen that whenever Honen visited him, he always came down the palace steps to meet him and give him a cordial welcome. The nobles and court officials went on doing the same thing and making so much fuss over Honen that he came to dislike it. So in order to avoid such visits, he began to stay in his own hut and decline all invitations out, no matter where they came from. The Regent was much distressed at this and said to Honen, "Please come and see me whenever I am ill, even if it’s on days when you are staying in your hut." Honen replied, "In such extreme cases I won’t object," and the Regent, thinking he couldn’t get along at all without Honen, always said he was feeling ill. So Honen having no good reason for refusing would go to his residence as requested. One of his disciples, Shogyo-bo, noticed this and thought to himself, "Geez! My master says he’s going to stay in his room, but actually he’s going only to Kanezane’s Tsukinowa Palace and refusing to go elsewhere. The people will start saying he is really trying to curry favor with the Regent by flattering him." Thinking it was a great shame, he went to bed and dreamt that Honen appeared, saying, "You are blaming me for visiting Kanezane, aren't you?" "Oh indeed, no," he replied. "Yes, you are," said Honen again. "Let me tell you that the Regent and I have a special karmic connection from a time in a former state of existence that no one else has. To think badly of others without seeing their karmic connections from former states of existence is really shameful." When Shogyo-bo awoke he told Honen his dream, and Honen said, "Yes, that is the case. We have had a karmic connection with each other from a former life." This is one of many stories that show the unique quality of this relationship between Honen and perhaps his closest lay follower.

In 1197, Honen came down with a slight sickness that made Kanezane quite anxious. He soon recovered, but from the following New Year's Day Honen was confined to his thatched hut and declined all invitations. So Kanezane sent a messenger to Honen with the following message, "I have for years been listening to your teachings of the Pure Land, but I have still haven’t been able to fully take it all in. So wouldn’t you kindly write down
some of the more important points of the Pure Land teaching instead of conducting a personal interview? In this way, I could keep it as a record for future reference." In response to Kanezane’s request Honen wrote what became his magnum opus, the Senchakushu (Passages on the Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow).

From the time that Kanezane took up the nembutsu,
his desire for the pomp and glory of his position grew less and less, and with undivided attention, he gave himself up to a life of earnestly attaining ojo. At the beginning of 1202, he finally realized his long time goal of becoming a monk, receiving the ordained name of Ensho. He took Honen as his teacher and was instructed by him in the precepts, making continual progress in his spiritual life. In those days, men of the upper classes were in the habit of entering the monkhood in their later years. Although they did not entirely abandon their homes, they still wore priestly robes and practiced sometimes in their own special rooms apart from their ordinary houses. Sometimes they even changed their own houses into temples.

Attacks on the Pure Land Movement

From the Nara Period (710-784) down to Honen's day, the general conception of Buddhism was that it was only by becoming a fully ordained monk that one could lead a perfect spiritual life. It was Honen’s disciple, Shinran, who first opposed this monkish conception of the spiritual life. Even so, these traditional ideas and customs continued dominant until the middle of the Tokugawa period (1603-1867). Although Honen maintained the monastic precepts until his death, there were many, even among his own disciples, who abandoned these rules of behavior and became guilty of unethical conduct. Many used the excuse that they were simply observing the single-minded practice of the nembutsu (senju-nembutsu) in reliance upon the Original Vow. As such, this became the opportunity for monks in the established monasteries of the Six Schools of Nara and of the Tendai school on Mt. Hiei to try to abolish the nembutsu. So in the winter of 1204, the priests of all three sections of Mt. Hiei gathered to petition Archbishop Shinsho to issue a prohibition against the senju-nembutsu. Kanezane became very anxious over this scandal and wrote an appeal to the Archbishop about it. As a result of Honen's Seven Article Pledge (Shichikajo kishomon), in which he and his core one hundred and sixty-three disciples repudiated the unethical conduct of other so-called followers, and also because of the ex-Regent's letter written in his defense, the monks of Mt. Hiei gave up their agitation to have the nembutsu stopped.  

So the complaints which had been made against Honen by the priests of Nara and Mt. Hiei gradually subsided, and the nembutsu
movement went on its way without further interruption until the winter of 1206. At this time, the retired Emperor Go-Toba happened to make a trip to the shrine on Mt. Kumano. Meanwhile, Juren and Anraku and some other disciples of Honen were holding a special service for the practice of the nembutsu in Kyoto in which they were chanting the hymns appointed for each of the six hours of the day and night. The chanting was so impressive and awesome, with a peculiar irregular intonation, that the audience was strangely moved with feelings of sorrow and joy. Many came to embrace the nembutsu there on the spot, including two maids of honor to the ex-Emperor who in his absence had gone to the service. On the Emperor's return from Kumano, some one told him about these ladies having become nuns and suggested that there was something suspicious about their relationship with the two monks. The Emperor grew so angry that he imposed on them the death penalty. After their execution, the Emperor's wrath continued unabated and the faults of the disciples began to be pinned on their teacher, Honen. Eventually, Honen was degraded to the rank of a layman with the cancellation of his ordination certificate and then sentenced to exile in a distant province.

Kanezane’s Ojo

Now it was earlier in the year that Kanezane suddenly lost his son at the young age of thirty-eight. From this moment, he abandoned all his daily concerns and gave himself over completely to spiritual practice as a way to secure the fate of both himself and his deceased son. At this time, he often held interviews with Honen, talking about the impermanence of all things as manifested in the endlessness of samsara. Greatly encouraged in his practice, he kept piling up merit for the ultimate attainment of Birth (ojo) in the Pure Land, thus finding some comfort in his grief. But when he heard the news of Honen's coming exile as a criminal, he became even more depressed, wondering what possible karmic influence could have brought this all on. While he became increasingly distraught and his attendants remained at a loss as to what to do to console him, the very focus of the crisis, Honen, remained undisturbed. As a token of his deep sorrow at Honen’s parting, Kanezane sent him a letter with the following verse enclosed:


Parting ― a bridge that all must pass;

all I can think is that you will leave.

To this Honen sent the following reply:


Here and there


yet our spirits

will meet again on the Lotus pedestal [in the Pure Land].

Kanezane deeply mourned for Honen day and night, becoming sick a few days after his banishment and growing worse until the end came. He called to his bedside a state adviser and said to him, “You probably know that Honen Shonin has been my revered teacher for these many years, and life has not been worth living since I failed to get the Emperor's pardon for him and save him from exile. As His Majesty's attitude was very stern, I was afraid to say anything about it at the time, hoping later for a good chance to do so. But now I am drawing near to the end myself. This is the greatest sorrow of my life. I shall soon pass to another world, but you must continually keep on the lookout for an indication of His Majesty's calming and get Honen's pardon." One day in the early Spring of 1207, Kanezane repeated the nembutsu
several tens of times until entering a deep samadhi and then breathed his last, accomplishing his ojo at the age of fifty-eight.


The text has been edited and adapted from the Pictorial Biography of Honen Shonin (Honen Shonin gyojoezu), also known as the Forty-eight Fascicle Biography (Shijuhachikan-den) with reference to the translation made by Harper Havelock Coates and Ryugaku Ishizuka entitled Honen the Buddhist Saint: His Life and Teaching. Kyoto: Chion-in, 1925.

1. Kujo Kanezane greets Honen in his bare feet. Book 1, Fascicle 11, Leaves 9-10, p.100.
2. Honen and his core disciples sign the Seven Article Pledge (Sichikajo kishomon) denouncing false nembutsu practices
Book 2, Fascicle 31, Leaves 11-12, p.117

Both Pictorial Biography of Honen Shonin (Honen Shonin gyojoezu), corresponding to the Honen Shonin Pictorial Biography (Honen Shonin Den-en), part of the Complete Japanese Pictorial Scrolls, Volume I (Zoku Nihon Emaki Taisei I), Tokyo: Chuo Koron-sha, 1981.


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