The Influence of Shan-tao on Honen's Teachings

Shan-tao's thought laid the major doctrinal foundations for subsequent Pure Land teaching, most conspicuously in his influence on Honen. At the center of his thinking lies the paradoxical belief that one is beyond salvation, but that, nevertheless, even one beyond salvation can surely be saved by the power of Amida Buddha's original vow. For Honen, who had been unable to find the answer he sought in Genshin's Ojoyoshu, discovering Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu) was the turning point in his time on Mt. Hiei. From then on, Honen abandoned the contemplative Pure Land practices described in the Ojoyoshu and adopted an exclusive practice of reciting the nembutsu. Shan-tao's ideas concerning the ordinary deluded person (bonpu), the nembutsu, the three kinds of mind (sanjin), the three types of karmic relation with Amida Buddha, the Pure Land (jodo), and the four modes of practice (shishin) had a central influence on the way Honen developed his own Pure Land teaching.

From the time of his encounter with Shan-tao's teachings through the remainder of his life, Honen was consistent in his high evaluation of the Chinese Pure Land master. However, it is possible to trace successive stages in the development of his view of Shan-tao. At first, when he produced his commentaries on the Ojoyoshu, he wrote, "People who respect Genshin always have a great regard for Shan-tao and Tao-ch'o as well."(SHZ. 26) At this point, he still regarded Shan-tao as a purely human teacher. Later in the Kanmuryojukyo shaku, he says, "Shan-tao attained deep states of samadhi and was awakened to the Buddha Way."(SHZ. 127) Here Honen views Shan-tao as a teacher of high attainment.

In the Senchakushu, Honen states that his encounter with Shan-tao at the age of forty-three was the most vital aspect in his eventual awakening. This profound encounter led Honen to declare in the text that,"Shan-tao was a manifestation of Amida Buddha. This being the case, his written works are Amida Buddha's direct preaching. If one desires to copy his Commentary on the Meditation Sutra, it should be done according to the method prescribed for copying the Buddhist sutras." It is interesting to note that, in the earlier Amidakyoshaku, Honen does not make the claim that Shan-tao is Amida Buddha's incarnation. The Senchakushu, which was is dated eight years, later is the first place where he makes this claim.(T. 2608, 83:19c-20a) In the Sanmai-hottokuki as well, Honen speaks of the centrality of Shan-tao to his faith.(HDZ. 789-90; HDZ. 865-67.; T.83, p.239ab) The Mukanshosoki (Vision of Master Shan-tao), of the same period, describes Honen's dream of Shan-tao in which he is clad in black from the waist up and in gold from the waist down (nisotaimen). Honen felt that such regal robes could not be those of a human, so he deduced that Shan-tao must be Amida Buddha himself.(HSZ. 860-61; HSZ. 862) By thus elevating Shan-tao to the point of identifying him with Amida Buddha, Honen was able to strengthen his claim for a Pure Land lineage.

Ordinary deluded person (bonpu)

Shan-tao arrived at an interpretation of this term via an original reading of the Meditation Sutra's (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching) reference to people of the lowest capacity. In Shan-tao's day, it was commonly accepted that only bodhisattvas far advanced in practice could enter the Pure Land. For Shan-tao, however, there was no one in the age of Final Dharma (mappo) who was not an "ordinary deluded person." Foreseeing this period of decline, Amida Buddha had made his vow out of his compassionate desire to save precisely these people. Shan-tao further emphasized that those who recognized themselves as ordinary, deluded persons could especially enter Amida Buddha's Pure Land. As he states in his Commentary on the Meditation Sutra :

The Buddha extends his great compassion toward those who are suffering most. Amida Buddha pities and cherishes especially those who are bound by delusion. Therefore he welcomes such people to his Pure Land. If he will not save one who is actually drowning, why should he save one who is relaxing on the river bank? (T. 1753, 37:248b; JZ. 2:6)

Thus Shan-tao regarded deluded, helpless persons as the special objects of Amida Buddha's compassion and the proper recipients of his teaching. The concept of reliance for salvation on the other power (tariki) of Amida had already existed in China to some extent, but Shan-tao was the first to articulate it clearly.

Consequently, Shan-tao asserted that the recitation of the nembutsu referred to in the Meditation Sutra corresponds to the intent referred to in the original vow (hongan) expounded in the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching). For that reason he defined it as the practice essential to attaining birth in the Pure Land. He regarded the various visualization practices expounded in the Meditation Sutra as auxiliary to nembutsu recitation. In this way, Shan-tao brought a new stage of development to the idea that an ordinary deluded person can attain salvation through the Pure Land teachings.


At the very end of the Meditation Sutra, Shakyamuni says to his disciple Ananda, "You must uphold these words. To uphold them is to uphold the name of Amida Buddha." Shan-tao interpreted this passage to mean that Shakyamuni was recommending not just the mental visualization of Amida Buddha, but especially the verbal recitation of Amida Buddha's name. Shan-tao explains this in the last part of his Commentary on the Meditation Sutra as follows:

Although this sutra has carefully expounded the thirteen visualizations of the Pure Land and the nine levels of practice proper for the nine levels of beings, its most important explanation is reserved for the last lines of this sutra. It concerns the very heart of Amida Buddha's vow; that one must recite the name, the nembutsu.(T. 365, 12:346b)

Honen followed Shan-tao and accepted this explanation. He contended that Shakyamuni could not have taught Ananda many contradictory things, but only the one essential thing. That one essential thing is the recitation of the nembutsu. The Meditation Sutra, he argues, speaks of many practices, but not all of them can be accomplished by everyone. The first thirteen modes of contemplative visualization of the Pure Land are only taught in order to enable those few people who in former ages could actually succeed in effectively practicing them to draw close to the Pure Land. However, men and women in the age of the Final Dharma, he argues, are incapable of such difficult practices, and Shakyamuni reserved his most compassionate teaching for them in the form of nembutsu. This became a constant theme in the teachings of both Shan-tao and Honen.

Shan-tao further commented on the five contemplative nembutsu practices set forth in Vasubandhu's Treatise on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wang-sheng lun) by which ordinary persons can achieve birth in the Pure Land. It is traditionally regarded that these five practices are grounded in visualized meditation, yet Shan-tao interprets them in light of recitation of the nembutsu. In the development of Mahayana in China, it was usual at first "to think" of Amida Buddha. However, in order to better concentrate the mind, recitation of Amida Buddha's name developed. During the period of the Six Dynasties (212-606), recitation of a buddha or bodhisattva's name in order to gain merit became popular as seen in several sutras such as the Lotus Sutra. Under such circumstances, Shan-tao systematized the nembutsu as the easy practice of recitation. Based on his deep religious experience, he rewrote Amida Buddha's eighteenth vow in the Sutra of Immeasurable Life. Formerly, it had said "to think of me (Amida Buddha) ten times". Shan-tao changed this to "to recite my name ten times", and thus the nembutsu came to mean the recitation of Amida's name.

Shan-tao's definition of the "Right Practicesh (shogyo) is as follows:

1) to single-mindedly and wholeheartedly read and recite the Meditation Sutra, the Amida Sutra, and the Sutra of Immeasurable Life;

2) to single-mindedly and wholeheartedly contemplate the splendid view of Amida and the landscape in that Land;

3) to single-mindedly and wholeheartedly prostrate oneself before Amida Buddha;

4) to single-mindedly and wholeheartedly utter the name of Amida Buddha; and

5) when giving praises and offerings is in order, to single-mindedly and wholeheartedly praise and make offerings to Amida.


Among these five practices, Shan-tao designated the fourth one as primary. For Shan-tao, the ordinary person mired in worldly passions could reach salvation only by calling on Amida's name. As the scriptural basis for this claim, he cited the eighteenth vow expounded in the Sutra of Immeasurable Life and the passage in the Meditation Sutra which states that evil persons of inferior capacity can reach the Pure Land simply by calling Amida Buddha's name as few as ten times.

Even though Genshin had clearly read Shan-tao's commentary, he did not adopt Shan-tao's five practices but instead employed the five contemplative practices of the Treatise on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wang-sheng lun). This is consistent with Genshin's interpretation of the nembutsu as a form of contemplative practice. It may also be the main reason why Honen was not satisfied with Genshin's Ojoyoshu and turned instead to Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra. On reading the five kinds of right practice described by Shan-tao, Honen is said to have understood for the first time that ordinary persons struggling with worldly passions can achieve birth in the Pure Land simply through the single practice of uttering Amida's name.(Daigobon, HDZ. 774)

Honen's nembutsu flows out of this development and is, of course, the verbal recitation of Amida Buddha's name. He felt that to call Amida's name was to call him personally and that when called upon, Amida will answer the practitioner in person. In other words, Honen's nembutsu represents the personal correspondence between Amida Buddha and the nembutsu practitioner.

Three kinds of mind (sanjin)

Shan-tao further elaborated the attitude with which one should recite the nembutsu. In the section of his Commentary on the Meditation Sutra on non-contemplative practices (sanzen), he asserts that the nembutsu practitioner should possess the "three kinds of mind" (sanjin) set forth in the Meditation Sutra: the sincere mind (shijoshin), the profound mind (jinshin), and the mind that transfers all merit [toward birth in the Pure Land] and resolves to be born there (ekohotsuganshin).

Shan-tao describes the "utterly sincere mind" (shijoshin) as the first of these "three kinds of mind." He goes on to maintain that this "utterly sincere mind," in its root, has the meaning of "the believing mind" (shinjin) which was the first of the three kinds of mind in other Mahayana traditions. Thus Shan-tao recommends that the first "mind" or mindset for the true Pure Land practitioner is to believe with an utterly sincere mind that he or she will be born in the Pure Land through the practice of the nembutsu, because such was Amida Buddha's promise and vow. In the Senchakushu, Honen borrows all of these ideas and makes them his own through exhaustive quotations.

The second kind of mind, the "profound mind" (jinshin) according to Shan-tao, is simply the heart that deeply believes. This mind has two aspects: the profound conviction that one is sinful and deluded (shinki), and the deep faith that Amida Buddha can and will still extend his salvific power (shinpo). Of this first aspect, Shan-tao said:

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 in the stream of cyclic rebirth, unable to find the karmic conditions for escape.(JZ2.56)

From this standpoint, recognition of oneself as an "ordinary person" through deep reflection forms the cause which leads to faith in Amida Buddha. While at the same time, believing in Amida Buddha forms the cause of recognizing oneself as an "ordinary person". Thus, these two minds or faiths interpenetrate and mutually deepen each other, centripetally. In Pure Land teaching, to recognize oneself as an "ordinary person" is essential to elevate faith towards Amida Buddha. Furthermore, this sense of "ordinary person" is not simply for people of low class or standing as the objective sense of the word would suggest, but rather it is a call to all persons to reflect on the inadequacies and frailties of the human condition.

The third kind of mind, which dedicates one's merit towards Birth in the Pure Land and so firmly resolves to be born there (ekohotsuganshin), is the mindset which trusts that the accumulated merit of Nembutsu recitation will infallibly be dedicated effectively towards Birth in the Pure Land.

In this manner Shan-tao developed a thoroughly Pure Land explanation of the important Mahayana teaching concerning the three kinds of mind necessary for Buddhist practice and enlightenment. Honen followed Shan-tao's words almost exactly to the letter. He said that although humans have Buddha nature, in the age of the Final Dharma, they cannot develop it through their own practice. Therefore, they should recognize through nembutsu practice that they are existentially "ordinary persons", in other words, that it is important to return to ignorance.(Daigobon, SHZ.451) This return, however, does not imply an ignorance which follows whims, delusions and passions. Rather, this return points to the lack of fundamental importance that the knowledge we learn through study serves in gaining enlightenment. This type of "ordinary person" then is not one who is unaware of his/her ignorant nature, but one who is aware of and who relies on Amida Buddha for their salvation.(Tsuboi, 500) This return to ignorance is very important in understanding Pure Land Buddhism. [read about Honen's understanding in his own words]

Three Kinds of Karmic Relation with Amida Buddha

In accord with Shan-tao's interpretation, Honen describes three aspects of the relationship between Amida Buddha and the nembutsu practitioner. The first concerns the gintimate karmic relationsh (shin-en) between Amida Buddha and sentient beings. Within this relationship there are two aspects.

The first part of gintimate karmic relationsh concerns Amida's calling to the practitioner. In Honen's Words to a Believer (Aruhito-ni Shimesu-kotoba) he wrote:

Amida Buddha fulfilled the forty-eight vows and established the Pure Land. He always listens to a person who utters his name day and night. Therefore, the one and only vow one should depend on is that made by Amida Buddha. The saving light of Amida Buddha never fails to shine on the nembutsu practitioner. His coming to welcome the practitioner at the time of death is sure to happen. (SHZ. 588)

The second part concerns the nembutsu practitioner's calling to Amida Buddha. In the Ojojodoyojin (The Demeanor for Birth in the Pure Land), Honen cites Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra regarding this point:

When sentient beings constantly and reverently prostrate themselves before Amida Buddha with their body, Amida Buddha will see them. When they arouse themselves to practice and to always recite with their lips the name of Amida Buddha, Amida Buddha will hear them. When they constantly think of Amida Buddha in their hearts, Amida Buddha will think them. In these three kinds of karmic acts, Amida Buddha and sentient beings are not separate from each other. Hence, they are called intimate karmic relations.(SHZ. 559)

Honen, himself, continues, "Therefore, if you hold a rosary, Amida Buddha will see it. If you think in your mind to recite the nembutsu, Amida Buddha will, in his mind, think of you." "Intimate karmic relations" forms the first part of this second aspect.

The second aspect of this relationship concerns the gclose karmic relationsh (gen-in) between Amida Buddha and sentient beings. Honen again refers to Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra regarding this point, "When sentient beings desire to see Amida Buddha, he, in response to their desire, will appear before their very eyes. Hence, this is called close karmic relations."(T. 1753, 37:268a) According to the Sanmai-hottokuki (Record of Attaining Samadhi), Honen often saw Amida Buddha in his experience of nembutsu samadhi in his later years. This experience is also expressed in the Senchakushu, "The practice can be compared to the reflection of the moon in water: it freely rises up [to the moon] or [the moon shines] down [on the water]."

The third aspect of this relationship concerns the gsuperior karmic relationsh (zojo-en) between Amida Buddha and sentient beings. Honen cites from Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra:

Sentient beings who recite the nembutsu are rid of the accumulated sins of many kalpas. When they are at the point of death, Amida Buddha together with the holy assembly will come in person to welcome them. Their evil karma cannot obstruct his coming. That is why this is called superior karmic relations.(SHZ. 588)

In the Gyakushu seppo, Honen further remarks, "At the time of death, Amida Buddha will appear in the presence of the practitioner and extend his hands of saving to help the nembutsu practitioner overcome the fear of death peacefully."(SHZ. 559)


Pure Land (jodo)

Honen's view of the Pure Land contains three major characteristics which correspond closely to Shan-tao's. Firstly, Honen felt the Pure Land was established by the power of Amida's mind to fulfill his vows. Within this, Amida's fundamental intention is to save all deluded people by leading them to attain birth in and welcoming them to the Pure Land. Secondly, Honen identified Amida Buddha's purifying function. If a person attains birth in his Pure Land without extinguishing all desires, his delusions will be extinguished upon entry into the Pure Land. Once in the Pure Land, he will become a fully enlightened being who has cut all desires completely. Finally, Honen felt Amida Buddha's Pure Land exists in real form, and this is the reason why a concrete direction for it, the west, is designated and why it is explained in a detailed physical way. Since the tendency of deluded beings is to understand things literally and to be attached to form, Amida accepts them as such, purifies them and leads them to the substantial Pure Land. As we can see, Honen rejected the first two conceptions of the purified land (jobukkokudo) and the Pure Land which exists in one's mind (jojakkodo) and explained it from the viewpoint of the Pure Land of the next life (raisejodo) with an emphasis on the human capacity and potential to attain it.

Four modes of practice (shishu)

This term refers to the four modes of religious practice advocated by Shan-tao in his Hymns in Praise of Birth (Wang-sheng-li-tsan ). The first is reverence shown to Amida Buddha and bodhisattvas in the Pure Land in the form of prostrations before their images and other similar acts of honor. The second is exclusive practice, which means wholehearted and exclusive recitations and meditation on Amida Buddha alone. The third is uninterrupted practice, especially as regards the recitation of the Nembutsu. The fourth is the long-term practice. That is, that one pursue this kind of practice throughout the whole of one's life. These four modes of practice are discussed by Honen in Chapter Nine of the Senchakushu.


Tsuboi Shun-ei, Honen jodokyo no kenkyu (Tokyo: Ryubunkan, 1982).


In a dream, Honen encounters Master Shan-tao (Honen, yume-no-naka-de Zendo-daishi ni au) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 7, section 19-20.