Samurai Nembutsu

Birth (ojo) on the Battlefield

The early 10th century to the middle of the 16th century marks a period in which groups of so called “soldier-monks” (sohei) had an important effect on the political culture around the imperial capital of Kyoto. These groups were mostly attached to rivaling factions of the two major Tendai and Shingon schools. They were armed with weapons and with coats of mail under their robes, and engaged in military and other secular activities in large temples and shrines, such as Kofuku-ji in Nara and Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei. Those who belonged to Enryaku-ji were among the most powerful. It is said that Kakujin, the 35th Chief Priest (zasu) of the temple and the Tendai school, thought them necessary in order to put down rebels and rid the temple and its estates of thieves and robbers, who in those days frequented both the capital and the country.

Now by the late 12th century, these soldier-monks of Enryaku-ji had become so unruly that they made a plot for an armed resistance against the authorities, despite the protest of the better parts of the monkhood. Taro Tadatsuna, a powerful samurai, was by imperial order put in command of a body of troops which the government dispatched to suppress the uprising. As he was leaving for battle in the late Autumn of 1192, he paid a visit to Honen and said to him, “I have often heard you say that even the deeply deluded like myself, if they will only say the nembutsu
and put their whole trust in Amida's Original Vow, they will undoubtedly attain ojo. This has made a deep impression upon me, but I suppose this is the case only with those who are lying on a sick bed and calmly waiting for the end to come. But as for myself, being a samurai, I can’t do just as I like. And now following an imperial order, I am setting out for Enryaku-ji to discipline those sohei. I was born in a soldier's family and trained in the use of the bow and arrow. On the one hand, I’m under obligation to not fail in carrying out at least part of the will of my ancestors; and on the other hand, I’m responsible for handing down some legacy to my family. And yet if I throw myself into driving back of the enemy, all sorts of terrible and furious passions are likely to be stirred within me so that it becomes very hard to awaken any spiritual feeling in my heart. If I allow myself to keep thinking all the time about the impermanence of life and try not to forget the truth about attaining ojo by the nembutsu, I’ll be in danger of being taken prisoner by my enemies, being eternally branded as a coward, and having my estate confiscated. So for a fool like me, it is very hard to decide which of these courses to choose. Won’t you tell me how I can realize my deep desire for ojo without sacrificing the honor of my family as an archer?"

To this Honen made the following reply: "Amida's Original Vow says nothing about whether a person is good or bad, nor does it discuss whether a person's spiritual practices are many or few.
It makes no discrimination between the pure and the impure, and takes no account of time, space or any other diverse circumstances in people's lives. Further, it doesn’t matter how a person dies. The wicked person, just as he is, will attain ojo if he calls on the sacred name. This is the wonderful thing about Amida's Original Vow. And so, even though a person born into an archer's family goes to war and loses his life, if he only repeats the sacred name and relies upon Amida's Original Vow, there isn’t the slightest doubt that Amida will come to welcome him to the Pure Land." Under these gentle instructions Tadatsuna's doubts left him, and with a glad heart he exclaimed, "Tadatsuna's ojo will verily take place today." Honen handed him a sacred scarf which he wore under his armor, and he finally set out for the sohei’s fortress at Enryaku-ji. Once there, he threw himself to battle with the rioters. In the midst of the struggle, his sword was broken, and he received a deep wound. Seeing it was quite hopeless, he flung down his sword, clasped his hands, and called upon the sacred name with a loud voice until he breathed his last. At this, purple clouds covered the battlefield, and many smelled a delicious perfume. Others said that purple clouds also hung over the northern mountain. When Honen heard about it, he said,Good. Tadatsuna has been Born in the Pure Land."

Taro Tadatsuna attains Birth (ojo) on the battlefield

From Soldiers to Spiritual Warriors

In the province of Kozuke in modern day Tochigi, there was a samurai descendent of a great family of brave warriors named Taro Nariie Sonoda. He was very fond of archery and horsemanship, and indulged in the sport of hunting to his heart's content. During the autumn of 1200, he came up to the capital in charge of soldiers who were to be installed as the Imperial Body Guard. This was just at the time that Honen's nembutsu teaching was at its height, and of course, he heard how people of high and low rank were flocking to Honen to listen to his teaching. So he went and called on Honen at his hut. Honen told him in the kindest way that even the most ordinary people, burdened with bad karma and chained to the rounds of birth and death (samsara), can reach the Pure Land of Perfect Bliss and be Born anew if they embark upon Amida's Original Vow. But they should have a deep distaste for this impermanent world and should seek with all their hearts entry into the Pure Land from which one can never fall. On hearing this, Nariie was very deeply moved, and his whole being yearned for the life of Dharma. So he made up his mind to become a monk, at the age of twenty-eight, taking the name of Chimyo. After having served and studied under Honen for six years, Chimyo went back to his home region. Through his teaching and influence, he persuaded over twenty members of his own family to join him as monks. He built a lodge on the property belonging to the Ise Shrine, and here he and his associates lived the daily practice of the nembutsu with minds undivided, setting all their hopes upon the Western Paradise. The people had great veneration for Chimyo and called him "the holy man of Ogura."

One New Year's Day, Chimyo privately told one of his disciples to come to the edge of the temple garden. He told him that instead of giving to the many visitors the usual New Year's greeting, he wanted him to call out in a loud voice, "I have come here from the Western Paradise as Amida Buddha's messenger to tell you to hurry up and come to him." Then Chimyo said he would joyfully usher him into the room and give him his undivided attention including giving him various kinds of presents to carry away. From that time on, it was his custom to do this every New Year's Day. Another custom Chimyo initiated involved the many deer in the fields in the area. Farmers had built fences to keep the deer from injuring their crops. However, out of compassion for them, Chimyo fenced off a very productive seven and a half acre rice field, which he called the deer paddy, and set apart the rice to grow as fodder for the deer. Instead of the usual songs farmers sing when at work, he had the men who worked in this paddy field repeat the nembutsu.

In the late summer of 1248, as he was slightly ill, he called in his younger brother and instructed him in much detail as follows: "I am now an old man and an invalid, and must be getting near the end. This is the last time we shall ever meet in this world. Now that you are heavily laden with bad karma, you must be sure to say the nembutsu
so that we can meet again in the Pure Land. Even when you are chewing on deer meat or chicken, chew the nembutsu too. Although you may be bending your bow in the face of the enemy, do not neglect the repetition of the nembutsu.” On his brother's return, Chimyo gathered a group of monks together and held a service for the repetition of the nembutsu. The next day he sat upright with his hands folded and recited the passage from the Meditation Sutra which says, "The Buddha's light illumines all sentient beings." After calling upon the sacred name with a loud voice for some time, he breathed his last, as if in deep meditation. He was seventy-five years of age at the time. Purple clouds hovered over the roof of his house and rays of light filled the Buddha hall and his chamber. Both monk and laymen far and near saw and heard all these things. Chimyo had always been in the habit from his early years of directing his mind towards the light of Amida's protection, and now at the end, he was truly blessed with the most wonderful experience of being conscious of that light.

Chimyo attains Birth (ojo)

True Bravery in Death

Yasaburo Yoritsuna, a samurai of Utsunomiya in present day Kanto, was one day marching over the plains at the head of his family and attendants, when he met a wayfarer of Honen’s. He was an ordained follower (nyudo) and former samurai called Kumagai Rensei, who addressed him in the following way, "What a large company you are. And yet in spite of your numbers, you cannot contend with the demon of death. But Amida Buddha, as promised in the Original Vow, will never let anyone fall into hell who calls upon his name and will welcome him to the Pure Land. As the nembutsu is like a soldier who can more than cope with a thousand men, whatever you do, say the nembutsu.” Yoritsuna was deeply impressed by these words and afterwards became very diligent in nembutsu practice. Later in the Autumn of 1208 when he was in the capital in charge of the soldiers installed as the Imperial Body Guard, he took the time to visit Honen in the seclusion of his quarters in the compound of Kachiodera Temple. In receiving his instruction about nembutsu ojo, Honen twice repeated to Yoritsuna the following passage from Shan-tao’s Commentary on the Meditation Sutra: "Although the Buddha Shakyamuni taught that there is merit in meditative and non-meditative practices, if we ask what is the final purpose of Amida's Original Vow, we find that it is to lead all sentient beings to the sole practice of the nembutsu.” Then he went on to say, "It entirely depends upon yourself whether you gain Birth or not. If you give yourself wholly up to calling upon the sacred name, there isn’t the slightest doubt about your attaining it." These words kept ringing in Yoritsuna ears until he became a wayfarer of this one practice. After Honen's death, he became friendly with Shoku, one of Honen's main disciples, who taught him how to read Shan-tao’s four-volumed Commentary. Finally, he entered the monkhood under the name of Jisshin-bo Rensho, building a humble dwelling for himself at Nishiyama where he did nothing but practice the nembutsu.

In the late Autumn of 1241 on a calm starry night, Rensho dreamt he saw a hut on the north side of a deep mountain ravine, where he found himself all surrounded by hills and high peaks on either side. As he was looking at the mountain to the north, he beheld an image of Amida about three feet high standing way up in the sky. As he stood wondering where it had come from, he heard a voice out of the sky saying, "Amida Buddha has come from Zenko-ji Temple." The Buddha kept coming closer and closer to him emitting bright rays of light from his body, which was beautifully adorned with white jewels. With a loud voice, Rensho called upon the sacred name, stretched out his right hand, and took hold of Amida's left hand. He then realized that it was a wooden image, the very one which had been for many years enshrined in his own Buddha hall. At this he awoke, and from that time on, his faith deepened and his energy grew so that whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, he forgot everything but his nembutsu
practice. In the Autumn of 1259, he became slightly ill and soon after, as he sat up in bed with his hands folded, said the nembutsu over and over. In the midst of happy omens, he breathed his last, thus realizing his longing for Birth in the Pure Land.


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.Taro Tadatsuna attains Birth (ojo) on the battlefield. Book 2, Fascicle 26, Leaves 6-7, p.66
2. Chimyo attains Birth (ojo). Book 2, Fascicle 26, Leaves 17-18, p.71
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.

Portrait of Yamago Amida - courtesy Konkaikomyo-ji, Kyoto


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