The Process of Senchaku

"Selection," "Rejection", and "Reappropriation"

Perhaps the best way to get a firm grasp on the paradoxical balance in Honen's teachings is to approach them via an examination of his complex series of "selections" and "rejections" of various aspects of traditional Mahayana thought and practice. One of Honen's original contributions to traditional Pure Land thought is his elaboration of the concept of senchaku, the exclusive selection of the nembutsu. As seen in Chapter Four of the Senchakushu, Honen gives three senses to the relationship between the nembutsu and all other practices: 1) The manifold practices were expounded [only] so that, in abandoning them, one would take refuge in the nembutsu. 2) The manifold practices were expounded to encourage one towards the nembutsu. 3) The manifold practices were expounded in order to set up the three categories of people within both of the two gateways, that of the nembutsu (jodomon) and that of the manifold practices (shodomon) (T. 2608, 83: 7a-c).

Traditionally, of these three interpretations, the first is said to be central to Honen's thought. Indeed, Honen says that from the standpoint of Shan-tao's reading, the first interpretation is primary (T. 2608, 83: 7c). However, there is an important though seldom recognized sense in which the second interpretation that the manifold practices encourage the nembutsu is essential to Honen's thinking. In this, he differs markedly from Shinran, who thoroughly rejected all practices in favor of exclusive reliance on the other power of Amida's vow.

To better understand Honen's conception of the relationship between the nembutsu and other practices, it may be useful to divide thinking about the idea of senchaku into the following four stages:

(1) To reject the practices pertaining to the teaching of the gateway of Holy Path (shodomon) and to take refuge in the gateway of the Pure Land (jodomon) [T. 2608, 83:1b-2c];

(2) To reject the miscellaneous practices (zogyo) of the gateway of the Pure Land, which pertain to pure lands other than Amida's and, among the five right practices (shogyo) pertaining to Amida's Pure Land, to concentrate on nembutsu recitation, setting to the side the four other right practices as auxiliary acts (jogo). At this stage, the nembutsu is singled out as the sole practice leading to birth in the Pure Land (shojogo) [T. 2608, 83: 2c-4c, 9a-b, 17a];

(3) After gaining the firm establishment of faith (ketsujo ojoshin), to reappropriate the miscellaneous practices of the Pure Land Path (zogyo) and the four auxiliary acts (jogo) among the right practices as aids to the practitioner in nembutsu recitation. The four auxiliary acts (jogo) then become similar kinds of practice (dorui-no-jogo)[in being related to Amida] which support the nembutsu; while the miscellaneous practices of the Pure Land Path (zogyo) become different kinds of practice (irui-no-jogo) [in being not related to Amida] which support the nembutsu (T. 2608, 83:7b);

(4) After achieving birth in the Pure Land, to reappropriate the various practices pertaining to the Holy Path.

Since these four steps are useful for understanding Honen's idea of senchaku, a fuller explanation is in order. The chart below will help clarify the following discussion.

Chart of Selection and Rejection

The First Stage - Rejection of the Holy Path

Honen makes a broad division between practices pertaining to the Gateway of the Holy Path (shodomon) or "Difficult Path" (nangyodo) and practices pertaining to the Gateway of the Pure Land (jodomon) or "Easy Path" (igyodo). In the former, one must tread by means of one's own strength or self power (jiriki). In the latter, one relies on the other power (tariki) of various cosmic buddhas and bodhisattvas. Here, the Gateway of the Holy Path means those practices aimed towards gaining enlightenment in this lifetime. The practices of meditation and keeping the precepts are the most common practices of this self power approach. In the other power approach of the Pure Land Path, however, meditation and precepts are seen as Miscellaneous Practices (zogyo) to the central one of the nembutsu. This division is explained in Chapter One of the Senchakushu, which urges that the gateway of the Holy Path be rejected in favor of the gateway of the Pure Land.

Another key point in this regard is Honen's use of the word "temporarily" in connection with the rejection the Holy Path, notably in Chapter Sixteen of the Senchakushu:

When I consider these matters carefully, I wish to urge that anyone who desires to quickly escape from the cycle of birth-and-death should, of the two types of the excellent teaching, temporarily cease the practices of the Holy Path and select the practices of the Pure Land.(T. 2608, 83:18c-19a)

The word "temporarily" here does not mean that the rejection of the Holy Path and the selection of the Pure Land Path is not radical and thorough. Rather, it may be understood to mean that, after one has achieved birth in the Pure Land, the various practices of the Holy Path may be resumed. In other words, at this first stage, emphasis is placed on the need to reject the Holy Path, but at the final, fourth stage, these formerly abandoned practices are revived and assume new meaning.

The Second Stage - Rejection of the Miscellaneous Practices

Having rejected the many practices of the Holy Path in favor of those of the Pure Land Path, Honen makes further selections and rejections within the Pure Land Path. He distinguished between Miscellaneous Practices (zogyo) which are related to pure lands other than Amida's, and Right Practices (shogyo) which are related to Amida's Pure Land. The Right Practices he selected in favor of the Miscellaneous Practices are: 1) reading and reciting sutras, 2) contemplation, 3) doing prostration, 4) uttering the nembutsu, and 5) giving praises and offerings. Honen defines all of these except "uttering the nembutsu" as Auxiliary Practices (jogo). In other words, they help to enable the nembutsu, and the nembutsu is enabled by them. In doing this, he puts aside these four Auxiliary Practices and places central emphasis on the nembutsu as the one Rightly Established Practice (shojo no go).

If such a one should desire to enter through the gateway of the Pure Land, of the two practices - the right and the miscellaneous - one should temporarily abandon the various miscellaneous practices and select to take refuge in the right practices. If one desires to exercise oneself in the right practices, of the two types of right Acts -the rightly established act and the auxiliary - one should set aside the auxiliary right acts and resolutely select the rightly established act and follow it exclusively. The rightly established act is uttering the name of Amida Buddha. Those who utter the Name will unfailingly attain birth because it is based on Amida's Original Vow.(T. 2608, 83:18c-19a)

How then, on the basis of this radically exclusive selection, are the rejected practices reappropriated? This process requires further explanation.

In the Twelfth Chapter of the Senchakushu, based on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching) and Shan-tao's commentary on it, Honen makes a distinction between two kinds of practices aimed at birth in the Pure Land: the "contemplative" (jozen) and "non-contemplative" practices (sanzen), and the nembutsu. Broadly speaking, the categories of contemplative and non-contemplative may be said to encompass the entirety of Buddhism. Let us take from among the non-contemplative practices the example of arousing the bodhicitta (bodaishin), literally ethe aspiration for enlightenment', and further understood as the aspiration to become enlightened for the sake of saving others. The phrase, "arousing the bodhicitta' occurs widely throughout the Buddhist scriptures and does not have a unified meaning. However, a point is noted by Honen in Chapter Twelve of the Senchakushu. After listing general examples, he concludes, "Everyone among those who seek birth in the Pure Land should strive diligently to awaken the bodhicitta in the manner proper to his own school. Even though all the other practices are lacking, awakening the bodhicitta can be the karmic action for birth in the Pure Land."(T. 2608, 83:15a-b) This represents an attempt on Honen's part to reappropriate a particular aspect of Buddhist teachings as an aid to birth in the Pure Land. In principle, any aspect could be so reappropriated.

As we have already noted, in Chapter Sixteen of the Senchakushu, Honen says that the miscellaneous practices are to be abandoned "temporarily." This word "temporarily" carries the connotation that once the practitioner has established faith firm enough to assure birth in the Pure Land (ketsujo ojoshin), the miscellaneous practices can be revived as aids to the nembutsu. In other words, the practices rejected at the second stage are readmitted at the third. "Temporarily" here again does not imply that the rejections and selections made in the initial stages are not real or thorough. Nor does it signify a duality in Honen's teaching with respect to the practice concerning birth in the Pure Land.

The Third Stage - Reappropriation of the Miscellaneous Practices

At the third stage, the issue of concern is the depth of the practitioner's belief. The first and second stages focus on a narrowing process of rejection and selection; having rejected the Holy Path, then having rejected miscellaneous practices of the Pure Land Path and having set aside the four auxiliary acts, Honen in systematic steps firmly establishes the nembutsu as the exclusive form of Pure Land practice. Shinran's teaching carried this position of exclusivity to the utmost.

Honen's exclusive nembutsu, however, is not merely a teaching of rejection, but also one of reintegration. As is clear from the previous chart, based on the premise of the Firm Establishment of Faith, the miscellaneous practices (zogyo) rejected at the second stage are restored at the third step as "different good practices helpful to the nembutsu practice" (irui no jogo). To amplify a bit, the four auxiliary practices (jogo) set aside at stage two in favor of the nembutsu are said to be "similar" to the nembutsu, in that they are related to Amida and his Pure Land. In contrast, the miscellaneous practices (zogyo) rejected at stage two are said to be "different" from the nembutsu in not being related to Amida or his Pure Land. Thus the miscellaneous practices rejected in the stage two are at the third stage reincorporated as "different good practices helpful to the nembutsu" (irui no jogo). This third stage can be seen in Chapter Four of the Senchakushu, where it states, eThe manifold practices were expounded to encourage one towards the nembutsu. The first is that the nembutsu is encouraged by good practices that are similar [in being related to Amida] (dorui no jogo). The second is that the nembutsu is encouraged by good practices that are different [in being not related to Amida] (irui no jogo).'(T. 2608, 83:7b) However, the actual nature and the content of these practices never change. What then enables the reevaluation and reincorporation of these once-rejected practices? It is nothing other than the practitioner's spiritual attitude, that is, the establishment of faith firm enough to assure birth in the Pure Land (ketsujo ojoshin).

The Firm Establishment of Faith (ketsujo ojoshin) develops from a confidence and strong faith that the practitioner will be born in the Pure Land. Through exclusive recitation of the nembutsu as the one Rightly Established Practice (shojo no go), the practitioner begins to experience 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. Shan-tao explained the Three Minds as 1) the Utterly Sincere Mind (shijoshin), 2) the Profound Mind (jinshin), and 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, the practitioner 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. In his Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu), Shan-tao explains the essence of ketsujo ojoshin as being the Profound Mind which is the mind of deep faith and has two aspects. The first is to firmly and deeply believe that, now in this present body, one is an ordinary sinful being involved in transmigration who has for countless kalpas been always sunk, tumbling in the stream of cyclic rebirth, unable to find the karmic conditions for escape (shinki). The second aspect is to firmly and deeply believe that Amida's forty-eight vows enfold sentient beings in their embrace and that those who without doubt or reservation entrust themselves to the power of these vows will certainly attain birth (shinpo) [T. 37:271]. 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 the practitioner trusts that the accumulated merits of nembutsu recitation will infallibly be dedicated effectively towards his/her own Birth in the Pure Land.

Thus the Firm Establishment of Faith is the sole premise and condition upon which once rejected practices are reappropriated with new meaning as aids to achieving birth in the Pure Land. Herein lies the true meaning of senchaku. The strong emphasis on rejection that characterizes the second stage is for the purpose of establishing the sole practice of calling on Amida's name. Both Honen's personal experience and Shan-tao's teaching indicate that even the miscellaneous practices of the Pure Land Path could actually be distractions to establishing firm faith in the nembutsu. However, once the practitioner is firmly established in the nembutsu, the deepening of that person's inner world of faith can accord to the earlier-rejected miscellaneous practices with a new meaning in conjunction with the nembutsu practice. In his daily sermons, Honen often commented on the relationship between nembutsu practice and one's daily activities pointing out that:

If one has the heart of the nembutsu then going about daily activities, engaging in various other practices like making offerings or meditating, and getting involved in social welfare activities is something one should do. However, if these activities become the center of one's life and the nembutsu auxiliary, then one should re-prioritize one's life.(Tsuneni osei rarekeru okotoba, SHZ., 493)

This complex process of selection, rejection and reappropriation constitutes the full meaning of the word "senchaku," as used in the title of Honen's work. "Selection" and "rejection" does not mean that the rejected elements are discarded forever, but that they are reoriented and reappropriated on a higher level, that is, with respect to the nembutsu. Moreover, Honen's idea of reorienting and reappropriating once rejected elements need not remain confined to the realm of religious practice, but extends logically to encompass the entire realm of daily life and social activity.

Finally, at this third stage, these "different good practices" do not remain merely "helpful to the nembutsu practice." That is, the dualistic relationship between these "good practices" and the nembutsu is now dissolved. Having become subsumed within the nembutsu, these "good practices" acquire new life as expressions of it. Like the nembutsu itself, by which they are now encompassed, they become "practices corresponding to Amida Buddha's original vow." At this stage, there exist no distinctions between right practice and miscellaneous practices, or auxiliary and rightly established acts in gaining birth in the Pure Land. All Buddhist practices aimed towards birth in the Pure Land are to be understood as the nembutsu itself and in a restricted sense as different kinds of auxiliary acts (irui no jogo). Similarly there is no activity of daily life or society that exists outside the nembutsu.

Such an interpretation does much to explain apparent contradictions in the behavior of Honen himself who while teaching the exclusive nembutsu is known to have also engaged in other practices. Nonetheless, the Senchakushu's powerful emphasis on abandoning miscellaneous practices in favor of the nembutsu is easily read as call to abolish all other forms of Buddhist practice. This, of course, was precisely what Honen's enemies accused him of.

The Fourth Stage - Full Reappropriation of the Holy Path

The fourth and the last stage is perhaps best thought of as the stage after death, when one has succeeded in being born in the Pure Land in the West. At this fourth stage, all of the practices of the Holy Path aimed towards gaining final enlightenment that were rejected as being too difficult for people living in the age of the final Dharma are readmitted on their own terms. Since they now dwell amid the wonders of the Pure Land, people are continuously in the presence of the Buddha and hear his teachings without the distortions caused by the many disturbing passions of the present world. Now they can indeed obtain the bodhicitta, reach the stage of non-retrogression, and be assured of eventual enlightenment. Therefore, the practices of the Holy Path which were rejected as too difficult are now all reinstated and practiced in their full essence. This stage is indicated in a number of Honen's works, for example, in the Nembutsu tai-i, he states, "Sentient beings in the age of the final Dharma, being incapable of attaining any goal through manifold practices, should first rely on the power of Amida's vow and attain birth in the Pure Land through the recitation of the nembutsu. After achieving birth in the Pure Land and seeing Amida Buddha and bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta, they should learn the holy teachings and attain enlightenment" (JZ. 9:512a). Because he saw the nembutsu alone as able to encompass ordinary and deluded persons, Honen taught the way of salvation in the Pure Land through calling upon Amida's name. Once that goal is achieved, then all of the practices of the bodhisattva are reinstated with their original intent of leading to complete enlightenment. This fourth stage, often lost sight of, nonetheless informs Honen's thought, since it had been a part of the thought of all his Pure Land predecessors.

It is again essential to remember that this Selection and Rejection is not based on the outward form of practice (i.e. meditation vs. recitation) but rather the internal quality of the practitioner. Honen rejected certain practices at the beginning for fear that the practitioner would become too involved in the selfish pursuit of his/her own spiritual goals. Through senchaku, the practitioner focuses on the essential selfless or other power aspect of practice. When this selfless nature is firmly established (ketsujo ojoshin), the practitioner then may reincorporate any myriad of practices which are now imbued with this selfless nature. What is ultimately mysterious about this process is just when the firm establishment of faith takes place and when these practices become transformed. This is the true moment of embrace by Amida's grace.