An Overview of Major Issues for Contemporary Honen Studies

Alan A. Andrews
University Of Vermont

As you know, this panel has been convened to review the current status of research on the life, thought and works of Honen. Preliminary to this task, by way of orientation to the more specialized papers to be presented by my fellow panelists, I will attempt to identify and characterize several of the major issues within contemporary research on Honen's life and thought.

Issues Concerning Honen's Life
Contemporary scholars generally recognize that the first and most important task for the study of Honen's life is the identification and evaluation of resources for determining the events of that life. Usually they distinguish four major types of resources on Honen's life: (1) Biographies of Honen written after his death, (2) Honen's own writings, (3) diaries of Honen's contemporaries and (4) works by Honen's contemporary critics.

First, regarding biographies of Honen, modern research has determined that there were fifteen or more biographies of Honen composed in just a little over a century of his death [Sanda 1966; Tamura 1972]. These culminated in the voluminous, copiously illustrated Forty-eight Scroll Biography (Shijuhachi kan den; Honen Shonin gyojo ezu; Ikawa 1967, 3-318; Coates and Ishizuka 1925), traditionally dated 1307 to 1317. And while this imposing work became, and remains, the official biography of Honen for the Jodoshu denomination, it is generally considered by contemporary scholars to be less reliable than the earliest biographies, works composed within approximately two decades of Honen's death, such as the Story of His Life (Ichigo monogatari; Ikawa 1967, 773-780), the Personal Account of the Life of the Venerable Genku (Genku Shonin shinikki; Ikawa 1967, 769-72), the Service in Gratitude for Blessings (Chion koshiki; Ikawa 1967, 1035-38), and several shorter works on single events in Honen's life assembled in a text called the Daigo Manuscript (Daigobon; Ikawa 1967, 773-90]. While these early biographical materials frequently disagree on important events and dates and must be used critically, they nonetheless represent our richest resource for reconstructing a historically accurate life of Honen

The second type of resource, Honen's writings, also provide modern scholarship with some valuable information about his life, but are not as helpful as we might expect because so many of these writings are themselves of undetermined authenticity. We will return to the issue of the authenticity of Honen's writings below.

Turning to the third type of resource for information on Honen's life, contemporary diaries, there are primarily three which provide useful information -- those of Kujo Kanezane (1149-1207), Sanjo Nagakane (d. unk.) and Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) [Ikawa 1967, 966-973]. Of these, by far the most useful is that of Kujo Kanezane, Honen's patron and follower, which records interactions between Honen and Kanezane from 1189 until 1200. In general, these diaries provide information about Honen only when events in his life directly effected their authors, and thus their information is sporadic, but nonetheless quite reliable.

The major works by Honen's critics which provide scholars with information are the Kofukuji Petition (Kofukuji sojo; Kamata and Tanaka 197l, 31-42; Morrell l987, 66-88) of 1205 and the Miscellany of Ignorant Views (Gukansho; Ikawa 1967, 975-76; Brown and Ishida 1979) of the Tendai prelate Jien (1155-1225), composed around 1220. Even though the authors of these works were hostile and their accounts need to be carefully evaluated for accuracy, they nonetheless provide a counter balance to more favorable accounts and give researchers much valuable information.

What kind of accurate information about Honen's life is provided in these four types of material and what issues remain unresolved? Based on these resources, contemporary scholarship generally agrees that Honen was born in 1133 in what is now Okayama prefecture into a provincial military family, that his father was killed or died during his youth, that Honen subsequently became a Tendai monk and that from his late teens until past forty he resided in a monastic enclave (bessho) near Kyoto called Kurodani as a disciple of the well known hijiri or saintly recluse, Eiku (d. 1174?). We also know that Honen departed from Kurodani in 1175 at the age of forty-two, probably as the result of conversion to the Pure Land path. Soon thereafter, he established his own monastic retreat at Otani Yoshimizu in the suburbs of Kyoto. Not much about his activities is known with certainty after his move to Yoshimizu until in 1189 he formed a relationship with Kujo Kanezane, the most powerful civilian politician of the age. Then, in addition to occasionally ministering to Kanezane and his family, in the early 1190s Honen lectured on the Pure Land sutras and began to attract his major disciples. In 1198 he composed his major work, the Passages on the Selected Nembutsu of the Original Vow (Senchaku hongan nembutsu shu; T#2608.83.1-20), and from 1204 he became the object of serious protest by the established temples. He was exiled in 1207 and died in 1212 at the age of 80.

These are some facts known to contemporary scholarship, yet questions and issues about Honen's life abound. At exactly what age was he ordained? Did his father die before or after his ordination? While at Kurodani, what did he study and what practices did he pursue? Did he participate in a doctrinal debate at Ohara in l186? Was he offered in 1181 the prestigious task of supervising the reconstruction of the national cathedral, Todai-ji, and did he lecture there on the Pure Land sutras in 1190. Did he participate in religious ceremonies at the imperial court in the late 1170s and again in 1190?

Among the many still unsettled questions concerning Honen's life the most pressing for modern scholars to resolve concern his religious practice. Did Honen conduct for Kujo Kanezane rites for the cure of illness, and did he between 1198 and 1206 engage in a type of meditation known as buddha-contemplation (kambutsu)? These are especially important issues because in his Passages on the Selected Nembutsu of the Original Vow Honen rejected all religious practices other than those seeking Pure Land rebirth, and among practices for rebirth he discouraged as unfeasible meditative forms of nembutsu such as buddha-contemplation and urged instead vocal nembutsu, calling on the name of Amida Buddha. Thus, if he conducted rites of healing and/or participated in contemplative exercises, Honen's behavior would be inconsistent with the most fundamental of his own teachings,

These issues have received much attention from scholars in the field. Consideration of the former issue, that of Honen and healing rites, has entailed a close study of the entries concerning Honen in Kujo Kanezane's dairy and research on the character of death and healing rites in Honen's age [Ishida 1967a, 266; 1976, 464-65; 1986, 313-322 (Ishida moderated the position taken in 1967a in his 1986 revision); Shigematsu 1964; 440-99; Tamura 1972, 122-32]. The latter issue, that on Honen and contemplative exercises, has engaged scholars in debate over the reliability of one of the early biographical texts in the Daigo Manuscript, the Account of Honen's Samadhi Visions (Sammai hottokuki; Ishii 1955, 863-67), and about the character and function of such exercises in Honen's time [Ishida 1986, 324-27; Tamura 1972, 244- 47].

Honen's Writings
Any study of Honen's thought must rely on his writings, and evaluation of the authenticity of these has become an important task for modern scholarship. First of all we should be aware that most contemporary researchers acknowledge that, at most, only eight manuscripts survive which bear Honen's signature or his brush strokes [Todo and Ito 1975, 539-601]. These are:

1 The One-line-one-brush Amitabha Sutra [Ichigyo ippitsu Amida-kyo; Todo and Ito 1975, 540-44] circulated by the chief priest of the Osaka Isshin-ji Temple, probably in the period 1185-89 as a meritorious project.

2. The Rozanji manuscript of the Passages on the Selected Nembutsu of the Original Vow (Senchaku hongan nembutsu shu; T#2608.83.1-20);

3. The letter to Kumagai Naozane written on the 2nd day of the 5th month of an unspecified year but tentatively dated during or just before 1204 [Akamatsu 1966, 274-82; Todo and Ito 1975, 545-47; Saiki 1982];

4, 5 and 6. Three partial letters to Honen's disciple Shogyo-bo probably written during the period 1204-05 [Todo and Ito 1975, 553-58];

7. The Seven Article Admonition (Shichikajo seikai; Todo and Ito 1975, 548-53); and

8. The Konkai Komyoji manuscript of the Single Page Testament (Ichimai Kishomon; Todo and Ito 1975, 558-60).

These comprise only a single line of scripture (the One-line-one-brush Amitabha Sutra), two expositions of doctrine (the Passages and the Single Page Testament), one complete and three partial letters, and one set of rules for disciples (the Seven Article Admonition).

On the other hand, many additional works have been ascribed to Honen. There are four major collections of such works. The oldest is the assemblage we mentioned above called the Daigo Manuscript which was compiled sometime soon after 1242 [Ito 1988]. It includes four biographical pieces and two discussions of doctrine. The next oldest collection is the Guidance to the Western Pure Land (Saiho shinan-sho; Teihon Shinran Shonin zenshu 1976, 5.1-370), transcribed by Shinran in 1256 and 1257 from an earlier manuscript or collection of texts. It contains 28 items by or about Honen, of which 9 are on doctrine, 11 are letters, 6 are biographical pieces, and 2 concern regulations for disciples. In 1275, Ryo-e Doko assembled the Kurodani Shonin Lamp of the Dharma (Kurodani Shonin gotoroku; Jodoshu zensho 1973, 9.313-658) which contains 54 items, including most of those assembled in the Guidance to the Western Pure Land. The most recent comprehensive collection of Honen's works is the Showa Era Edition of the Complete Works of Honen (Showa shinshu Honen Shonin zenshu) compiled in 1955 by Ishii Kyodo, comprising 269 total pieces by or about Honen.

From this survey two facts are obvious: First, the paucity of autographed works, and second the gradual expansion of the corpus. The near absence of works in Honen's hand is explained first by his apparent disinclination to produce written compositions. Compared to his contemporaries Eisai, Jokei, Jien, Myoe and Chogen, or other Kamakura period sectarian founders such as Dogen. Shinran or Nichiren, Honen apparently wrote very few works and only one formal, doctrinal statement, the Passages on the Selected Nembutsu. And he seems to have preferred to dictate the few works he did compose, as for example the Passages and the Seven Article Admonition, rather than to write them out himself. One reason he did not produce more writings was no doubt his fear that his unorthodox ideas would prematurely come to the attention of the established Buddhist schools and provoke opposition to his movement, It is also likely that in the severe persecution which Honen's movement underwent for almost a half century from 1207 some of Honen's manuscripts were destroyed.

The increase in size of the corpus in the decades following Honen's death can also be understood in relation to the hostility Honen's movement incurred. During the suppressions of 1207 and 1227 Honen's disciples were scattered about the country, fragmenting the movement. In this situation, the disciples may have carried with them various works of Honen which only gradually were collected and published. On the other hand, the several factions into which the movement splintered had differing understandings of the master's teachings and may have forged works in the master's name or designated as works of Honen spurious texts which upheld their interpretations of his message, thereby producing an expanding corpus.

One response to this situation is to regard virtually everything not in Honen's hand as suspect and to base our view of Honen's thought exclusively on the autographed works. But this is an approach rarely used. Some scholars consider as authentic, in addition to the autographed works, those texts thought to be based upon lectures or sermons delivered by Honen, especially his Commentaries on the Three Major Pure Land sutras (Sambukyo shaku; Ishii 1955, 67-164) and the so-called Pre-death Memorial Sermons (Gyakushu seppo; Ishii 1955, 164-310). Others accept virtually the entire corpus as authentic. However, modern scholarship must acknowledge that the more we rely on those works not fully authenticated, the less reliable will be our assessment of Honen's thought.

Honen's Thought
Among the many unresolved issues regarding Honen's thought, the most pressing for many modern researchers are those concerned with his views on religious practice. First and foremost, did Honen teach "sole practice nembutsu" (senju nembutsu) and if so, what did he mean by it? This idea is usually considered Honen's central and most important teaching. But did he indeed teach it, and if so, did he mean by it that nembutsu was the only effective practice for Pure Land rebirth, the most effective practice, or the only practice possible? Could other practices assist nembutsu or did he consider them a hindrance? Was his position on practice self-consistent, and if not, what exactly are the inconsistencies.

A closely related issue for modem scholarship is Honen's views on the value of keeping the Buddhist moral precepts. This is an important issue, because it is closely related to the problem of his views on the self-sufficiency of nembutsu practice, and in general concerns the value and necessity of Buddhist monasticism. If the precepts are not necessary for Pure Land rebirth, or if it is not feasible to observe them, then monasticism itself may be regarded as unnecessary or impractical. For better or worse, many scholars acknowledge that this issue is tinged with inconsistency because, first of all, Honen himself observed the precepts faithfully throughout his life, and secondly, because his statements on this issue in the Passages and in the Seven Article Admonition seem to contradict each other. In my view, a third fully authenticated document, Honen's letter to his disciple Kumagai Naozane, may help us resolve this issue.

I hope that these preliminary remarks, inadequate and personal though they are, will help clarify a few of the major accomplishments and several of the most pressing issues for contemporary research on Honen's life and thought. My colleagues on the panel will no doubt rectify my errors and omissions and provide a more knowledgeable and detailed view of the status of research on Honen.

Akamatsu Toshihide 1966 Zoku Kamakura Bukkyo no Kenkyu, Kyoto: Heirakuji Shoten.

Brown Delmer M. and Ichiro Ishida 1979 The Future and the Past, A Translation and Study of the Gukansho, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ikawa. Jokei, ed. . 1967 Honen Shonin den zenshu, Revised ed. Takaishi, Osaka Pref.: Honen Shonin den zenshu kankokai.

Ishida Mizumaro 1967 "Honen ni okeru futatsu no seikaku," in Jodokyo no tenkai, 264-68. Tokyo: Shunjusha; 1976 "Honen no kairitsu kan" in Nihon Bukkyo ni okeru kairitsu no kenkyu, Tokyo: Nakayama Shobo; 1986 "Honen ni okeru futatsu no seikaku " in Nihon Bukkyo shiso kenkyu 4, Jodokyo shiso, 312-329. Kyoto, Hozokan.

Ishii Kyodo, ed. 1955 Showa shinshu Honen Shonin zenshu, Tokyo: Risosha.

Ito Yuishin 1988 "Honen Shonin denki (Daigobon) no seiritsu shiteki kosatsu" in Jodoshu tenseki kenkyu: Kenkyu hen, ed. by Todo Kyoshun koki kinen kai, Kyoto: Dobosha.

Jodoshu zensho 1973 Ed. by Jodoshu kaishu happyakunen kinen keisanjumbi kyoku, Kyoto: Jodoshu kaishu happyakunen kinen keisanjumbi kyoku.

Kamata Shigeo and Tanaka. Hisao, eds. 1971 Kamakura kyu-Bukkyo (Nihon shiso taikei 15), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.

Morrell Robert E. 1987 Early Kamakura Buddhism: A Minority Report, Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press.

Saiki Kazuma 1982 "Shoroji shozo no Genku jihitsu shojo," in Ito and Tamayama, eds., Honen (Nihon meiso ronshu, 6), Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan.

Sanda Zenshin 1966 Seiritsu shiteki Honen Shonin shoden no knekyu, Tokyo: Ko-enji Shuppansha.

Shigematsu Akihisa 1964 Nihon Jodokyo seiritsu katei no kenkyu, Kyoto: Heirakuji Shoten.

Taisho shinshu daizokyo, 1924-32 ed. by Takakusu Junjiro and Watanabe K., l00 vols., Tokyo: Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo Kankokai.

Tamura Encho 1972 Honen Shonin den no kenkyu, Revised edition. Kyoto: Hozokan.

Teihon Shinran Shonin zenshu 1976 Ed. by Teihon Shinran Shonin zenshu kankokai, Kyoto: Hozokan,

Todo Kyoshun and Ito Yuishin 1975 "Honen Shonin shinpitsu ruishu kaisetsu," in Jodoshu kaishu happyakunen kinen Honen Shonin kenkyu, edited by Bukkyo Daigaku Honen Shonin kenkyukai, pp. 539-560.