Who were the founders of Pure Land teaching in Japan?

The Japanese monk Honen (1133-1212) lived in troubled times. As his father was dying, a victim of assassination, he told the boy not to seek revenge but to embrace the dharma. Honen sought a form of the dharma that could be of use to ordinary people who did not have time or opportunity for study and meditation, and he found it in the works of the 7th-century priest Shandao, who counseled repetition of Amida Buddha’s name. In 1175 Honen began to teach widely and became the founder of the first distinct Pure Land School (Jodo-shu) in Japan.

Shinran (1173-1263), one of Honen’s disciples, is regarded as the founder of the Jodo Shinshu school. After losing both parents as a child, he became a monk at the age of 9; twenty years later a visionary experience directed him to Honen. Nembutsu practice soon came under attack, however: Honen was exiled in 1207, and Shinran was defrocked and exiled soon thereafter. Later he spread the nembutsu teaching to many areas of Japan and became known for his emphasis on the practitioner’s need to rely entirely on “other-power,” that of the buddha. Shinran also married and thereby gave an example of how ordinary people could follow the teaching.

Ippen (1239-1289) founded the Ji Shu school of Pure Land. He was inspired by his teacher Shoko, one of Honen’s disciples, and by a powerful vision that came to him at the Kumano Shrine in 1275. Ippen wandered through the country giving out slips of paper inscribed with the nembutsu and teaching that all other Buddhist practices had the main function of leading people to Amida. However, he was also a Zen master, and, in addition, had a great respect for Shinto shrines and deities. His followers were noted for their ecstatic fervor. 

Rennyo (1415-1499) was a descendant of Shinran though an illegitimate child by a servant woman. Nonetheless, he became the keeper of the Shinran mausoleum. He was a highly effective preacher and united several branches of Pure Land tradition, building up the school and foremost temple complex of Jodo Shinshu, which became—and remains—the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan.

Of these four primary Pure Land founders, two married and two led renunciant lives. The latter, Honen and Ippen, basically continued the Japanese hijiri tradition of independent holy men who were hermits or wanderers, while the former had children and established the tradition of hereditary family temples, now normative in most branches of Japanese Buddhism. Both these forms, being marked departures from monasticism, have given Japanese Buddhism a distinctive character.


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