Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


A Lifetime of Encounters with Honen Shonin
Edited by Jonathan Watts and Yoshiharu Tomatsu
Jodo Shu Press, Tokyo 2005

This is a beautifully produced book, based on the massive 14th century 'Pictorial Biography of Honen Shonin.' The material is structured in this much shorter work as a series of 'encounters' (as in the title) of all sorts of people with Honen Shonin, and thereby the reader encounters Honen's teachings. It is a lifetime of encounters because throughout his life Honen never ceased teaching any and all that came to him.

This structure is both a strength and weakness of the book. Although in a sense the teachings are presented piecemeal, the editors have structured the accounts of the encounters well so that there is a logical order to the presentation. They have also included what they call 'Zoom In's' which are boxed sections explaining terms or teachings touched on in the narration. This is a very good idea, whatever one chooses to call it, and for a popular work is much preferable to footnotes or a glossary.

After an introduction which backgrounds the context and development of Pure Land faith, the first encounter of the first part – sub-titled 'Just as you are' - is with 'The Tendai Scholar Kenshin' and opens up further exposition of Honen's teachings in a way that arises out of the narrative as do further encounters with other monastics, samurai, the nobility and the poor and criminal. All are welcomed and all are taught the way of the Nembutsu.

The second part of the book - 'Honen's Monastic Lineage' - goes into some detail about the monastic and organizational heirs of Honen Shonin, including Ippen and other Nembutsu Hijiri and various monastic disciples including the founders of the Jodo Shu and, of course, Shinran Shonin. This is intrinsically interesting and also gives insight into the subsequent development of the Pure Land Schools in Japan. In this section a degree of Jodo Shu sectarianism is displayed. The consideration of the teachings of Shinran Shonin is slightly distorted by this to the advantage of the founders of the Jodo Shu, but this is not as significant problem.

The book includes 12 pages of beautiful colour reproductions of illustrations from the 14th century biography which certainly adds to the appeal of this volume, but one must compare this book with the 2006 World Wisdom volume, 'Honen the Buddhist Saint' which is another version of Honen's official biography.. In the end I prefer the latter as I think it covers more ground and is not sectarian. What I would like to see though is a new translation of the complete biography. This would doubtless be an expensive undertaking but I think the Jodo Shu, as the custodians of the original owe it to English speaking Pure Land Buddhist to consider this. Well, I can dream... .

- Mark Healsmith

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