Did one of Japan’s foremost Pure Land buddhists seek to abandon this world at the expense of valuing its empirical reality?

One of the worst things you can accuse a buddhist of, is being a dualist. It is tantamount to suggesting he or she does not have a sufficient understanding of the very basics of emptiness (sunyata).

So I’m somewhat puzzled to see Japanese professor Yoshiro Tamura (1921-1989) write this:

“The first Japanese Buddhist leader to formulate a version of Pure Land teachings based on a truly dualistic approach was the founder of the Jodo (Pure Land) sect, Honen (also known as Genku; 1133-1212).”

Wondering why
Tamura makes this assertion on page 82, in the chapter ‘Pure Land Buddhism’ of his book Japanese Buddhism. A Cultural History (first English edition, 2000). Without further explanation, one is left wondering why.

In his next chapter about Shinran, Dogen and Nichiren, the founders of the new Kamakura buddhism, we read:

“They adhered to the critique of empirical reality that was the backbone of Honen’s Pure Land teachings; yet while he sought to abandon this world, they sought to transform it.” (p. 93)

The author describes Honen’s position as “relative dualism”.

Denial of buddha-nature
Tamura doesn’t elaborate on this context, but from other sources we know that some of Honen’s contemporaries questioned his buddhist credentials. The multi-practice Tendai orthodoxy felt the heat when he, himself brought up in their midst, started to attract a following with his claim that the nembutsu was the sole means for salvation.

The charge they leveled against him is that his concept of ‘other-power’ implied a denial of buddha-nature, everyone’s innate potential to realize enlightenment. (See e.g. The Essential Shinran. A Buddhist Path of True Entrusting, edited by Alfred Bloom, 2007, pp. 253ff.)

I don’t want to suggest Tamura’s stance echoes this old sectarian strife, although it looks as if to him the Tendai doctrine of original enlightenment serves as a ‘golden standard’.

Rival theories
In her book Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (1999) professor Jacqueline Stone of Princeton University qualifies Tamura’s perspective on Honen as “dialectical emergence” (p. 87), one of a number of “rival theories” of what exactly perspired as the Tendai hegemony was challenged by new buddhist paradigms going forward into the Kamakura period.

Another possibility, she writes (without taking sides herself), is to adopt a more gradualist approach based on a “unified, transsectarian framework” (p. 63) which attributes a greater weight to commonalities and continuity. Without more arguments to the contrary I’m inclined to subscribe to the latter kind of view of Honen’s place in mainstream buddhism.

Anyone with knowledge of Honen’s writings or light to shed on this discussion, please comment below