Honen's View of Senchaku (selection) & the Nembutsu

In looking at Honen's view of senchaku and the nembutsu we can see a key element of his thought which was his assertion that Amida Buddha exclusively selected the nembutsu as the means of salvation for all people. Honen's elucidation gives the doctrinal basis to his spiritual conviction that exclusive recitation of the nembutsu (senju-nembutsu) is the most accessible and therefore the most appropriate practice for ordinary, deluded beings in the age of the final Dharma.

In classifying his teachings, Honen emphasized the accessibility of a practice over the superiority of a practice. This emphasis, however, did not mean that Honen did not assert the relative superiority of the merit of the nembutsu. Within the Japanese Pure Land tradition, there are previous precedents to his claim. Firstly, Yokan's Ojojuin made the name of Amida Buddha important by saying that encapsulated within the name is Amida's first awakening of bodhicitta towards attainment of buddhahood, and all the merits of Amida's practices as well (T.84, 491). Secondly, according the Kanjinryakuyoshu attributed to Genshin, the three Chinese characters of Amida's name correspond to three fundamental truths of Buddhism: voidness, the impermanence of form, and the middle way between the two (Eshin sozu zenshu, 1:329). From this, it was seen that all Buddhist teachings are contained in Amida's name. The Shojukanki, also attributed to Genshin, makes this same point (Eshin sozu zenshu, 1:517). From these examples, we can see how Honen claimed that the six characters of the nembutsu ("Namu Amida Butsu") perfectly contain all the virtue of Amida's inner enlightenment as well as the merit of his outward actions. Other practices contain only a portion of it. Thus, he felt, the merit of the nembutsu is superior, while the merit of all other practices, being only partial and incomplete, is inferior. Honen explained that just as a roof, beams, pillars and floors are all perfectly encompassed by the word "house," the entirety of the house is not contained in the individual roof, beams, pillars, floors, etc. Here Honen likens the house to the merit of the nembutsu, and the roof, beams, pillars and floors to that of the various other practices. (T. 2608, 83:5c)

In Honen's teaching, nembutsu practice is not taken to mean meditation upon Amida Buddha but rather reciting the phrase "Namu Amida Butsu." In his Tetsu Senchakushu, Honen's disciple Bencho (1162-1238) gives three interpretations of the term nembutsu: 1) the repeated recitation of Amida's name, as advocated by Pure Land teachers before Shan-tao; 2) the recitation of Amida's name as interpreted by Shan-tao, who understood the nembutsu as the practice corresponding to Amida Buddha's original vow; and 3) Honen's interpretation of the meaning of nembutsu, as the practice selected by Amida himself from among all other practices by which all may achieve birth in the Pure Land (JZ. 7:83b). In advocating nembutsu recitation, Honen's teaching is similar to that of older Chinese masters, especially to that of Shan-tao, and remains within traditional Mahayana by advancing the superiority of his teaching.

Honen's original and radical notion of senchaku as gexclusive selectionh first appears in his commentaries on the Pure Land sutras. In the Muryojukyo-shaku, his commentary on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching), he explains that the word senchaku includes the concepts of selecting and rejecting (SHZ. 70). That is to say, when he contemplated the features of the twenty-one billion buddha lands in preparation for establishing his own Pure Land, Dharmakara rejected the inferior aspects and selected the superior ones; he rejected the less desirable features of those lands and selected their beautiful ones. In the Amidakyo-shaku, his commentary on the Amida Sutra (A-mi-t'o ching), Honen uses the term senchaku to explain that the nembutsu was selected among the many forms of Buddhist practice as the ultimate conclusion of them all (SHZ. 144, 156). These examples represent Honen's earliest usage of the term senchaku. Through the development of this concept, he would go beyond Shan-tao's claim that the nembutsu is the practice that accords with Amida's original vow, and put forth the distinctive argument that the nembutsu alone had been "exclusively selected" by Amida Buddha in his original vow.

Honen's distinctive understanding of the notion of senchaku is most fully developed in Chapter Three of the Senchakushu. Here, Honen first poses the question of why Amida Buddha rejected all other forms of Buddhist practice and selected the nembutsu alone as the sole way of attaining birth in the Pure Land in accordance with his original vow. He then offers his own conclusion in terms of the superiority of the nembutsu and the ease of its practice.

As we have seen, Honen was led to this single path of the nembutsu as a result of his conviction, born of intense self-reflection, that he himself was utterly incapable of advancing towards enlightenment by means of traditional Buddhist disciplines. In the Senchakushu, however, he argues that Amida Buddha himself selected and recommended the nembutsu from among all other practices as the sole path of salvation. The reason, according to Honen, is that the majority of people are poor, uneducated, and forced by the demands of their livelihood to violate the Buddhist precepts, for example, against killing living beings. Thus they cannot possibly perform such difficult paths as contributing money for the building of temples, attaining wisdom through long and deep philosophical study, learning and accumulating Buddhist knowledge, or upholding the Buddhist precepts. Were salvation to depend upon such acts, then few could ever be saved. Honen maintained that out of his resolve to save all equally, Amida Buddha did not make salvation contingent upon practices that only a few persons can carry out, but instead based it solely upon the nembutsu as the practice truly accessible to all (T. 2608, 83:5c).

With such an understanding, Honen encouraged his disciples and all who desired to enter the Pure Land path to think deeply about two ideas. Firstly, one must consider the age in which one lives, and secondly, one must consider one's own ability to practice a teaching. For Honen, the age was a degenerate one, the age of the final Dharma. Consequently, since a person's ability at this time was severely limited, the Pure Land path offered the most appropriate teaching of the time (Kyoshun, 77-98).

Honen defines the nembutsu as easy to practice and all other practices as difficult. However, simply to distinguish between "easy" and "difficult" would be to revert to the view of the chanted nembutsu expressed in Genshin's Ojoyoshu, which views the chanting of Amida's name as a practice fitting for persons of limited ability and thus inferior to the contemplative nembutsu. Honen, however, interpreted the issue of "ease" versus "difficulty" from the standpoint of Amida's own intention, arguing that Amida Buddha had rejected the difficult practices and selected the easy ones on the basis of his mind of undifferentiating and equal compassion. In this way, while basing himself on Shan-tao's view of the nembutsu as fulfilling the conditions of the original vow, Honen went beyond Shan-tao, developing a unique conception of the nembutsu as the only practice selected by Amida himself. It was this radical, revolutionary interpretation which set the stage for the emergence of an independent sect of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism.

The Process of Senchaku : "Selection", "Rejection", and "Reappropriation"

Honen's 8 Types of Senchaku


Todo Kyoshun, Honen shonin kenkyu (Tokyo: Sankibo, 1983).


Honen lectures to the people on his work the Senchakushu (Honen jicho-no Senchakushu-o hitobito-ni ko-zuru) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 18, section 9.