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? 

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Into the name flow all of Amida’s uncountable virtues

. . . into the name flow all of Amida’s uncountable virtues.  That is to say, in the name are contained all the merits and virtues of Amida’s inner enlightenment, such as the four kinds of wisdom, the three bodies, the ten powers, and the four kinds of fearlessness. Also contained in it are all the merits and virtues of his outward activities, such as the major and minor bodily characteristics, the emanation of light, the preaching of the Dharma, and the benefitting of sentient beings.

(Honen’s Senchakushu published by the Kuroda Institute, page. 76)

Hōnen Shōnin’s parting words to his students on the occasion of his being sent into exile

“Do not resent my being sent into exile, for I am approaching eighty years of age.  Even if we were living together as teacher and students in the capital, my departure from this saha world is drawing near.  Even if we are separated by mountains and oceans, do not doubt that we will meet again in the Pure Land.  Though we may reject this world, our human existence carries on.  Though we may cling to life, our death will come.  Why insist upon being in a certain place?

“What’s more, while I have spent all these years sharing the Nembutsu teaching here in the capital, it has been my heartfelt wish to go into the outlying regions and share the teachings with the farmers who work the fields.  However, a time had not come when I was able to fulfill that wish.  That I am now able to pursue this long-held wish is thanks to the great benevolence of the emperor.

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The Vow of the Buddha is Deep

In late 1206, while the Japanese Emperor Gotoba was away from the capital on a pilgrimage to the Kumano Shrine, his consorts Suzumushi and Matsumushi joined a Nembutsu gathering led by Honen’s followers Juren-bo and Anraku-bo.  After hearing the Nembutsu teaching, the emperor’s consorts experienced a great change of heart and took ordination as Buddhist nuns. 

When the emperor returned and discovered that Suzumushi and Matsumushi had renounced their lives in the imperial palace to join Honen’s Nembutsu Sangha, he became enraged and ordered Juren-bo and Anraku-bo to be executed along with two other leading followers of Honen.  Honen was ordered to be exiled on the island of Shikoku.  Seven more of his followers, including Shinran, were dispossessed of their priesthood and sent into exile, scattering the community throughout Japan.  While many lamented the exile, Honen instructed his disciples that this too should be accepted as the flow of karmic causes and conditions in their lives.  The following were his parting words to the Sangha:

“Do not resent my being sent into exile, for I am approaching eighty years of age.  Even if we were living together as teacher and students in the capital, my departure from this saha world is drawing near.  Even if we are separated by mountains and oceans, do not doubt that we will meet again in the Pure Land.  Though we may reject this world, our human existence carries on.  Though we may cling to life, our death will come.  Why insist upon being in a certain place?

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The Path to the Pure Land: A Translation of and Commentary on Shinran’s Saihō-Shinan-shō

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

7:00 p.m. via Zoom Meeting

Rev. Dr. Toshikazu Arai

Professor Emeritus

Soai University, Osaka

We invite you join us to hear Rev. Dr. Arai share insights from his recently published translation of Shinran’s record of teachings by his master Honen.  This superb translation makes Saihō-Shinan-shō available to English language readers for the first time.

CLICK HERE to purchase The Path to the Pure Land: A Translation of and Commentary on Shinran’s Saihō-Shinan-shō

To join us for this online Dharma Session, CLICK HERE and sign up for “Study Classes and Seminars”.

Dharma Discussion: Śīla (July 19, 2020)

Please review the Bodhisattva Precepts

Discussion Questions

  1.  How do you practice these precepts in your daily life?
  2. Is there meaning in doing one’s best, even though one is not able to practice these perfectly in daily life?
  3. Which of these do you think our world needs most at the present moment?

Honen’s Perspective on upholding precepts (from The Passages on the the Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow)

If the original vow required us to make images of the Buddha and to build stupas, the poor and destitute would surely have no hope of birth, but the fact is that the rich and highborn are few, while the poor and lowborn are exceedingly many.  

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True Victory

In a recent address to the Sangha, our temple President began his remarks with the words, “I would like to offer my condolences to Reverend Adams. . .”  Wondering what loss I should be grieving, I momentarily searched my memories of the preceding weeks.  Then he finished his sentence with the words, “. . . for the inhospitable treatment your Minnesota Vikings received from the San Francisco 49ers yesterday afternoon.”  I grew up in Minnesota and the previous day those two professional football teams had faced off for the Division Title.  Having suffered defeat at the hands of the 49ers, the Minnesota Vikings lost their chance to play in the Super Bowl on February 2.  For many families, Super Bowl Sunday is a major social event that rivals the traditional winter holidays as an occasion for gathering friends and loved ones for elaborate feasting and celebration—or drowning your sorrows in bean dip and hot wings if your team happens to be losing.

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Olympic Victory

Growing up in Minnesota, my favorite sport was alpine skiing. As a teenager, I competed in slalom racing on my high school ski team and the great sports hero of my youth was Olympic slalom champion Alberto Tomba. Our team practiced at a local ski hill that somehow managed to rise out of the flat surrounding farmland, gradually increasing in elevation over the years thanks to innumerable dump truck loads of dirt. I never came close to winning a race, but I enjoyed practices because the course of gates was set differently each time, transforming the otherwise unremarkable little hill into a challenging and exciting place to ski.

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Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu

At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we look to Shinran Shonin (1173-1263) as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition. However, Shinran himself never set out to found his own Buddhist school. Throughout his writings and teachings, he describes himself as a humble student of his teacher Honen Shonin (1133-1212), as we find in the following words from A Record in Lament of Divergences (Tannisho):

As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, “Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida”; nothing else is involved.

I have no idea whether the nembutsu is truly the seed for my being born in the Pure Land or whether it is the karmic act for which I must fall into hell. Should I have been deceived by Master Honen and, saying the nembutsu, were to fall into hell, even then I would have no regrets.

The reason is, if I could attain Buddhahood by endeavoring in other practices, but said the nembutsu and so fell into hell, then I would feel regret at having been deceived. But I am incapable of any other practice, so hell is decidedly my abode whatever I do.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 662)

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Treasure of the Nation

We will be observing our annual Gotan-e Service on May 21, 2017 at 9:30 a.m. Gotan-e celebrates the birth of Shinran Shonin, the founder of our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, in the year 1173. As we celebrate Shinran’s birthday, we take time this month to recall the events of his life. Shinran was ordained as a Buddhist monk of the Tendai school at the age of nine under the guidance of the eminent monk Jien. Shinran spent the next twenty years studying the Tendai teachingsand practicing monastic discipline on Mount Hiei. Although he departed from Mount Hiei at the age of 29, his later writings show the lifelong impact that the Buddhist education he received in the Tendai tradition had on his understanding of the Dharma.

The Tendai School was established in Japan, bythe monk Saicho (767-822) who in 804 joined an official delegation to China, where he studied with the leading monks of the Tiantai (Jpn. Tendai) school. Upon his return to Japan he worked to establish a dedicated site for monastic practice at Mount Hiei, just northeast of the capital. Saicho envisioned the Mount Hiei monastic complex as a site for Mahayana Buddhist practice based on the model of Bodhisattva Vows and self-realization through working for the benefit of others.

As he petitioned for support to establish an officially sanctioned ceremonial platform for ordaining monks in the Mahayana tradition, Saicho emphasized the benefit that his mountain Buddhist community would bring to the nation of Japan.

 

What is the treasure of the nation? The religious nature is a treasure, and he who possesses this nature is the treasure of the nation. That is why it was said of old that ten pearls big as pigeon’s eggs do not constitute the treasure of a nation, but only when a person casts his light over a part of the country can one speak of a treasure of the nation. A philosopher of old once said that [he who is capable in speech, but not action should be a teacher of the nation]; he who is capable in action but not in speech should be of service to the nation; but he who is capable both in action and speech is the treasure of the nation. Apart from these three groups, there are those who are capable neither of speech nor action: these are the betrayers of the nation.

Buddhists who possess the religious nature are called in the west bodhisattvas; in the east they are known as superior men. They hold themselves responsible for all bad things while they credit others with all good things. Forgetful of themselves, they benefit others. This represents the epitome of compassion.

(Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume One: From Earliest Times to 1600, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary, et. al., p. 145-146)

 

As a student on Mount Hiei, Shinran would have aspired to these lofty ideals set forth in the writings of Saicho and other great teachers of the Tendai tradition. While the specific reasons for Shinran’s departure from Mount Hiei are not recorded in his writings or other contemporary documents, we do know that by Shinran’s time the monasteries of Mount Hiei had come to be dominated by monks from aristocratic backgrounds who were regularly embroiled in secular and political affairs. There was even a standing army of “warrior monks” based on Mount Hiei, who would periodically march on the capital to influence matters of the state.

Perhaps exasperation with how far monastic life on Mount Hiei had diverged from the ideals set forth by Saicho was a contributing factor in Shinran’s decision to leave Mount Hiei and join Honen’s Nembutsu community on the outskirts of Kyoto. In his Hymns on the Dharma Ages, Shinran writes, “It is saddening to see the behavior of the monks of the major temples and monastic complexes at present, whether high-ranking monks or ‘teachers of dharma.’” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 424) In contrast, Shinran expresses his joy in encountering his teacher Honen (Genku) in the following verse from the Hymns on the Pure Land Masters:

Though Shan-tao and Genshin urged all to enter the true Pure Land way,

If our teacher Genku had not spread it among us

On these isolated islands in this defiled age,

How could we ever have awakened to it?

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 387)