Exclusivity (senju) and Innate Enlightenment (hongaku shiso) in Kamakura Buddhism

Entering the Kamakura period (1192-1333), the influence of the Tendai doctrine of the single vehicle (hokke-ichijo) led to the branching off of a number of new schools. These schools did not accept the syncretism of the Three Vehicles United as One (ichijo-kai-e) doctrine and developed their own doctrines based on a rejection of certain parts of the ichijo-kai-e and an adoption of others (ichijo-hairyu). In contrast to Tendai doctrine, the new doctrines emphasized an exclusive, single practice which was also easy to follow and to realize (Hazama, 308-330; Tamura, 177-368). These three key notions (selection of a single practice, exclusivity, and easiness) were first used by Honen and also adopted by other Kamakura Buddhist masters such as Dogen and Nichiren.

Dogen selected the single practice of zazen (sitting meditation), advocated it exclusively, and stressed its simplicity. After studying on Mt. Hiei, Dogen abandoned the Zen teachings as expounded in Tendai and journeyed to Sung China where he selected Soto Zen as the essence of the original experience of Shakyamuni and thus of Buddhism. In his Fukanzazengi, he states,The one gateway of Zen samadhi is supreme. With this conviction, he insisted on the singular practice of zazen and advocated it as the easiest practice which applies to both intellectual and ignorant persons.

Nichiren, as well, selected the recited daimoku (shodai), advocated its exclusive practice and stressed its easiness. At first, Nichiren located the superiority of the Lotus Sutra within the teachings of Saicho, but he eventually took a further step by selecting the latter part of the sutra, the honmon, over the former part, the shakumon. In doing so he selected the more religious and practical part, the honmon, instead of the more philosophical and logical part, the shakumon. Within the daimoku, could be found the profound teaching of the Lotus Sutra and all the teachings of Shakyamuni. On this basis, Nichiren made the daimoku exclusive. Furthermore, since the daimoku was only seven Chinese characters, he stressed how even people of the lowest rank could attain buddhahood.

The Tendai doctrine of innate enlightenment (hongaku shiso) also had profound impact on the subsequent development of Kamakura Buddhism. Unlike the doctrine of the Three Vehicles United as One (ichijo-kai-e), however, this doctrine was not so quickly rejected and had a great influence on Honen's disciples Kosai, Shoku and Shinran (Tamura, 536-40) and additionally on Dogen (Hakamaya) and Nichiren.

Tendai innate enlightenment thought maintains that buddhahood is not something achieved as an external goal, but is inherent from the outset; one has only to realize it. While Honen saw that ordinary people were assured enlightenment after being born in the Pure Land, he felt this idea of hongaku carried the danger that its strong emphasis on the originally inherent nature of enlightenment can lead to a neglect of practice, as witnessed in the corruption on Mt. Hiei at the time.

In all of Honen's extant work, we find only one reference to a text whose major theme is innate enlightenment. This occurs in the Ippyakuyonjugokajo mondo (One Hundred Forty-five Questions and Answers) and refers to the Shinnyokan (Contemplation of True Suchness)[Tendai Hongakuron, 119-149], a work on innate enlightenment thought attributed to Genshin.(SHZ. 647-669) In the Ippyakuyonjugokajo mondo, Honen questions Genshin's authorship of the Shinnyokan and dismisses it as useless for attaining birth in the Pure Land. (SHZ. 648)

Honen studied under Koen, his second teacher, who had inherited the medieval Tendai Sugiu line, one of the major lines of Tendai innate enlightenment thought. In addition, his third teacher, Eiku, is said to have received the transmission of the Ohara lineage, which also deals with innate enlightenment. Thus it is highly probable Honen was deeply familiar with the Tendai innate enlightenment teaching. However, apart from the above mentioned reference to the Shinnyokan, he did not cite nor quote any works of innate enlightenment thought. Hence, we must conclude that though thoroughly knowledgeable with this important Kamakura notion, he finally rejected it and left Mt. Hiei in order to propound a nembutsu path which stressed how far ordinary, deluded beings are from the state of the Buddha and was fundamentally at odds with the major feature of innate enlightenment thought.(Hirokawa)

Tamura Yoshiro, therefore, argues that the emphasis on practice in Honen's teaching does not, as has been suggested, represent an incomplete development (in comparison to Shinran) of the notion of other power (tariki), but rather reflects Honen's critical stance toward the notion of innate enlightenment.(Tamura, 518) Tamura's argument points out the need to revise our understanding of Honen's teaching in the light of his position vis-a-vis the medieval Tendai innate enlightenment doctrine that occupied a prominent position in the religious landscape at the time. In ultimately rejecting this doctrine, Honen's teachings mark a truly original development in the history of Japanese Buddhism.


Hakamaya Noriaki, Hongaku shiso hihan (Tokyo: Daizo Shuppan, 1989). Hakamaya has advanced the thesis that Dogen rejected the teaching of innate enlightenment. See also Jamie Hubbard & Paul Swanson, eds. Pruning the Bodhi Tree : the Storm over Critical Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997).

Hazama Jiko, Nihon Bukkyo no Kaiten to so no Kicho, vol.1.

Hirokawa Takatoshi, Kamakura shinbukkyo to chuko Tendai to no kosho ni kansuru kenkyu (forthcoming).

Tamura Yoshiro, Kamakura shin-bukkyo shiso no kenkyu (Kyoto: Heirakuji shoten, 1965).

Tendai Hongakuron, Nihon shiso taikei, Vol.9. (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1973).