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A Personal Portrait of Honen

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 Takanobu no Miei, a portrait from the Muromachi period retrospectively attributed to Fujiwara Takanobu (1142-1205), represents Honen lecturing on the Ojoyoshu. In this portrait, Honen wears a gentle expression on his round, benign face. In contrast, the oldest wooden statue of Honen, dating from the Kamakura period, reflects a resolute strength which differs markedly from the benevolent expression of the painting. These two modes of representing Honen are reduplicated in a number of images. A statue in Ojoji in Miyagi and Chitare no Miei, another statue in Taimadera in Nara, depict Honen as a powerful figure. In contrast, he is shown with a soft countenance in five paintings: 1) Ashibiki no Miei, now in Nison'in in Kyoto, from the late Kamakura period, 2) a painting in Jofukuji in Ibaragi Prefecture from the same time, 3) a woodblock displayed at Chion-in in Kyoto from 1315, 4) Kagami no Miei, now in Konkaikomyoji in Kyoto made in the Nanbokucho Period (1336-1392), and 5) a painting in Sorinji in Kyoto, made by Tonna also in the Nanbokucho Period.

Since no contemporaneous images of Honen have come down to us, it is impossible to know what he really looked like. The two styles of portrait are perhaps best understood as differing images of Honen held by his later followers. The benevolent portraits may reflect the Compassion that people sensed in his concern for ordinary, deluded persons. On the other hand, the strong depictions may have been intended to show the unusual resolve that Honen must surely have possessed to have asserted and maintained so radical and innovative a Doctrine.

From his many biographies, we gain the sense of a holy person standing before people and giving lectures. In his writings, we see a simple and fine style which adapts to the level of the audience and shows very carefully made comments. From these biographies and sayings, though, his real personality does not become apparent. Resources available today concerning his personality are very limited, yet we feel it is important to examine the true nature of this man.

In looking at Honen's career, we can see that the public reception of his teachings fell along incredible extremes of either great praise or total condemnation. To begin with, there is the comment made by Myozen (1167-1242), a contemporary of Honen. Myozen first criticized the teachings of Honen but was eventually converted to the Pure land teaching by Honen's Disciple Shinku (1136-1228). Myozen once said:

Though there are many people who advocate Pure land teachings in Japan, this person Honen is beyond all in being both believed and criticized. This is due to his advocacy of the exclusive Nembutsu (senju Nembutsu). If his teaching does not correspond to a person's belief, he is criticized. Yet if his teaching fits a person's belief, it is natural for that person to believe him. If Honen had not established this belief, there would be no Criticism and no praise as well. Since there has been no person before to establish such a radical teaching, if such a teaching is mistaken, this mistake will be beyond comparison. Yet if the establishment of such a teaching is virtuous, then such Virtue will be beyond anyone else's. (Jukkaisho, HDZ.259-260)

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An example of someone who praised and believed in Honen is Shinran who referred to Honen respectfully as honshi (true master): “If I should be cheated by Honen Shonin and by practicing the Nembutsu fall into Hell, I would never regret it.”(Tannisho, T. 83:728) An example of someone who condemned Honen is Myoe, the writer of the Zaijarin and the Zaijarinshogonki which criticized the logic of the Senchakushu. Myoe called Honen “a worm in the Body of a lion” and further said, “He holds a mischievously heretical view in Mind and deceives his followers.” (Zaijarinshogonki, JZ. 8:862b) From these examples, it becomes clear the extremes to which opinion of Honen varied.

Further, we can look at five different images in assessing Honen's character.

1. The first is Honen as a strict master. Since the end of the Kamakura period, the mainstream impression of Honen has been that he was very serene and gentle. In the nineteenth fascicle of the biographical Honen Shonin Gyojoezu, however, there is recorded an episode of Honen scolding his Disciple strictly and severely. In this account, Honen asked Bencho, “Which Nembutsu is better, the one of Awanosuke or the one of Genku (mine)?” Awanosuke came from a lower class family, and before he became Honen's Disciple, he was an astrologer. The question obviously intended to ask whether the Nembutsu of a person not well versed in the teaching is inferior to a master's Nembutsu. From Honen's standpoint, whether a person had practiced the Nembutsu for a long time or not was not the question. Therefore, Bencho should have answered that there was no difference between the two. Bencho, however, replied,”How can I say the master's Nembutsu is equal to Awanosuke's?” This answer did not accord with Honen's intention and suddenly he raged, “What have you been listening to during my lectures on Pure Land Buddhism!?” (HDZ. 97-98) From this passage, we can see that Honen was not just a man who was gentle and serene.

2. The second image is Honen as introspective and self-critical. During his Life, Honen was praised as the preeminent scholar on Mt. Hiei, yet he referred to himself as an idiot and ignorant. He lamented, “I am very sorry that I lack Bodhicitta and am always Suffering from diseases.”(SHZ. 613) Further, “How sad, how sad. What should I do? What should I do? The person who is like me is not suitable to the three learnings of Sila (The Precepts), Samadhi (Meditation), and Prajna (Wisdom).”(HDZ. 26) Such introspection which led to Honen's lamentations contrasts the high acclaim he received as a scholar Monk and is a key point in understanding the complexity of his character.


3. The third image of Honen is as a bold innovator. The following episode, coming from the sixth fascicle of the Honen Shonin Gyojoezu, records the dispute Honen had with his master Eiku concerning the efficacy of recitation of the Nembutsu versus visualization of the Pure land. Honen's opinion was, of course, that recitation was superior. Eiku, overwhelmed by this radical interpretation, referred to the opinion of his master Ryonin (1073-1132), the founder of the Yuzu Nembutsu Sect and the authority in the Tendai Sect at the time on Pure land Thought. Eiku quoted his Master Ryonin as saying that visualization was superior. Honen, however, rejected this authority and said, “In reality, Ryonin Shonin was simply born before me.”(HDZ. 24, 551, 597-598, 346). In this quote, Honen meant that he did not accept Ryonin's ideas simply because he was an elder. In advocating his new teaching, Honen never surrendered or compromised to the elder masters of the Buddhist community. In his sayings, we can find Honen's strong attitude against authoritative masters in those days as well as his firm belief in his new understanding of Buddhism.(HDZ. 485)

4. The fourth image is Honen as a critic of scholasticism. During his Life, Honen was praised as the greatest scholar on Mt. Hiei, yet he felt the Wisdom gained through his years of study was of no use to him in gaining salvation through the Pure land teachings. In fact, Honen felt it was a hindrance to this salvation. The Tsuneni Oserarekeru Okotoba (the Common Sayings of Honen) contains a passage relating:

Honen Shonin always said that Genku (himself) lacks the Wisdom to teach others. Ku Amida Butsu of Hosshoji, though less intelligent, contributes in leading the people to the Pure land as an advocate of the Nembutsu. After Death, if I could be born in the World of humans, I would like to be born a very ignorant man and to diligently practice the Nembutsu.(SHZ, 490)

This passage shows how Honen felt sorry that he could not teach people through his Wisdom, and how he envied Ku Amida Butsu, wanting to be such a simple man.


Furthermore, Honen said,"When scholars are born, they forget the Nembutsu."(SHZ, 493) In this statement, Honen shows his opinion that scholars become too adherent to Knowledge and are apt to lose sight that they are teaching living beings. The point he reached after great struggle was that he, the wisest man, should become the most ignorant. In his Ichimai Kishomon (One Sheet Document), which was related just two days before his Death, Honen states:

Even if those who believe in the Nembutsu deeply study all the teachings which Shakyamuni taught during his Life, they should not put on any airs and should practice the Nembutsu with the sincerity of those untrained followers ignorant of Buddhist doctrines. (SHZ. 416)

5. The final image of Honen is as a man dedicated to daily living. Honen felt the whole of daily Life was a method for gaining birth in the Pure land (ojo) through the Nembutsu. Though he advocated the exclusive Nembutsu, he observed The Precepts as a master of the Vinaya (code of discipline).(Meigetsuki, HDZ. 967) Fundamentally, to keep The Precepts is not the practice expounded in Amida Buddha's original vow (hongan), therefore it should be discarded in order to gain birth in the Pure land. Honen, though, re-evaluated The Precepts as auxiliary acts (jogo) after first establishing Faith in Amida. The concept of auxiliary acts includes not only religious practices but also daily Life. Honen stated:

How should we spend this Life? We should spend our Life so that we can recite the Nembutsu. If something hinders our practice of the Nembutsu, it should be abandoned and stopped....... Clothing, Food and shelter, these three are the auxiliary acts of the Nembutsu, that is to say that anything which can enable a secure Life is an auxiliary act of the Nembutsu. People who do not recite the Nembutsu and Love and care about their bodies will surely fall into the three Evil realms after Death. Yet why should people who recite the Nembutsu not care about their bodies which will be born in the Pure land? You should care for yourself as much as possible. If you think such acts are not auxiliary acts of the Nembutsu and become attached to them, they will become the Karma for falling into the three Evil realms. If you care for yourself in order to recite the Nembutsu and attain birth in the Pure land, such a secure Life will become an auxiliary act of the Nembutsu. Everything is like this.(SHZ. 462-463)

In gaining a view of these personal aspects of Honen's character, we can begin to see how he came to radically transform Japanese Buddhism in a way unprecedented since its arrival six hundred years before.


Portrait of Honen from Saisho-in, Tokyo.

Sermoning to old fisherfolk couple at Takasago Bay in Harima (Harima-kuni Takasago-no-ura-nite gyomin-no-rofufura o kyokasuru) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 34, section 20.