Hōnen 法然 (1133–1212) is regarded as the founder of the first monastic order of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. Today all institutional forms of Pure Land (S. Jōdo 浄土) Buddhism derive from Hōnen and taken together comprise the largest form of organized religion in Japan. The textbook evaluations of his historical impact in Japan typically suggest that his understanding of the human condition and the most appropriate Buddhist response to that condition constituted a genuine paradigm shift in Japanese philosophical and religious consciousness at that time, one that continues to reverberate strongly in Japanese culture today. In my view, the ideational structure of Hōnen’s thought was, in fact, mostly derivative of previous Buddhist thinkers, but for reasons that are not entirely clear, the way that he framed these issues led to the creation of a discourse that truly challenged the power structure of the major Buddhist institutions in his day. We know this not merely from the debates they engendered but, more significantly, from the subsequent persecutions that occurred intermittently for two centuries of Hōnen, his disciples, and a number of religious orders that traced their authority to Hōnen by that power structure and even new institutions that replaced it. While Hōnen’s writings evince little in the way of an overt political agenda in a social sense, philosophically they represent a value system that we know brought forth feelings of deep admiration and devotion in some, loathing and fury in others. Just what were those values, why were they so controversial and ultimately so convincing to so much of the Japanese population, how did Hōnen argue them, and in what way do they continue to resonate in the Japanese consciousness today? These are the core issues I attempt to explain below. However, because we cannot fully understand any philosophical system without appreciating its context, particularly a primarily religious thinker like Hōnen, I also present a broad summary of doctrinal and philosophical issues surrounding his core ideas in the generations immediately preceding and following him.
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