The Teachings of Honen Shonin

Honen's teaching is essentially a path not for religious elites but for ordinary people. As a path for ordinary people, Honen's teaching emphasizes: birth in an existential Pure Land through a personal relationship with Amida Buddha (rather than the traditional Buddhist focus on realizing a formless state of nirvana through one's own efforts); the practice of faith through chanting Amida's name, nembutsu (rather than the traditional focus on wisdom through precepts and meditation); an easy practice that brings all humans to salvation regardless of gender, class, occupation or character.

Two far reaching effects of Honen's nembutsu movement were the transformation of the Buddhist clergy from isolated ascetics to religious leaders living in society in the style of lay people; and the recognition of the equal opportunity to salvation for ordinary men and women as well as monks. This affirmation of one's present life and engagement with common society marked the beginning of the Kamakura Buddhist revolution in Japan. Honen along with his disciple, Shinran, and the other great teachers who also rose at this time, Dogen and Nichiren, mark the creation of a uniquely Japanese style of Buddhism.

Even while acknowledging that Honen's teachings represent a revolutionary development in Pure Land thought, in particular, and in Japanese Buddhist thought, in general, it is nevertheless far from easy to understand the complex nature of a vision which on the surface looks deceptively simple. Therefore, even though his arguments are likely to impress more by their religious conviction than by the subtlety of their reasoning, beneath the surface one finds a finely tuned, balanced, and comprehensive system of thought supporting his radical views on the nembutsu. It is a system which actually strikes a balance between revolutionary rejection of traditional Mahayana thought and eventual reaffirmation of the whole of the same Mahayana tradition.

Honen's radical insight, however, would not find easy passage into the turbulent world in which he lived. In reinterpreting the Buddhist tradition of his time, he challenged the socio-political power of the entrenched Buddhist orthodoxy. In developing his teaching, therefore, Honen developed a number of ideas which reflected not only his growing spiritual awareness but also his desire and need to validate his teachings to society at large. Through looking at the way he classified Pure Land teachings, established of a lineage, extended the views on Shan-tao, and further developed the concepts of senchaku and the nembutsu, we can gain a view of how Honen's thought is a synthesis of his religious conviction and his efforts to bring it into the world. It would take all of Honen's intellectual skills as one of the great scholars of Mt. Hiei to give birth to his vision of the salvation of all ordinary persons through the simple recitation of the nembutsu.


I. An Outline of Honen's Teachings

II. Honen's Method of Classifying His Teachings: Easy vs. Difficult

III. The Influence of Shan-tao on Honen's Teachings

IV. Honen's View of Senchaku (selection) and the Nembutsu

The Process of Senchaku : "Selection", "Rejection", and "Reappropriation"

Honen's 8 Types of Senchaku

V. Honen's Interpretation of the Pure Land Sutras : Jodosanbukyo (the Three Pure Land Sutras)

VI. Honen's Establishment of a Chinese Lineage

VII. Honen on the Moment of Death (rinju)

VIII. Honen's Conceptions of Other Power (tariki) and Self Power (jiriki)

IX. Exclusivity (senju) & Innate Enlightenment (hongaku shiso) in Kamakura Buddhism

X. Honen's Teaching of Evil Persons as the Object of Salvation (akunin shoki setsu)

XI. Honen's on Faith and the Three Minds (sanjin)

XII. Honen's Instructions on Practice

XIII. Honen's Stance Towards Other Faiths