Honen's teaching is essentially a path not for religious elites but for ordinary people. As a path for ordinary people, Honen's teaching emphasizes: birth in an existential Pure Land through a personal relationship with Amida Buddha (rather than the traditional Buddhist focus on realizing a formless state of nirvana through one's own efforts); the practice of faith through chanting Amida's name, nembutsu (rather than the traditional focus on wisdom through precepts and meditation); an easy practice that brings all humans to salvation regardless of gender, class, occupation or character.
Two far reaching effects of Honen's nembutsu movement were the transformation of the Buddhist clergy from isolated ascetics to religious leaders living in society in the style of lay people; and the recognition of the equal opportunity to salvation for ordinary men and women as well as monks. This affirmation of one's present life and engagement with common society marked the beginning of the Kamakura Buddhist revolution in Japan. Honen along with his disciple, Shinran, and the other great teachers who also rose at this time, Dogen and Nichiren, mark the creation of a uniquely Japanese style of Buddhism.
Even while acknowledging that Honen's teachings represent a revolutionary development in Pure Land thought, in particular, and in Japanese Buddhist thought, in general, it is nevertheless far from easy to understand the complex nature of a vision which on the surface looks deceptively simple. Therefore, even though his arguments are likely to impress more by their religious conviction than by the subtlety of their reasoning, beneath the surface one finds a finely tuned, balanced, and comprehensive system of thought supporting his radical views on the nembutsu. It is a system which actually strikes a balance between revolutionary rejection of traditional Mahayana thought and eventual reaffirmation of the whole of the same Mahayana tradition.
Honen's radical insight,
however, would not find easy passage into the turbulent world
in which he lived. In reinterpreting the Buddhist tradition of
his time, he challenged the socio-political power of the entrenched
Buddhist orthodoxy. In developing his teaching, therefore, Honen
developed a number of ideas which reflected not only his growing
spiritual awareness but also his desire and need to validate his
teachings to society at large. Through looking at the way he classified
Pure Land teachings, established of a lineage, extended the views
on Shan-tao, and further developed the concepts of senchaku and
the nembutsu, we can gain a view of how Honen's thought is a synthesis of his
religious conviction and his efforts to bring it into the world.
It would take all of Honen's intellectual skills as one
of the great scholars of Mt. Hiei to give birth to his vision
of the salvation of all ordinary persons through the simple recitation
of the nembutsu.
I. An Outline of Honen's Teachings
II. Honen's Method of Classifying His Teachings: Easy vs. Difficult
III. The Influence of Shan-tao on Honen's Teachings
IV. Honen's View of Senchaku (selection) and the Nembutsu
The Process of Senchaku : "Selection", "Rejection", and "Reappropriation"
Honen's 8 Types of Senchaku
V. Honen's Interpretation of the Pure Land Sutras : Jodosanbukyo (the Three Pure Land Sutras)
VI. Honen's Establishment of a Chinese Lineage
VII. Honen on the Moment of Death (rinju)
VIII. Honen's Conceptions of Other Power (tariki) and Self Power (jiriki)
IX. Exclusivity (senju) & Innate Enlightenment (hongaku shiso) in Kamakura Buddhism
X. Honen's Teaching of Evil Persons
as the Object of Salvation (akunin shoki setsu)
XI. Honen's on Faith and the Three Minds (sanjin)