Recently, I re-posted an old polemic article I wrote 8 years ago (!) in a former blog at a time when I was on my out the door from the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist community, citing references to one of Honen’s biggest critics, Jokei, an influential monk of the influential Hosso (Yogacara) school. Many of the points that Jokei criticized are common complaints that even today people level against the Pure Land path, specifically Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. I have even made these criticisms myself from time to time.
However, in the book Traversing the Pure Land Path, the author makes an interesting point that I did not fully grasp back then:
…Honen’s single-minded focus on the nenbutsu (senju nenbutsu) is not a narrow-minded or exclusivist practice. Rather, it is prioritization or “selection” (senchaku) of a practice that Honen felt was the most beneficial. In other words, the nenbutsu is an essential competence which needs to be thoroughly understood and experience.Page 77
Jodo Shu Buddhism takes the nenbutsu practice as its bedrock. This is not unusual in Japanese Buddhism, where many of the Kamakura-era Buddhist schools (Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren) tended to build around a single practice first, and build the teachings around it for support.
However, the book doesn’t stop there:
Honen’s senchaku process also includes reintegration. After realizing the mind is firmly established towards Birth [in the Pure Land] (ketsujo ojo-shin), the four other right practices (sho-gyo) of Amida’s Pure Land can be readopted as similar kinds of auxiliary practices (dorui-no-jogo)….With the transformation of one’s heart through single-minded nenbutsu practice, these auxiliary practices go beyond being merely helpful to nenbutsu practice. Subsumed within nenbutsu practice, they become practices corresponding to Amida’s Original Vow.Page 77
This idea of reintegration of other practices within the dedicated nenbutsu practice is something I didn’t fully appreciate in my younger years, but makes more sense now with the benefit of experience. Basically, Honen’s concept of senchaku (選択) is to establish a solid foundation first, then reintegrate other Buddhist practices as your confidence grows. Over time, it becomes a comprehensive practice.
I am reminded of a passage from the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Light:
Anyone who sincerely desires birth in the Land of Peace and Bliss is able to attain purity of wisdom and supremacy in virtue. You should not follow the urges of passions, break the precepts, or fall behind others in the practice of the Way.trans. Hisao Inagaki
Even in the fundamental sutras of Pure Land Buddhism, disciples are encouraged to do good works, maintain wholesome conduct, etc, so it doesn’t differ from the rest of mainstream Buddhism, but Honen’s senchaku approach represents a shift in mindset. Instead of doing the practices just for practices sake, they are rely on Amida’s vow to help all beings, and to prepare for one’s rebirth in the Pure Land.
In my experience, some people I have met who are Pure Land Buddhists tend to take a strictly nenbutsu-only, exclusivist approach, which Honen clearly didn’t agree with, and even in Honen’s time, some of his disciples, such as Kosai, really went of the deep-end.
I feel like Honen’s approach was “never stop, and never get complacent”, but at the same time, he wanted to prioritize a straightforward simple practice first as the bedrock that other things could be built upon. Thus, laypeople and monks, could both start the same way and take it as far as they want.