Founders of the Pure Land Movement in Japan

In November, 1987, the Hawaii Council of Jodo Missions conducted special services in celebration of the lives and achievements of the Three Grand Masters of the Pure Land Movement.   This biographical sketches are offered in the hope that they will inspire members of the Jodo Shu to learn more about these great teachers, participate fully in their memorial services, and earnestly practice the way of Nenbutsu.  (Jodo Mission of Hawaii - Pure Land Institute) 

Saint Honen 

- The Founder of the Pure Land Movement-

     Saint Honen was born on April 7th, 1133, in Okayama prefecture.  His father, Tokikuni Uruma, was military governor of the province of Kume.  Saint Honen, called Seishimaru in childhood, was especially well cared for because he was an only son.

     When Seishimaru was nine years old, his father was fatally wounded in a night attack upon his house.  As Tokikuni lay dying, he spoke these words to his son: “I am sure that you, as the son of a warrior, would like to slay my enemy.  But I ask you not to take revenge against him, nor even to hate him.  For if you were to kill my enemy, his relatives would then have to take revenge against you, and there would be no end to our families killing each other.  Please become a monk as soon as possible.  Practice diligently, not only for the sake of my well-being after death, but to find a way for yourself and others to attain peace of mind.”
     In keeping with his father’s last request, Seishimaru soon became a disciple of his uncle, the priest Kangaku.   At the age of fifteen, having shown great promise in his early studies, he went up to Mt. Hiei, the leading center of Buddhist scholarship in those days.  He studied under several teachers, eventually becoming the disciple of Eiku-Shonin, who gave him the nickname “Honenbo (“Natural monk”).  Under Eiku’s guidance he devoted himself to study and practice, always bearing in mind his father’s last wish.
     Year after year, he strove to attain certainty.  Many times he left Mt. Hiei to visit renowned priests and masters of various sects, but no one was able to give satisfactory answers to his penetrating questions.  He consulted the famous library at Kurodani on Mt. Hiei again and again, and though it is said that the ordinary person will take a whole lifetime to read through the seven thousand volumes of Buddhist Scripture and Commentaries, Honen Shonin read through them all at least five times!
     At last, after twenty-five long and desperate years of searching, Saint Honen’s attention was riveted by the following passage in Shan-dao’s Commentary on the Meditation Sutra:
     “Only repeat the name of Amida Buddha with all your heart.  Whether walking or standing, sitting or lying, never cease to practice it even for a moment.  This is the very occupation which unfailingly issues in salvation, for it is in accord with that Buddha’s fundamental resolution.”
     After reading these words through three times, Saint Honen realized that this was the teaching for which he had searched so many years.  He entrusted himself completely to the compassion of Amida Buddha and thereafter taught and practiced only what he had learned from Shan-dao; the doctrine of rebirth in the Pure Land through the power of Amida’s vows and the Nenbutsu.  March 14th, 1175, when Saint Honen made this great discovery, has ever since been regarded as the birth date of the Pure Land movement.  The “Natural Monk” was forty-three years old.   
     Assured that by the recitation of Namu Amida Butsu everyone would be received into the Pure Land without fail, Honen went to Kyoto to share his experience of faith with the inhabitants of the capital.  Up to that time the common people believed that Buddhism was the exclusive property of the Emperor, nobles and wealthy merchants.  They drank in Saint Honen’s teaching like sand absorbs water.  Soon the Nenbutsu was heard from the center of Kyoto to its outskirts.  Men and women of every class, from courtier to thief, became disciples and followers of Saint Honen.
     So quickly did the general populace embrace the nenbutsu teachings, that the established sects feared its further expansion.  Repeatedly, they petitioned the Emperor, Go-Toba, to prevent Saint Honen from preaching.
Unfortunately for the rising Pure Land movement, two of the Emperor’s favorite court ladies became nuns following their encounter with the Nenbutsu way, thus providing the occasion Saint Honen’s opponents had been waiting for.  The angry Emperor ordered the execution of two Pure Land priests (Juren and Anraku), and sent Saint Honen into exile on the island of Shikoku.  The founder of the Pure Land movement was seventy five years of age.
     Many of Saint Honen’s disciples begged him to pretend to stop spreading the teachings, so that he might be excused from his exile on the grounds of age and ill-health.  He answered, “I cannot, for any reason, withhold the teaching from the people who so desperately look for a way of withhold the teaching from the people who so desperately look for a way of salvation.   I won’t stop, even though I die for the teaching and practice of Nenbutsu.” On his way to the place of exile he never ceased to preach and counsel the people.
     His exile was revoked about a year later, but he was not allowed to enter the capital until he was seventy-nine years old, when at last he settled in Otani, Kyoto, site of the present-day Chion-in.
     Aged and weak with years of exile, Saint Honen went to sickbed on January 2, 1212, when he was eighty years old.  As he lay continuously reciting the Nenbutsu, his disciples asked him, “Master, you haven’t built even one temple.  Where ought we build one for you?”   To which he replied, “These many years I have devoted myself exclusively to the recitation of Namu Amida Butsu, so my temple is wherever you may hear anyone reciting Namu Amida Butsu.”
     Two days before his death, he composed the One Sheet Document, upon the request of Seikanbo Genchi, that his disciples could disseminate the core of his teachings without error.   He was received into Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha on January 25, 1212.

Daisho Shoju Kokushi 

Shoko-bo Bencho Shonin, 2nd Master

      The venerable Shoko-bo Bencho was born in the village of Katsuki in the province of Chikuzen (currently Kitakyushu city).  In his fourteenth year, he began the study of the Tendai doctrines, and at the age of twenty-two, entered Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei.  His religious instructor was Kwanei( 観叡), and his preceptor Abbot Shoshin of Hochi-bo (証真).  After mastering the teachings of the Tendai, Shoko-bo returned to his home province in 1190, at the age of twenty-nine, to become chief instructor of a temple on Abura-yama.   In his thirty second year, deeply impressed by the impermanence of all things, he renounced worldly ambitions and resolved to seek the highest enlightenment. 
      His search at length brought him to the feet of Saint Honen, then in seclusion at Yoshimizu Higasyi-yama in Kyoto.  The year was 1197; Shoko-bo was thirty-six and Saint Honen sixty-five years of age.  A learned and eloquent scholar, Shoko-bo decided to test Saint Honen by asking him some difficult questions on fundamental points of the Pure Land teaching.  In reply, Saint Honen expounded at length on the differences between the respective doctrinal interpretations of Master Chih-i, Genshin and Shan-dao, asserting that the last was the most suitable and all -inclusive.  At the end of Honen’s discourse, which lasted ten hours, Shoko-bo has been freed of both pride and uncertainty.  From that day forward, he remained convinced that the only direct way to deliverance for ordinary people was the nembutsu as taught by Master Shan-dao and transmitted by Master Honen.  He looked up to Saint Honen as his master and thereafter hardly left his side until he was thoroughly versed in all the Pure Land teachings. 
      In the spring of the following year, 1198, Master Honen entrusted Shoko-bo with a copy of his major doctrinal work, Selected Passages on the Fundamental Vow and Nembutsu.   The work had not yet been published for fear of arousing the animosity of the established sects.  Saint Honen asked Shoko-bo to copy it, master its contents, and hand it on to posterity.  Later in the same year, Saint Honen sent him to preach in the province of Iyo, where countless people heard and accepted the teaching of salvation through the name of the Buddha Amitabha for the following six year, he attended Saint Honen with great devotion, all the while reading and re-reading Master Shan-tao’s commentary on the Meditation Sutra.   
      Upon completing his studies, Master Shoko-bo returned to the Chinzei district (Kyushu), where he propagated the Pure Land principles with such success that he had disciples everywhere.   And through Shoko-bo Bencho was now himself a master, he never ceased to regard Saint Honen as the final authority .   Many times he requested him to clarify matters of doctrine.   In the winter of 1228, Shoko-bo held a nembutsu recitation session of 48 days duration, during which time he composed a pamphlet that contained his personally certified version of the Pure Land teachings, intended to dispel certain misunderstandings about the practice of Nembutsu.   It contained nothing that he had not heard directly from Saint Honen.   On completion of the work, Master appeared before him in approval of what had been written. 
      On another occasion, at Kuriyadera, he practiced nembutsu for one thousand days.  The jealous monks of Mt. Koya intended to drive him away, but were converted by a collective vision in which a brilliant light from the west was accompanied by a voice that announced, “Because the monk Shoko practices nembutu, the Buddha sends forth his light to this place and will continue to do so.  “The monks repented and paid homage to Shoko-bo. 
      In the village of Yamamoto in Chikugo, Shoko-bo built a temple called Zendoji, later renamed Komyoji.  Here he preserved and defended the doctrines he had received from Saint Honen, and propagated the nembutsu for the rest of his life.   Six times a day he read the Amitabha Sutra, six times a day he made offerings and paid homage to the Buddha and sixty thousand times a day/ he recited the words Namu Amida Butsu.  Of recitation, the said that is it not possible to do it too much. 
       On the fifteenth day of the first month of 1238, after seeing a vision f Amitabha and a heavenly host coming to greet him, Shoko-bo Bencho departed for the Pure Land.  The words on his lips at the moments of his passing were these from the Amitabha Sutra: “The Buddha’s light illuminates all sentient beings in the ten quarters of the world.  
       His own teachings are neatly summarized in his words of exhortation to his disciples, “To awaken and maintain true confidence, the essential thing is to be always thinking of death and of the Buddha.  Who knows whether death may not come after any breath we draw!  So we should always be mindful of this, and keep saying in our hearts, Buddha of Infinite Light and Life, help me!  Namu Amida Butsu!” 

Kishu Zenji, Nen Amidabutsu 

Ryochu Shonin, 3rd Master

      Nen Amidabutsu, son of Enson, a warrior of Misumi in Iwami, was the Third Patriarch of the Pure Land Movement.  He received his monastic education under the guidance of Shinsen, a Tendai priest of Gakuen Temple, took his major precepts in 1214, and began to practice nembutsu as the result of reading a history of the Chu-lin Monastery, a famous Chinese Pure Land Center.
      In 1236, Nen Amdabutsu (called Nenna) went to Chikugo and became a disciple of Shoko-bo Bencho, under whom he studies the Pure Land dharma.  At the end of a year he left his master and began to spread the teaching of Nembutsu with great energy.  After travelling through many provinces, he at last reached Kamakura, headquarters of the military government and seat of the Shogunate.   There he founded Komyoji.
In 1248, he travelled to Kyoto, administered the Perfect Precepts to former Emperor Go-saga, and lectured on Saint Honen’s Selected Passages for the nun joi.
      During the Bun-ei era (1164-1274), Nenna was so-chairman of an important Dharma Assembly.   The purpose of this 48-day meeting was to compare the teaching of the so-called Chinzei Branch of the Pure Land Movement, as Nenna has received it from Shoko-bo, with the doctrines taught by Seikwam-bo and his successor, Renjakubo,.  At the end of the 48 days , Renjakubo declared that there was complete agreement between the two schools.   Thereafter the followers of Seikambo were united with those of the Chinzei School.
      Nenna then returned to Kamakura, where he devoted himself to preaching and producing the written works for which he is still remembered.  
      Nenna made his last journey to the imperial capital in 1276.  During the following ten years in Kyoto, spent mostly in Daigakuji at Saga, he gave the Perfect Precepts to retired Emperor Go-Fukakusa and served as his spiritual director.   IN 1286, he returned to Kamakura where he died in the following year.   He has left us more than fifty works of religious instruction .   These constitute the doctrinal standard of the Pure Land Movement and are studies intensively today.   The Emperor Fushimi bestowed upon Nenna the posthumous honorary title of Kishi Zenji, which means Meditation Master of Great Author. 

Seikwan-bo Genchi Shonin 

2nd Founder of Chionin

     Seikwan-bo Genchi was the descendant of high government officials associated with the Taira Clan (Heike).  Following the defeat of the Taira by the Minamoto (Genji), his mother went into hiding with him until he was thirteen years old, when she brought him to Master Honen.  Honen sent him to Priest Jichin for training.  After becoming a priest, Seikwan-bo Genchi returned to Honen and served him faithfully for eighteen years.   

     Honen regarded Genchi with special affection.  He instructed him thoroughly in the Pure Land doctrines, and made him his successor in the transmission of the Perfect Precepts.  Eventually he handed over to him all his utensils, sacred images and the scriptures he himself had read and annotated.

As Master honen neared the end of his life, Seikwan-bo said to him, “I’ve always been indebted to you for instruction and counsel in the way of Nenbutsu.  Please write, with your own hand, something that I may remember you by and profit from.   Honen took up his brush pen and wrote the famous Ichimai Kishomon or “One-Sheet Document”, a simple but profound summary of his teaching.

     One day during Honen’s last illness, Seikwan-bo happened to be sitting just outside his door when a lady of high rank entered for an interview.  He overheard the following exchange; “I’m very sad that you are so near the end despite all our effors to keep you with us.  After you are gone, to whom should we go for instruction about Nenbutsu?”  Honen replied, “I have written it all in the Senchakushu.  The holder of my teachins is he who took her leave.  Seikawan-bo was so impressed by her noble appearance and demeanor, he followed her palanquin as it was carried northward along the river bank.  Suddenly, to his amazement, the lady and her carriage disappeared.  Later,          Genchi asked Honen about the lady of rank who had visited him.   “That,” answered Honen, “was Queen Vaidehi, who lives near the kamo Shrine.  (Queen Vaidehi was a disciple of the Buddha Shakyamuni, who appeared to her in a magical body and taught her the visualizations described in the Scripture on Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life or Kan Muryojo-Kyo.)  Seikwan-bo never forgot this experience.  After Master Honen’s death, he moved to a place called Sasakino, near the Kamo Shrine, and often went there to worship.

     On the whole, Seikwan-bo preferred a life of seclusion to the bustle of a big temple.  In his teaching he stressed individual practice, and seems to have doubts about the benefits of elaborate rituals and huge religions gatherings.  Perhaps he felt that the promoted spiritual pride and hindered the development of complete reliance on the utterance of Namu Amida Butsu.  In any case, it is recorded that whenever more than five or six people would come to hear him, he would stop short his discourse, saying, “This will never do.  The evil ones will now be upon us.”

     On the twelfth day of the first month in the first year of Ryakunin (1238), at the age of 56, he lay down racing east, with his head to the north.  Repeating the holy words 200 times, he passed away, the final repetitions so faint that one could hear only the last two syllables, “….DA..BU.”   He died in room off the corridor adjoining the Kudokuin, a shrine temple dedicated to the God Kamo.  As sweet perfume issuing from the Buddha’s image filled his chamber for several days afterward.