Hōnen Shōnin Founds Pure Land Buddhism

In 1175, the monk Hōnen Shōnin, discouraged by the worldly and political concerns of the Buddhist establishment, began to spread a more basic, popular philosophy in the form of the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism. This sect established the basis for what is now the most widespread form of Buddhist belief in Japan.

Summary of Event

The twelfth century in Japan was a period of great strife but also of vitality in religious and cultural movements. One of the most significant developments to take place in this century was the founding of the Pure Land (Jōdo) sect of Japanese Buddhism by the priest Hōnen Shōnin in 1175. Hōnen, originally a member of the warrior aristocracy, was born into a samurai family in the province of Mimasaka (now Okayama Prefecture) in 1133. From the age of eight, he began to study Buddhist doctrine and became a monk of the Tendai sect Tendai sect . He studied at the headquarters of the Tendai sect, the Enryakuji temple complex located on sacred Mount Hiei to the north of Kyoto, and became a full-fledged monk of the order at the age of fifteen. This life path was not an unusual one for the younger sons of warrior families, but Hōnen’s future career as both a scholar and a monk was quite unique. [kw]Hōnen Shōnin Founds Pure Land Buddhism[Honen Shonin] (1175)
[kw]Shōnin Founds Pure Land Buddhism, Hōnen (1175)
[kw]Pure Land Buddhism, Hōnen Shōnin Founds (1175)
[kw]Buddhism, Hōnen Shōnin Founds Pure Land (1175)
Hōnen Shōnin
Pure Land Buddhism
Japan;1175: Hōnen Shōnin Founds Pure Land Buddhism[2050]
Religion;1175: Hōnen Shōnin Founds Pure Land Buddhism[2050]
Cultural and intellectual history;1175: Hōnen Shōnin Founds Pure Land Buddhism[2050]
Hōnen Shōnin

The mid-twelfth century was an era of considerable political maneuvering at the Japanese court. An upstart provincial samurai family, the Taira, was able to gain influence over the imperial court and the traditional aristocracy. The Buddhist sects had their own political interests and conflicts, and Hōnen, disgusted by the increasingly political concerns of the Hiei monks, fled the monastery in favor of life as an ascetic on another part of the mountain. He continued his study of the Tendai doctrines as well as those of the other Japanese Buddhist sects but found that none of them were capable of fulfilling him spiritually. The Pure Land teachings, however, began to interest him and eventually became his exclusive subject of study and contemplation.

Pure Land Buddhist teachings centering on the Buddha Amida were brought to Japan in the sixth century and enjoyed great popularity among the aristocratic classes in the ninth and tenth centuries. The Pure Land doctrine states that the Buddha Amida pledged to deliver to the Pure Land, a paradise in the west, any believer who sincerely called his name. In Japanese, the practice of calling on Amida is referred to as nembutsu
Nembutsu . The ease of salvation promised in the Pure Land teachings as well as the assurance of a better life in the next world were very attractive to a court society convinced of the fundamental transience of life.

Before Hōnen, several other famous monks had become interested in Pure Land teachings. For example, Kūya Kūya (903-972), a monk from the same Enryakuji temple complex at which Hōnen himself studied, wandered Japan teaching the value of evoking the name of Amida to the common people in the late tenth century. The peasants, frequently threatened by famine and disease, showed great interest in the transcendental philosophy associated with Amida. Despite these moments of popularity, however, the Pure Land doctrine failed to gain independence from the doctrines of other sects such as Tendai and continued to exist merely as an offshoot of other teachings.

Convinced that nembutsu was the path to salvation, Hōnen left the confines of Mount Hiei in 1175 and began to preach these ideas in the capital. He established a base in Kyoto at Yoshimizu, where Chionin, the main temple of the sect, now stands. This act is usually considered to be the founding of the Pure Land sect as an independent sect of Buddhism in Japan. It is recorded that Japanese of all walks of life came to listen to Hōnen’s sermons. The movement that Hōnen began rapidly gained momentum, and in 1198, Hōnen wrote the Senchaku hongan nembutsu-shū (1198; English translation, 1997; also known as The Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow
Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow, The (Hōnen) ) in which he spelled out the doctrines of the new faith and defended them against his critics. His assertion that a saintly life was no longer possible because of the corruption of the world and that the only path to salvation was through faith in the Buddha Amida found a ready audience. He also denied the idea that severe asceticism was a desirable path to religious enlightenment, a fact that made his ideas very popular.

Despite Hōnen’s warm reception in Kyoto, his ideas, as well as the popularity that they were gaining, were met with hostility from the authorities. The Buddhist establishment, concerned that Hōnen’s popular doctrines and denial of the superiority of monastic living would erode their own power base, began to persecute him. The fact that Hōnen not only argued the value of nembutsu but also asserted that the practice was far superior to all other forms of religious experience made him fall afoul of the conservative establishment. This was also the period in which the new Minamoto shogunate was attempting to assert its control over the country, and a new, mass-based religious movement was seen as a potential threat. Buddhism;Japan

As a result, in 1207, Hōnen was exiled to Tosa, a remote region of the island of Shikoku, and his disciples, among them the monk Shinran Shinran , were persecuted. Hōnen, whose long religious practice had obviously brought him a broad perspective and a lack of worldly ambition, refused to renounce his religious convictions to avoid exile; instead, he said he was thankful, as it afforded him a chance to spread his teachings outside the capital. Hōnen continued to work toward the spread of the Pure Land belief during his exile. His sentence was lifted in 1211, but he died the following year. This period of persecution, however, did little to sap the vitality of the new sect, and it is clear that Hōnen laid the basis for a truly popular religious movement.


After Hōnen’s death his evangelical movement was continued by his disciples, who preached the practice of nembutsu throughout the country. The Pure Land sect of Japanese Buddhism was the first of many new Buddhist sects to be developed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Its emergence marked the increasingly vital religious thought of that age and provided an impetus for the development of new ways of thinking. The Pure Land sect and its offshoot, the True Pure Land sect True Pure Land Buddhism (Jōdo Shinshū), founded by Hōnen’s disciple Shinran, became two of the most popular forms of religious worship in Japan. They developed a large following, among not only the masses but also the court nobility and warrior class. The simple teaching of the Pure Land sect meshed well with the temperament of the samurai and was easily accessible to the largely illiterate peasant class.

By the fifteenth century, methods of training monks and various rituals were systemized and received government approval, and the Pure Land sect continued to develop at a fast pace while never losing its popular base. The sect also proved to be a great creative force as it inspired depictions of Amida in art and sculpture, many of which are now hailed as national treasures, as well as changes in temple architecture.

Although the Zen sects of Japanese Buddhism are most often seen as the face of Japanese religion internationally, the Pure Land sect has enjoyed international popularity as well. Outside Japan, there are Pure Land believers in the United States, Canada, and dozens of other nations around the world. The simplicity and accessibility of the Pure Land doctrine as outlined by Hōnen as well as its tolerance and lack of a distinctly Japanese-centered perspective has resulted in Pure Land teachings becoming popular all over the globe.

Further Reading

  • Hattori, Sho-on. A Raft from the Other Shore: Hōnen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism. Tokyo: Jōdo Shū Press, 2001. A basic outline of the life of Hōnen and his teachings.
  • Hōnen. Hōnen’s Senchakushu: Passages on the Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow. Translated by Hirokawa Takatoshi. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998. A translation of Hōnen’s major work.
  • Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Vol. 1. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958. The first volume of Sansom’s three-volume study of Japanese history remains a detailed and authoritative work on the subject.
  • Tamura, Yoshio. Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History. Translated by Jeffrey Hunter. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2001. A detailed assessment of the cultural implications and historical development of Japanese Buddhism from the introduction of the faith to modern times.