Tendai Zasu Kenshin

In 1175 at the age of forty-three, Honen became settled in a new understanding of the Pure Land teachings and decided to leave Mt. Hiei and the Tendai understanding of Pure Land behind. However, since his new hermitage at Yoshimizu was still in the environs of the capital and Mt. Hiei, Honen continued to have regular contact with the monks of Tendai and other schools. One of the most eminent of these acquaintances was Kenshin, the famous Tendai scholar who later became Chief Priest (zasu) of Mt. Hiei. For a long time, Kenshin had had a sharp sense of the difficulty of attaining freedom from the cycle of birth and death (samsara). So at age forty-three, he resigned from ecclesiastical duties and began a life of seclusion at Ohara on the outskirts of Kyoto in which he might get away from the desire for fame and personal comforts. But still he could not make up his mind about the surest and most direct way of attaining enlightenment, and so he remained distressed day and night for about four years.

Kenshin used to talk over the problem of enlightenment with a fellow high ranking monk named Yoben, who one day told him that Honen was the one to ask in regard to such questions. So he sent a message to Honen inviting him to come up the mountain for a conversation. At their meeting, Kenshin asked, "How can we get free from this painful round of birth and death? As you are my senior, you doubtless have fully made up your mind on the matter, and so I hope you will enlighten me." Then Honen said, "As for myself, I have indeed set my mind upon this one thing, that I must as soon as possible accomplish Birth (ojo) into the Land of Perfect Bliss." At this Kenshin said, "It is because it is so hard to accomplish this Birth immediately at death that I am asking you how it can be done." Then Honen replied, "It is indeed hard to become a buddha, but easy to be Born into the Pure Land. According to the great Chinese Pure Land masters Tao-ch’o (Jp. Doshaku) and Shan-tao, ordinary people just as they are, with their restless monkey-minds, can by the power of Amida's Vow be Born into the Pure Land." With this they ceased their conversation, and Honen bade him good-bye and left for home.

A little afterwards, Kenshin made the remark that although Honen was a man of profound wisdom, his one defect was that he was somewhat one-sided. Honen got wind of the remark and said, "One is apt to be skeptical where one's knowledge is imperfect." When Kenshin heard of his response, he said, "That’s the truth. Though I’ve studied the teachings of both the exoteric and esoteric schools, I’ve been so busy looking after my worldly interests that I haven’t dedicated myself to seeking Birth into the Pure Land. And so I haven’t even looked at the commentaries of Tao-ch’o and Shan-tao at all. Who but Honen could have said anything like this about me?" And so with a sense of shame on hearing Honen's words, he retired for a hundred days to Ohara to study the texts of the Pure Land tradition.

The Ohara Debate

When he thought he had learned all the teachings of the Pure Land tradition, he again invited Honen to come and talk them over with him. Accordingly Honen went to Ohara in the autumn of 1186. Now at this time there was a monk named Chogen, the Chief Commissioner for the reconstruction of the great Todai-ji Temple in Nara, who had not yet become convinced about the way of emancipation. So Honen, feeling compassion for him, sent him word of his planned visit to Ohara. Chogen then went to Ohara with over thirty of his disciples, and they all met together in the Joroku-do Hall of Shorin-in Temple. On the side of the hall where Honen sat were Chogen and his disciples, while Kenshin, Myohen of the Sanron school, Jokei an eminent scholar of the Hosso school, some other Tendai scholars, and other priests of Ohara sat on the other side. There were also a good many monks of the Sanmon lineage of Tendai and a large number of laymen present to listen to the debate which lasted for a whole day and night.

When it came time for Honen to speak, he went into much detail in describing the rules of spiritual discipline and the various stages of enlightenment from ordinary person to the climax of buddhahood, as found in the schools of Tendai, Shingon, and Zen, saying, "The teachings of them all are profound and of great value to me. If only people's capacity were really equal to the requirements of the Dharma, they would attain salvation as easily as turning on their heels. But the fact is that a dull, ignorant person like myself is not fit as a container of such treasure. So I find it very hard to understand and very easy to go astray. But when a sincere desire for enlightenment was awakened in my mind, I sought it in all the schools of the path of self-realization (shodo-mon).
Yet whichever way I turned, I found all of them quite beyond me. This, I think, is because these days are degenerate, and many in their foolishness are not only incapable of practicing the Dharma but actually fight against it. Now the real spirit of the Three Pure Land Sutras and Shan-tao’s Commentary on the Meditation Sutra is that whether a person is wise or ignorant, whether he or she keeps the precepts or breaks them, they can, through the power of Amida's Original Vow, be Born into the land of pure and endless life from which there is no retrogression. And this Birth is attained if they but enter the one path of the Pure Land (jodo-mon) and engage in the one practice of the nembutsu.”

Honen went on to deal with all possible cases - from that of Dharmakara Bodhisattva at the time he was still engaged in the spiritual discipline necessary for a beginner, to that of one who has already attained the highest stage, namely that of Amida Buddha himself - and gave the most exhaustive explanations in the clearest terms. He then concluded by pointing out that he was speaking in language applicable to his own individual case and by no means intended to say anything against those who in understanding and practice were of perfect capacity. From Kenshin to the most obscure person in the audience, all were deeply moved. Kenshin then took an incense burner in his hand and in a loud voice began to call upon the sacred name. He then started walking around the image of Amida Buddha, and the whole company joined in with one voice - continuing on for three days and three nights so that it resounded through the mountains and valleys. Many as a result were awakened to a life of faith, while others felt a strange new affinity for the Pure Land Way. Recalling this event in his later years, Honen is said to have remarked: "At Ohara, I saw no winner or loser in the debate about which teaching is superior, but with respect to the issue of which teaching suits the people's capacity, I prevailed."
read more about Honen's classification between "the easy path" and "the difficult path"

Kenshin’s Ojo

Thus, just at this critical time of spiritual need for Kenshin, he received Honen’s teaching and at once give up all other practices to devote himself exclusively to the practice of the nembutsu. Yet he was not content with making Birth into the Pure Land his own personal quest, and so he also used all his influence to persuade others to do the same. He sent a letter to his niece, who was a nun, urging as follows: "When we invoke Amida Buddha, he gives us light. When his light shines upon us, all our bad karma melts away. As the fabled tree of the medicine king turns everything that touches it, even poisonous substances, into healing medicines, so will there be no karma remaining in him upon whom the light of Amida Buddha falls. Oh the pain that so many eons ago I didn’t have my attention directed to such an easy way of salvation as this! We have to call upon the sacred name of the Buddha of Boundless Light, Amida. This will bring rewards to us at once, and we no longer need give ourselves up to the frustrating practices of wisdom and meditation. “The one practice of the nembutsu includes all the others" (yuzu nembutsu), and through it they all find their realization, because the one practice is at the same time the practice of all. The one invocation is the same as invocations without number, and in it there is nothing lacking. Tao-ch’o gave up lecturing on the Nirvana Sutra and thereafter confined himself entirely to the practice of the nembutsu. Shan-tao also became dissatisfied with all other practices and urged upon people the one practice of the nembutsu. We are told that a person who goes into a grove of champaku trees smells nothing else but their fragrance; and that the person who goes into Vimalakirti's chamber only smells the perfume of merit. Would that everyone in this mountain smell only the fragrance of the nembutsu and hear only the voice of invocation of the sacred name."


In early 1190, on the recommendation of numerous priests on Mt. Hiei, Kenshin was appointed Chief Priest (zasu) of the Tendai school. As he resolutely refused the appointment, an imperial messenger was sent to Ohara with the order that he should accept it. And so he accepted and earnestly gave himself to the revival of the decaying Buddhism of the mountain. But at the same time he was not neglectful of the one practice of the nembutsu. So at the regular service every evening in the Hokke-do Hall, he added to the ordinary ritual the invocation of the sacred name in a loud voice a thousand times.


Kenshin had long suffered from an ulcer, and one night while a discussion was going on at Jodo-in Temple, he suddenly became worse. Soon after, without any change in his usual composure of mind, he breathed his last at Enyubo Temple in the eastern section of the mountain, and thus fulfilled his long cherished desire of Birth in the Pure Land. In accordance with his dying wish, he was buried at Ohara. He was one of the most conspicuous figures of the time. But it must be remembered that it was through the influence of Honen that he found the way to emancipation. He always used to say that until the time he abandoned all the other practices of the esoteric and exoteric schools and gave himself up to the one practice of the nembutsu that he had always had a strange feeling that there was something he was still missing.

Kenshin attains Birth (ojo)


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.Participants gather at the Ohara debate. Book 1, Fascicle 14, Leaves 11-12, p.127
2.Kenshin attains Birth (ojo). Book 1, Fascicle 14, Leaves 23-24, p.133

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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