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August 10, 2011

Honganji History (Kyoto Guide)

There are two huge Honganji temples just north of Kyoto Station, Nishi (West) Honganji facing Horikawa Avenue and Higashi (East) Honganji facing Karasuma Avenue. The history of both these temples goes back to one and the same establishment, a chapel set up to the memory of Shinran, the founder of the Jodo Shin denomination to which these temples belong.

[The place near the Nishi Otani Cemetary, Higashiyama, Kyoto, where Shinran's body was cremated]

The Teachings of Shinran
Interestingly, Shinran - although now honored in the largest temples of Kyoto - was against temples. Shinran (1173 - 1262) was a disciple of Honen, who was considered a Buddhist radical, as he preached that salvation could be obtained by countless times reciting the Nembutsu, the phrase "Namu Amida Buddha" ("I take my Refuge in the Buddha Amida"). One did not need to train for many years in a monastery, one did not need to learn difficult esoteric rites or read piles of sutras. Honen finally brought Buddhism within reach of the daily life of ordinary people. But Shinran proved to be even more radical than his teacher.

Shinran taught that, provided one had sincere faith in the Amida Buddha, one single recitation of the Name was sufficient. Once faith had been established, nothing else was necessary. Amida had made a vow, the Primal Vow (hongan), to save all mankind ("If all beings who sincerely aspire to be born in my land recite my name and fail to be born there, then may I not attain Supreme Enlightenment"). (This is also the origin of the name of the Honganji temples, "Temple of the Original Vow.")

As Amida had become a Buddha, an enlightened being, the contents of his vow had been proven true. Therefore, Shinran said, it was enough to entrust oneself to the inconceivable power of Amida's vow. Then one would be saved and be reborn in the Pure Land. It would be like "being grasped never to be abandoned."

As humans themselves were powerless, all one could do was to rely on the saving power of that other force, Amida. This type of Buddhism is called Tariki, reliance on the Other Power, and contrasts with, for example, the Zen school that is based on Jiriki, one's own efforts.

For Shinran, only faith was necessary. Shinran therefore saw temples as irrelevant. He was a true radical and allowed priests to marry (as he did himself), and eat fish and meat. His followers would gather in dojo, training places in private homes and barns. These contained no rich temple trappings, no images. The only object on the altar was a wooden plaque engraved with the Nembutsu.

It was a simple kind of Buddhism, without difficult practice, without obtuse metaphysics, without the necessity to understand a deep philosophy. It was the type of Buddhism that strongly appealed to the common people. Shinran took the countryside by storm and Jodo Shinshu grew into the largest Buddhist group.

[Site of Honganji Temple, Osaka Castle. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

From Wooden Shed to Buddhist Fortress
Shinran did not found a temple. In true Congregationalist or revivalist spirit, his followers did not need one. But a cult grew up around his tomb at Otani on Higashiyama. In 1272 here the first Honganji Temple was built, a mortuary chapel, established by his daughter Kakushinni and administered by his descendants. Thus Honganji originated in death rites for Shinran. It functioned as a spiritual center for followers all over Japan, who still came together in their local dojo. But Honganji continued to grow, slowly but steadily, against persecution by other Buddhist groups.

The energetic abbot Rennyo (1415-99) dramatically advanced the power of the Honganji, bringing all followers of Shinran, who had been split into several factions, together under its aegis. Too much success, however, attracted disaster: in 1465 Tendai warrior monks from Mt. Hiei completely destroyed the temple. The Shin believers were driven out of Kyoto and they would have to stay in the countryside for 125 years. This disaster also proved a boon: their following again grew enormously among ordinary people, especially in the Hokuriku region.

Afterwards, the Shin sect came back with a vengeance, now to Osaka. There they built an enormous headquarters, Ishiyama Honganji, right on the spot of present-day Osaka Castle. At that time, the sect had grown so strong that even Japan's powerful warlords could not touch it. The temple, which resembled a fortified town, even withstood an eleven year siege by the all-powerful warlord Oda Nobunaga.

In 1591, the sect gave up the Osaka fortress-temple for a piece of land in Kyoto - present-day Nishi Honganji - offered by the wily Hideyoshi. The only way to vanquish the sect was to appease them and lure them back to the capital. Thus Honganji returned to Kyoto with a vast number of followers.

The temple is still in Osaka as well: after giving up the castle, it moved to what is now Midosuji, Osaka's central boulevard, which was even named after the temple: Mido, the Honorable Hall, was the popular name for the Honganji temple (suji means "street").

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Edo shogun, found another means to reduce the power of the sect. He availed himself of a succession conflict in the temple to offer another piece of land in the vicinity to a brother of the abbot, and so Higashi Honganji was born. The sect was effectively split into two parts, although there were no doctrinal differences.

From now on, radicalism was forgotten and the temples grew into establishments like others, patronized by court, aristocracy and warrior families.

Homepage of Richard St. Clair with many interesting Shin Buddhist links. Also contains links to the Three Pure Land Sutras. 
The writings of Shinran have been translated into English and are available on a site sponsored by Nishi Honganji. 
The Tannisho, written by a disciple of Shinran, is another Shin Buddhist classic and is available on the Living Dharma Website in a translation by Dr. Taitetsu Unno.
The Letters of Rennyo, the restorer of the sect, are available on the Shin Buddhist Resource Center.
Shin Dharma Net is a website by Dr. Alfred Bloom, who also has written many books to make Shin Buddhism accessible. The site contains a "Shin Course."
An excellent study of Shinshu Buddhism, its history and ideas from Shinran to Rennyo, is Jodo Shinshu by James C. Dobbins (Indiana University Press, 1989). 
An interesting essay on Rennyo is "Rennyo and the Shinshu Revival" by Stanley Weinstein in Hall/Takeshi, Japan in the Muromachi Age (University of California Press, 1977) 
D.T. Suzuki is famous for his many books on Zen, but he also wrote Buddha of Infinite Light to propagate Shin Buddhism in the West (reprint Random House, 2002). 
Tariki, Embracing despair, Discovering Peace is a discussion of the power of tariki in contemporary life by a modern novelist, Itsuki Hiroyuki (Kodansha, 2001).