Honen was born in 1133 in the district of Mimasaka in what is now Okayama, east of Hiroshima, as the only child of a warrior and his wife. According to most of his biographies, Honen's father, Uruma no Tokikuni, was assassinated at night in his own house as a result of a local political feud when Honen was nine years old. However, according to one source, the Daigobon Honen shonin denki, Honen's father died, probably violently, when the boy was fifteen, after Honen had already gone to live on Mt. Hiei.(SHZ. 435, HDZ. 773). Whichever may be true, Honen lost his father early in life. Since he was thirteen when he left his home for Mt. Hiei, we do not know for sure whether or not his father's violent death was a major motive for Honen's entrance into monastic life.
Little is known about Genko (fl. mid-twelfth century), Honen's first teacher of Tendai Buddhism. His lodging temple on Mt. Hiei was located at Kitadani in the area of Western Hiei. According to the Honen shonin gyojoezu, Honen studied basic Tendai doctrine, especially the Shikyogi (attributed to Chih-i, T.1929, 46), under Genko for two years.
Koen (?-1169) is famous as the author of the Fusoryakki, a history of Japan. On Mt. Hiei, he lived at the Kudoku-in of Otani in the area of Eastern Hiei. Honen studied with Koen the major works of the Chinese T'ien-t'ai founder Chih-i (Jp. Chigi): the Fa-hua hsuan-i (Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra), the Fa-hua wen-chu (Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra) and the Mo-ho chih-kuan (Great Calming and Insight), as well as both exoteric and esoteric Tendai teachings.
Among the thirteen different schools of Tendai esotericism, Honen is said to have received from Koen the teaching of the Sanmai lineage. Of the ten different schools of Tendai exotericism, Honen received from Koen the teaching of the Sugiu line. Kokaku1 was the founder of the Sugiu lineage, which became the main stream of the Eshin school. One of Kokaku's disciples was Koen, who is said to have transmitted the Sugiu teachings to Honen. What is significant here is that while the authorship of some of Kokaku's works is in question, it is possible that the notion of realizing enlightenment in a single moment that appears in these texts exerted an influence on Honen.
Honen studied under Koen for three years. Then in 1150, when he was eighteen, he retired to Kurodani in the area of Western Hiei. The Kurodani area of Mt. Hiei was at this time the site of a major bessho, a place where monks withdrew from involvement in temple affairs to devote themselves to religious practice. Monks living in seclusion at such places were known as bessho hijiri. The Kurodani bessho was an important site of nembutsu practices, and in moving there, Honen, at a very young age, rejected the prospect of a career in the clerical establishment or in performing ritual services for wealthy aristocratic patrons.
Three possible reasons can be imagined for Honen's decision. First, his move to Kurodani may have implied criticism of the monastic corruption that prevailed on Mt. Hiei. As mentioned previously, at this time, the highest clerical ranks were monopolized by the aristocracy, and in addition, Enryakuji maintained warrior monks, so that the mountain became the scene of frequent strife. Second, his move might have been in response to the personal blow Honen received from the scattering of his family following the death of his father, Uruma no Tokikuni.2 Eiku, under whom Honen practiced at Kurodani, encouraged him to persevere in his Buddhist practice and studies in the face of his family misfortune.(HDZ. 787) Thirdly, Honen's seclusion was by no means an unprecedented act. For example, Eiku had done the same thing, and so had Ryonin, Eiku's teacher. Ryonin had, at the age of twenty-one, entered the Jogyodo on Mt. Hiei as a doshu, a lower class of monks assigned to a temple who were responsible for performing services, cleaning, and other routine functions. At twenty-three, however, he left Mt. Hiei and secluded himself at Ohara in Kyoto, a bessho devoted to nembutsu practices. Ryonin's decision to follow the path of a nembutsu hijiri influenced his disciple Eiku who himself retired to the Kurodani bessho. Thus Ryonin, Eiku and Honen all belonged to a tradition of monks who fled the worldliness of Mt. Hiei into bessho where they could devote themselves to nembutsu practice.
It is possible that Honen studied three aspects of Tendai Buddhism under Eiku: the exoteric teachings, the esoteric teachings, and the precepts for perfect and immediate enlightenment.
Regarding Tendai exoteric teachings, Eiku had inherited from Ryonin the teaching of the Ohara school, a minor line of the Eshin school. Ryonin, as mentioned earlier, is recorded as the founder of the Yuzu Nembutsu Sect. His works include a commentary on the Fa-hua hsuan-i and treatises on Buddhist ritual, including the ohara school of shomyo (Buddhist hymns). Ryonin's extant works do not give us a clear sense of his understanding of the exoteric teachings but his work on shomyo is definitive. This and the founding of the Yuzu Nembutsu movement were his two great accomplishments. If one enumerates the points in common between Ryonin and Honen, one can see the influence the former had on the latter. In following the tradition of his lineage, Honen followed in the footsteps of Ryonin by retiring from the world (Ryonin at age twenty-three and Honen at eighteen); by becoming nembutsu hijiri intent on spreading the teaching of the nembutsu to the common people; by performing a practice that gave verbal utterance to his faith (shomyo in Ryonin's case and the recited nembutsu in Honen's); by starting his own religious movement; and finally in experiencing a religious conversion (Ryonin experienced his religious conversion at forty-six, and Honen at forty-three).
Eiku may also have taught Honen Tendai esoteric teachings. Ryonin had received instruction in esoteric Tendai Buddhism from Eii of whom little is known. However, the Renge school, one of the thirteen schools of Tendai esotericism, is said to have been founded by a monk called Eii. If this Eii was the same person as Ryonin's teacher, it is possible that both Ryonin and Eiku inherited the esoteric teachings of the Renge school. A central doctrine of the Renge school was the concept of innate enlightenment (hongaku) which was significantly rejected by Honen.
Eiku is also regarded as the founder of the Kurodani school of teachings concerning the "precepts for perfect and immediate enlightenment" (endon kai), the Mahayana precepts established by Saicho (767-822), the founder of the Japanese Tendai Sect, on the basis of the Fan-wang ching. Eiku is said to have inherited a transmission concerning these precepts that began with Saicho, Ennin (794-864) and Choi (also called Ryoji, fl. 899) eventually passing to Zennin (1067-1139) and Eiku's teacher Ryonin. Within this lineage, three works interpreting the precepts of perfect and immediate enlightenment survive: the Fusatsu ryakusaho (attributed to Ryonin), the Endonkaiho hizo taikoshu and the Endonkai kikigaki, both attributed to Eiku. It is altogether possible it was from Eiku that Honen inherited these teachings concerning the Mahayana precepts. Furthermore, these teachings become significant when we see that Honen, while rejecting them as a practice for birth in the Pure Land in establishing his own doctrine, continued to maintain them throughout his life.
1. There are eight works attributed to him. Three works of these eight are extant. They are the Sanjushika no kotogaki, the Shuyo denju kenmon, and the Shikyo goji kuketsu.
2. According to the "Betsudenki" or "Another Biography" included in the Daigobon Honen shonin denki, Honen's father was killed after Honen went to Mt. Hiei. HDZ. 787.
Father Tokikuni encounters the warrior Sada Akira of Akashi no Gennai in the middle of the night (Chichi Tokikuni, Akashi-no-gennai Musha Sada-akira no youchi-ni au) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 1, section 19.
Young Honen receives tonsure and is ordained (Seishi, teihatsu-shite jukai-suru) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 3, section 14.
Honen studies the Buddhist scriptures (Honen, issai-kyo-o manabu) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 4, section 4.