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Honen, Shinran and Nichiren

By Frank Simons

The turbulence of the Kamakura Period (1192–1333) brought a sense of pessimism to the practice of Buddhism, but it also brought opportunity. Buddhist thinkers returned to the ancient idea of a degenerate age; their sense of crisis brought new urgency to Buddhist practice and changed the face of Buddhism in Japan.

Video Presentation
Buddhism. Part 22,
“Honen, Shinran and Nichiren”
Thu, May 12, 5:30pm
Meditation Center
Callejón Blanco 4
Free, donations accepted

The Pure Land Tradition began to function as a separate sect of Tendai Buddhism during the time of Honen (1133–1212). He believed it was no longer possible to rely on one’s own efforts to achieve salvation, which relied completely on the grace of Amida Buddha. Honen’s teaching is most evident in his “One-Page Testament,” delivered to his disciples two days before he died. “The method of final salvation I have propounded is neither meditation nor repetition of the Buddha’s name. It is nothing more than the mere repetition of the “Namu Amida Butsu,” without doubt of his mercy, whereby one may be born into the Land of Perfect Bliss. Those who believe this should behave themselves like simple-minded folk, who know not a single letter of Shakyamuni’s teaching, or like ignorant monks and nuns whose faith is implicitly simple. Thus, without pedantic airs, they should fervently practice the repetition of the name of Amida, and that alone.”

Shinran adopted Honen’s teaching and pushed it to a radical extreme. His sect, known as the Jodo Shinshu, or “True Pure Land Sect,” became the most important of the Pure Land sects and is the most popular form of Buddhism in contemporary Japan. In Mahayana Buddhism, it was understood bodhisattvas made vows that would continue to influence the lives of believers after the bodhisattvas attained Buddhahood. These vows functioned like the Christian concept of grace. The vows had power, and it was possible for everyone to plug into this power by chanting the Buddha’s name and opening themselves up to receive the Buddha’s compassion. To have faith in the Buddha’s compassion required a sense of self-abandonment. The believer becomes identified with Amida as Amida’s heart and mind move through the believer’s heart and mind.


Another key reformer in the Kamakura Period was Nichiren (1222–1281), one of the few people who can appropriately be called a Buddhist “prophet.” He trained as a monk at the home of the Tendai School in Kyoto. He felt the Lotus Sutra was the key to the Buddha’s teaching, and he preached that Japan could be saved only by reliance on the Lotus sutra. This reliance was expressed by the phrase “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.” Nichiren did not hesitate to criticize his opponents, including both religious leaders like Honen, and the emperor himself. The vigor and intensity of his message won many followers and continues to be a major part of the Buddhist scene in Japan today. The Nichiren tradition is present in America in a movement known as Soka Gokkai. It produced a movement in Japan known as Rissho Kosei-kai, which has played a strong role in international religious organizations. It organizes its worship and community life in a way reminiscent of Protestant Christianity.


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