Honen's Instructions on Practice

Recitation and Use of the Rosary
The Nembutsu
and Daily Living
The Special Nembutsu Retreat (betsuji nembutsu)

Continuous Recitation

Honen once said, "It’s important that you should never forget the repetition of the nembutsu.
Keep it in mind continually. Even though you do impure things or speak impure words, it is a fine thing to keep your heart pure and to say the nembutsu over and over again without stopping it even for a moment. If you go on repeating it at all times and under all circumstances, it will finally bring you to ojo - no doubt about it. Surely don’t imagine that it would be all right to put off the practice of the nembutsu on the grounds that it can be done at any time. On the contrary, don’t let a single moment pass in which you are not practicing it.”

Daily Recitation

Q: How many repetitions of the nembutsu
should one regard as a day's practice?

Honen: Well, the number of nembutsu repetitions may begin with ten thousand, and then go on to twenty, thirty, fifty, sixty or even a hundred thousand. Everyone should in their own heart and according to their own will determine the number within these limits.

Q: Even if we don’t fix the number of times for repeating the nembutsu as our daily practice, isn’t it OK to do it as often as one can?

H: It’s better to fix the number, otherwise you might get lazy. 

Recitation as Self-power (
jiriki) or Other-power (tariki)?

“Again, to say that frequent repetitions of the nembutsu mean the encouragement of the principle of self-power (jiriki) shows total ignorance of facts and is an awful mistake. Even one repetition or two of the sacred name can be said to be the nembutsu of salvation by one's own power, if one does it with that thought in one’s mind. But a hundred or a thousand repetitions day and night for a hundred or a thousand days can be the nembutsu of salvation by Amida's power alone (tariki), as long as one does it with an entire trust in the merits of the great Vow, looking up in confidence to Amida with every repetition. And so the nembutsu of those who possess the Three Minds (sanjin) can by no means be called the nembutsu of salvation by one's own power - no matter how many times they call upon the sacred name and as long as they are really looking up to Amida and trusting to his saving power alone...." [read more about Honen's conceptions of other-power and self-power]

Many Recitations or Few?

"Concerning the million repetitions, this is not mentioned in the Original Vow. But it is said in the Amida Sutra that a person who repeats the nembutsu for one, two, or seven days will be Born in the Pure Land, and so we should repeat it continually for seven days. Now many scholars think that the seven days mean a period in which the nembutsu should be repeated a million times and that this should be done within seven days. But even if a person can’t complete the number in seven days, they may take eight or nine days for it. And yet, if there are those who can’t do it a million times, that doesn’t mean that such people can’t be Born in the Pure Land. By ten repetitions or even one a person can be Born. The joy of the thought that one can be Born in the Pure Land by ten repetitions or even one stimulates us to pile up the merit of a million repetitions....”

"......If a person says he or she can be Born in the Pure Land by ten repetitions of the nembutsu, or even one, and then begins to get careless about practice, their faith will hinder their practice. On the other hand, if a person says, as Shan-tao did, that he or she unceasingly repeats the nembutsu, but in their heart has doubts about the certainty of ojo, then their practice will hinder his faith. So then, believe that you can attain ojo by one repetition, and yet go on practicing it your whole life long. If you think there is uncertainty as to the power of calling upon the nembutsu once, then it means that there is doubt about it every time you call upon the sacred name. Amida Buddha's Vow was to give Birth in the Pure Land to those who call upon his name even once, and so there is power in every repetition of the sacred name." [read more about Honen's conception of faith]

Recitation and Use of the Rosary

: Instead of attempting too many repetitions of the nembutsu and failing, isn’t it better to reduce the number since one can attain ojo even if it’s said only once?

Honen: Just so. It is stated in Shan-tao’s Hymns in Praise of Birth (Ojo raisan) that you will certainly attain ojo by ten repetitions or even one so long as you have not a single thought of doubt. But on the other hand, it says in Shan-tao’s Commentary on the Meditation Sutra, “Don’t stop the practice of the nembutsu even for a moment. This is the very practice which results in Birth (ojo).” Now believing that ojo is attainable by ten callings or even by one, you should never neglect it. Again Shan-tao says, “You should continuously call upon the sacred name,” and so you should do it without interruption. It would be good to think of it say three times during mealtime. If you always keep it in mind this way, even though you don’t succeed in repeating it sixty or a hundred thousand times, it may still be called continuous. Yet as a person's mind is liable to be distracted by things seen or heard, it is hard to keep it on the nembutsu in the midst of such distractions. And so it is a good thing to make many repetitions one's daily task - also counting one's rosary continually will help to fix one's mind on the nembutsu. Even though there may be something to interrupt you and you may neglect it, if you at once think to yourself, “Darn! I failed,” that very thing will give you a sense of duty. In any case, if you do not forget, it may be called continuous. If you should at any time neglect your daily repetitions, then do it the next day. But don’t think to yourself that because you can do it tomorrow you may neglect it today. Rather, understand that it is only in quite unavoidable circumstances alone that deferring till tomorrow is fine.

Q: In one's daily practice which is the better of the two: telling the beads of the rosary some sixty or a hundred thousand times without stopping to count them one by one, or doing it only some twenty or thirty thousand times but repeating the nembutsu every time the bead is counted?

H: It’s usual that ordinary folks find it very hard to fulfill the requirements of the Dharma, even though they set out to repeat the nembutsu twenty or thirty thousand times. The point is that you cannot repeat it too often, and so you need to repeat it continuously. It’s not that a certain definite number is necessary at all but that you keep repeating the nembutsu. But we encourage a certain number of repetitions so that people will not give in to laziness. Keeping your mind continually fixed constitutes the karma resulting in certain ojo. Since the practice can be carried on whether walking, standing, sitting or lying whenever or wherever you may be, irrespective of whether you and your speech are impure, the nembutsu is called an easy practice. Only remember that the first thing of all is to do it with a pure heart, and thus encourage others to do it. You will then find that by degrees your heart will become purer and purer.

Q: There are some who keep repeating the nembutsu audibly every day all the time, while others do it mentally as they tell their rosaries. Which is the right way?

H: Whether the nembutsu is repeated audibly or inaudibly, it has the same value as far as attaining ojo is concerned. In either case, it is a calling upon the same Buddha's sacred name. Only it should be kept in mind that the Original Vow says, “calling upon the sacred name,” and so it ought to be audible. In the Meditation Sutra, we read, “Let one utter the name of the Buddha Amida without ceasing until one has said it ten times.” And in Shan-tao’s Commentary, we read, “Call upon the name at least ten times.” Now saying the nembutsu in a so-called loud voice means loud enough to be heard by one's own ears; yet you should be careful not to annoy other people by raising the voice too high. As a rule, it is enough if you have it in mind to say it audibly even though you do it in silence

and Daily Living
Q: If we only put our trust in Amida's Original Vow, there is no doubt whatever about our future destiny. But what are we to do with the present world?

Honen: Well, the thing to do is to make the nembutsu
practice the chief thing in life and to lay aside everything that you think may interfere with it. If you cannot stay in one spot and do it, then do it when you are walking. If you cannot do it as a monastic, then do it as a layperson. If you cannot do it alone, then do it in company with others. If you cannot do it and at the same time provide yourself with food and clothing, then accept the help of others and go on doing it. Or if you cannot get others to help you, then look after yourself - but keep on doing it. Your spouse and children and domestics are for this very purpose - to help you practice it. If they prove to be an obstacle, then you should not have any. Friends and property are good, if they too prove helpful. But if they prove to be a hindrance they should be given up. In short, there is nothing that cannot help us to ojo as long as it helps us to go on balanced through life undisturbed. People take the very best care of their bodies and refuse to cast them off, even though they know they are destined to return to the three unfortunate realms. So how carefully should we care for our bodies, and how earnestly should we practice the nembutsu, when we know that our destiny is Birth into the Pure Land. Anyone whose one object of desire is to care for the body only for the enjoyment of the present life and not to support nembutsu practice is doing what really belongs to the three unfortunate realms. But if someone's object of desire is to care for the body to promote a blissful ojo, they will find it contributes to that end.

Q: Should we repeat the nembutsu
even during conversation?

H: Silence is excellent, but it’s wrong to suppose that there’s less merit in repeating the nembutsu
while talking to others than even when silent. The nembutsu is like gold. When burned in a fire, its color only improves, and it won’t be ruined by being thrown into the water. In the same way, the nembutsu is not defiled when distractions arise, nor does it lose its value when you are in conversation with others. If you keep this in mind, it’s all right to increase the number of nembutsu repetitions at your discretion without mixing them with the words of your conversation. If when you are in the act of talking to someone, you might all of a sudden think to yourself, “Darn! The nembutsu I was just reciting is all to no purpose.” But don’t allow yourself to think that for a moment. It doesn’t matter how you say it, because there’s enough merit in it to result in ojo.  

Even though you may be doing something else, let it be done while you go on with the main work of life, the practice of the nembutsu. Don’t let this be a sort of side work to anything else. Sometimes a person dies from choking on his food when taking a meal. So I tell you, call upon the sacred name every time that you chew your food and swallow it.

Q: Is there any merit in fasting from noon until dawn [as traditional monastics do], and should one try to practice it?

H: There is merit in such fasting, especially on the six days of fasting appointed for each month. But in the case that there is some matter of great importance, or if you are sick, it isn’t necessary. Only repeat the nembutsu, and you will thereby get free from the cycle of transmigration (samara) and attain ojo.

Q: Is it a sin to drink sake (Japanese rice wine)?

A: Definitely you shouldn’t drink, but, you know, it’s the way of the world.

Q: When bad thoughts keep arising within the mind, what should you do?

A: The only thing to do is to repeat the nembutsu.

The Special Nembutsu Retreat (betsuji nembutsu)
We should often make special times for the repetition of the nembutsu
to stimulate both mind and body in its practice. It may seem enough if one repeats the sacred name over sixty or seventy thousand times a day. But there is a tendency with us, when our eyes or ears become accustomed to anything, gradually to lose interest in it. And with our daily work pressing in on us morning and night, we are in danger of shortening our practice. So in order to keep our spirits active, we would do well to set up certain special times for the practice of the nembutsu. Both of our great teachers, Shan-tao and Genshin, urged this upon us.

You ought to beautify the room where you practice. Adorn it with floral offerings and incense as best you can, and when you go into the room, purify your bodies. Then practice the nembutsu
either six or twelve hours a day. When several do it together, you should try to rotate your sessions so as to keep up the recitation without cessation. Shan-tao prescribed that it should be done from the first to the eighth of the month, or from the eighth to the fifteenth, or from the fifteenth to the twenty-third, or from the twenty-third to the thirtieth. By arranging yourselves to suit everyone’s convenience, these special retreats may always be held for seven days at a time. Don’t allow yourself at all to be led astray by any of the foolish things that people may say and so make way for indulging in deluded thinking.

This 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.


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