Master Honen was then 69 years of age, in the prime of his life. This was 26 years after he had established the Jodo (Pure Land) School of Buddha-dharma at the age of 43, and three years after writing his major work, Senjaku Hongan Nembutsu-shu (Selected Passages on the Nembutsu of the Primal Vow), at the request of the Regent Kujo Kanezane, when he was 66 years of age.
The Venerable Master too, must have been untiring in learning all that he could from Master Honen, and that dedicated attitude won Master Honen’s trust. Four years after becoming Master Honen’s disciple on the 14th day of the 4th lunar month of 1205 AD when the Venerable Master was 33 years of age, he was allowed to make a copy of Master Honen’s Senjaku Hongan Nembutsu-shu. Among Master Honen’s many disciples, only a select few, including well-known monks such as Bencho, Shoku, Ryakan, Kosai, Shinka and Genchi, in addition to the Venerable Master, were allowed to make copies of that work. On the 29th day of the 7th lunar month of that same year (1205), the Venerable Master again changed his name, this time to Zenshin. That name was personally brushed by Master Honen (some scholars say the name Shinran dates from that time, however). These matters are described very movingly in the Chapter on Transformed Land of the Kyogyoshinsho.
Master Honen taught that all we need do to be born in the Pure Land (the Buddha’s world of Enlightenment) is recite Amida Buddha’s name of “Namo Amida Butsu.” This is referred to as “reciting the Nembutsu.” There is thus no need to perform any other practice, or rather, other practices are only 3 distractions. Master Honen taught that following the Path of Sages (shodomon) and performing “various practices” (shogyo) are of absolutely no use regarding birth in the Pure Land.
Master Honen taught that study and religious practices are unnecessary, and that even the worst of people will be saved by the single recitation of “Namo Amida Butsu.” Many classes of people responded to his teaching. Beginning with members of the nobility such as the Regent Kujo Kanezane, they included samurai, as well as thieves and prostitutes.
Because Master Honen’s teaching attracted such a large following, and because he completely denied following the Path of Sages and performing “various practices,” the established Buddhist denomination on Mt. Hiei and elsewhere began criticizing his teaching.
During the 10th month of 1204 AD, the monks on Mt. Hiei urged abolishing the Nembutsu teaching because of the overzealous actions of a few of Master Honen’s followers. In response to that appeal, Master Honen wrote the Shichikajo Kishomon (Seven Rules for Self Regulation) on the 7th day of the 11th month of that same year. He had 189 of his disciples sign the regulation, and presented it to Shinsho, the head monk of Enryaku Temple on Mt. Hiei. In this document, Master Honen admonished his disciples to: 1) not criticize other Buddhist denominations, 2) respect Buddhas and Bodhisattvas other than Amida Buddha, 3) not urge those who perform religious practices to become members of the“selected Nembutsu” group, 4) not advocate drinking intoxicating beverages and eating meat because the teaching of the “selected Nembutsu” does not have precepts that must be followed, 5) not criticize followers of the Buddhist precepts for performing “difficult practices,” 6) not fear “creating evil” because they rely on Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow, and finally, 7) practice self-discipline.
The Venerable Master signed this document as “Monk shuk’ka” (so shuk’ka), the name that he was then using, as the 86th member. This document seemed to have lessened the criticism against Master Honen’s group for a while, but during the 10th month of the next year (1205 AD), a document titled Kofukuji Sojo (Kofuku Temple Petition for Censure) was presented to the Imperial Court. I will describe the contents of this petition in detail later, but the following are the main points for which Master Honen was criticized:
- Establishing a new Buddhist denomination without Imperial permission.
- Drawing a new image of Amida Buddha.
- Slighting Shakyamuni Buddha.
- Criticizing the doing of “good.”
- Slighting local gods.
- Unclear on the concept of the Pure Land.
- Misunderstanding the Nembutsu.
- Breaking the Buddhist precepts.
- Creating disturbances in the country.
The Imperial Court was requested to ban the Nembutsu teaching for the above reasons.
The then Emperor, Go-toba, and other members of the Imperial Court looked on Master Honen’s teaching favorably so they did not take any action at first.
Beginning on the 9th day of the 12th lunar month of 1206 AD, however, while the Emperor Gotoba was on a trip to Kumano, several of his favorite concubines determined to abandon the secular world and become nuns under the guidance of Master Honen’s disciples named Jaren and Anraku. This aroused the rage of the Emperor, and during the 2nd month of 1207 AD, he ordered the Nembutsu teaching to be suspended. Four persons, including the above-mentioned Jaren and An-raku, were ordered executed, and eight persons, including Master Honen and the Venerable Master were ordered exiled.