Ho’onko: the Annual Memorial Service for Shinran Shonin

 In the Jodo Shinshu School of Buddhism, it is customary to hold an annual Ho’onko 報恩講 (Pronounced HOE-OWN-KOH) Memorial Service in remembrance of Shinran Shonin (1173-1263), the Japanese Buddhist priest who we look to as the founder of our tradition.  The tradition of annual Ho’onko services was initiated by Shinran’s great-grandson Kakunyo during the 33rd Year Memorial Service for Shinran.  At the Nishi Hongwanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, the Hoonko observance is held each year from January 9th to 16th, culminating in an all-night Dharma marathon of talks by ministers from all over Japan.  This year, we will observe Ho’onko at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on Sunday, January 22.  In temples of the Jodo Shinshu tradition, Ho’onko is considered to be the most important Buddhist service of the year.

If we conducted a survey of our Sangha members asking everyone which of our annual Buddhist services is most important, we wouldn’t be surprised to hear many responses along the lines of Hanamatsuri (Sakyamuni Buddha’s Birthday) or Obon (the grateful remembrance of departed loved ones that we hold every summer).  Of all the Buddhist services we observe throughout the year, why is Shinran’s Memorial Service traditionally given the most emphasis? 

As with all Buddhist traditions, the teachings of the Jodo Shinshu school are based on the truth that Sakyamuni Buddha awakened to when he realized enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi Tree at the age of 35.  Our sacred scriptures the sutras tell us that Sakyamuni spent the next 45 years teaching the Dharma until his parinirvana at the age of 80.  During those 45 years of teaching, he provided 84,000 Dharma Gates, all of which are teachings that lead to true awakening and liberation from suffering.  The standard collection of the Buddha’s sermons in Chinese translation fills an entire bookcase with large volumes in fine print. 

It would be very difficult for a simple person like me to read the entire Buddhist canon of sutras and master their meaning.  Even, Shinran Shonin who had extensive knowledge of the Buddhist sutras from 20 years of study as monk on Mount Hiei and years of guidance under his wise teacher Honen, concluded that he could not realize perfect awakening through the power of his own study and practice. 

Through his encounter with Honen, Shinran realized that all of the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha’s enlightenment is contained in the words “NA MO A MI DA BUTSU 南無阿弥陀仏.” In his “Hymn of True Entrusting Heart and the Nembutsu” (Shōshin Nembutsuge), Shinran expresses the meaning of these six Chinese characters as “I take refuge in the Tathagata of Immeasurable Life! / I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light!”  Following in the tradition of Honen, Shinran taught that anyone who entrusts their life to the compassion of the Buddha and expresses their joy and gratitude in the words “Namo Amida Butsu” will unfailingly realize Birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.  To be born in the Pure Land is to realize a life of perfect awakening and a life that is free from the suffering of greed, anger, and ignorance.

The recitation of the name of Amida Buddha in the words “Namo Amida Butsu” is called the nembutsu and expresses the joyful awareness that sustains the life of a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist.  Shinran clarified the nembutsu teaching as a path that all of us can follow to experience the truth of the Buddha’s awakening in our own lives, regardless of our intellectual abilities or circumstances in life. 

Without Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings the true Dharma would not exist in this world for me to encounter.  Without Shinran Shonin as a guide, I would not be able to find my way to realize the truth of the Buddha’s teaching in my own life.  For me, Ho’onko is the most significant service of the year because it is the opportunity to express my gratitude for Shinran’s teachings and reflect on the guidance they provide for my life.

Namo Amida Butsu