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Founder of the Jōdo Shū.or Pure Land school, in medieval Japan. Hōnen was born into a locally prominent family, and lost his father at an early age when a manager of nearby imperial estates raided his family lands. He was sent to the local Tendai school temple, where his maternal uncle was the priest, for safekeeping, but he took to monastic life and spent many years practising and studying in various places, finally receiving full ordination in 1147 on Mt. Hiei. He eventually became quite well-known for his scholarship, sincerity, and strict morality. Dissatisfied with the corruptions of life on Mt. Hiei, he retired to Mt. Kurodani, long known as a centre of nembutsu practice. He remained there for 20 years. During this time, he remained doubtful that his own accomplishments were enough to guarantee liberation, and he searched the scriptures for other ways of practice more suited to his capacities. In 1175 he found the inspiration he sought in Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sūtra, which advised keeping the name of the Buddha Amitābha in mind at all times to guarantee rebirth in the Pure Land.

From then on, Hōnen advocated this practice of reciting the Buddha's name aloud for extended periods and keeping it fixed in one's mind at all times. He took the further step of proclaiming this practice the only one that could be effective in the troubled times of mappō.or the declining period of Buddhism. He himself was very discreet in his teaching, but some of his disciples began causing trouble by either proclaiming loudly that all other practices were ineffective, arousing the ire of the established schools, or proclaiming that Amitābha Buddha's compassion (karuṇā) and ‘other-power’ (tariki) were effective in themselves for salvation, thus rendering morality nugatory. Accusations of troublemaking and antinomian behaviour ensued, and Hōnen found himself under attack. His own irreproachable conduct and willingness to engage in other practices, such as monastic ordinations and esoteric rituals (see esoteric Buddhism), protected him for a time, but in 1206 two of his disciples passed the night in the ladies' quarters of the emperor's palace, giving rise to rumours of sexual improprieties against the emperor himself. Four of Hōnen's disciples were executed, and Hōnen himself was banished to Shikoku and forced to return to lay life. Even though he was pardoned soon thereafter, he was prevented from re-entering the capital until just before his death in 1212. After his death, clerics outside his immediate circle of disciples discovered that he had compiled an anthology of scriptural passages defending the exclusive use of the oral nembutsu as the only practice suited to the times, and they moved to have copies confiscated and the wood printing blocks burnt. As the nascent Jōdo Shū gained strength his reputation was rehabilitated, and he is today honoured as the founder of the first independent Pure Land school.

Subjects: Buddhism.

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