Born: May 13, 1133 in Inaoka, Mimasaka province
Died: Feburary 29, 1212 in Kyoto, Japan
Became a Tendai monk: 1146
Converted to Pure Land: 1176
Exiled from Kyoto: 1207
Returned to Kyoto: 1211
Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu
Although Honen became a Buddhist monk at a young age, he apparently became disillusioned with the power struggles and general lack of piety he encountered among his fellow monks. After a long time of searching and meditating, the fell under the influence of the Pure Land teachings of Shan-tao and Genshin. By 1176 at the latest he had fully converted to the Pure Land school, believing that all people, without exception, could be reborn into the paradise of Amida Buddha.
In order to promote his ideas, Honen founded a teaching center in Kyoto, a city which was distant from most of the established Buddhist schools and monasteries of Japan, thus allowing him to work and teach with relatively little interference. He gathered around him many disciples who would later spread his ideas throughout the country.
Honen also argued that Pure Land should be considered an independent and separate school of Buddhism, an idea which was received with a great deal of hostility among Buddhist leaders in Japan. That, along with the fact that he and his teachings kept growing in popularity, eventually led to his exile from Kyoto. Many of his immediate disciples were also forced to leave, but they were the lucky ones because a few were simply beheaded. Although he was eventually allowed to return, he died just one year later. Nevertheless, it was his techings which would become most influential in Japan and eventually Pure Land would become the dominant form of Buddhism there. As a consequence, Honen is revered as one of the most important Buddhist teachers in Japanese history.
Like other Pure Land advocates, Honen differentiated between two types of Buddhist teaching: Shodo (Sacred Way) and Jodo (Pure Land). According to Honen, the Buddha showed humanity that a "Sacred Way" was open to them to achieve enlightenment and escape the world of suffering and desire. However, Honen also believed that he and many like him were simply too "sinful" to ever really follow such a path reliably. Thus, they had to trust the vow of Amida Buddha that anyone who calls upon his name would achieve salvation and release.
This differentation is rather similar, although perhaps more extreme, than that in Christian debate over salvation by works and salvation by faith. The "Sacred Way" of the Buddha is very "works" based because it relies upon the efforts and struggles of the individual while the "Pure Land" is obviously based upon the faith of the believer in the vow of Amida.
Another similarity between Honen's Jodo Pure Land Buddhism and radical Protestant Christianity was his emphasis on the "periodization" of Buddhist history, something which appears very close to the Protestant doctrine of "dispensations" in history. Like the Protestant doctrine, Honen taught that the proper religious teachings declined through time and over the course of specific ages. The first thousand years after the death of the Buddha was "perfect law," or shobo, during which the correct teachings prospered and were followed. The second thousand years was "copied law," or zobo, during which the correct teachings declined by piety was still strong.
The third thousand years was the "end of law," or mappo, during which both the correct teachings and piety were in serious decline. During this era the Earth is supposed to be given over to strife, war, and sin as people are unable to follow the correct teachings of the Buddha; if they desire any sort of salvation, they must rely upon pure faith. It should be noted that at the time of Honen's life and teachings, Japan was beset social strife as the older social order was disintegrating and a new social order, feudal in nature, was being developed. These social and political difficulties made Honen's ideas look very plausible and help explain his popularity.
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What is the difference between monotheism and monolatry? Between pantheism and panentheism? How about between animism and shamanism? Or theism and deism? What the heck is henotheism? For that matter, what is and is not a religion?
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A system of human beliefs, ideals and practices which is harder to define than it may at first appear.