Divides in the Pure Land

Kyoto celebrates two major Buddhist influences of Japan


Special To The Japan Times

The portrait of Honen Shoin (13th century) is known in Japanese as “Kagami no Miei” (mirror portrait) and shows the famous Buddhist priest seated on a mat, slightly slumped and holding his nenju (rosary). For the title of another famous 13th-century depiction of a well-known Buddhist priest, Shinran, the same kanji characters are given a slightly different reading. This time the mirror portrait is titled “Kagami no Goei.”

It is an exceedingly subtle difference, but one that invokes the mirrorlike refractions and reflections that occur within evolving religions. Like the rays in the “Mandala of Saving and Never Forsaking,” which represents the light of the Buddha falling on only those who practiced the nembutsu (invoking Amida Buddha’s holy name), enlightenment never follows a straight path.

Although the lives of these two venerated holy men overlapped, that isn’t reflected in two shows being concurrently exhibited in Japan’s ancient capital: “Honen: The Life and Art of the Founder of the Pure Land Buddhist Sect” at the Kyoto National Museum and “Shinran: The Founder of Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism: His Life and Legacy” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art.

The shows, which are both celebrating anniversaries — Honen’s 800th at the Kyoto National Museum and Shinran’s 750th at Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art — are ultimately looking at deeply related yet distinct sects.

Honen is known as the founder of the Pure Land Buddhist school and Shinran of New Pure Land Buddhism — the so-called “true teaching” or “essence” of Pure Land Buddhism. Each exhibition locates their own founders, doctrinal definitions, and seeks a carefully maintained lineage of transmission from master to disciple.

Shinran (1173-1262) did, however, begin as Honen’s disciple, and both priests started their religious careers within the Tendai School of Buddhism and were persecuted and exiled to different parts of the country in 1207. Though the work of Honen (1133-1212) is not featured in the Shinran exhibition, and vice versa, the two were documented together in the 1323 version of Jofukuji Temple’s “Supplemented Biographies of High Priests” and in the “Illustrated Biography of Honen and Shinran” (1338) by Ryuen, which is on show at the Shinran exhibition. The disconnection between the two schools of thought, though, is mentioned in the magisterial “Illustrated Biography [of Honen] in Forty-eight Scrolls” (14th century).

On Honen’s death in 1212, religious factionalism arose around three particular figures — Shoko-bo Bencho (1162-1238), Zen’ne-bo Shoku (1177-1247), and Shinran. The last five of the 48 scrolls of Honen’s biography are dedicated to his disciples, and while most of them get bit parts, Bencho and Shoku get entire volumes. Shinran, however, is entirely absent. In a similar manner, Honen, though an important figure, is only mentioned in the Shinran exhibition as part of the abbreviated background information. It is an intriguing segregation, no doubt practical to the commemorative circumstances of these shows, but also ideological. Visitors will have to wait until the Tokyo National Museum’s “Honen and Shinran,” which opens on Oct. 25, for the integration of the two.

Though the popularity of their faiths rose during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), Honen and Shinran were not the originators of Pure Land Buddhism, which is believed to have arrived from India via China as early as the 7th century. In 1175, after decades of study, Honen read the “Meditation Sutra” by the Chinese Pure Land monk Shandao (613-681) and arrived at the understanding that the exclusive practice of nembutsu was needed to be reborn in the Western Pure Land paradise.

What alarmed other traditional Buddhist schools was the exclusivity of a practice that had before merely been an adjunct to visualization of Amida Buddha. Furthermore, it seemingly obviated spiritual rebirth through other practices, such as pursuing meditation to a state of Buddhahood enlightenment.

After Honen’s death, the divisive infighting concerning unresolved questions, such as the sufficiency of invoking Amida’s name merely once or accruing merit through its repetition, and pressure from without by traditional schools of Buddhism, resulted in decades of disorder from which Shinran emerged as the preeminent figure of the New Pure Land Buddhism. To resolve the doctrinal problems, Shinran composed “The True Teaching, Practice and Realizatione” (13th century), which was essentially supportive of Honene’s teachings. He explained the nembutsu as a form of gratitude though placed central importance on Amidae’s Primal Vow which promised all of mankind to be saved regardless of one’s station in life.

The art on show is catholic and largely concerned with elucidating the biographies of the respective founders and their teachings. In the Honen exhibition, because he placed emphasis on the exclusive chanting of the nembutsu, few images of worship were produced in the period when he lived. History, however, sought to legitimize his status and copious illustrated biographies and portraits were nonetheless made in his lifetime and afterward.

A preeminent work in the Shinran exhibition is “Portrait of Shinran” (1255). It depicts an 83-year-old Shinran sitting on an animal pelt, an accoutrement of itinerant priests that allowed them to sit anywhere to dispense their doctrine. Such aspects of quotidian life were distinctive of new Buddhist portraiture and were no doubt indicative of the religion practiced among the people rather than that practiced in cloistered confines. Such portraits are concerned with likeness and prone to distortion. One leaves these exhibitions with similar thoughts on religions.

“Honen: The Life and Art of the Founder of the Pure Land Buddhist Sect’ ” at the Kyoto National Museum, runs till May 8; admission ¥1,400; open 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.kyohaku.go.jp “Shinran : The Founder of the Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism: His Life and Legacy” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art runs till May 29; admission ¥1,300; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon.
For more information, visit www.city.kyoto.jp/bunshi/kmma