Bencho (1161-1238) was the successor to Honen as the leading teacher in the Jodo School. The role of great successor is very important. Would we have Christianity without St Paul and St Peter? Would Dogen Zenji be remembered without Keizan Zenji?
When Bencho was 14 he went to study Tendai Buddhism on Mount Hiei and in 1183, age 22, he entered the great Enraku-ji temple. He had two teachers there, first Kwan-ei and later Shoshin. In 1190, age 29, he returned to his home province and became head of Yusan temple. The age of 29 is a turning point in the lives of many people. In 1194 he had a spiritual awakening and entered upon a new period of spiritual search, renouncing ambition and acquisitiveness and seeking higher truth.
In 1197, age 36, he visited the 65 year old Honen Shonin who was now living in his hermitage at Yoshimizu. At this time, Bencho was still rather proud of his own learning and knowledge and his search had become one of putting difficult and clever questions to people to see if they could answer them.
Bencho arrived at Honen’s place a bit before 2pm. Honen welcomed him and Bencho was soon putting his questions. Honen weighed up the younger man quite quickly and said, “As you are a real scholar, I think I should explain to you three kinds of nembutsu: the one described in the Mohochiquan, that of the Ojoyoshu and that proposed by Shan Tao…” Honen then went into a detailed exposition and was still talking at midnight. Bencho was completely fascinated and thereafter took Honen as his teacher, spending as much time in his presence as he possibly could, always learning.
The following spring, 1198, Honen gave him a copy of Senchakushu. At this time Senchakushu was an unpublished semi-secret work that Honen had written at the behest of a former Regent of Japan, Tsuki-nowa. This was Honen’s way of giving ‘transmission’ to his most favoured disciples. Later that year Honen sent Bencho to Iyo province to preach the nembutsu for half a year. Bencho proved to be quite a successful missionary. He then returned and assisted at Honen’s hermitage until 1204.
During this time most of the studies centred on Shan Tao’s Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra. A key element in this work is Shan Tao’s description of the ‘Three Minds’. Bencho understood the Three Minds as follows:
1. The sincere mind: a mind of simple confidence that the Pure Land awaits one.
2. Profound mind: a deep appreciation of how unworthy, lacking in self-power for salvation, and 'bombu' one is, coupled with confidence that it is precisely for such as ourselves that Amida attends.
3. The longing mind that yearns for the Pure Land for oneself and all others.
He maintained that when one has settled faith then the Three Minds arise naturally within one.
In 1204, Bencho returned to his native province of Chinzei and continued his missionery work with even more success than before. At this time there arose a question whether the practice of nembutsu was a ‘final’ teaching, or merely ‘introductory’ and, correspondingly, whether it led on to the esoteric teachings of Tendai as a consummation, or not. Bencho sent a disciple of his with a letter of enquiry to Honen who wrote in his own hand that it was not and never had been his teaching that nembutsu was merely introductory. This signed statement in his own hand has played an important part in the development of Jodo teaching.
In 1212 (or 1211, depending which calendar one uses) Honen died. Bencho continued to propagate his teachings. In 1228 he held a nembutsu retreat of 48 days at Ojo-in temple and there launched a booklet bringing together his own understanding of what he had received from his teacher. This was called “Nembutsu Teaching for Future Generations as Certified and Sealed by my Own Hand.” When he had completed this work, a vision of Honen appeared before Bencho, reducing him to floods of tears. This greatly increased Bencho’s confidence in his own teaching mission.
In those days there was a famous holy site at Mount Kora. Bencho determined to do a 1000 day nembutsu retreat there and organised a party of devotees to practise together. Around the 800th day, they heard news that priests from another temple on the mountain were planning to come and drive them away. The retreat group were unsure what to do and were generally in favour of leaving the site. However, Bencho prevailed upon them to stay put. The following morning the priests from the other temple arrived, but, instead of being hostile, they came bearing offerings. Apparently, during the night, they had all had a similar dream of a great light shining from the west and a voice saying that the Buddha light was shining because of the priest saying the nembutsu. Thus peace and friendship were restored and after that the holy site at Mount Kora flourished for many years.
Bencho was a very devoted practitioner, saying nembutsu morning, noon and night. He once said, “People say that Kokawa Temple or Mount Koya are good places for retreat, but as far as I am concerned there is no better place than the bed from which I arise every morning.” He also said, “Always be thinking of death and of the Buddhas. Who knows? - death may come after any breath, so keep saying ‘Amida Buddha please help!’”
Toward the end of 1237 he became ill and early the next year he passed away while reciting “The Buddha Light illumines all sentient beings throughout the ten quarters.”