Happy Birthday, Honen!

Today, April 7th in the Japanese-Buddhist calendar, is a holiday called Shūso Gōtan-e (宗祖降誕会) which celebrates the birthday of a monk named Honen (法然, April 7, 1133 – February 29, 1212). Ostensibly, Honen was a monk of the Tendai sect in Japan, but went on to be a founder of the Jodo-Shu or “Pure Land” Buddhist sect, as well as many other spin-offs. You can read more about his biography here.

Portrait of Honen by Shinkai (忍海), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Honen didn’t invent Pure Land Buddhist as a practice and tradition. We can see earlier examples such as Genshin who were already practicing it avidly, and indeed, Pure Land Buddhism had been popular for centuries, especially when the social order was breaking down in the 12th century.

However, what Honen did and why he’s still revered today is his efforts to make the Pure Land practices as utterly accessible as possible through recitation of the nembutsu. Where many career monks were concerned with politics, or were seemingly aloof with the plight of people outside the Heian-period aristocracy, Honen really went out of his way to help others, and teach them a simple, straight-forward Buddhist practice, without discriminating by social class or gender.

Honen’s encounter with the woman of the night has always been one of my favorite stories about him, and underscores his easy-going manner, and his commitment to helping anyway he could. Even after his exile from the capitol, he maintained his monastic vows, and taught the Pure Land even to his dying breath.

Admittedly, I do have some quibbles about Honen’s approach to Pure Land Buddhism, and James L Ford’s book on Jokei, a critic of Honen, rightly points out how Honen cherry-picked teachings from earlier Pure Land masters to suit his own viewpoint. However, one thing is certain: Honen was very sincere in his efforts even if one might questions his methods. He did not get delusions of grandeur the way some contemporaries did, and he did not retreat to monasteries in pursuit of the truth. He was out among the masses all the time, teaching fellow monks, nuns, and lay people everything he knew.

So, happy birthday Honen! Thank you for teaching this American, 800 years later, about the nembutsu, and helping me get started on the Buddhist path when I needed it most.

P.S. another contemporary critic of Honen, Myōe, tried to do something similar by promoting the Mantra of Light, but for whatever reason it never quite caught on. Similarly, Nichiren promoted the odaimoku a couple generations later.

All of these monks, Jokei, Myoe, Honen and Nichiren were all talented teachers and sincerely sought to help others, but for whatever reason, perhaps because Honen was the first, or something dynamic in his teachings, achieved an impact on Japanese Buddhism not seen since.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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