Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


A Raft from the Other Shore
Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism
by Sho-on Hattori
(Jodo Shu Press, Tokyo, 2000)

This book constitutes a very welcome addition to the paucity of works available in English on one of the great figures in the history of Pure Land Buddhism, Honen (1133-1212). Although Honen received his ordination and training in the Tendai tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, he eventually broke with this school and established the Pure Land way of refuge in Amida Buddha as an independent path for the first time. In this respect, his outlook was revolutionary in that it opened up the treasures of the Dharma to the masses in a way that had never been possible until that time. Honen was also the teacher of Shinran who was another great master of the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism.

Hattori's book is easy to read and informative. It eschews academic jargon and aims to speak to the reader directly, appealing to both the mind and the heart. This makes for an engaging read and it is very refreshing to see that the work lacks any kind of sectarian bias. It simply aims to faithfully present the thought of this gentle and visionary man, and to explain the deep significance of the reforms he felt compelled to undertake.

Chapter One 'The Life of Honen Shonin' is a succinct and helpful introduction to Honen's life. In simple outline, it focuses on the significant events of his life and times which is useful in providing the essential context needed to understand Honen's mission. One gets a very clear sense from this chapter of the remarkable personality of this man.

Chapter Two, 'The Way of Honen Shonin', really forms the heart of this book and provided the most substantial treatment of a number of significant Buddhist themes in Honen's work. For instance, Hattori presents a very clear and compelling account of the theory of Mappo-ji (Decadent Age of the Dharma) and how, in Honen's time, both priests and lay people alike, considered that they were living in a defiled time rampant with corruption, violence and natural disasters. It was widely considered that people living in such an age were no longer capable of fulfilling the taxing requirements laid down by the Buddha for the attainment of enlightenment. Accordingly, the concept of Mappo-ji is critical to a proper understanding of Honen's emphasis on becoming enlightened through the 'Other-Power' of Amida Buddha.

This chapter also provides a compelling account of another of Honen's preoccupations, namely the notion of 'universal salvation'. For Honen, the truth and efficacy of a Buddhist path is not just in whether its doctrinal aspect is intellectually convincing to learned monks and scholars but whether it is capable of being practiced by all people, including warriors, prostitutes, peasants etc. In other words, the 'truth' of a particular practice should not be judged merely by its philosophical content but whether it is genuinely capable of liberating all people from the bondage of ignorance and suffering. Although Honen held the established monastic schools of his day in great respect, he became convinced that they were only suitable for an increasing few who had exceptional abilities and gifts in meditation and the observance of precepts.

The other major discussion in this chapter is an explanation of the principal practice of the Pure Land Buddhism - the nembutsu or recitation of the name of Amida Buddha. Hattori gives a thorough and considered treatment of this subject. He stresses the two main features of the nembutsu which Honen thought made it a truly universal practice. Firstly, the name of Amida Buddha comprises the full reality and virtues of that Buddha which are, in turn, conferred on the practicer who recites this name with faith. Secondly, the requirement of universality is fulfilled through the fact that any person, even someone who is illiterate, is capable of undertaking such a practice and benefiting from it. Indeed, Honen considered that this was the only way for ordinary people saddled with heavy karmic burdens to reach Nirvana and thereby become Buddhas themselves.

Nevertheless, Hattori would have made his discussion of the nembutsu more interesting and helpful if he had engaged, a little more deeply, into how the nembutsu actually functions and is capable of transmuting our negative karma into Enlightenment. In this respect, one feels that Hattori raises more questions than he answers. Furthermore, one also feels that Shinran's view of the nembutsu is misrepresented by the author which is regrettable. Hattori claims that Shinran's view is that 'the nembutsu is not the way for man to gain Birth in the "Land of the Buddha" ' and that 'Amida himself participates in man's efforts in reciting the name'. A careful reading of Shinran's writings will not bear out the stance which Hattori claims for him. Shinran's position on the nembutsu is, admittedly, more complex and difficult than Honen's but this was largely due to the fact that Shinran felt compelled to address some of the ambiguities inherent in the nembutsu practice as taught by a number of Honen's disciples.

Chapter Three, 'Pure Land Buddhism', addresses itself to a discussion of some of the key concepts necessary in understanding this school of Buddhist thought, such as Amida Buddha and the Pure Land. Hattori's treatment of these subjects is somewhat less satisfying than his discussion of Honen's life and significance. It is clear that Hattori subscribes to a literal view of the origin of Amida Buddha as it is related in the Pure Land scriptures, ie. that he was once a man who by dint of bodhisattva practices over aeons and many lifetimes finally became the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life and established the nembutsu as the way to liberate all suffering beings. Hattori says 'Now you may notice that Amida was a man and became a Buddha. He is not the creator nor an absolute being, but his prolonged practices made him a great saviour of the world.' However, he also says 'Amida Buddha is the symbolic expression of the ultimate nature of Shakyamuni Buddha. He is the great liberator of the world and the great source of all life.' There appears to be a tension here between regarding Amida Buddha as a symbol for the ultimate reality (the Dharmakaya), which is eternal and without origin, and as the fruition of a historical event in which a king called Dharmakara made vows and undertook his selfless practices and austerities which led him to becoming this Buddha. In the view of Honen's most illustrious disciple, Shinran, Amida Buddha is the compassionate aspect of the highest reality and, in that respect, can also be considered 'the ground of being' -which Hattori explicitly denies as being applicable to Amida Buddha.

With respect to the author's treatment of the Pure Land, one can say that it is generally sound but suffers from some perplexing statements. For example, while stating that the Pure Land is the realm of purity, bliss and ultimate happiness where enlightenment can take place through Amida Buddha's 'Other-Power', Hattori also says 'The Pure Land is understood as the ideal world that shall be established on this earth some day'. This is a puzzling statement. The Pure Land is 'pure' precisely because it is contrasted to this 'impure' world of strife, misery and imperfection. The enlightenment we attain in the Pure Land is posthumous and no ordinary person is therefore capable of seeing this world as the Pure Land - otherwise there would be nothing to aspire to. Only a fully-awakened Buddha can see the world in this way and we do not become Buddhas until our birth in the Pure Land. Until such time, despite being able to receive the Buddha's wisdom and compassion through the nembutsu, we are still fundamentally benighted and far from being enlightened beings. Again, Shinran, makes for an interesting contrast. Rather than consider the Pure Land as a place created by the Buddha in which we undergo further purification and illumination, Shinran insisted that the Pure Land is really none other than Nirvana itself which the faithful attain at the moment of death. For Shinran, the literal descriptions of the Pure Land which we find in the sutras are simply a way of conveying the infinite bliss of enlightenment using concepts that are intelligible to ordinary people. Hattori comes close to this way of viewing the Pure Land when he states that 'This is the world of purity because of the realization of the pure or original nature of being.' However, in view of his general treatment of this matter, Hattori leaves a number of important questions and issues unresolved.

In Chapter Four, 'Essential Buddhism', Hattori directs himself to dealing with some other fundamental concepts in general Buddhism such as pratitya-samutpada, impermanence and the doctrine of no-self. Again, one feels that a more rigorous and balanced discussion could have been had in relation to these fundamental concepts but one is left a little disappointed by the superficial treatment they receive. The doctrine of pratitya-samutpada is certainly important but to claim that it is the most fundamental or basic concept in Buddhism is misleading. There is no discussion of how this concept relates to equally important notions such as Nirvana, Dharmakaya, Moksha etc. which are arguably of even greater importance in any balanced assessment of the Dharma. Similarly, the analysis of 'Self' and 'Soul' is inaccurate and misrepresents the Hindu conception of these terms which is much more sophisticated and complex than many Buddhist commentators give it credit for. While the discussion on 'oneness' seems promising at first, it quickly develops into a very vague and unsatisfying treatment that lacks any real penetration. It was also a lost opportunity to bring together some of the very important threads Hattori touches on throughout this chapter but which are, unfortunately, left disconnected.

Chapter Five, 'Buddhism in Life' includes some important and valuable insights into the spiritual impasse facing the modern world while Chapter Six, 'Buddhism in Japan', explains the significance of some of the traditional Pure Land practices and customs that are observed in Japan.

In conclusion, I would whole-heartedly recommend this book as a reliable and informative work on the life and thought of Honen. There are very few, if any, books of this kind in English and its appearance is most welcome. However, as a book on general Buddhist philosophy directed at a Western audience, this book has some conceptual shortcomings which vitiate its otherwise favourable impact on the reader.

- John Paraskevopoulos

Return to the list of book reviews.