The Senchakushu was transcribed from Honen's oral dictation in 1198. It consists of sixteen chapters and occupies twenty pages in the Taisho canon (T. 83, 1-20; SHZ. 310-350). Each chapter begins with a heading explaining the content of the chapter and then presents quotations from the Pure Land sutras and the works of major Pure Land scholars, followed by Honen's comments and explanations interspersed between and after the various quotes. As such, Honen presents his teachings concerning Pure Land doctrine primarily through the medium of long citations of authoritative Buddhist texts recognized by all Buddhist scholars of his day. He unfolds his own teaching about the sole practice of the nembutsu through his reading of these classical Pure Land texts. In this way, Honen presents massive scriptural evidence for most of his teaching, while at the same time occasionally departing markedly from traditional interpretations. The result is a teaching so radical as to constitute an entirely new Buddhist school, a point which Honen himself argues for in Chapter One.
Since the Senchakushu is basically a collection passages drawn from classical Buddhist texts defending the orthodoxy of Honen's exclusive nembutsu teaching, it is necessary to present a brief word of explanation on the nature of Honen's hermeneutical approach to these texts. On reading the Senchakushu, the first reaction of contemporary readers accustomed to strict textual exegesis is likely to be that Honen is careless with his proof texts. Not only does he occasionally alter the wording of passages in order to create the meaning he desires, but he frequently lifts passages out of context or interprets them in ways that the context is clearly inconsistent with the original text. It is thus important to bear in mind that neither the Senchakushu, nor the commentaries of Shan-tao on which Honen draws heavily, represent a logical method of developing his thought on the basis of the Pure Land scriptures. Rather, they creatively adopt the words of the sutras to express convictions arrived at through personal religious experience; in Honen's case, a deep conviction in the unique soteriological efficacy of the nembutsu. While common to religious teachers in a variety of traditions, this interpretive approach was widespread among medieval Japanese Buddhist thinkers as kanjin shaku, an interpretation of scripture grounded not in the text but in personal religious insight. Thus the reading of sutras represents the second, not the first step, in this mode of interpretation.
The following presents a brief outline of the Senchakushu's contents that will help to grasp the overall radical thrust of the work. A complete English translation of the Senchakushu was published in 1998 and is available from the Kuroda Institute of University of Hawaii Press. (See a review of Honen's Senchakushu by Jan Van Bragt of the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture)
Chapter One - Classification of the Buddhist Teachings
Chapter One begins with the heading: "Passages which relate how the Dhyana Master Tao-ch'o (Jp. Doshaku), setting up the two gateways, the gateway of the Holy Path and the gateway of the Pure Land, discarded the gateway of the Holy Path and took refuge in the gateway of the Pure Land." Then it quotes passages from Tao-ch'o's An-le chi (Collection of Passages on the Land of Peace and Bliss, Anraku-shu). Honen argues that, from the standpoint of the Pure Land sect, Buddhism can be broadly divided into two categories the gateway of the Holy Path (shodomon) and the gateway of the Pure Land (jodomon). The purpose behind this classification, he declares, lies ultimately in rejection of the Holy Path and selection of the Pure Land Path.
At the conclusion of this first chapter, Honen presents two possible ways of tracing the transmission of the Pure Land lineage from Bodhiruci to the later Chinese Pure Land patriarchs. According to Tao-ch'o's An-le chi, the succession is as follows: Bodhiruci, Hui-ch'ung, Tao-chang, T'an-luan, Ta-hai, and Master Fa-shang. According to the T'ang kao-seng chuan (Bibliography of Eminent Masters Complied in the T'ang Dynasty) and the Sung Kao-seng-chuan (Bibliography of Masters Compiled in the Sung Dynasty), the succession is as follows: Bodhiruci, T'an-luan, Tao-ch'o, Shan-tao, Huai-kan, and Shao-k'ang. To establish such a lineage was essential to establishing the legitimacy of Honen's teaching and to parrying his enemies' accusations of heresy.
Chapter Two - The Practices of Pure Land Buddhism
Chapter Two begins with the heading "Passages which relate how Master Shan-tao set up the two kinds of practices, the right and the miscellaneous, rejecting the miscellaneous and taking refuge in the right." There follows a series of long quotations from Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang shou ching shu) and the Wang-sheng-li-tsan (Hymns in Praise of Birth), interspersed with Honen's interpretations. In this chapter, following Shan-tao, Honen divides the practices of Pure Land Buddhism into two categories, right (shogyo) and miscellaneous (zogyo). The right practices are further divided into five: reading and reciting sutras, contemplation, doing prostration, uttering Amida's name and giving praises and offerings. In contrast, the miscellaneous category consists of all other Pure Land practices. The five right practices are then subdivided into the right [established] act (shojo-no-go) and four auxiliary acts (jogo). The first, the rightly established act, is uttering Amida's name. It corresponds to the fourth of the above-listed five kinds of right practices. The auxiliary acts are the remaining four right practices.
Then, based on Shan-tao, Honen compares the right practices and the miscellaneous practices. The five pairs of contrast are; 1) the intimate [with Amida] versus the estranged, 2) the near [to Amida] versus the far, 3) the uninterrupted versus the intermittent [concentration on Amida], 4) the practices necessary for transferring the merit [of one's practice toward birth in the Pure Land] versus the lack of such necessity, and 5) the pure versus the miscellaneous. In this manner, Honen argues that one should reject the miscellaneous practices and take refuge in the right practices alone.
Such arguments would not necessarily persuade the non-believer. However, the force of Honen's primary purpose in writing the Senchakushu was not to convert others but to provide his followers with scriptural defenses against criticism from other Buddhist sects. This same intent informs the following chapters as well.
Chapter Three - Amida's Choice of the Nembutsu in His Original Vow
This chapter begins with the heading, "Passages concerning the Tathagata Amida's original vow which promises birth not for other practices but for the nembutsu only." It quotes from the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching), and Shan-tao's Kuan-nien-fa-men and his Wang-sheng-li-tsan. In this chapter Honen first draws a distinction between the general vows common to all Buddhas and the specific vows particular to each of them. Amida Buddha's forty-eight vows are his specific vows. Then, quoting the Pure Land sutras, he considers how Amida, as the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, came to make these vows. In this context, he discusses the notion of senchaku (to select), which occurs in the Ta-a-mi-t'o ching (Jp. Dai-Amida-kyo, another translation of the Sutra of Immeasurable Life). This text explains that Dharmakara, in contemplating the features of twenty-one billion buddha lands, selected their most desirable aspects and rejected their less desirable ones.
Honen extends the idea of senchaku as rejection and selection to mean that Amida rejected various practices and selected the verbal nembutsu alone as corresponding to his original vow. He suggests two reasons for this selection. The first is that the virtue of Amida Buddha's inner enlightenment and of his outward actions is entirely contained within his name. Other practices, however, contain only a portion of this merit; therefore, they are inferior while the recited nembutsu is superior. Honen emphasizes the importance of "the name" as being more powerful than any other Buddhist word, containing as it does "all the merits and virtues of Amida Buddha's inner enlightenment, such as the four wisdoms, the three bodies, the ten powers and the four fearlessnesses, as well as all the merits and virtues of his outer activities such as the major and minor bodily characteristics, the emanation of light, the preaching of the Dharma and the benefiting of sentient beings." In this way, Honen explains the source of the marvelous power of the nembutsu practice. Second, the miscellaneous practices are too difficult for some people to accomplish, while nembutsu practice is accessible to all; out of his intention to lead all people equally to attain birth in the Pure Land, Amida rejected the difficult practices and selected the easy practice of the nembutsu. For these two reasons, Honen argues that Amida Buddha especially selected the nembutsu rather than the miscellaneous practices as corresponding to his original vow.
The last section of this chapter addresses three questions. The first is whether or not all of Amida's forty-eight vows have been fulfilled. The second is whether or not the phrase "think of [Amida]" in the eighteenth vow can be fundamentally understood as to recite his name. The third is how to properly name the all-important eighteenth vow.
Chapter Four - The Nembutsu and the Miscellaneous Practices
Chapter Four begins with the heading "Passages relating how all three classes of people can be born through the nembutsu." This chapter quotes from the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching). Honen here addresses the problem faced by a number of religious writers: how to reconcile the differences and conflicts between various scriptural passages, or between scripture and one's own conviction. Specifically, the issue here is how to reconcile the Sutra of Immeasurable Life's elaboration of various practices for people of superior, middle, and inferior capacity with Shan-tao's claim that all three classes of people represent birth in the Pure Land through the nembutsu. Honen offers three explanations: 1) the manifold practices were expounded so that, in rejecting them, one will take refuge only in the nembutsu. 2) the manifold practices were expounded as encouragement toward the practice of the nembutsu. Among those various practices that encourage the nembutsu, Honen distinguishes between practices that are similar to the nembutsu, by virtue of being related to Amida Buddha, and those which are different, in not having such a relationship. 3) the manifold practices were expounded in order to show, in terms of the three classes of people, that the nembutsu is superior. Of these three explanations, Honen declares that, if one follows Shan-tao, the first should be regarded as primary.
Chapter Five - The Benefits of the Nembutsu
This chapter begins with the heading, "Passages on the benefits of the nembutsu." It quotes from the conclusion of the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching) and a verse composed on a passage from Wang-sheng-li-tsan (Hymns in Praise of Birth). Here Honen raises the question of why, at the end of the Sutra of Immeasurable Life, the nembutsu alone is praised, when in fact the sutra sets forth a number of other practices as well. In answer, Honen suggests that Shakyamuni Buddha provisionally expounded the manifold practices but eventually rejected them in favor of the nembutsu.
Chapter Six - The Eternal Endurance of the Nembutsu
The descriptive title of this chapter is, "Passages relating that the nembutsu alone will remain [in the world] after the ten thousand years of the age of the final Dharma (mappo), when all the other practices have disappeared." It begins with a quote from the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching) and raises the question to the effect that Shakyamuni will cause this sutra alone to endure for a hundred years after all other Buddhist teachings have vanished.
Since the text says that the sutra itself says it will endure for a hundred years after the time of Dharma extinction, how can one legitimately read this to mean that the nembutsu will endure for these one hundred years? Honen replies that since the nembutsu represents the intent of the sutra, the passage in question actually refers to the nembutsu. In this connection, Honen sets up four pairs of comparisons: 1) the teachings of the Holy Path and those of the Pure Land Path; 2) the teachings concerning the pure lands of the ten directions1 and those concerning Amida's Pure Land in the West; 3) the teachings concerning birth in the Tusita Heaven and those concerning birth in the Pure Land; and 4) the manifold practices and the nembutsu alone.
In each case, he says, the second element of the comparison will endure after the first has passed away, as people have a stronger karmic connection to the Pure Land teachings and the nembutsu. Honen then poses the problem of why Shakyamuni would cause that only this sutra and no other would remain after the ten thousand years of the final Dharma age. His answer, following Shan-tao, is that the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching) expounds the eighteenth vow of birth in the Pure Land through the nembutsu, the practice by which all can be saved. Shakyamuni in his compassion will cause this sutra to remain after all others have passed away. In the concluding passage of the chapter, Honen asserts that the nembutsu is suited not only to the age of the Final Dharma but also to the ages of the Right Dharma (shobo) and the Semblance Dharma (zoho) as well.
Chapter Seven - The Light of Amida Buddha
Honen's title for this chapter is, "Passages which relate that the light of Amida does not illuminate those who engage in the other practices but embraces only those who practice the nembutsu." It is based on passages from the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching), and from Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu) and Kuan-nien-fa-men. Based on Shan-tao's commentaries, Honen gives two reasons why Amida Buddha's light only illuminates those who practice the nembutsu and does not mention those who engage in other practices.
The first has three parts to it: 1) if one recites the nembutsu, one's relationship with Amida becomes closer; 2) if one recites the nembutsu, one can directly contemplate Amida Buddha; and 3) if one recites the nembutsu, one can receive other vast, invisible benefits from Amida Buddha, such as eradicating one's accumulated sins and being welcomed by Amida at the moment of death (Takahashi, 73-94). The second reason is that practices other than the nembutsu do not accord with the original vow, so Amida Buddha does not shed his light on people who perform them. However, since the nembutsu is the practice of his original vow, Amida Buddha sheds his light on those who do practice it.
Chapter Eight - The Faith of Nembutsu Practitioners
This chapter has the heading "Passages which show that those who practice the nembutsu should certainly possess the three kinds of mind." It is based on passages from the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching), and from Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu) and Wang-sheng-li-tsan (Hymns in Praise of Birth). This chapter begins with a particularly long quotation, citing almost the entirety of the passage in Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra on the three kinds of mind (sanjin). In contrast, Honen's own comments are brief but moving. He interprets the "sincere mind" (shijoshin) to mean that there is no disjuncture between one's interior mind and one's outer actions; one is genuine in birth. He takes the "profound mind" (jinshin) to mean the faith that does not waver when confronted with the varying practices, teachings and views of the Holy Path. As for the "mind that transfers all merits toward birth in the Pure Land and resolves to be born there" (ekohotsuganshin). Honen makes no addition to Shan-tao's interpretation. He reiterates Shan-tao's assertion that all three kinds of mind are necessary for the birth in the Pure Land.
Although being influenced by T'an-luan and Shan-tao, Honen sets forth in this chapter his own new interpretation on merit dedication (eko). He declares that if one practices the "rightly established practice" (the nembutsu) and the "auxiliary practices", one's merits will be dedicated towards Birth even if one does not directly intend it. In the case of the miscellaneous practices, however, one must directly will that this merit be applied towards Birth. Further, he says in his letters that once one comes to believe in the exclusive nembutsu (senju nembutsu), one doesn't have to dedicate merits of manifold practices other than nembutsu for one's Birth in the Pure Land. (SHZ. 584). According to Shinran, the two kinds of merit transference set forth by T'an-luan are accomplished in any case by Amida Buddha's power not by one's merit dedication.
Chapter Nine - The Practitioners' Religious Life
This chapter's title is, "Passages relating how practitioners should practice the four cultivations." It draws on quotations from Shan-tao's Wang-sheng-li-tsan (Hymns in Praise of Birth) and T'zu-en's Hsi-fang yao-chueh (Essentials for Birth in the Western Land), which Honen cited to explain the four modes of cultivating the five right practices (shogyo). Honen adds no explanation of his own. The four modes of cultivation are set forth in the Wang-sheng-li-tsan . The first cultivation consists in revering Amida Buddha and the bodhisattvas and prostrating oneself before them. The second consists in concentrating exclusively upon these right practices to the exclusion of all others. The third cultivation is to perform the right practices without interruption, so that one is constantly in intimate relationship with Amida Buddha. The fourth cultivation consists in continuing these right practices throughout one's life.
Chapter Ten - Amida Buddha's Transformation Body
The title of this chapter is, "Passages [which relate how] the Buddha Amida, when he comes to welcome [the nembutsu practitioners] in his transformation body (keshin), does not praise miscellaneous good practices such as hearing the names of the sutras, but praises only the nembutsu." Honen bases his argument on quotations from the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching), and from Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu). Here Honen compares two kinds of practice: good practices, including hearing the names of the Mahayana sutras, and practicing of the nembutsu. He argues that Amida Buddha, in the Meditation Sutra, does not praise such acts as hearing the names of the sutras because such good acts do not correspond to his original vow. However, since the nembutsu does correspond to his original vow, he does praise it accordingly. Finally, Honen compares the merits of these two kinds of practices and concludes that the nembutsu surpasses good practices, such as hearing the names of sutras, in the amount of defilement it can eradicate.
Chapter Eleven - Shakyamuni Buddha's Praise of Nembutsu Practitioners
This chapter's title is "Passages that praise the nembutsu in contrast to the many miscellaneous practices." It bases itself on quotations from the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching), and from Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu). Here too, Honen raises a question which he no doubt heard many times from both his disciples and his Buddhist opponents in other sects. Why, he asks, are many miscellaneous practices explained in the Meditation Sutra if the only important practice is the nembutsu? In answer, he explains that this is in order to show the superiority of the merits of the nembutsu practice over those of the miscellaneous practices (zogyo). That is why, he declares, Shakyamuni compares the nembutsu practitioner to the rare and beautiful lotus flower. Shan-tao explains in his Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu):
[The white lotus flower] is called the most excellent flower in the human world, the rarest flower, the flower of the highest quality of the human world, and the most wondrously fine flower of the human world... Thus, whoever recites the nembutsu is the most excellent, wondrously fine person of the highest quality and the rarest and supreme of all people.(T.1753, 37:278a)
Furthermore, Honen quotes from Tao-ch'o's An-le-chi (Collection of Passages on the Land of Peace and Bliss) to show that nembutsu practitioners will receive two kinds of merit: “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva will protect them in this world, and after death, they will be born in the Pure Land and attain enlightenment.” (T.1958, 47:15a)
Chapter Twelve - Shakyamuni Buddha's Entrusting of the Nembutsu
This chapter's content is described by the heading "Passages which relate that [in the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching)] Shakyamuni did not entrust to Ananda the various contemplative and non-contemplative practices but entrusted to him the nembutsu alone." Honen supports his discussion with quotes from the Meditation Sutra and Shan-tao's commentary on it. This chapter addresses the issue of why, after expounding both contemplative (jozen) and non-contemplative practices (sanzen) in the Meditation Sutra , Shakyamuni Buddha in the end entrusts to his disciple Ananda the nembutsu alone. Honen says that the contemplative and non-contemplative practices were expounded in order to show that the merit of the nembutsu is greater. Therefore, he says Shakyamuni explains the contemplative and non-contemplative practices in order eventually to reject them and to select the nembutsu in their place. In response to the desires of various individuals, Shakyamuni gave them the contemplative and non-contemplative practices, but in order to save all people, especially in the later ages after his nirvana, he eventually rejected them. The one practice which Shakyamuni first gave and never rejected was the nembutsu. Not only is the nembutsu the practice included in Amida Buddha's original vow, it also is the practice that Shakyamuni entrusted to his disciple Ananda to transmit far into the future.
Chapter Thirteen - The Many Good Acts of the Nembutsu
The title is "Passages attesting that the nembutsu plants many good roots while the miscellaneous good practices plant but few." The argument of this chapter relies on quotes from the Amida Sutra (A-mi-t'o ching) and Shan-tao's commentary on it, called the Fa-shih tsan. Here, in interpreting the sutra passage, "It is impossible to be born in that Land by means of the virtue of few good roots," Honen interprets "few good roots" as referring to the merit of miscellaneous practices other than the nembutsu, which plants "many good roots." Honen supports this by citing a Sui dynasty stone inscription founded at Hsiang-yang, purporting to represent a passage from the Amida Sutra that had been deleted from the present text.
Chapter Fourteen - The Testimony of the Many Buddhas of the Six Directions
The title of this chapter is "Passages attesting that the many buddhas of the six directions, as numerous as the grains of sand of the Ganges river, do not bear witness to any other practices than the nembutsu." It is based on quotes from Shan-tao's Kuan-nien fa-men, Wang-sheng-li-tsan, Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu) and Commentary on the Amida Sutra (Fa-shih tsan), as well as from the Dhyana Master Fa-cho's Wu-hui fa-shih tsan (Ceremonial Hymns in Five-Part Harmony).
This chapter addresses the question of why the many buddhas of the six directions all bear witness to the efficacy of the nembutsu practice. Following Shan-tao, Honen asserts that all buddhas bear such witness because the nembutsu is the one practice selected in Amida Buddha's original vow. In his next question, he asks why does he teach that in the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching) and the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching), the many buddhas of the six directions bear witness to the nembutsu, when in fact they do not? Honen gives two answers to this exegetical problem. The first is that because both of these sutras teach other practices alongside the nembutsu, the many buddhas of the six directions are not said to bear special witness to it. However, since the Amida Sutra (A-mi-t'o ching) teaches only the nembutsu, the many buddhas of the six directions are explicitly declared to bear witness to it. His second answer is that although the Sutra of Immeasurable Life and the Meditation Sutra include no explicit reference to the buddhas bearing witness to the nembutsu, in the light of the Amida Sutra, such witness is implicit. In support of this, Honen quotes from the Shih-i lun, attributed to the T'ien T'ai master Chih-i.
Chapter Fifteen - The Protection of the Nembutsu Practitioner by the Many Buddhas of the Six Directions
This chapter's title is "Passages relating how all the buddhas of the six directions protect the nembutsu practitioner" and relies on quotations from Shan-tao's Kuan-nien fa-men and his Wang-sheng-li-tsan (Hymns in Praise of Birth). This chapter asks whether nembutsu practitioners alone are protected by the buddhas of the six directions. Citing Shan-tao's commentaries, Honen declares that they are additionally protected by Amida Buddha, by his attendant bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara (Kannon-bosatsu) and Mahasthamaprapta (Seishi-bosatsu), by the twenty-five bodhisattvas who appear in the Shih wang-sheng ching, by all the beings of the heavens, by the four kings, by the dragon deities and by all the other tutelary deities of Buddhism.
Chapter Sixteen - The Entrusting of Amida Buddha's Name
This final chapter's title is "Passages relating how the Tathagata Shakyamuni kindly entrusted the name of Amida to Shariputra and other disciples," and uses quotations from the Amida Sutra (A-mi-t'o ching) and from Shan-tao's Fa-shih tsan (Ceremonial Hymns) to substantiate its argument. Here Honen distinguishes a total of eight kinds of "choosing" or "selecting" (senchaku) of the nembutsu. He asserts that the nembutsu has been selected by the three Pure Land sutras (Jodosanbukyo), as well as by Shakyamuni, Amida, and all buddhas of the six directions. Then he details his process of selection, rejection, and re-appropriation.
Finally, Honen gives five reasons for basing his own teachings almost solely on Shan-tao's commentaries: 1) Shan-tao alone treats salvation in the Pure Land as a central principle; 2) Shan-tao was a saint who obtained samadhi; 3) although Shan-tao's disciple Huai-kan had also obtained samadhi, the master Shan-tao should be relied upon rather than the disciple Huai-kuan; 4) Shan-tao knew for certain that he would achieve birth in the Pure Land; and 5) Shan-tao was Amida Buddha in his transformation body. Honen says that in China, Shan-tao was regarded as the manifestation of Amida Buddha. Honen felt that if this was true, then Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu) was directly expounding by Amida Buddha. In this chapter, Honen quotes Shan-tao as saying in this commentary, "When anyone wishes to copy these words let him/her do so in exactly the same manner as he/she would copy the sutras."(T. 1753, 37:278c) He held that this comment which came to Shan-tao from a holy monk in a dream signifies that the commentary itself is the work of Amida Buddha. Furthermore, Honen felt if Shan-tao's commentary is truly the work of Amida, then the Senchakushu, being based on this commentary, is as true as the words of Amida Buddha since he himself had direct experience of the Pure Land. Honen goes on to quote long passages from Shan-tao's commentary detailing Shan-tao's experience of the Pure Land. In this section, the essence of Honen's work goes beyond our logical analysis. Finally, at the end of Chapter Sixteen, Honen gives his reasons for writing the Senchakushu..
1. The thought to desire birth in the pure lands of all directions seems to have developed in such sutras as the Shih-fang sui-yuan wang-sheng ching.
Takahashi Koji; "Komyo ni kansuru kosatsu," Bukkyobunka kenkyu, vol. 28 (Jodoshu kyogakuin kenkyujo, 1983).
Photo of manuscript of Senchakushu from Rozan-ji, Kyoto
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