Classification of Teachings

Easy vs. Difficult

Particularly in East Asia, Buddhist sects have traditionally legitimized themselves by establishing their own "classification of teachings" (kyoso hanjaku), which typically positions their doctrine as central within an overall analysis and systematization of the Buddhist teachings. Honen, too, in Chapter One of the Senchakushu, elaborated such a classification, which appears to have evolved over a period of time. His first attempt to position the Pure Land teachings within the overall schema of the Buddhist teachings appears in his Commentary on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (muryojukyo-shaku - a section of the Sanbukyo-shaku). Here Honen employed the categories of sudden and gradual teachings. The sudden teaching expounds how the practitioner can attain enlightenment directly in a moment of insight. The gradual teaching reveals the way of attaining enlightenment through a long process of successive stages. This sudden/gradual distinction occurs frequently in various Chinese Buddhist classification systems, especially within Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism. (Gregory) Honen probably adopted it from Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu) which defines Pure Land teaching as the sudden teaching for Mahayana bodhisattvas.(T. 1753, 37:247a)

According to Honen's Muryojukyo-shaku, although the Tendai and Shingon sects teach that one can attain enlightenment in this very body, in the present age of the final Dharma, this is impossible for ordinary deluded beings. If such attainment is impossible for ordinary persons in their present life, then Tendai and Shingon in effect represent not the sudden but the gradual teaching. In contrast, the Pure Land teaching holds that by reciting the nembutsu, one can, with a simple utterance, suddenly achieve birth in the Pure Land, extirpate all passions and so achieve liberation. Thus, according to Honen's early teaching, the Pure Land doctrine corresponds most closely to the "sudden teaching." However, this early sudden/gradual distinction is still framed in terms of teachings other than the Pure Land tradition and does not reflect the distinctive character of Honen's mature teaching.

In the Gyakushuseppo and the Senchakushu, Honen adopted as his standard the categories of the gateway of the Holy Path (shodomon) and the gateway of the Pure Land (jodomon). Within the Holy Path, he placed the entire Buddhist tradition, of cultivating wisdom through one's own efforts, both Hinayana and Mahayana. This he equated with the way of "difficult practice," or of "self power". In contrast, he called the Pure Land Path the way of "easy practice" or of "other power." In the former, one travels by one's own efforts the long and difficult path, through countless cycles of birth and death, to eventual buddhahood. In the latter, however, one relies on the power of Amida's original vow, merely repeating the phrase, "Namu Amida Butsu," and is thus assured of being born after death in the Pure Land, where one is certain to attain eventual enlightenment. As mentioned earlier, this classification was originally made by Tao-ch'o (Doshaku) in China in his An-le chi (Anrakushu) [T. 1958] in contrast to the sudden/gradual classification of Shan-tao (Zendo). It is interesting to note that in the Senchakushu, although Honen repeatedly uses Shan-tao's ideas, quotes his writings and commentaries, and generally credits him for having the most influence upon him, he adopts Tao-ch'o's and not Shan-tao's system of classifying Buddhist teachings.

For Honen, Shan-tao's criterion was based on his feeling that the Pure Land teachings were more profound than other teachings. Honen, however, felt that Tao-ch'o's criterion based on the ability or inability to realize a teaching was the more relevant criterion. For Honen, Tao-ch'o taught the Pure Land Path over the Holy Path because in the age of the final Dharma these were the only teachings which deluded beings could realize. Honen selected Tao-ch'o's classification, because he felt if a profound teaching could not be realized, it was of no use to ordinary people. This emphasis on the salvation of ordinary people and thus of all beings is the point in Honen's classification which is more specifically emphasized than in the ones of Tao-ch'o, Shan-tao, and Genshin.

Until Honen, the comparative classifications of the various sects, upon which they argued their legitimacy, were grounded in claims of the superiority of a particular sutra or groups of sutras. The Tendai Sect, for example, evaluated the Lotus Sutra as superior to all other sutras because of its teachings of universal buddhahood and the eternity of the Buddha's life. The Shingon sect held the Mahavairocana Sutra, the Vajrashekhara Sutra and the Susiddhikara Sutra to be superior, because they set forth the methods of esoteric practice. Honen's innovation was to establish a comparative classification based not on the superiority of a particular scripture but on accessibility of practice. For example, he argued that however superior in theory the Lotus Sutra may be, if its teachings could not be put into practice by ordinary believers, it was of little worth. He illustrated his point with the example of trying to show a painting to a blind person or to entertain a deaf person by singing him a song.(SHZ. 419)

In 1186, at Ohara, north of Kyoto, Honen debated with a group of scholar-monks from the various sects. Recalling the event in his later years, he 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 won."(Daigobon, SHZ. 452) At this debate, Honen acknowledged the strength of other practices and conceded that there were those few who kept the proper form of Buddhism. His did this, however, to avoid further quarrels while feeling deeply that Amida Buddha's selection of the nembutsu in the original vow has the special power to save all, especially ordinary people. This is the reason for his making the selection of the exclusive nembutsu (senju nembutsu). Amida Buddha's selection of the nembutsu in his eighteenth vow is the easy practice for all sentient beings to gain birth in the Pure Land equally. By focusing, not on the relative superiority of the teachings themselves, but on the possibility of their actual practice, Honen was able to argue that the Pure Land Path surpassed that of the Holy Path. read more about the Ohara Debate

Honen consistently put emphasis not on the issue of the superiority of the teaching but on the problem of human capacity. The Mahayana had traditionally maintained that all people have the capacity to attain buddhahood, which may be realized through the gthree learningsh of observing the precepts, practicing meditation, and thus acquiring the wisdom that leads to liberation. In Honen's view, however, men and women of the age of the final Dharma, being sinful beings hopelessly caught up in the cycle of birth and death, are simply too imperfect to be able to fulfill the difficult demands of traditional Buddhist practice. Honen is said to have arrived at this conclusion through his own long years of practice as a monk on Mt. Hiei. An early commentary on the Senchakushu quotes him as saying,hthe Buddhist path consists of three learnings, but I could not make any headway at all in any of these three. How sad! Is there then no other path, besides these three, that would save people like me?h(Bencho, T.2609, 83:26a) Therefore, going against the most fundamental presuppositions of traditional Buddhism, Honen's whole teaching begins from the conviction that people cannot become Buddhas through their own efforts and practice. On the basis of this conviction, he established his teaching of the exclusive nembutsu as the sole practice suited to the capacity of ordinary deluded persons of the present age. [Read more about Honen's stance towards other faiths]


Bencho, Tetsu senchakushu

Gregory, Peter, ed. Sudden and Gradual : Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987).


At Ohara, Honen lectures to Kenshin Hoin Shunjo-bo and others (Ohara-nite, Kenshin Hoin Shunjo-bo rato hodan-suru) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 14, section 12.