In approaching Honen's teachings, we should always begin with the suffering of sentient beings, the central concern of Buddhism as taught by Shakyamuni Buddha and which Honen sought to bring out strongly in his teachings. The most basic teaching in Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths (Skt. catvary aryasatyani, Jp. shitai) as formulated by Shakyamuni. They are simply:
1) life is a constant source of suffering or dissatisfaction,
2) the reason for this suffering is because as humans we foolishly cling and attach to a world which is unstable and impermanent,
3) there is a solution to this suffering born of craving and attachment,
4) the solution is found in Shakyamuni's teaching, specifically the Noble Eightfold Path (Skt. aryastangika-marga, Jp. hasshodo) of practice.
On a surface level, it may appear that Honen's emphasis on the other power (tariki) of Amida's Grace is a radical departure from Shakyamuni's emphasis on the self power (jiriki) of the Noble Eightfold Path. In general, Pure Land Buddhism's shift from Shakyamuni's exoteric practices to Amida's esoteric grace comes from a particular understanding of history. As Buddhism grew and changed from the time of Shakyamuni in India into the full flowering of Mahayana Buddhism in China and Tibet, many practitioners felt a growing distance from Shakyamuni's great teachings. Sometimes unable to realize the great awakenings of Shakyamuni and his disciples, many began to feel that the times they were living in were especially inauspicious. And so the idea of the Three Ages of the Dharma (shozo-matsu) developed. The first age corresponds to the time of Shakyamuni when his teachings were easily accessed and people could gain enlightenment quickly (shobo). The second age was after Shakyamuni and all his disciples passed away, when the teachings were harder to access and successfully practice (zoho). The last, Age of the Final Dharma (mappo), refers to our present historical period where Shakyamuni's teachings are extremely distant and difficult to achieve. In this age, it is felt that the capability of people (kikon) to practice Shakyamuni's teachings is greatly diminished. Honen frequently emphasized that it is not the efficacy of a certain Buddhist practice that is most important but rather our ability to practice it. From this standpoint, he concluded that embracing Amida's guidance through the nembutsu was the most accessible and beneficial practice for this defiled Age of the Final Dharma.
Although Honen selects an apparently different form of realizing the end of suffering (4th Noble Truth), his foundation is the same deep realization of the suffering of all sentient beings and the causes for it in our delusion (1st & 2nd Noble Truths). This foundation forms the core of Honen's teaching of the ordinary defiled person (bonpu) attaining salvation through birth in the Pure Land through Amida's grace. In this way, we may come to see that Honen grounds his teachings in the same fundamental insight of Shakyamuni Buddha in particular and of all Buddhism in general.
Pure Land's creative interpretation of the Second Noble Truth is the concept of bonpu. The bonpu is the defiled sentient being who occupies this unfortunate Age of the Final Dharma in which no Buddha is present. Constantly being torn this way and that by the three poisons of greed, anger and delusion (sandoku), the bonpu faces an almost insurmountable task in perfecting him/herself to the condition of a buddha, that is, one who is fully awakened and untouched by suffering. Even Honen, who trained for so many years as a monk and was regarded as one of the great masters of his time, could not fully realize such perfection by himself. And so he turned to Amida Buddha.
Amida Buddha (Amida butsu) is the Buddha of Infinite Light (Skt. Amitabha) or of Infinite Life (Skt. Amitayus). One of many Mahayana Buddhas, Amida is the central Buddha of veneration in Pure Land for his power of compassion to guide all beings to birth in the Pure Land and subsequently ultimate enlightenment. As the Pure Land tradition developed, the primary means for receiving Amida's guidance became the nembutsu. In its original meaning, in various Mahayana sutras, nembutsu literally means "to think of a buddha". This was usually interpreted in terms of various visualization practices of Amida and his Pure Land. However, over time, it became a synonym for verbally reciting "Homage to Amida Buddha" (Namu Amida Butsu).
In both Chinese and Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, the practice of nembutsu is interpreted as being the practice of Amida's Original Vow (hongan). In general, two types of vows are made by buddhas and Mahayana bodhisattvas. One are their general vows and the other are their specific or original vows. The general vows are the four universal vows 1) to save all sentient beings, 2) to do away with all of the deluding passions, 3) to master all the Buddhist teachings, and 4) to attain supreme enlightenment, which are to be vowed by every Mahayana Buddhist believer. The original vows are the specific types of vows made by buddhas and bodhisattvas respectively. The basic theme of Amida's Original Vow is that filled with compassion for the suffering of sentient beings, Amida Buddha as Dharmakara Bodhisattva (Hozo bosatsu) vowed that he would not enter into final enlightenment (as Amida Buddha) until he had, by the infinite merits of his own practice, created a Pure Land in which even the worst sinner could be saved by thinking of Amida Buddha ten times.
In Buddhism, it is said that those who commit any of five grievous sins (gogyakuzai) invariably fall into the hells of incessant suffering. These five offences are: 1) killing one's father, 2) killing one's mother, 3) killing an arhat [a well accomplished monk or nun] 4) injuring a buddha, 5) causing disunity among the community of followers. However, Pure Land Buddhism teaches that Amida will embrace and save even these beings. This vow of all embracing compassion by Amida is expressed especially clearly in his Eighteenth Original Vow (juhachi-gan): "When I attain Buddhahood, if all sentient beings in the ten directions, who aspire in all sincerity and faith to be born in my land and think of me even ten times, are not born there, then may I not attain supreme enlightenment." Developed from to "think of" Amida Buddha, recitation of the nembutsu, "Namu Amida Butsu", is thus understood to be the one practice which Amida Buddha promised as the unfailing means for salvation and Birth in the Pure Land. For Honen, living in a period so remote from the teachings of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, the single minded recitation of the nembutsu (senju-nembutsu) became the one and only ultimately necessary practice for birth in the Pure Land and the primary vehicle for realizing the Fourth Noble Truth, the path by which suffering ends.
After selecting the nembutsu as one's central practice, there still remains a danger of approaching nembutsu practice in the improper way. According to Honen, one is mistaken in believing that it is the number of recitations of the nembutsu that counts towards salvation. This is the sort of self power approach inappropriate for bonpu in this defiled age. Honen insisted instead that, even with a small number of recitations, it is the strength of one's conviction in reciting the nembutsu that is most vital. Even with a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand or even a million recitations, it is not the impressive number but the earnestness with which one supplicates to Amida Buddha for guidance. This is true other power which leads the practitioner to the establishment of a faith firm enough to assure birth in the Pure Land. Honen described this faith as the Established Mind (anjin) or Three Minds (sanjin). These are the "three minds" or three kinds of mind necessary for birth in the Pure Land:
1) the Utterly Sincere Mind (shijoshin)
2) the Profound Mind (jinshin)
3) the Mind which Dedicates One's Merit to the Pure Land with the Resolution to Be Born There (ekohotsuganshin).
With the Utterly Sincere Mind, one believes that he/she will be born in the Pure Land through the practice of the nembutsu because such was Amida Buddha's promise and vow. The Profound Mind is simply the heart that deeply believes, which entails profound thought and introspection as well as the unquestioning trust that Amida will indeed save one through actual birth. The third kind of mind, which dedicates one's merit towards birth in the Pure Land and so firmly resolves to be born there, is the mind with which one trusts that the accumulated merits of nembutsu recitation will infallibly be dedicated effectively towards his/her own birth in the Pure Land.
In Honen's teachings, this passing out of the condition of an ordinary defiled being is the attainment of birth [in the Pure Land] (ojo). Traditionally, the English equivalent for ojo has been "rebirth" or "reborn." Recently, however, many scholars argue that "birth" be used instead of using "rebirth" because there is no Chinese equivalent for the prefix "re-" and because this "being born" is different from the usual "rebirth" involved in the multiple rebirths of samsara. In Pure Land Buddhism, it is taught that due to our poor capability in this degenerate age, we must first attain birth in Amida's Pure Land, in contrast to Shakyamuni's teaching of the quenching of suffering in the experience of nirvana (nehan), pure unsurpassed peace. Once Born in the Pure Land (jodo), however, we may gain direct access to the teachers and environment of Shakyamuni's age and thereby attain final enlightenment, nirvana. Within the various branches of Pure Land teaching, there are many theories as to the precise nature and types of Birth in the Pure Land. In the Seizan Pure Land denomination founded Honen's disciple Shoku, it is believed that there are two types of Birth: 1) the spiritual Birth accomplished in this life when one feels secure that when one dies one will pass forever into the Pure Land (jojakkodo), and 2) the actual passage into the Pure Land immediately upon one's death (raisejodo). Honen apparently teaches in the Senchakushu that birth in the Pure Land is a literal birth in a literal Pure Land in the West. His teaching on this point, however, is vague enough that many believers today understand it as primarily a religious or spiritual birth brought about by the enlightenment-like experience of utter peace of mind achieved through the successful practice of the nembutsu.
In this way, some people have become confused and sometimes angered at the apparent contradiction of Pure Land teachings in emphasizing Amida Buddha over Shakyamuni Buddha. However, when we look more deeply, we can dispel this confusion. In Buddhism, there is a teaching called the "three bodies" (sanjin), also called the "three properties" or the "three enlightened properties". These are the three kinds of form that a buddha may manifest as:
1) the Dharma Body (Skt. dharmakaya, Jp.hosshin) is the form in which a buddha transcends physical being and is identical with the undifferentiated unity of being or Suchness (Skt. tathata, Jp. shinnyo);
2) the Bliss or Reward Body (Skt. sambhogakaya, Jp. hojin) is obtained as the "reward" for having completed the bodhisattva practice of aiding other beings to end their suffering and having penetrated the depth of the Buddha's wisdom. Unlike the Dharma Body, which is immaterial, the Bliss Body is conceived of as an actual body, although one that is still transcendent and imperceptible to common people;
3) the Manifested Body (Skt. nirmanakaya, Jp. ojin) is the physical form in which the Buddha appears in this world in order to guide sentient beings. It is considered that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, is nirmanakaya. Honen believed that Amida is sambhogakaya.
Therefore, when we embrace the Pure Land Path we are not denigrating the tradition of Shakyamuni teachings, but rather accessing those same teachings on another level, the cosmic level or sambhogakaya. Our condition is the same; we are ordinary defiled beings (bonpu). Yet since the historical Buddha is no longer present in the physical world, we seek to access this same potential for an end to suffering through the atemporal and all embracing guidance of Amida.
As we have noted, Honen's emphasis on the cosmic other power of nembutsu recitation may seem to be a radical departure from Shakyamuni's practices of precepts and meditation, which appear very concrete and self power oriented. Yet this reflects another surface level misunderstanding. Honen's teachings in particular, and the whole Pure Land tradition in general, reflect the vital core of Shakyamuni's fundamental teaching of Not-self (Skt. anatman, Jp. muga). Any practice, be it meditation, observing the precepts, or chanting the nembutsu, that is filled with the desire for individual gain and higher states of egohood is inherently self power oriented. The other power of Amida which the Pure Land tradition and Honen so emphasize is none other than the selfless and compassionate nature of the bodhisattva realizing his/her vows to save all sentient beings. When we open ourselves to the other power of Amida's grace through chanting the nembutsu, we open ourselves to the Not-self nature of existence which Shakyamuni discovered in his contemplations.
The Hayaraigo Amida and Twenty-five Bodhisattvas Coming to Welcome (Amida Nijugobosatsu raikozu - Hayaraigo), National Treasure from Chion-in, Kyoto.