The Sanron and Shingon Scholar Myohen

The Ohara debate was a watershed in Honen’s teaching career and in the subsequent popularization of Pure Land practice. The power of Honen’s message not only reverberated through the Tendai school but also had its effect on the other schools of the day. One of the eminent monks who had been there that day at Ohara was Myohen. Myohen had already become well known for going deeply into the secrets of the Sanron (Ch. San-lun) school, and he would go on to deeply influence the Shingon school with his understanding of the nembutsu
that he got from Honen. In general, Myohen had a deep dislike for worldly honors and also didn’t enjoy his companions in the temple to which he belonged. So at age thirty-seven, he finally left the community and settled on Mt. Komyo. Here he continued all sorts of practices, earnestly seeking the way as taught by the various esoteric and exoteric schools. Myohen was unrivalled as a scholar among the monks of his time, yet his promotions in rank proceeded so slowly that people said, "What a pity such a monk should be leading such a reclusive life!" So when he was forty-five years of age, he was appointed a high ecclesiastical rank by the emperor. But he resolutely declined it, growing more and more earnest in his desire for a life of seclusion. In 1195, when he was fifty-four, he left Mt. Komyo and went to Mt. Koya, the center of the Shingon school, where he practiced more diligently than ever in his search for salvation.

One night, Myohen was reading Honen's Senchakushu. With the thought in his mind that the argument was rather one-sided, he went to bed and had a dream. He thought he saw an immense number of invalids at the western gate of Tenno-ji Temple in Osaka all in great distress. Then he noticed a holy man with a bowl of rice gruel which he put into the mouths of the sick people with a spoon. When he asked who this was, he was told, "Honen Shonin," - whereupon he awoke and thought to himself, "Here I was thinking the Senchakushu is so one-sided, but this dream must be a rebuke to such an idea.

Honen seems surely to be a holy man who knows the faculties of people and the peculiarities of the time. Now sick people in the first stages of their disease are able to eat such fruits as oranges, lemons, pears and persimmons. But later they cannot eat any of them, being able only to wet their throats with a little bit of thin rice gruel just to keep alive. And so this exclusive teaching of nothing but the nembutsu
is really the same thing. The world is now submerged under the flood of the five pestilences, and the benevolent influence of Buddhism is constantly on the wane. Society is degenerating, and we are now like people afflicted with a sore disease. We can no longer eat the orange and lemon of the Sanron and Hosso schools, nor the pear and persimmon of the Shingon and Tendai schools. There is nothing to do but to take the thin rice gruel of the nembutsu to escape the round of birth and death (samsara)." In this way, Myohen abandoned the many ascetic practices of the esoteric and exoteric schools and entered the one and only path of the nembutsu, giving himself the new name of Ku Amidabutsu.


Later on when Honen was actually staying at Tenno-ji Temple, Myohen paid him a visit. No sooner had Myohen taken his seat than he asked Honen how one may in this life get free from the pain of samsara. To this Honen at once replied, "In order to accomplish one's Birth (ojo) in the Pure Land, there is no way comparable to calling upon Amida's sacred name." Whereupon Myohen said, "Yes, of course everyone recognizes this; but when we are calling upon Amida Buddha, what are we to do when our minds are all in confusion, and evil thoughts arise within us?" Honen said in reply, "Is there anyone born into this troubled world of desire who can keep his mind free from distractions? How can the common person, burdened with internal afflictions and delusions, shake himself free from impure thoughts? I myself am powerless to suppress them. When one's mind is so distracted and such random thoughts come rushing in, if one takes the sacred name onto one’s lips, then by virtue of the Original Vow (hongan) of Amida, Birth in the Pure Land is certain." Myohen responded,"It was just to hear this that I came to see you." - and then he left. As Honen went back into his room, he remarked, "It’s so hard to silence the mind, to prevent random thoughts from arising, and to put oneself fully into calling upon the sacred name. It is like taking out one's eyes or cutting off one's nose."

After this encounter, Myohen became deeply attached to Honen and devoted himself entirely to the practice of the nembutsu. He used to say that the custom of rapidly counting off the beads of the rosary so as to make the number of repetitions of the name as many as possible was totally hypocritical. Then, one day a wayfarer came to him and asked, "How often should I repeat the sacred name every day?" Turning the question back on him, Myohen said, "How often do you practice it yourself?" To which the pilgrim replied, "A million times a day." At this he said, "Here is another hypocrite," and without further reply, went into his room and the pilgrim went off. A little while afterwards, Myohen was taking a nap when he had a dream in which he thought he saw a noble monk coming to him and saying, "It was very wrong for you to put anything in the way of that pilgrim who was repeating the nembutsu a million times a day," and with an angered look he said, "I am Shan-tao." On hearing this, Myohen was seized with fear, the sweat exuding from every pore in his body and his breast heaving. He was so agitated that he did not know what to do. Thinking that it was only a short time since the pilgrim had left, he sent out messengers in all directions to bring him back and ask for his forgiveness. But although they searched all through Mt. Koya, they could not find him anywhere. Then Myohen said, "It is contrary to the mind of the Buddha to condemn the counting of the beads on the rosary as hypocrisy as I have been doing of late. So I think the wayfarer was not a person at all but an incarnation of the Buddha who came with a message for me." Thereafter Myohen himself began repeating the nembutsu over a million times a day.

Myohen’s Ojo

Myohen had great faith in Honen's teaching, believing with singleness of mind. During his thirty years of retirement on Mt. Koya, every morning he would renew his vows to observe the Buddha's precepts. He also regularly performed the service of worshipping the Buddha's relics. In the evening, he performed the service to be observed on the approach of death, and both he and his dharma brothers never failed to call upon the sacred name at the appointed hours, day and night. Whenever asked, he used to speak on the teachings of the exoteric and esoteric schools, but as for himself, he did nothing but repeat the sacred name. He followed other strict rules and generally kept to himself in his own hut. Thus he went on through the years with this spiritual training, renewed from day to day.

In the early Spring of 1224, he caught a slight cold and was not able to eat or sleep as usual, but he kept repeating the nembutsu. Although he was now a very sick man and his disciples took turns waiting on him, he made no change in his habit of talking about the Dharma every day. As day after day passed, he kept reciting striking passages from the sutras and commentaries. His fervor in calling upon the sacred name continually deepened. Finally, one day in the early summer he went on repeating the nembutsu with his head toward the north and his face toward the west. Attaining a state of deep meditative peace (samadhi), he expired. He was then eighty-three years of age. Those who saw him shed tears of joy, and all who heard of his death yearned for the virtues he displayed in his lifetime.

Myohen attains Birth (


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.Myohen in a dream sees Honen saving invalids inside the western gate of Tenno-ji. Book 1, Fascicle 16, Leaves 8-9, p.144
2.Myohen attains Birth (ojo). Book 1, Fascicle 16, Leaf 22, p.150

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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