The Life of Honen Shonin

Honen Bo Genku (1133-1212), or simply Honen, is one of the most outstanding figures in the long history of Japanese Buddhism. Along with Dogen, Nichiren and Shinran, his disciple, he represents the core of the revolutionary Kamakura Buddhist movement which created the first popular and uniquely Japanese forms of Buddhism. Though not as noted in the West than these counterparts, Honen is perhaps the most pivotal of the four since he was the first to break with the established centers of Tendai (Ch. T'ien T'ai) and Shingon (tantric) patronized by the royal court and military authorities. It was at age 43, with a deepening exposure to the Pure Land teachings of the great Chinese Master Shan-tao (Jp. Zendo), that Honen made this radical break to pursue his own spiritual vision. The rest of his life is an unfolding of his own particular and uniquely Japanese vision of Pure Land Buddhism. This second period of his life also marks the blooming of his teachings amongst the peasant classes of medieval Japan and his clashes with imperial and shogunal authority. From his systematization of a unique Japanese Pure Land tradition, the nembutsu, or calling on the grace of Amida Buddha, has become the most popular form of Buddhist practice and devotion in Japan. Two of Japan's largest denominations, Jodo-shu centered around Honen and Jodoshin-shu centered around his disciple Shinran, are further marks of his legacy.

I. A Personal Portrait

Major Biographies of Honen

II. Early Life and Training in Tendai-shu

Social and Religious Turmoil in Late Heian Japan

Syncretic Development of the Tendai School in Japan

Tendai-shu Esoteric and Exoteric Lineages

The Influence of Genshin's Ojoyoshu on Honen

III. Religious Conversion

Textual Evidence in the Biographies

IV. Years of Teaching

High Level Monks
Tendai Zasu Kenshin
Sanron and Shingon scholar Myohen

Aristocrats & Royalty: Kujo Kanezane
Outcastes - The Poor and Criminal

V. Persecution

Kofuku-ji Petition (Kofuku-ji sojo)

V. Honen's Death and Ojo


1133 Born on April 7 in Mimasaka in present day Okayama Prefecture

1145 Leaves home to become a monk at the Tendai center of Mt. Hiei

1150 Moves to the Kurodani Retreat area of Mt. Hiei and studies under Eiku

1175 Has conversion experience reading Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra and leaves Mt. Hiei.

1186 "Ohara Debate" with group of Buddhist scholar-monks from Nara and Mt. Hiei marks seminal moment in legitimation and spread of teachings

1191 Gives series of lectures on the Three Pure Land Sutras (jodosanbukyo) to a large group of scholar monks at Todai-ji in Nara

1195 Genchi becomes the first of his major disciples

1198 Honen's magnum opus, the Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu (Passages on the Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow), is dictated and transcribed to his disciples Junsai, Kansai and Shoku.

1198-1206 Experiences sustained states of absorption and spontaneous visualization of the Pure Land which he chronicles in the Sanmai-hottokuki (Record of Attaining Samadhi)

1201 Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, becomes his disciple

1204 Writes the Shichikajo-kishomon (Seven Article Pledge) in response to the Genkyu Oppression by the monks of Mt. Hiei

1207 Sent into exile to Shikoku by Emperor Gotoba after two of his ladies in waiting are converted and become nuns under Honen's disciples Anraku and Juren who are subsequently beheaded.

1211 Finally is allowed to return to Kyoto four years after his pardon

1212 Writes Ichimai Kishomon (The One Sheet Document) and passes away on January 23 reciting the nembutsu


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