Shoko-bo Bencho
The Chinzei School
The General and
Specific Nembutsu

Shoko-bo Bencho (1162-1238) was a priest of the Chinzei district in the province of Chikuzen in Kyushu. At age fourteen, he began to study the Tendai teachings from Shoshin and in the spring of 1183, when he was twenty-two, he entered Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hiei. In 1190, he returned to Chinzei and was made the head teacher in a temple called Yusan. In a few short years, however, he became deeply aware of the impermanence of all phenomena and had awakened within him an aspiration for the highest enlightenment (bodhicitta). So he began to seek more diligently for the way and in 1197 returned to Kyoto to visit Honen in his secluded quarters at Yoshimizu. As he went, he thought to himself that however learned and eloquent Honen might be, he could not be more so than himself. So he put some difficult questions to Honen on some of the fundamental Pure Land teachings. In reply, Honen said, "Seeing that you are a Tendai scholar, I think I should talk to you about the three kinds of nembutsu." And then Honen went into a detailed explanation of all three.

As he listened, Bencho was deeply impressed with Honen's knowledge of the subject and his insight into the teachings involved. As the explanation went on from two in the afternoon to twelve that night, Bencho gradually put aside his complacency. And he made up his mind that the only direct way of emancipation for common people was without doubt the nembutsu. From then on, he looked to Honen as his teacher and kept in intimate contact with him until he understood thoroughly all his teachings.

In the spring of 1199, Honen presented Bencho with a copy of the Senchakushu saying, "This book was compiled by order of the ex-Regent Kujo Kanezane. Although it hasn’t been published yet, I trust it with you and believe you are the right person to preserve it and hand it down. So please make a copy of it for the good it might do to future generations." Bencho accepted it with deep gratitude. From this time until the summer of 1204, Bencho deepened his relationship Honen. During all of these six years, he intently studied Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra until finally the profoundest aspects of the Pure Land way penetrated his mind. Finally, on completing his studies, he took his leave of Honen at Yoshimizu and returned to his home region of Chinzei. There, he devoted himself to spreading the Pure Land teaching and experienced such success that he had students everywhere. Bencho then built a temple called Komyo-ji in which he kept intact the teachings he had received from Honen. He also built Zendo-ji in Fukuoka, one of the main temples (dai-honzan) of Jodo Shu, and continued teaching nembutsu ojo the rest of his life. 

From the time he joined the Pure Land school, he used to read the Amida Sutra over six times every day. He also never failed to observe the prayer and praise services of the six periods in every twenty-four hour day, nor did he ever miss a day of sixty thousand nembutsu repetitions. The only time he stopped for a nap was the two hours following the service at the first watch of the night. Then he would get up and keep saying the nembutsu in a loud voice right on until daybreak. He used to say, "People maintain that the best place for a life of retirement is the Kokawa Temple or Mt. Koya. But as for me, there is nothing to compare with the bed from which I rise every morning." Another of his sayings was, "The thing most essential to awaken and maintain a genuine faith is always to be thinking of death and the Buddhas. Who knows whether death may not come after any breath we draw, and so we should always keep saying, Namu Amida Butsu."

The General and the Specific Nembutsu

Bencho was the founder of the Chinzei school of Pure Land teaching. His teaching while true to that of Honen was also a further elaboration of his system. He emphasized the necessity of studying both the path of self-realization (shodo-mon) as well as the Pure Land path (jodo-mon), 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 path of self-realization. In the winter of 1228, Bencho held a special service at Ojo-in Temple in the province of Higo for the practice of the nembutsu for forty-eight days. During this time he wrote a booklet called Handprint for the Transmission of the Nembutsu to Future Generations (Matsudai nembutsu jushuin) [JZ.10:1-14, T.2613], which he hoped would prevent the spread of misunderstandings about the Pure Land way. It contained a full account of what he had heard directly from Honen. This work was followed by many others, such as the Tetsu senchakushu and the Jodoshu yoshu.

Bencho criticized three existing interpretations of nembutsu
practice as misunderstandings of Honen's teaching: the “single calling” taught by Kosai (ichinen-gi), the Seizan teaching of not discarding the miscellaneous practices (zo-gyo) advocated by Shoku, and the Tendai interpretation that the Pure Land of serene light is this present world. In his work called The Way of Practice for Birth by the Nembutsu (Nembutsu ojo shugyomon) he wrote, "It is regrettable that people who claim to be followers of Honen are circulating reports that he taught certain things which he never taught at all. The fact is that he told me that the heart of Shan-tao's teaching is this: 'Everyone aspiring for the Pure Land must say the nembutsu with the well-known Three Minds (sanjin).' He also used to say that laypersons who don’t have free time can repeat the nembutsu ten or twenty thousand times a day. But priests and nuns, in proof of their changed lifestyle, should do it thirty or sixty thousand times a day. In fact, he said it is not possible to do it too often. When one is convinced that the nembutsu is the practice for the certain attainment of ojo, the Three Minds will arise of themselves, and one will be sure of attaining it. If I am saying that Honen has taught something which he actually never did, I will forfeit the good will and compassion of all the Buddhas of the past, present and future, all the Bodhisattvas in the ten quarters, and above all the revered spirits of Shakyamuni, Amida, Kannon, Seishi and Shan-tao, in whom we specially trust, and become a refugee in this world and in the world to come."

Genchi, who spent many years as Honen’s personal attendant, once said that Bencho was the only one of Honen’s disciples who had passed on with accuracy Honen's teaching of the nembutsu. The following is a letter he wrote Bencho in 1237: "It’s now many years since we last met, and it pains me that there is little hope of seeing you again in the flesh. What a pity that the nembutsu teaching nowadays is in such a state of confusion. But I am delighted to hear that you are the one person who preserves Honen’s teaching just as he stated it himself. We are both of us sure of ojo, and I hope that whichever of us attains it first will be waiting to welcome the other to the Land of Bliss."

Bencho’s Ojo

Bencho was taken ill in the Autumn of 1237, and during the winter he called his disciples to his bedside. He had them chant Genshin's Hymn of Amida Buddha's Welcome (Raiko no san) and at the same time repeat the nembutsu. He listened to them with tears of joy, exclaiming, "The Holy Ones from the Blissful Land are filling the skies." All who heard were deeply moved. Within a few days, he told his disciples that an incarnation of Amida Buddha had appeared to him and delightful perfumes filled the air. By the next day, he put on the seven-stripped monk's robe, lay down with his head to the north and his face to the west, and placed a fine colored banner at his side. He had long ago written out a copy of the Amida Sutra, bowing low three times at the writing of each and every character. Now, as was his usual custom, he held this sutra between his thumbs and forefingers with his hands folded in worship. Then he went on for two hours repeating the nembutsu, his voice getting louder and louder towards the end. As he was reciting the passage, "Amida Buddha's light illumines all sentient beings in the ten quarters of the world," before he could go any farther, like one dropping off to sleep, he passed away. He was seventy-seven, and it was just sixty-four years from the time he had entered the monkhood. As the end came, a five-colored cloud overspread the sky, and another purple one in a diagonal direction hung over his home. Many were the crowds of monks and lay people who gathered to behold the wonderful sight. For three days after his death, many saw purple clouds covering the main building of the Tenpuku-ji temple, his old home.

The text has been edited and adapted from the Pictorial Biography of Honen Shonin (Honen Shonin gyojoezu), also known as the Forty-eight Fascicle Biography (Shijuhachikan-den) with reference to the translation made by Harper Havelock Coates and Ryugaku Ishizuka entitled Honen the Buddhist Saint: His Life and Teaching. Kyoto: Chion-in, 1925.

Bencho lectures on his Handprint for the Transmission of the Nembutsu to Future Generations. Book 3, Fascicle 46, Leaf 11, p.89-90.
2. Bencho attains Birth (ojo). Book 3, Fascicle 46, Leaves 17-18, p.92.

Both Pictorial Biography of Honen Shonin (Honen Shonin gyojoezu), corresponding to the Honen Shonin Pictorial Biography (Honen Shonin Den-en), part of the Complete Japanese Pictorial Scrolls, Volume I (Zoku Nihon Emaki Taisei I), Tokyo: Chuo Koron-sha, 1981.

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