Japanese Pure Land Buddhism

Down This Talk

Before starting my lecture I would briefly like to introduce myself to you. My name is Kemmyo Taira Sato. I am from the Japanese Pure Land tradition and am working nowadays as the Director of Three Wheels, a Shin Buddhist centre in London, originally established by Shogyoji Temple of Japan. Three Wheels is now a UK registered charity, known as the London Shogyoji Trust.

I taught religious philosophy and Buddhism at Japanese universities in Kyoto and Osaka for twenty years. Having retired from the academic world rather earlier than is normal, I returned to my master’s temple to practise Buddhism. After coming to London, however, I find myself once more connected to some extent with the academic world.

Besides giving talks at meetings held by other Buddhist communities and at a number of academic conferences, I have over the last seven years been holding several kinds of regular meeting at Three Wheels including meetings of a general nature called London Eza, meetings to read Pure Land texts, meditation classes and special Sunday meetings.

1) Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism is believed to have started around the beginning of the 2nd century as one of the Mahayana movements amongst those Buddhists who gathered at stupas of the Buddha. Professor Fujita Kotatsu, an eminent Japanese scholar in the field of Early Pure land Buddhism, concludes, after a detailed discussion in his book, A Study of Early Pure Land Thought, that early Pure Land thought must have appeared somewhere in North India or Central Asia around A.D. 100.

Pure Land Buddhism is not the name of a particular Buddhist denomination but a general appellation covering various Buddhist schools that teach people the doctrine of birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha as the way to attain Buddhahood. The main texts in Pure Land Buddhism are:


  1. The Larger Sutra of Eternal Life (skt. Sukhavativyuha)
  2. The Sutra of Meditation
  3. The Amida Sutra (skt. Sukhavativyuha).


  1. The Commentary on the Dacabhumi by Nagarjuna (born in 2nd century?),
  2. The Treatise on the Pure Land by Vasubandhu (born in 5th century),
  3. The Commentary on the Treatise by T’an-luan (476-542),
  4. The Commentary on the Land of Happiness and Peace by Tao-ch’o (562-645),
  5. The Exposition of the Sutra of Meditation by Shan-tao (613-681),
  6. The Essentials of Birth [in the Pure Land] by Genshin (942-1017),
  7. The Collection of Passages about the Nembutsu based on the Selected Original Prayer or The Senjaku-hongan-nembutsu-shu by Honen,
  8. The Collection of Passages Expounding the True Teaching, Living, Faith and Realizing of the Pure Land or The Kygyoshinsho by Shinran (1173-1262).

Needless to say, amongst all the voluminous writings to do with Pure Land Buddhism, the three Pure Land sutras mentioned above are of quite particular importance. The Larger Sutra of Eternal Life and The Amida Sutra bear the same Sanskrit name, Sukhavativyuha, but they are actually completely different texts. I would like to refer to them as the Larger Sukhavativyuha and the Smaller Sukhavativyuha. Each of them has several different versions: Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. According to academic studies of the texts, the oldest Chinese version of the larger Sukhavativyuha, The Daiamidakyo, is believed to be older than the existing Sanskrit text, having been translated in the second or third century. The original Sanskrit text for this sutra is now lost and is believed to have been written in a different form. As regards the Sutra of Meditation, there actually is no Sanskrit version, despite the fact that the sutra played a very important role in Pure Land tradition. This sutra is believed to have originated in Central Asia and is said to have been translated into Chinese by Kalayacas after his visit to China in 424.

2) Japanese Pure Land Buddhism

When Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in the 6th century, it was adopted as a state religion by the government of the time. The aristocracy used Buddhism as a vehicle to pray for the safety of the state and for their own longevity. Esoteric Buddhism was particularly suitable for this purpose, so Esoteric Buddhism became popular in the early stages of the development of Japanese Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism, on the other hand, remained somewhat peripheral for several centuries. Generally speaking, whereas Esoteric Buddhism as a state religion in Japan was very much concerned with worldly happiness, Pure Land Buddhism was far more concerned with the spiritual liberation of the individual and developed along those lines.

In the early stage of the history of Japanese Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism came to Japan as part of Mahayana Buddhism, being mixed in with Esoteric Buddhism. For example the Tenjukokushucho, the embroidery of the Mandala of Sukhavati at Chuguji Temple, is believed to have been made by Tachibananoiratsume, wife of Prince Shotoku (574-622).

Although there had appeared a number of noble Pure Land figures such as Kyoshin (-866), Kuya (903-972), Ryogen (912-985), Genshin (942-1017) and Yokan (1033-1111), Pure Land Buddhism had to wait for the advent of Honen and Shinran before really starting to develop and flourish as a great spiritual movement of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan.

In my lecture today I would like to talk about two people, Genshin and Honen.

3) Genshin and Honen

A) Genshin (942-1017)

Of all the priests who played an important part before Honen and Shinran, Genshin was the most influential. His main writing, The Essentials of Birth [in the Pure Land], became one of the most popular books in Japan and exerted a strong influence over a broad spectrum of Japanese people.

The Ojoyoshu was written between 984-985. It is composed of important passages to do with birth in the Pure Land, culled from sutras, catras and sub commentaries and framed in the form of questions and answers. It sets forth the nembutsu as the essential practice for effecting religious awakening and introduces two kinds of nembutsu, contemplative and vocal. Genshin especially praised the merit of the latter as something that could be practised by all people at all times. But he was not completely free from the influence of the former, the tradition of the contemplative nembutsu.

Although Genshin came after such advocates as Kuya, the general influence his Ojoyoshu had on Buddhism during his life time, as well as on the later development of Pure Land teaching, was quite enormous. The work was often quoted in literary tracts of the time and it was mainly due to the direct or indirect influence of the Ojoyoshu that Pure Land Buddhist art superseded even that of esoteric Buddhism.

The first chapter of the Ojoyoshu gives a detailed description of Buddhist hells, offering the strongest possible contrast to the description of the Pure Land given in the ensuing chapters. In addition the Buddhist eschatology he introduced to his contemporaries was effective enough to make sure the book remained popular for a very long time.


Because “nembutsu” is a key word in Pure Land Buddhism, I think I should explain it briefly.

Nembutsu is literally “to think of the Buddha” and is equivalent to Namuamidabutsu in practice.

Namuamidabutsu means “I take refuge in Amida Buddha”. The origin of this phrase Namuamidabutsu can be traced back to ancient times in India. The original Sanskrit for Namuamidabutsu is believed to have been namo-amita-bha(or-yus)-buddhaya and this was transliterated into Chinese as nan-wu-a-mi-t’o-fo. Namuamidabutsu is its Japanese reading. Nembutsu is to say Namuamidabutsu.

As you can see, the original source of Namuamidabutsu is “to think of Amida Buddha single-mindedly” (that is Nembutsu). If you think of Amida Buddha with absolute sincerity, you are naturally led to take refuge in Amida Buddha by virtue of the power of his prayer for universal salvation and harmony between individuals.

In Pure Land Buddhism you have two ways of thinking about Amida Buddha—Nembutsu: 1) meditation on or contemplation of Amida Buddha and his Pure Land and 2) pronouncing the Buddha’s Name.

As is apparent from the name, The Meditation Sutra focuses on teaching about meditation. Sixteen stages of meditation are set out. The first thirteen stages, beginning with contemplation of the sunset, comprise deep contemplation of Amida Buddha and his Pure Land. These stages of meditation are expounded as the merits that lead us to be born in Amida’s Pure Land, the other shore of Enlightenment. By contrast, the last three stages of meditation focus on more ethical merits, also believed to help us be born in the Pure Land.

According to Shantao’s interpretation, these last three stages convey the hidden meaning of The Meditation Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha’s real message to ordinary people. They actually represent Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching as conveyed to VaidehI, the queen of Magadha, who had been utterly devastated by her betrayal at the hands of her only son, Prince Ajatacatru.

The paragraph which includes Namuamidabutsu is from the last three stages of meditation. One who suffers as a result of his own sins, having committed grave offences in spite of having a good friend (Buddha), and who is altogether too worried to be able to contemplate Amida’s Pure Land quietly, is encouraged by the good friend just to pronounce Amida’s Name —Namuamidabutsu — concentrating all his thoughts on that. As mentioned above, “Namuamidabutsu” means “I take refuge in Amida Buddha”, so to pronounce Amida’s Name implies taking refuge in Amida Buddha.

This kind of nembutsu became very popular, influenced by Genshin’s Ojoyoshu.


There is something else I would like to mention here about Genshin’s life. Based on the above-mentioned conclusion of The Ojoyoshu, Genshin organised the nijugosammaiko, a meeting together of twenty-five people for the practice of nembutsu-samadhi. In this religious group the twenty-five members form a single unit and help each other in the practice of nembutsu, especially in the last moments of life. When one of them is on his or her deathbed, all the others gather round and encourage the person to pronounce Amida’s Name, in the expectation that Amida Buddha and his attendants (bodhisattsvas) will come to the dying person in their final moment.

In the Ojoyoshu we read:

It may be asked, “All good practices are meritorious, and each enables one to be born in the Pure Land. Why is it then that the teaching of nembutsu alone is encouraged?” In answer, I would say, “When I now encourage everyone to practise the nembutsu I do not mean to set aside the various other good practices. What I intend to say is that the nembutsu is not difficult to perform for either man or woman, whether highborn or lowborn, whether walking or staying, sitting or lying, and no matter when, where and under what kind of karmic condition. Moreover, when anyone is on his deathbed and desires to be born in the Pure Land, no practice is more accessible than the nembutsu.

After Genshin first introduced this system, a number of nijugosammaiko rapidly sprung into being. They would have a special house for funerals and when one of the group was dying, this dying person would be brought to this house and there would be a special ritual for his or her rebirth in the Pure Land. This was open not only to priests but also to ordinary people without any discrimination between men and women. In this respect the practice of nembutsu was popularised by Genshin far more than before.

The last thing I would like to talk about in this context is the fact that Genshin’s main writing, The Ojoyoshu, gave rise to the appearance of recluse priests, known as hijiri. At the beginning of the Ojoyoshu, Genshin says:

The teaching and practice that leads to Birth in the Land of Bliss is the most important thing in this world of defilement during the latter days. Priests and laymen, men highborn and lowborn, who will not turn to it? But the scripture of the exoteric and esoteric teachings is not one in meaning, the practices that are said to cause one to attain Enlightenment are so many, varying in their ritualistic and philosophical aspects. These are not difficult for men of keen wisdom and great diligence, but how can an ignoramus as I achieve them.

Liberal priests who wanted to attain individual emancipation were not able to remain in the main temples because corruption amongst religious orders was widespread and getting rapidly worse.

A priest who was truly sincere would feel obliged to leave the main temple. Moving out to a quieter place, not far from the temple, he would pursue the religious life in his own hut.

When a large number of such recluse priests gathered in one area, it was called a bessho. There were such areas both on Mt. Hiei and Mt. Koya.

Those priests who retreated from the religious order were called intonsha (recluses). Almost all of them became Pure Land Buddhists.

The word inton in its usual sense refers to retreating from the world. In this context, however, it means retreating from the religious order. Thus a recluse priest does not simply mean one who has entered priesthood by renouncing the world. Recluse priests were those who had turned their backs on the old religious orders, finding them defiled by desire for scholarly knowledge, fame, money, status and power. Recluse priests were poor and enjoyed their religious lives, keeping their minds pure and focused on higher things. In this sense they were also called hijiri. It was in the eleventh century that priests began to leave their main temples wanting to be hijiri. There are a lot of documents about the hijiri that appeared in the Heian Period and the Kamakura Period.

B) Honen (1133-1212)

Honen, the founder of the Japanese Pure Land school, is also known as Genku. Honen first came to prominence as one of the above-mentioned hijiri.

He was born the only son of a warrior lord, Uruma Tokikuni, in 1133.

At the age of eight Honen’s father died at the hand of an opponent and the boy entered the priesthood. On his deathbed the father told Honen not to take revenge on the enemy but to seek for the Buddha’s teaching of universal deliverance.

At fourteen Honen was sent to Mt. Hiei to study Buddhism.

During his stay at Kurodani he started reading the Tripitaka in a library in an effort to seek his own liberation (or awakening). Even after reading through the entire Tripitaka five times, however, he failed to reach his goal.

One day, at the age of 43 (1175), Honen came upon a passage in Shan-tao’s Exposition of the Sutra of Meditation which is said to have converted him to Pure Land Buddhism.

After this awakening of faith in Amida Buddha, Honen went to see a younger hijiri, Yurenbo Ensho (1139–1177), having learned from one of his colleagues, Shinku, that this young hijiri had already experienced the same kind of conversion. Honen lived with the hijiri at Hirotani for the next two years.

At the age of forty-five, after the death of his friend Yurenbo Ensho, Honen moved to Yoshimizu in Kyoto.

Founded on these two important experiences, 1) religious conversion and 2) warm friendship with Yurenbo, Honen’s preaching, centred at Yoshimizu in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto, attracted many followers from every level of society. Shinran, one of his disciples, eulogizes in his gatha (Hymn on the Nembutsu of the Right Faith) : “Genku, our teacher, was well versed in the teaching of the Buddha. Pitying all of us ordinary beings, both good and evil, in this lonely land of ours [Japan], he promoted the true teaching and its realisation.”

At the age of 66 (1198), as censure of his Pure Land school began to become more severe, Honen set forth the Senjaku-hongan-nembutsu-shu at the request of the Regent, Fujiwara Kanezane (1149-1207), to be read by only a few of his closest disciples. Divided into 16 sections, it elucidates Amida’s Original Prayer which specifically chooses the practice of the nembutsu as the right practice for all human beings. It centres around the idea of faith found in Zendo’s Exposition of the Sutra of Meditation.

In 1201 ( aged 69) he took on Shinran (1173–1262) as his disciple.

1n 1205, he allowed Shinran to copy the Senjakuhongannembutsushu.

But Honen’s teaching came under strong fire from the representatives of the established sects of Nara and Mt. Hiei (1204-1206) and was subsequently proscribed (1207). Despite Kanezane’s desperate efforts to save Honen’s followers, four of them were executed on the banks of the River Kamo, and Honen himself was banished to Tosa on the island of Shikoku. At least seven of his main disciples were likewise exiled, each one separately, to different parts of the country.

Honen, however, was released from exile by imperial decree in December of the same year..

At the age of 79 (1211), he returned to Kyoto.

At the age of 80, he passed away.

a) Honen’s view of the Nembutsu.

At the age of forty-three, Honen is believed to have been converted to Pure Land Buddhism on encountering the following passage from Shan-tao’s Exposition of the Sutra of Meditation.

There are two things to be distinguished [in the right ways of practice]. The one is to pronounce single-mindedly the Name of Amida alone, whether walking or staying, sitting or lying, whether for a long time or for a short time; to keep on holding the Name from moment to moment. This is called the right practice which assures one to be born in the Pure Land, as it is in accordance with Amida’s Original Prayer.

There are two important points, one explicit and the other implicit, in this passage that converted Honen to Pure Land Buddhism.

The first point is the practice of “pronouncing single-mindedly the Name of Amida alone,” and the other is faith in “Amida’s Original Prayer.”

As mentioned before, the word nembutsu originally means ‘to think of the Buddha.’ Regarding the nembutsu, Shantao says there are five right ways: (1) reciting the Pure Land sutras; (2) meditation on Amida Buddha and his Land; (3) paying reverence to Amida; (4) pronouncing Amida’s Name; (5) praising and making offerings. In these five ways one practises the nembutsu (thinking of Amida Buddha). Shantao himself states in the same piece of writing that (4) is the most important and the other four are ‘accessory (or secondary) practices.’

Up until the time of Honen no one in the whole history of Pure Land Buddhism had ever discounted the other four ways and simply declared that the act of pronouncing Amida’s Name alone was enough to enable one to be born in the Pure Land. Honen did.

His main work, The Senjakuhongannembutsushu, begins with the subtitle: “Namuamidabutsu, the practice for rebirth is based in the nembutsu.” In this context the nembutsu refers to pronouncing the Name.

It says further:

If one wishes speedily to be free from birth-and-death, there are two different ways, of which the teaching of the “way for holy men” may be disregarded for a while. Let us rather specifically choose the teaching of the Pure Land. There are, again, two ways to enter into the Pure Land teaching: the right way and the mixed way. Of the two, let us give up the mixed way and specifically choose the right way. Of the right way and the accessory way, the latter is to be set aside. Let us specifically choose the right way and concentrate our efforts upon the right practice that rightly assures our rebirth in the Pure Land. The right practice that rightly assures our rebirth is pronouncing the Buddha-Name. When this is done, one will assuredly be born in the Pure Land, because of the Buddha’s Original Prayer.

Taking into consideration the historical fact that Pure Land Buddhism had been allowed to exist merely as a sub-school in the established temples, this declaration was revolutionary. The culmination of Honen’s philosophy of Pure Land Buddhism was the point where he chose ‘pronouncing the Name’ as the only right practice and discarded all others. He encouraged people to pronounce Amida’s Name single-mindedly in order to be born in the Pure Land. In his philosophy choosing just the one practice meant discarding all the others. He was confident of Amida’s universal salvation uniquely through the practice of pronouncing his Name, for it was through this pure act alone that he had experienced his own salvation.

Pronounce Amida’s Name, and you will be saved (be born in his Pure Land). To clever people the teaching seems all too simple, absurd even. Honen pressed resolutely ahead, however, and a lot of people followed him and were warmly received by him.

How did this happen?

Whilst the practice of nembutsu is called Easy Practice, faith is said to be difficult in Pure Land Buddhism. Practice is deeply related to faith, the next subject I would like to mention.

b) Honen’s Attainment of Faith

Pronouncing the Name is not a difficult act. In fact it is really quite easy. Honen believed that he would be saved merely by this simple practice.

Honen’s knowledge about Buddhism is said to have been appreciated by his contemporaries as “the first and foremost in wisdom”. It is no doubt that he was one of the most learned scholars. How then did such a sophisticated person as Honen come to believe in salvation by the easiest of ways, the nembutsu? It is something of a Copernican revolution in Buddhist philosophy, comparable to the revolution brought about by Descartes in the history of Western philosophy.

In contrast to the modern awareness of self as “the thinking I”, found in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, however, what Honen was awakened to in his religious conversion was his utter ignorance, his irredeemable state of mind. He was consequently used to calling himself “Ignoramus Honen.”

Faced with this problem of ignorance in the light of Buddha’s Enlightenment, Honen had long been struggling for the truth, for something beyond doubt, right up until the time of his conversion. It was actually at the very moment of being touched by Amida’s Love that he was awakened to his own wretched existence and was impelled to entrust his whole existence to one single act, the nembutsu.

Can you remember the last part of the passage from Shantao’s Exposition of the Sutra of Meditation, the passage that is said to have motivated Honen’s conversion? “This (pronouncing of the Name) is called the right practice which assures one to be born in the Pure Land, as it is in accordance with Amida’s Original Prayer.” Honen entirely entrusted himself to the nembutsu, based on the grounds that “it is in accordance with Amida’s Original Prayer.”

The title of his main book, The Senjaku-hongan-nembutsu-shu, can be translated into English as The Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu Chosen by Amida Buddha in his Original Prayer.

By becoming aware of Amida’s Original Prayer within and taking it as his foundation, Honen chose the nembutsu as the right practice that assures birth in the Pure Land because the nembutsu was the practice already chosen in Amida’s Pure Land.

In this context the Original Prayer especially refers to Amida Buddha’s eighteenth Prayer in The Sutra of Eternal Life. Amida’s Original Prayer is the expression of his universal love for all beings with no discrimination whatsoever.

Honen pronounced Amida Buddha’s Name with his whole being when he felt the Buddha’s universal love, i.e. the Original Prayer, actually working within himself.

If you consider how Honen came to begin studying Buddhism and what kind of task it was he had laid upon himself until he attained faith, you will understand how important was for him the concept of equal love for others.

On his deathbed Honen’s father had told Honen not to take revenge on his enemy but to seek the world of equality going beyond all discrimination. How to find impartial and equal love was the task he took on himself when studying Buddhism. The religious order in which he found himself was, however, full of discriminations and illusions. He could not witness that which he sought anywhere around him. What is worse, in spite of all his steadfast efforts, he himself could not become free from the world of birth-and-death. He felt himself so very far removed from both Wisdom and Love, hence the humble epithet he chose for himself, “Ignoramus Honen.”

It was in this desperate and hopeless situation that Honen came across that passage in the Exposition of the Sutra of Meditation. He found in Amida’s Original Prayer what he had long been seeking ever since the time of his father’s death. What he found in fact was the Buddha’s equal love expressed in the Original Prayer. This converted him to Pure Land Teaching, I think. Because he felt his whole being embraced in the Buddha’s love, he was able to devote himself exclusively to the “Easy Practice”—nembutsu—without any reservation, by entirely basing himself on the Buddha’s Love.

Let me quote here from The Letters of Eshin-ni, a collection of letters from Eshin-ni (Shinran’s wife) to her youngest daughter, who took care of her father (Shinran) up until his death.

In the following quotation, Eshin-ni relates to her daughter, Kakushin-ni, the story she heard from Shinran himself about his first encounter with Honen:

“I received your letter, dated the 1st day of the twelfth month of last year, shortly after the 20th of the same month. There is no doubt that your father was born in the Pure Land, and there is no need for me to repeat this.

Your father left Mt.Hiei, remained in retreat for one-hundred days at Rokkakudo, prayed for salvation in the after-life. Then, on the dawn of the ninety-fifth day Prince Shotoku appeared in a vision, revealing the path to enlightenment, after reciting a verse. Thus he immediately left Rokkakudo, before dawn, and called on Honen Shonin to be shown the way of salvation in the after-life. And just as he had confined himself for one-hundred days at Rokkakudo, he visited Honen daily, rain or shine, for one- hundred days, regardless of any obstacles that he met. He listened to the Master teaching everyone equally with great singleness of mind that, no matter whether they were good or evil, as far as salvation in the after-life was concerned the only way for them to become liberated from the suffering of birth-and-death was through the nembutsu. He cherished these words close to his heart and whenever people said anything about the nembutsu he would reply, “Wherever my Master Honen goes, I shall follow him, no matter what others may say—even if my Master said he would go to hell, I would accompany him. The reason is that I am the sort of person who, floundering in the world of delusion from the beginningless beginning of time, would have nothing to lose by doing so.”

When I first came across this letter, I was surprisingly moved and delighted to see the equality and impartiality of Honen’s love for others, the same love that Shinran witnessed in the days when he first met Honen, Amida’s Original Prayer encountered through his encounter with Honen. This then explains his extraordinary observation on his relationship to the Master; “Even if he says he would go to hell, I will follow him.” On meeting Honen in 1201, Shinran immediately “abandoned the sundry acts and took refuge in the Original Prayer” as stated in The Kyogyoshinsho.

Thank you.
Kemmyo Taira Sato