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Japanese Buddhism

Jōdo shū (浄土宗?, "The Pure Land School"), also known as Jodo Buddhism, is a branch of Pure Land Buddhism derived from the teachings of the Japanese ex-Tendai monk Hōnen. It was established in 1175 and is the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan, along with Jodo Shinshu.

The Founder: Hōnen

Hōnen was born in 1133, the son of a prominent family in Japan whose ancestry could be traced back to silk merchants from China. Hōnen was originally named Seishi-maru after the bodhisattva Seishi (Mahasthamaprapta in Sanskrit). After a rival official assassinated his father in 1141, Hōnen was initiated into his uncle's monastery at the age of 9. From then on, Hōnen lived his life as a monk, and eventually studied at the famous monastery of Mount Hiei.

Hōnen was well-respected for his knowledge and for his adherence to the Five Precepts, but in time, Hōnen became dissatisfied with the Tendai Buddhist teachings he learned at Mount Hiei. Influenced by the writings of Shan-tao, Hōnen devoted himself solely to Amitabha (Amida) Buddha, as expressed through the nembutsu.

In time, Hōnen gathered disciples from all walks of life, and developed a large following, notably women, who had been excluded from serious Buddhist practice up to this point. This included fishermen, prosititutes[1] and fortune tellers. Hōnen also distinguished himself by not discriminating against women who were menstruating, who were thought at the time to be unclean. All of this caused concern among the religious and political elite of Kyoto and eventually the emperor Gotoba issued a decree in 1207 to have Hōnen exiled to a remote part of Japan, and given a criminal's name. Some of Hōnen's followers were executed, while others, including Shinran, were exiled to other regions of Japan away from Hōnen.[2]

Eventually, Hōnen was pardoned and returned to Kyoto in 1211, but died soon after in the year 1212, just two days after writing his famous One-Sheet Document.


Jodo Shu is heavily influenced by the idea of Mappo or The Age of Dharma Decline. The concept of Mappo is that over time society becomes so corrupt, that people can no longer effectively put the teachings of the Buddha into practice anymore. In medieval thought, signs of Mappo included warfare, natural disasters and corruption of the Sangha. The Jodo Shu school was founded near the end of the Heian Period when Buddhism in Japan had become deeply involved in political schemes, and some in Japan saw monks flaunting wealth and power. At the end of the Heian Period warfare also broke out between competing samurai clans, while people suffered from earthquakes and series of famines.[3]

Hōnen, through Jodo Shu teachings, sought to provide people a simple Buddhist practice in a degenerate age, that anybody could use toward Enlightenment: Devotion to Amida Buddha as expressed in the nembutsu. Through Amida's compassion, a being may be reborn in the Pure Land (Sukhavati in Sanskrit), where they can pursue Enlightenment more readily. Hōnen did not believe that other Buddhist practices were wrong, but rather, they were not practical on a wide-scale, especially during the difficult times of the late Heian Period.[3]

Repetition of the nembutsu is a common feature of Jodo Shu, which derives from the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. However, in addition to this, practitioners are encouraged to engage in "auxiliary" practices, such as observing the Five Precepts, meditation, the chanting of sutras and other good conduct. There is no strict rule on this however, as the compassion of Amida is extended to all beings who recite the nembutsu, so how one observes auxiliary practices is left to the individual to decide.


Chion-in, the highest temple of Jōdo shū.

The Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life is the central Buddhist scripture for Jodo Shu Buddhism, and the foundation of the belief in the Primal Vow of Amida. In addition to the Larger Sutra, the Contemplation Sutra and the Amitabha Sutra (The Smaller Sutra of Immeasurable Life) are important to the Jodo Shu school. The writings of Hōnen, contained mostly in the Senjaku-hongan nembutsu-shū (often abbreviated to 'Senchakushū'), are another source for Jodo Shu thought as is his last writing, the Ichimai-Kishōmon (一枚起請文?, "One-Sheet Document"). Compared to other Buddhists at the time, Honen wrote relatively little, so most of what is known about Honen and his thought is attributed through sayings collected in the follow century.

Jodo Shu, like other Buddhist schools, maintains a professional, monastic priesthood, who help to lead the congregation, and also maintain the well-known temples such as Chion-in. The head of the Jodo Shu school is called the monshu in Japanese, and lives at the head temple in Kyoto, Japan, Chion-in Temple.


The main 'Chinzei' branch of Jodo Shu was maintained by the so-called "Second Patriarch" and disciple of Honen, Shoko, also known as ’’Benchō. However, other disciples of Hōnen branched off into a number of other sects and interpretations of Jodo Shu thought, particularly after they were exiled in 1207:[4]

  • Shoku founded the Seizan branch of Jodo Shu, which structured the Buddhist teachings into a hierarchy with the nembutsu at the top.
  • Ryukan taught that faith in Amida Buddha mattered, not so much the actual practice of the nembutsu. He was exiled to eastern Japan.
  • Kōsai taught the idea that a single recitation of the nembutsu was all that was necessary. He was exiled to the island of Shikoku.
  • Chosai, the last of Hōnen's direct disciples, felt that all practices in Buddhism would lead to birth in the Pure Land.
  • Awanosuke, the fortune-teller. He is credited with the double-stranded rosary, or juzu used in Jodo Shu sects, though he did not establish a branch of his own.

Another disciple, Shinran founded the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, which diverges somewhat doctrinally, but otherwise is heavily influenced by Hōnen and his teachings. In Jodo Shinshu, Hōnen is considered the Seventh Patriarch. Depending on the viewpoint, Shinran and Jodo Shinshu are considered another branch of Jodo Shu.

Geographic distribution

Although Jodo Shu is mainly found in Japan, a sizable Jodo Shu community exists in Hawaii as well as a few temples in the continental United States.


  1. "Nyorai-in in Settsu" (in English). Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
  2. "About Honen Shonin" (in English). Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hattori, Sho-on (2001). A Raft from the Other Shore : Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism. Jodo Shu Press. pp. 16–19, 52. ISBN 4883633292. 
  4. "The 4 Eras of Honen's Disciples" (in English). Retrieved 2008-11-23. 

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