Honen on the Moment of Death (rinju)

Already long before Honen, the Pure Land tradition held the time of death to be of special importance. Various point of death (rinju) rites were practiced because it was believed that the point of death was important for attaining Birth in the Pure Land. In the Senchakushu, Honen uses the phrase "coming to welcome" (raiko) to mean that when the nembutsu practitioner is at the point of death, Amida Buddha and his accompanying bodhisattvas will "come to welcome" him or her to the Pure Land. This phrase has a rich meaning in the Pure Land tradition. The Amida Sutra explains how Amida Buddha does not fail to appear to the person who, on the point of death, has been reciting the nembutsu with the intention of being Born in the Pure Land. The Meditation Sutra explains how at the moment of death, Amida Buddha together with the bodhisattvas appears in front of the dying person. Shan-tao said that when one is facing death, one must first quiet one's heart and in this state of tranquility recite the nembutsu in the hope of Birth in the Pure Land. Honen's own explanation in the Gyakushu seppo (The "Pre-emptive Funeral" Sermons) is the reverse of this: Amida Buddha will come to the dying practitioners assuring him or her of Birth, and as a result of this appearance, the practitioner's mind is put to rest as he or she dies.

The famous portrayals of Amida Buddha and his twenty-five bodhisattvas coming to guide the dying person is known as the Kosho Mandala or the Portrayal of the Buddha's Coming to Welcome (raikozu). According to the Sutra of the Ten Births (Shih wang-sheng ching), the twenty-five bodhisattvas were originally thought to protect sentient beings who believe the sutra. However, from the time of the Heian period (794-1191) in Japan, they came to also be regarded as the attendant bodhisattvas who, along with Amida Buddha, come to welcome the practitioners of the Nembutsu to the Pure Land at the time of their death. There is a special ceremony which symbolizes and celebrates the appearance of Amida Buddha to the dying disciple. It is known as mukaeko or nerikuyo, and is celebrated not for the dying person but to celebrate this central hope of Amida Buddha's coming as one is dying. Honen also regarded as highly important the rites performed for the dying.

However, Honen himself did not perform these rites as he was dying. In his Ippyaku-shiju-gokajo mondo (One Hundred and Forty-five Questions and Answers) he also taught that people did not need to engage in this deathbed practice in order to be truly connected with him, at least as long as they practiced the most essential part of the preparation to death, namely continual recitation of the nembutsu. Also in the Hogo (Collection of his Sayings) he endeavored to answer the question of whether the practices while dying or rather a good daily life was more important for Birth. In the Essentials for Birth through the Nembutsu (Nembutsu Ojoyogi-sho, SHZ. 686), he also teaches that a balanced practice of both these alternatives is the best approach. Honen's disciple Shinran argued that the rites performed by people on their deathbed could hardly compensate for their daily life. He emphasized that leading a good life produced confidence that Amida Buddha will come to them at the moment of death. Thus Shinran taught not only that human beings should not wait for death in order to believe in salvation, but also that there is no need for the faithful practitioner to beg Amida Buddha to come to him or her. He explained that the strength of their belief in their lifetime directly assures their salvation at the moment of dying. In this point the teachings of Honen and those of his disciple Shinran appear to differ only in nuances of emphasis.


The Hayaraigo Amida and Twenty-five Bodhisattvas Coming to Welcome (Amida Nijugobosatsu raikozu - Hayaraigo), National Treasure from Chion-in, Kyoto.