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The 4 Eras of Honen's Disciples

First Period 1212-1227

Second Period 1227-1247

Third Period 1247-1266

Fourth Period 1266-1287

First Period 1212-1227

The first period comprises the fifteen years from Honen's death through the Karoku era persecution in 1227. During this period, the three leaders of the three main factions among Honen's followers were Ryukan, Kosai, and Shoku. They fought against oppression by the established Buddhist sects, asserted the orthodoxy of Pure Land Buddhism, and made efforts to establish their own understandings of Honen's Pure Land teachings.

Ryukan (1148-1227), the leader of the first faction, taught that salvation comes through faith in Amida's vow. Ryukan fiercely countered severe criticisms by Tendai and other Buddhist groups of the Senchakushu by putting forth doctrinal arguments. Mounting opposition eventually triggered the Karoku persecution, and Ryukan was exiled to the northern part of Japan dying on his way there.

The leader of the second faction was Kosai (1163-1247), who taught the possibility of salvation through a single recitation of the nembutsu (ichinen-gi), insisting that the great power of Amida Buddha's vow enables sentient beings to attain birth by a single recitation of his name. His teaching was influenced by the hongaku doctrine of innate enlightenment. Because of Kosai's radical position, as well as the fact that his ichinen doctrine won many supporters both inside and outside the community of Honen's followers, he became the chief target of the older schools' attacks on the nembutsu movement. Even among Honen's disciples, some, such as Bencho and his disciple Ryochu who succeeded to the Chinzei lineage of the Pure Land sect, criticized Kosai's teachings as heretical. Thus today it is hard to gain an accurate idea of his teachings as only two of his works, the Keishi kasho ruiju and the Gengibun, have survived

The leader of the third faction was Shoku (1177-1247) who insisted that the various Buddhist practices contain no more than a portion of the merit of the single practice of the nembutsu and serve merely to lead people to recite the nembutsu (seizan-gi). Assimilating the all-inclusive logic of medieval Tendai thought to nembutsu practice, Shoku attempted to subsume and unify all other Buddhist practices within the nembutsu teaching. During the Karoku persecution when Kosai and Ryukan were exiled, Shoku alone was able to remain in Kyoto and assumed leadership of the nembutsu community which flourished into five lineages: Jo'on's Seikoku, Ryushin's Fukakusa, Shonyu's Tozan, Shoe's Saga, and Jitsudo's Honzan.

The Karoku persecution was the worst of the several persecutions of Honen's nembutsu followers after Honen's death. The incident was triggered when Ryukan attacked Josho's Dansenchaku (A Criticism of the Senchakushu), a critique of Honen's Senchakushu from a Tendai point of view. Tendai monks appealed directly to the Emperor to exile Ryukan and Kosai. Moreover, some Tendai monks attempted to break open Honen's grave and to throw his corpse in the Kamo river.

Second Period 1227-1247

The second period after Honen's death comprises the twenty years from the time of the Karoku persecution until the death of Kosai and Shoku. During this period, as just mentioned, Shoku alone remained to lead various groups of Honen's followers in Kyoto. Although there were two brief periods of suppression during this twenty-year period, in 1235 and 1240, they were not as severe as the Karoku persecution. Doctrinal disputes flourished among Honen's immediate disciples, and from around the time of the Karoku persecution onwards, influential disciples began to propagate Honen's teaching throughout Japan. Shinran and Ryukan's disciples established nembutsu societies in the Kanto area of eastern Japan, while the Second Patriarch of Jodoshu, Bencho, established a base in the Kyushu area of southern Japan as did Kosai on the island of Shikoku, south of present day Osaka. Each of these major disciples of Honen upheld a somewhat different understanding of Honen's teaching.

Shinran (1173-1262), who would later be revered as the founder of the Jodo Shin sect, stressed absolute reliance on the other power of Amida's vow. One's own efforts, asserted Shinran, are useless in achieving salvation. Even faith in the nembutsu, he claimed, arises not through the individual's own efforts or virtue but is bestowed by Amida's grace. Thus Shinran saw the chanting of the nembutsu not as a practice by which one achieved salvation through one's own striving but as an expression of gratitude to Amida for having already effected one's salvation. Some of the major characteristics of Shinran's teaching are as follows: 1) The wicked, even more than the good, are the chief object of Amida's original vow (akunin shoki). The reason for this is that good persons will tend to rely on their own merit to achieve salvation, while evil persons, knowing themselves to be without virtue, will be more ready to entrust themselves wholly to the power of Amida's vow. This doctrine is most clearly elucidated in the Tannisho, which quotes Shinran as saying, "Even a good person can be born in the Pure Land, how much more so an evil person!"1(Fujiwara, 22) 2) One is able to chant the nembutsu and achieve birth in the Pure Land solely because Amida Buddha transfers the merit of his infinite other power to the believer (tariki eko). 3) When one renounces the egocentric calculation of reliance for salvation on one's own efforts and trusts solely in Amida Buddha, the power of the original vow works naturally of itself (jinen honi).

Shinran, who had been exiled at the same time as Honen, eventually settled in Kanto where he spent most of his carrier. He preached mostly to ordinary people and did not acquire fame during his lifetime. Hence he is not mentioned in the historical documents of the Kamakura era. He did not intend to establish a new Buddhist sect. It was his great-grandson Kakunyo (1270-1351), the third abbot of Honganji temple, who actually unified the communities of Shinran's followers in various provinces to establish the Honganji monto or co-fraternity, thus laying the foundation for the future prosperity of what would become the Jodo Shin sect. Shinran returned from the Kanto area to Kyoto as an old man in 1235 and from then until his death spent all his energies towards expressing his insights in writing.

Bencho (1162-1238), on the other hand, emphasized the necessity of studying both the gateway of the Holy Path and that of the Pure Land, avoiding a one-sided emphasis on either. He characterized all Buddhist practices as a general form of the nembutsu (so no nembutsu) and recitation of Amida's name as the specific nembutsu (betsu no nembutsu). He concluded that the specific nembutsu expands to include all other practices taught in the Holy Path. Bencho's interpretation was based on the Ta-chih-tu lun (Daichidoron, Commentary on the Mahaprajnaparamita sutras) traditionally attributed to Nagarjuna. In 1228 when he was sixty-seven years old, he wrote his first work, the Matsudai Nembutsu Jushuin (Handprint for Transmission of the Nembutsu to the Future Generations), in which he categorized the teachings of Honen under six headings (JZ. 10:1-14; T. 2613). This work was followed by many others, such as the Tetsu Senchakushu and the Jodoshu yoshu. Bencho criticized three current interpretations of nembutsu practice as deviations from Honen's teaching. These were the doctrine of a single invocation advocated by Kosai (ichinen-gi), the doctrine of not discarding the miscellaneous practices (zogyo) advocated by Shoku (seizan-gi), and the medieval Tendai doctrine that the Pure Land of serene light is this present world (jojakko jodo-gi).

Third Period 1247-1266

During the third period (the nineteen years from the death of Kosai and Shoku to the death of Chosai, Honen's last direct disciple), Shinran, Chosai, and Ryochu actively propagated the nembutsu teaching. Having returned from the Kanto area to Kyoto, where the five nembutsu lineages of Shoku's disciples were prospering, Shinran wrote the Kyogyoshinsho (The True Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way) and other works. He also personally copied the earliest extant compilation of Honen's words, naming it the Saihoshinansho (A Teaching to the Western Land)[T. 2674].

Chosai (1199-1287), basing himself on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching), insisted that not only the nembutsu but in fact all Buddhist practices can enable birth in the Pure Land. This is called the doctrine of various practices corresponding to the original vow (shogyo hongan-gi) meaning that Amida Buddha chose any Buddhist practice as well as the nembutsu as being enough for birth in the Pure Land. His teaching is said to have been severely criticized by other lineages of Honen's disciples as a deviation from Honen's teachings. However, as it was widely accepted by the established sects such as Tendai and Shingon, his disciples increased considerably. Chosai's teaching greatly influenced the formation of Ryochu's Pure Land doctrine.

Ryochu (1199-1287), Bencho's disciple, countered Chosai's position by asserting that Buddhist practices other than the nembutsu do not correspond to Amida's original vow. However, he also opposed the position of Shoku, who held that practices other than the nembutsu are utterly useless for attaining birth in the Pure Land. While denying that practices other than the nembutsu correspond to Amida's original vow, Ryochu nonetheless held them to be efficacious in achieving the Pure Land. In 1237, Ryochu, then thirty-nine years old, declared himself to be the Third Patriarch of Jodo Shu, because Bencho had directly transmitted to him his teaching. Ryochu then devoted himself to legitimizing Bencho's teaching known as the Chinzei doctrine, criticizing Chosai and Shoku's teachings.

Fourth Period 1266-1287

The fourth and last period is the twenty-one years from the time of Chosai's death to that of Ryochu. During this period, Ryochu, Kenni and Ippen were active. After the death of Honen's last direct disciple, Chosai, the disciples of the next generation developed and sought to legitimize their own interpretations of Honen's teaching. Kenni (1238-1304), a disciple of Ryushin, systematized the Seizan Fukakusa doctrine, a particular interpretation within Shoku's Seizan school. Kenni seems to have regarded Ryochu as his rival who also lived in Saga in Kyoto at the same time. Their works have very similar titles, and both criticize each other's view, though without explicit attribution. Ippen (1239-1289), originally a disciple of Shotatsu of the Seizan school, became the founder of the Ji sect, a group of itinerant nembutsu practitioners who wandered throughout the countryside chanting the nembutsu and teaching the people of its wonderful effects.

During this period, Ryochu stayed in Kyoto for eleven years (1276-1286) and systematized the Chinzei doctrine, which was to become Jodoshu orthodoxy. Together with Genchifs successor, Renjaku-bo, he held a teaching session for forty-eight days on the eastern mountain of Kyoto. He summed up the two Pure Land views saying that according to Honen, the Dharma of the nembutsu has taken the place of and superseded the "perfect precepts" as taught by the Tendai. This Dharma of the nembutsu is the same as what is commonly known as voluntary confession. This means that with every invocation of the sacred name, there arises spontaneously in the mind a confession of transgressions, and naturally following a complete purification from the results of those karmic actions. At this service, the two disciples laid down as a basic principle that the Dharma of the nembutsu and the perfect precepts are one, the latter being more than fulfilled and realized in the former. Then Renjaku-bo said, "There is complete agreement between what Genchi and Bencho say in their basic teaching. So my disciples should from now on look at the Chinzei teaching as their own. Therefs no need for them to set up another school.h For this reason, the school of Genchi united with that of Chinzei. Moreover Seikaku, the abbot of Agui Temple, as well as Shoshin-bo Tanku, the abbot of Nison-in Temple, both maintained that their teaching was authentic, because it was what Bencho taught.

In this way, Ryochu energetically propagated his teaching in Kyoto, countering the rival schools of Shoku and Chosai, and advancing his claim as the Third Patriarch of Honen's Pure Land lineage. Although during his life, Bencho never claimed to be the Second Patriarch, Ryochu explains in his Commentary on the Senchakushu that Honen's essential teachings had been transmitted directly to him through Bencho. In order to further spread and gain support for this claim, many copies of this work were printed and disseminated, and eventually, it succeeded in convincing people of Ryochu's rightful inheritance. Furthermore, Ryochu wrote many other commentaries always making it a point to stress his position as the Third Patriarch in them. Ryochu's six main disciples further carried on this campaign after Ryochu's death, ultimately succeeding in establishing this lineage as Jodoshu, the central teaching of Honen (Tamayama, 100-108 & 153-154). In this way, the various schools of Honen's teaching came to be systematized, being developed and clarified in the course of confrontation with other sects and internal debates among Honen's immediate and later disciples.


1. Though Shinran has traditionally been credited with this idea, Kajimura Noboru has recently argued that it originates with Honen.


Fujiwara Ryosetsu, Tannisho (Kyoto: Ryukoku University, 1966).

Kajimura Noboru, Akunin shoki setsu (Tokyo: Daito shuppan, 1992).

Tamayama Jogen, Chusei Jodoshu kyodan shino kenkyu.


Sanmon followers attempt to destroy Honen's tomb (Sanmon-no-shuto, Otani byodo-no hakyaku-o kuwadateru) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 42, section 5.

Shoko [Bencho] writes the Matsudai Nembutsu Jushuin (Shoko-bo, Matsudai Nembutsu Jushuin-o arawasu) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 46, section 11.

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