Suppression of the Nembutsu

Despite Hōnen’s circumspection, his teachings soon evoked a harsh reaction from Japan’s Buddhist establishment. In 1204 Tendai monks at the Enryakuji appealed to Shinshō (1167-1230), the head priest there and an acquaintance of Hōnen’s, to prohibit the practice of the exclusive nembutsu and to expel its adherents from their religious precincts. Hōnen’s response to this attack was his Shichikajô kishomon (“Seven Article Pledge”), rules of conduct that his followers were sworn to obey. One year later the Kōfukuji, one of the most influential temples in Nara, petitioned the retired emperor Gotoba (1180-1239) to take measures against Hōnen, and it leveled nine specific charges against him:

  1. Establishing a new school without imperial recognition and without proper lineage.
  2. Devising a new graphic representation of Amida Buddha called the Sesshu Fusha Mandara (“Mandala of Those Embraced and Never Forsaken”), in which followers of the exclusive nembutsu are bathed in Amida’s light but priests adhering to traditional practices are not.
  3. Slighting the Buddha Sakyamuni by worshipping no Buddha other than Amida.
  4. Precluding Buddhism’s myriad ways of cultivating the good, outside of the nembutsu.
  5. Refusng to revere the illustrious kami, the native deities of the Shinto tradition.
  6. Misrepresenting Pure Land by denying that diverse religious practices lead to birth there.
  7. Misunderstanding the nembutsu by claiming that uttering it is superior to using it in meditation.
  8. Inflicting harm upon the Buddhist order by maintaining that violation of the clerical precepts is not an obstacle to birth in the Pure Land.
  9. Throwing the country into disorder by undermining the teachings of the eight schools which uphold it. (Dobbins 2002, 14-15)

These nine accusations indicate irreconcilable differences between Hōnen and the traditional schools over the meaning of the nembutsu, the clerical precepts, the Pure Land movement, and Amida Buddha. They also suggest that Hōnen’s followers were involved in disruptive activities that were a threat to the established religious order not only doctrinally but also socially and politically. (Dobbins 2002, 15)

The outcries against Hōnen and his band of disciples reached a crescendo in 1207, and resulted in the suppression of the exclusive nembutsu, the exile of Hōnen, and the execution of a number of his followers. This was the first in a long series of suppressions which stretched over the next century, extending into the formative years of the Shinshū as well. The following account of the 1207 incident appears in the Gukanshō (“Notes of My Foolish Views”), a history of Japan written in 1219 by Jien (1155-1225), the older brother of Kujō Kanezane and head priest of Mt. Hiei in the early thirteenth century: (Dobbins 2002, 15)

Also during the Ken’ei years (1206-1207) there was a religious man named Hōnen. Close to this time, while living in Kyoto, he established the nembutsu school and called his teachings the exclusive nembutsu. “You should do nothing more than utter [the name of] Amida Buddha. Do not undertake the esoteric or exoteric practices of the eight schools,” he would say. Ignorant or unenlightened lay priests and nuns (ama nyūdō) of questionable circumstance delighted in this teaching, and it began to flourish beyond expectation and to gather strength. Among them there was a monk named Anrakubō who had been a retainer under [Takashina] Yasutsune (d. 1201), a lay priest. Upon ordination Anrakubō became an adherent of the exclusive nembutsu, and in association with Jūren (d. 1207) he advocated singing the praises [of Pure Land] six times a day (rokuji raisan), which is said to have been the practice of the master Shan-tao. There were numerous people, among them nuns, who turned to this teaching and placed their trust in it. They were given to believe that, once they became followers, then even if they indulged in sexual relations or ate meat or fish, Amida Buddha would not regard it as a wrongdoing in the least, and that, once they entered the single-hearted and exclusive way and had faith in nothing but the nembutsu, then at the end of their life Amida would come without fail to usher them into the Pure Land. As people in both the capital and the countryside turned to this, a lady-in-waiting at the detached palace of the retired emperor, along with the mother of the imperial priest at the Ninnaji temple, also placed their faith in it. Secretly they summoned Anrakubō and the others to have them share their teachings with them, and so he proceeded there, together with his companions, and even spent the night there. Such a thing is unspeakable, so in the end Anrakubō and Jūren were beheaded. Also, Hōnen was exiled, driven from residency in Kyoto. (Dobbins 2002, 15-16)

This affair was dealt with in such a way that it seemed for a short time that things were under control. Hōnen, however, had not been an ally in the plot, so he was pardoned, and he eventually died at Ōtani in the Higashiyama section of Kyoto. On that occasion people were gathered around, and there was constant talk of his birth in Pure Land, but there is no reason to think that it actually came to pass. His deathbed ceremony was nothing like that of the religious figure Zōga (917-1003). Because all this occurred, to this day we are pressed from behind. The exclusive nembutsu, with its fish, meat, and sexual indulgences, remains largely unchecked, and the monks of Mt. Hiei have risen up saying that they are going to drive out the nembutsu priest Kūamidabutsu (1156-1228), who apparently has been put to flight. (…) In the end Hōnen’s disciples have been the ones committing all these deeds. In perceiving this, I realize that, of the two types of obstacles to enlightenment—those from within oneself (junma) and those from outside (gyakuma)—these unfortunate teachings of his are of the former type, an obstacle from within. (….) But at this time the mantra of Shingon and the meditations of Tendai are at their height, and there is still no one who can achieve enlightenment by following teachings which are an obstacle from within. It is a deplorable situation. (Dobbins 2002, 16)

Jien’s account of Hōnen’s activities bespeaks clearly the alarm with which traditional Buddhist adherents looked upon the Pure Land movement. Jien was supremely qualified to speak for both the religious and the political community, since he was not only a head priest at Mt. Hiei but also a scion of the powerful Fujiwara family. As a priest, he considered the exclusive nembustu corrosive of the clerical precepts and a detraction from the teachings of the eight schools. As a leader in society, he feared that it would seduce the ignorant and lowly and would erode social values and civil order. In short, he viewed the Pure Land movement as one characteristic of mappo, the age of decline, when society would lapse in chaos and the Buddhist teachings would pass into extinction. (Dobbins 2002, 16)

(….) The banishment of Hōnen temporarily pacified Kyoto of the commotion that the Pure Land movement had generated, but it did not extinguish the movement altogether. Rather, by dispatching Hōnen’s followers to different provinces, the authorities unwittingly disseminated his teachings throughout the country, and in 1211, when Hōnen was allowed to return to Kyoto, the movement reappeared in the capital with renewed vitality. The resilience of the Pure Land movement confounded the Buddhist establishment and prompted further suppressions in subsequent decades. (Dobbins 2002, 18)

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