Hônen is considered the founder of Pure Land Buddhism (Jôdo-shû) in Japan.
The concept of the Pure Land, that is, the Western Paradise of Amida Buddha, was prevalent in Japan prior to Hônen's time, along with an accompanying emphasis on the nenbutsu - the chanting of the name of Amida as a means of gaining salvation. As early as the 10th century, monks such as Kûya advocated the importance of the nenbutsu. However, Hônen believed, and asserted, that in this age of mappô (the Ending Times of the Law), enlightenment was no longer attainable through the normal means, and all that remained was the possibility of salvation. In other words, either because there was insufficient time before the End, or because the spiritual energies had declined so much since the golden age of Buddhism, enlightenment was no longer attainable, and therefore meditation, celibacy, and the like were pointless pursuits.
Trained on Mt. Hiei in the orthodox Tendai fashion, Hônen is believed to have first chanted the nenbutsu in 1175, but kept his heterodox beliefs secret for a considerable time; after twenty years of developing his ideas in secret, he committed them to paper in 1198, composing the Senchaku hongan nenbutsu shû ("Choosing the Recitation of the Buddha's Name According to the Original Vow"). He circulated it only among his disciples, though others found out and petitioned the Imperial Court to ban his teachings. After copies written for dajô daijin Fujiwara no Kanezane were published, the monks of Mt. Hiei collected all the copies they could get their hands on, along with the woodblocks from which they were printed, and destroyed them all. Hônen's writings would only become more widely available beginning in 1212, the year of his death.
Hônen was exiled to Sanuki province for four years beginning in 1206, and several of his disciples were executed, after they angered Emperor Go-Toba. Upon his death, he is said to have refused the traditional practice of holding golden cords with which Amida was supposed to pull the soul into the Pure Land, believing that faith alone and not ritual practices was essential to achieving entry into Paradise.
- “Amida, The Pure Land, and the Response of the Old Buddhism to the New,” in Wm. Theodore De Bary, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition, Second Edition, Columbia University Press (2001), 213-214.
- Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 79.