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Early Japanese Pure Land Masters
Nara Stream


Eon was the first disseminator of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. In 608, he traveled to China with ambassador Ono no Imoko and spent 38 years there. This was during the height of Chinese Pure Land when Tao-ch'o and Shan-tao were active. On his return in 639, Eon lectured on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching). This is said to be the first lecture on Buddhism given in Japan. In 652, he was invited by the Emperor to lecture again on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life, this time in the presence of 1,000 monks. It is believed that Eon was a Sanron monk since Sanron pays particular attention to the Sutra of Immeasurable Life and was also at its height during this period (Shigematsu, 275-76).

Chiko (709-780) & Zenju (723-797)

Chiko a monk of the Sanron school (Ch. San-lun) who wrote the first work on Pure Land Buddhism to be composed in Japan, the Muryojukyoron shaku, in the Nara period (710-794). This work, a commentary on the Chinese master T'an-luan's Commentary on the Treatise on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wang-sheng-lun chu), was more influenced by Korean than by Chinese Buddhism. In addition to Chiko's commentary, Zenju (723-797) and his disciple Shokai (fl. 1442) of the Hosso school (Ch. Fa-hsiang) wrote a work related to the Pure Land teaching, but it has not survived.1 The teaching of Pure Land thought in the Sanron school was transmitted to Daigoji of the Shingon school. In this initial period, Pure Land thought was basically used as a philosophical system among Buddhist scholars. Among the six Buddhist schools of the Nara period, it was the Sanron and the Hosso which contributed most to the emergence of the Pure Land school.

Tendai Stream

Ennin (794-864)

Ennin was a disciple of Saicho (767-822), the founder of the Japanese Tendai Sect (Ch. T'ien-T'ai). Japanese Tendai practice was based on the Lotus Sutra and was also intermingled with the nembutsu practice, which in this context refers to visualized meditation on Amida Buddha. Tendai monks customarily recited the Lotus Sutra in the morning and performed nembutsu practice in the evening. In this way, Japanese Tendai continued the developments of Hui-yuan's style of visualized nembutsu and T'zu-min's syncretic blending of nembutsu practice with other practices. Ennin is an important figure in the development of Japanese Pure Land because he brought back from China Fa-chao's practice of five-tone nembutsu recitation which marked the introduction of the recited nembutsu to Japan. This practice was incorporated into the "Constantly Walking Samadhi" (jogyo zanmai), a ninety-day walking meditation of the Tendai school in which the practitioner circumambulates an image of Amida while chanting the nembutsu in order to visualize Amida Buddha. On Mt. Hiei, Fa-chao's five-tone nembutsu became known as the jogyodo nembutsu because it was conducted in a hall specially constructed for the constantly walking samadhi, called the jogyodo.

Kuya (903-972)

Kuya was a second generation disciple of Ennin who initiated his own form of intense Pure Land practice. He was a nembutsu hijiri or itinerant Buddhist holy man who traveled throughout the country, reciting the nembutsu, and performing charitable works. He is called the "saint of the market place" because he is said to have danced in the streets while chanting the nembutsu. Kuya is significant in the development of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism in that he was the first of a number of nembutsu hijiri to bring Pure Land practice in Japan out of the temples and spread it among the common people.

Genshin (942-1017)

Genshin was disciple of Ryogen (912-985) who had been the chief abbot (zasu) on Mt. Hiei. Among Ryogen's works is the Gokuraku jodo kuhon ojogi which discusses the idea that birth in the Pure Land is divided into nine levels according to the practitioners' level of capacity. It draws on a commentary written by Chih-i (538-597), founder of the Chinese T'ien-t'ai school, on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching) and not Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra. Ryogen's successor Josho (?-1003) wrote a commentary called the Shijuhachigan shaku, a commentary on the forty-eight vows of the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching). Genshin wrote the Collection on the Essentials for Birth (Ojoyoshu), probably the most influential work on Pure Land Buddhism written during the Heian period. The Ojoyoshu takes Tendai Pure Land Buddhism as its basis but also incorporates the thought of Chinese Pure Land masters Tao-ch'o and Shan-tao. Genshin regarded the contemplative nembutsu accompanied by visualization of Amida Buddha and the Pure Land as superior to the nembutsu that consisted in the simple recitation of the Buddha's name. In this way, he remained within the Tendai Pure Land tradition and continued the tendency of Pure Land practice as a compliment to other practices. The Ojoyoshu's vivid description of the horrors of the hells and the marvels of the Pure Land was immensely influential in the popularization of Pure Land teachings. Genshin's teachings on the ignorant, deluded person (bonpu); his concern for an accessible form of nembutsu practice; and his focus on the salvific power of Amida Buddha's original vow (hongan) were of great influence to Honen. Honen wrote three commentaries on the Ojoyoshu.

Ryonin (1073-1132)

Ryonin is one of the most influential of early Pure Land masters for his adoption of an intinerant nembutsu path (nembutsu hijiri) and his definitive teachings on Pure Land hymns (shomyo). He was a lineage holder in the Ohara school of Tendai exotericism which he passed onto Eiku, Honen's principal teacher. At a young age, Ryonin went into seclusion to follow the path of a nembutsu hijiri. After studying the Tendai doctrine first at Onjoji, then at Ohara for 29 years, he was inspired by Amida Buddha to believe that "one person is all people, all people are one person, one practice is all practices, all practices are one practice" and thereafter established the Yuzu Nembutsu School. Yuzu (circulating) means that one's own recitation of the nembutsu influences all others and that other people's recitation of the nembutsu influences oneself, interacting to help bring about the birth of all in the Pure Land. In this way, Ryonin marks a continuation of Kuya's attempt to bring Pure Land practice to the common people.

Shingon-Sanron Stream

Eikan (1033-1111) & Chingai (1092-1152)

Eikan was a monk of the Sanron school wrote the Ojojuin (The Ten Causes of Birth in the Pure Land) as well as several other works on the Pure Land in which he referred to himself as "Eikan of the nembutsu school." After Genshin's systematization of Pure Land thought within a Tendai framework, the core development of Pure Land thought moved to the Sanron masters of Todaiji in Nara, like Eikan and Chingai. Eikan's Ojojuin asserts that if one recites the nembutsu single-mindedly, one can be born in the Pure Land because the nembutsu practice has ten causes for attaining birth in the Pure Land. The Ojojuin is said to have influenced Honen's thought concerning the recited nembutsu through its presentation of quotes from Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra. Using this basis, Eikan affirmed that through the recitation of the nembutsu, any person may be delivered of their sins and attain birth in the Pure Land. In comparing Eikan's nembutsu practice to that of Genshin, it is very significant that one can see that the visualization of Amida Buddha loses prominence to the recitation of the nembutsu. This shift was a key aspect in the final development of Pure Land thought before Honen. It should, however, be noted that the Eikan's nembutsu was still syncretic in that it remained as a compliment to other practices for focusing the mind to achieve samadhi. Chingai was also a Sanron monk who after Eikan's death wrote the Bodaishinshu and the Ketsujo ojoshu. Chingai went beyond Eikan in stressing the recitation of Amida Buddha's name by itself for the salvation of ordinary deluded people (bonpu). In this way, Chingai's thought resembles Honen's. His understanding of the nembutsu, however, was informed by Sanron doctrine and based on the establishment of bodhicitta as opposed to Honen's basis on Amida's original vow (hongan). In these Sanron masters, we can see the incorporation of the impulses of the nembutsu hijiri and the Yuzu Nembutsu School in developing Pure Land thought for the salvation of ordinary beings and the influence of the Shingon school in developing Pure Land practice based on the recited nembutsu.

Kakuban (1095-1143)

Kakuban was a famous monk of the Shingon sect, a Japanese form of esoteric Buddhism, similar to the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Kakuban founded Shingi Shingon sub-sect, and wrote the Amida hishaku, an esoteric interpretation of the Pure Land teaching. He developed an esoteric interpretation of the Pure Land teaching. He believed that the central buddha of Shingon devotion, Vairocana Buddha, and Amida Buddha were one and the same and that their pure lands were also one and the same. He once wrote: gAmida is only another name for Vairocana, the great Sun Buddha. If a person will but repeat the three syllables of Amidafs name, his bad karma that has been accumulating from time immemorial will be extinguished. Meditation upon the one Buddha Amida brings endless blessedness and wisdom. Amida is but an intellectual faculty of Vairocana, who is the substance of Amidafs person. Amidafs Pure Land is really everywhere, so that the place where we meditate upon him is verily his own land. When we come to realize the truth of this, we do not need to leave this present fleeting world at all to get to the Pure Land - we are already there. And in our present bodies and persons, just as we are, we are assimilated to Amida, and he to Vairocana, from whom we derive our being. This is the path of meditation by which, just as we are, we attain buddhahood.h This equating of Vairocana and Amida was a radical step within the confines of Shingon doctrine, and as it was done to gain greater popular appeal among the masses, it shows the basic popularity which Pure Land ideas had gained by this time. Kakuban's fellow Shingon monk, Saisen (1025-1115), also wrote extensively on the Pure Land teachings.


1. Jodo ehyo kyoron shosho mokuroku, Dainippon bukkyo zensho, 1:341, 349 & Honcho kosoden 8, Dainippon bukkyo zensho, 102:141b.


Shigematsu Agihisa, "Early Japanese Pure Land" in The Pure Land Tradition:History and Development, Eds. James Foard, Michael Solomon, Richard Payne (Berkeley, CA: Regents of the University of California & Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1996).

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