Zenne-bo Shoku

The Seizan School

The “Unvarnished” Nembutsu

Zenne-bo Shoku (1177-1247) was a monk who lived in Seizan, southwest of Kyoto. He was the son of the ordained follower Chikahide, the Vice-Governor of the province of Kaga, but was later adopted by Michichika Kuga, one of the highest Ministers of State. In 1190, he paid a visit to Honen and not long after was ordained as a novice monk at the age of fourteen. His intellectual abilities were exceptional, and he quickly came to understand things that he had seen or heard only once. It is said that he studied so diligently that he wore out three copies of Shan-tao’s Commentary on the Meditation Sutra
, reading and re-reading it day and night.

Shoku established the Seizan school of Pure Land teaching in which he clearly distinguished between the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha.
He held that while Shakyamuni taught that meditative and non-meditative merit, or goodness, is the “all-important” thing, Amida made his Original Vow so comprehensive that he engaged to save all beings who simply called upon his name. In this way, he insisted that 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. Combining the all-inclusive logic of Tendai thought with 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. Ippen (1239-1289) who comes from this Seizan lineage became the founder of the Ji Sect (ji-shu), a group of itinerant nembutsu practitioners (nembutsu hijiri) who wandered throughout the countryside chanting the nembutsu and teaching the people of its wonderful effects.

When Shoku was dealing with people who tended to depend on their own effort in nembutsu
practice, he had a way of making the nembutsu easily comprehensible by speaking of it as a piece of “unvarnished wood” (shiroki nembutsu).People who depend on themselves for their emancipation discolor the nembutsu itself. One person gives a different color to it, because of the convictions he has reached regarding the Mahayana teachings. Another does the same by the understanding he has of other Buddhist principles. Another does it by her way of keeping the precepts, while a fourth by his method of meditative absorption (samadhi). In the end, those who color their nembutsu practice with many meditative and non-meditative practices boast that they will definitely attain ojo. Meanwhile those cannot develop these practices and whose nembutsu is utterly colorless grow discouraged about their ability to attain ojo. Well, both the boastful and the discouraged are illusions coming from self-dependence. The fact is that the nembutsu taught in the Sutra of Immeasurable Life for people who live a hundred years after the Dharma has perished and the nembutsu taught in the Meditation Sutra for those who belong to the lowest three of the nine ranks (kuhon) of sentient beings is the very nembutsu I mean when I use the term ‘unvarnished wood’. In his explanation of the passage in the Meditation Sutra which deals with the Original Vow, Shan-tao uses the words ‘with a sincere and believing mind’ and ‘calling upon my name’ in an identical manner – and these correspond to the ‘unvarnished’ nembutsu.”


“Now according to the Meditation Sutra, people destined to be Born into the lowest class of the lowest rank in the Pure Land have no power to discolor anything whatever, because they are just common fools without any goodness either spiritual or secular. In their death-agony, they are so devoid of consciousness that they can’t act, speak, or think. They’ve been bad their whole lives through, so in the anguish of the last crisis, there is nothing they can fall back upon. They are powerless to do good or refrain from bad, much less to grasp the meaning of Mahayana or Theravada teachings. Nor can they see the ultimate goal of all Buddhist aspiration or the ordinary means by which it can be gained. At such a time, there is no use in trying to make merit by building a pagoda or shrine. The coming separation with home and friends and the abandoning of worldly desires tears at their hearts. They are in fact deluded beings of the worst kind, quite beyond all hope of salvation. So a spiritual guide comes and asks, ‘Can you understand a little about Amida Buddha's power and realize something of the great power of the nembutsu?’ But the person is so overwhelmed in the death struggle that such thoughts are totally beyond him. Then the person is advised to repeat the words of the Meditation Sutra, ‘If you cannot think upon Amida Buddha's power, then call upon the name of Amida.’ In spite of all the mental confusion and distress, the person goes on repeating the sacred name ten times. With each repetition the karma, which was bad enough to condemn the person to eight million kalpas of transmigration, is completely wiped away. Instead of such an awful fate, the person takes a place of honor upon the ‘golden lotus which shines in glory like the sun.’ A person in such an extreme case as this has nothing like what we call the aspiration for enlightenment (bodhicitta), nor can their nembutsu take any coloring from either meditative or non-meditative practices. By simply following the directions of the guide and without any pretentions to wisdom, the person attains ojo by the mere repetition of the ‘unvarnished’ nembutsu. It’s just like if you take hold of a child's hand and make it write something. Would such writing be a reason for praising the child? This is the kind of nembutsu repeated by those who belong to the lowest classes of the lowest rank. They attain ojo by merely taking Amida's name on their lips as advised by their spiritual guides.”     

“Now if a person just says the nembutsu
, he or she will attain ojo - no matter whether the person leads a pure or impure life, whether their karma is bad or good, whether the person is of high class or low, a scholar or a fool. And yet people committed to the self-power (jiriki) method of emancipation keep on making meditative and non-meditative practices their objective. They insist that it is useless to try to attain ojo without the coloring these practices give to their nembutsu. But they are all totally out of line. That is why we teach the method of emancipation by dependence upon other power (tariki) and the complete rejection of the principles of the self-power method. Now this doesn’t mean that there’s no value in the nembutsu of people either deeply or just ordinarily knowledgeable of the Mahayana teachings, or of those who keep the precepts. It’s very important to avoid all confusion of thought here.”

The Three Types of Karmic Relation (san-en) with Amida Buddha

Here is a letter Shoku wrote in reply to questions made of him by the Shogun Yoritsune, himself an ordained follower: "When a person possesses the Three Minds (sanjin) which the Original Vow calls for, his or her nembutsu repetitions guarantee all the benefits of someone who is embraced by Amida. To explain more fully what I mean by Amida's embrace, this relation can be spoken of as intimate, close, and superior.”


“By intimate karmic relation (shin-en), I mean that Amida takes us into his embrace no matter how dull or ignorant we may be, because this was the very reason he had for accomplishing enlightenment for himself. And because the light which streams from his being finds nothing it cannot penetrate. None of the virtues which flow from Amida Buddha's thoughts, words and actions can fail to affect us, no matter how immersed we may be in affliction and bad karma. This is the reason that when we call, he hears; when we pray, he sees; and when we meditate, he knows, and unfailingly leads us to ojo, regardless of the good or bad in our hearts, as long as we continue to put our trust in him. This is why Shan-tao says that the three acts of Amida Buddha exactly agree with the three acts of the wayfarer. They are inextricably interrelated.”

“By close karmic relation (gen-en
), I mean that when this intimacy between us and Amida has reached its height, not only does he know all about our actions, words and thoughts, but we come to know the significance of his actions, words and thoughts on our behalf. So if we long to see him, he actually appears at our side in a dream or at life's last hour.”


“By superior karmic relation (zojo-en), I mean the results which flow from the actions set in motion by the preceding two. As Shan-tao says, ‘All sentient beings who call upon his name will shed all the karma for which they should suffer throughout countless kalpas of time. When they draw near to life's end, Amida Buddha and his retinue come to welcome them, and all their inherited hindering karmic relations are dispelled.’ This is what we call superior karmic relation.”

“The intimate karmic relation is expressed in the words, ‘All sentient beings who call upon his name will shed all the karma for which they should suffer throughout countless kalpas
of time.’ The close karmic relation finds expression in the words immediately following. It’s clear here that Shan-tao wants to give us the essence of his teaching of emancipation by other power (tariki). We should then always keep this in mind, and when we call upon the sacred name, maintain this intimate karmic relation and be impelled by these motives. Since this means for us total exemption from the pains that our karma would bring us through countless ages, we will surely fear unethical behavior. Even more, we will give it up and never allow ourselves carelessly to fall into it. Again, by entering into close relationship with the Buddha, even ordinary worthless beings can experience his being right before our very eyes. Then the fountain of good within us reaches its highest flow. Pulled forward by Amida's mighty power, we find an ever deepening joy in the contemplation of the good we have done, and our hearts are more and more focused on the doing of good never done before. This is what is meant by the superior karmic relation.”


“After attaining this three-fold mental preparation, next comes total devotion of self to Amida - this is called Namu. Then if you have entered upon the above mentioned intimate, close and superior relationships with Amida, his great light, to which nothing is impenetrable, permeates your whole being even though you are so deluded. We call this mysterious power with which can’t be interfered the Amida Butsu. So we see wrapped up in the six characters of the symbol, Namu Amida Butsu, the very essence of all that Shakyamuni taught during his whole lifetime, as well as everything for which all the buddhas in all the ten quarters of the three worlds stand. As Shan-tao says, ‘This practice of the nembutsu which we do not cease even for a moment results in emancipation, because it is in harmony with Amida Buddha's Original Vow,' and so we don’t need to do anything else but say Namu Amida Butsu.

“It should be clear then that through the Three Minds (sanjin
) and the three kinds of karmic relation it is now possible for the most ordinary person weighed down with heavy karma to be Born into the Buddha's Pure Land immediately at death.”

But there are people who take the words, 'Amida Buddha despises not even the worst person,' and carelessly interpret them to mean that unethical behavior is nothing to be ashamed of after all. People who talk like that are themselves obviously unable to give up their bad ways, and so pass on such intentionally crooked ideas.” [click here to read about Honen's own interpretation of the Three Types of Karmic Relation]

Shoku’s Ojo

Shoku was a monk of such deep spirit that on the fifteenth of every month he performed the service known as the “twenty-five samadhis” for his dead acquaintances. If he learned of anyone who had met an early death, no matter whether he knew them or not, he would tenderly remember them on their memorial days, by reading the Amida Sutra and repeating the nembutsu for them. At the close of his talks, he would always join his voice with those of his audience to help their practice. Everyday he would read over the Three Pure Land Sutras, repeat the sacred name sixty thousand times, and never go to sleep until half the night was gone. He never neglected to recite passages from the sutras or to repeat the sacred name every morning at dawn.

From the Autumn of 1247, his appetite began to fail, and he was feeling a lot of discomfort both in body and mind. But he still continued his daily talks as usual. Later on, one of his disciples dreamed that his master was nearing the end, and he quickly rushed to his side. Before he had spoken a word, Shoku himself said his departure was near. He then proceeded to explain how he had reached a firm conviction that he would attain ojo. He went on talking about the two principles of meditation on Amida Buddha and repetition of his name. One day, putting on his large robe, he went on to talk about the teachings of meditative and non-meditative merit. A few days later, he again put on his large robe and chanted the Amida Sutra along with the rest of the audience. After this, as he finished speaking of the teachings he so profoundly believed, and with Amida Buddha's image before him, he went on repeating the nembutsu over two hundred times. He then turned his face westward, sat upright, folded his hands in worship and quietly expired.

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.

Young Shoku’s head is shaved as he ordains under Honen. Book 3, Fascicle 47, Leaf 4, p.97
2. Shoku attains Birth (ojo). Book 3, Fascicle 47, Leaf 25, p.104

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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