The Prostitute Finds Birth
When Honen arrived at the port of Muro on his way into exile on Shikoku in the spring of 1207, a small boat drew near carrying a woman of the night. She said to Honen,"I heard that this was your boat, and I have come to meet you. There are many ways of getting on in the world, but what terrible acts could have been committed in a former life of mine to bring me into such a miserable life as this? What can a woman who carries a load of karma like mine do to escape and be saved in the world to come?" Honen compassionately replied, "Your guilt in living such a life is surely great and the penalties seem incalculable. If you can find another means of livelihood, give this up at once. But if you can’t, or if you are not yet ready to sacrifice your very life for the true way, begin just as you are and call on the sacred name. It is for just such deluded folk as you that Amida Buddha made that wonderfully comprehensive Original Vow (hongan). So put your full trust in it without the smallest reservation. If you rely upon the Original Vow and repeat the nembutsu, your ojo is absolutely certain." Thus kindly taught, the woman began to weep out of joy. Later, Honen said of her, "She is a woman of strong faith. She is sure to attain ojo." A year later when he was returning to the capital after his exile, Honen called at this place again and inquired about her. He found out that from the time he had instructed her, she had retired to a village near the mountains and had been devoting herself to the practice of the nembutsu. A short time after, as death drew near, it was with great composure that she safely accomplished her ojo. On being told this, Honen said, "Yes, it is just as I had expected."
Honen's Letter to a Dying Nun
A nun by the name of Shonyo-bo became deeply attached to the teaching of Honen while earnestly practicing the nembutsu. One day she fell sick, and over time her condition worsened. So she sent word to Honen that since she was nearing the end, she would very much like to see him once more. When word reached him, he was right in the middle of a special nembutsu retreat (betsuji nembutsu), so he sent his answer by letter, going into much detail as follows:
"I am very sorry indeed to hear of Shonyo-bo's illness. Having heard that she is seriously ill, I’d like to go and see her, and make sure whether she is going right on with the practice of the nembutsu up to the very end. I especially remember how often she used to call upon me to ask questions about the way of salvation. So as soon as word reached me, I at once wanted to go and see her. But I had just before that decided to begin a special nembutsu retreat for some days and to not go out of my room for anything whatsoever. Now that the situation has changed so much, I am tempted to change my mind and to go at once to see her. But on second thought I have come to feel that, after all, it doesn’t matter one way or the other about such courtesy visits in this world. The fact is that we are in danger of becoming foolishly attached to these earthly bodies of ours. No matter who it is, no one stays forever here in this fleshly body. The only difference is that either I myself or someone else must be left behind while the other goes ahead. Then if we think of the period of time that will separate us, that too is uncertain. And even though they may call it long, at the longest it is only like a short dream or vision. So no matter how many times I think it over, the more I am convinced that the thing to do is to think only of our meeting in the land of Amida Buddha. There, as we sit upon our lotus flowers and the cares of this world all clear away, we will talk together about the scenes and events of our past lives. We then will discuss together how we can help each other in promoting the emancipation of people down through the long future. This is the same as I have always told her from the beginning: she should take firm hold of Amida Buddha's Original Vow, not allowing one thought of doubt to enter her heart. And even though she can only repeat the nembutsu but once, remember that however deluded she feels she is, she will by the power of Amida Buddha's Vow without question be Born in the Pure Land. So tell her to exert herself with undivided mind to the repetition of the sacred name.”
"Our Birth in the Pure Land is not in the least related to our goodness or badness but solely depends upon Amida Buddha's power. It doesn’t matter how high one’s rank is. In these latter degenerate days, Birth in the Pure Land by one's own power is extremely difficult. However terrible, foolish or unclean we may be, it is all by Amida Buddha's power, and everything hangs solely upon our trusting in the power of his Original Vow. I am very sorry to say that there are those who persist in saying that it is quite impossible to attain Birth in the Pure Land. But however educated or high in rank these people may be, tell her not to pay any attention to what they say. They may indeed be excellent in their own way of thinking, but they have not yet reached enlightenment. And so we can say that the words of people who are trying to save themselves by their own efforts are a very great hindrance to those seeking ojo. Let’s not adopt the methods of the unenlightened but entrust ourselves to the Buddha's Vow and that only. Master Shan-tao used to say that we should not tolerate a single thought of doubt due to the opposition of those of another school to the Pure Land teaching. It’s better not to call in people of a different faith. But whoever they are, whether nuns or other ladies, tell her to have them always at her side repeating the nembutsu. She should with one heart and mind lay aside all the spiritual advice of the unenlightened and trust only in the wise counsel of Amida Buddha.”
"The decision I made to shut myself up in my room for a special nembutsu retreat is by no means intended for myself alone. And since I have heard of her illness, I’ll direct all my prayers without exception toward promoting her ojo. So tell her that I am praying that her deepest desires for ojo may be fulfilled. If my own purpose is truly genuine, how can this not be helpful to her? Believe me, it will surely have an effect. That she has listened with such attention to my words shows a karmic relationship between us extending beyond the limits of the present world and deeply rooted in a pre-existent state. Now whether she goes before me into the other world or I unexpectedly precede her, there is no doubt whatsoever that we shall meet again at last in the Pure Land. It doesn’t matter whether or not we meet again in this world, which is just a fleeting dream and vision. So don’t let her worry about that at all – just lay aside all such thoughts. Give every attention to the deepening and strengthening of her faith, and to the practice of the nembutsu. Then wait for the time when we will meet in that Land. If she is now very weak, I am afraid that what I have said may be too long for her to take in fully. In that case, please just tell her the substance of what I have written. The news of her illness has stirred within me a strange sense of sorrow which has impelled me to write."
say that she kept thinking of this letter as she went on repeating the nembutsu up to the very last, until her longing for ojo was finally realized.
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. The prostitute from Muro has her faith awakened by Honen. Book 2, Fascicle 34, Leaves 24-25, p.150.
2. Shonyo-bo attains Birth (ojo).
Book 2, Fascicle 19, Leaf 19, p. 9.
From the 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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