Shoko-bo Bencho (1162-1238) was a, perhaps the, leading disciple of Honen Shonin (1133-1212), the principal propagator of Pureland Buddhism in Japan. Nowadays it is common to give this honour to Shinran (1173-1263), but in the important contemporary records of that time, Shinran is not mentioned and Bencho appears as Honen's main protégé.
He came from Kyushu in the south. His religious career began at the age of 14, studying with a teacher called Shoshin. When he was 22 he entered the great Tendai monastery Enrakuji on Mount Hiei. At 28 he returned to Kyushu where he now became the head priest of his own temple, which was called Yusan. So far his life had followed the standard pattern of a Japanese Buddhist priest. He could just have settled down to a quiet respectable existence.
However, he was acutely conscious of the problem of impermanence and this drove him to be a keen seeker and scholar. He was always learning. He studied all the Tendai doctrines intensely. When he was 35 he decided to go and see Honen and put a series of questions to him. He did not have high expectations, but Honen was, by this time, a notable figure who, 22 years before, had left Enrakuji after having had a deep spiritual experience through the practice of nembutsu and the teachings of the Chinese sage Shan Tao (613-681). Bencho thought he might be worth a visit.
Bencho was delighted when Honen, recognising Bencho's extensive understanding, replied to all the questions at length, demonstrating a comprehensive grasp of Buddhist teaching and explaining the nembutsu from many different perspectives. Contrary to his expectation, there was nothing simplistic or naive about Honen's mastery of the Dharma. Bencho was delighted and impressed and became a disciple of Honen.
Receiving and Spreading the Teaching
Bencho made arrangements to go and study with Honen and spent six years with him. His studies particularly focused upon a thorough examination of the commentary that Shan Tao had written on the Contemplation Sutra. This commentary was the same text as had provoked Honen’s own spiritual awakening. Shan Tao's interpretation of the sutra is a landmark in several respects. It establishes the importance of the doctrine of "Three Minds" - of which more below - and, even more importantly, opens a new perspective on the final section of the sutra. In this section there is a schema of grades of practitioners. This had always been taken as a prescription of stages, an injunction to climb the ladder of spiritual grades so as to win the approval of the Buddha, but Shan Tao read the passage the other way round as indicating that the compassion of the Buddha extends even to the lowest of the low. This reinterpretation constitutes a radical universalisation of the teaching, making it clear that the Dharma is not just for an elite. It was this that had opened the spiritual eye of Honen and he now transmitted this understanding to Bencho.
At the request of the prime minister, Kanezane, Honen had written a book, the Senchakushu, but had not had it published because of the stir it might cause. Senchakushu teaches that what is critical is the making of a single choice, or "selection", choosing the nembutsu as the core meaning of the whole Dharma. Nembutsu means taking refuge in Amida Buddha. The point is that this is something that anybody can do, no matter how lowly or how constricted by circumstance, no matter what prior karma has been accumulated or what sins a person may have commited and no matter how skilled or advanced they might be at meditation, moral discipline, scholarship or other religious talents.
Honen showed the book to Bencho and Bencho made a copy of it. Honen said, “I trust you with it. I think you are the right person to preserve it and pass it on.” Bencho is thus regarded as the second patriarch of the Jodo Shu, the school of Buddhism that most directly derives from Honen.
When he got home again Bencho was feeling very inspired. He became a successful preacher and soon had a big following. He build temples, some of which are still important today, and acquired a reputation as a saint. It is clear that Honen could have a remarkable effect upon people and Bencho is a prime example of the transforming power of such a spiritual encounter.
Exclusive Yet Universal
We can see that there is a seeming paradox at the heart of Honen's teaching and each of his leading disciples were to wrestle with this in different ways. Arguably Bencho's grasp of it was closest to the teacher's meaning. The paradox is that Honen offers a universalist approach by means of an exclusive commitment. He says that one should reject all other teachings and choose the nembutsu and that by doing so one will have embraced all the teachings in all their seeming diversity. Again, he says that only those who do so are saved yet everybody can be saved in this way. How can this make sense? Getting to a full understanding that goes beyond the seeming contradiction is a key to understanding the nembutsu teaching.
Bencho had a simple solution to this puzzle and, as best we can tell, it reflects Honen's own. This is that as soon as one genuinely choose the nembutsu, all the other teachings immediately become instances of nembutsu. This means that nembutsu is not so much just a distinctive act, as a perspective upon the whole Dharma. It is as if there were a huge room with many things inside. The room has many windows but only one window gives a view of the whole room. This is the nembutsu window into the hall of Dharma. We can also understand that this window is associated with humility. Honen gave up a promising ecclesial career to reach out to ordinary people and offer a path for the most humble members of society. Bencho similarly, although well set up as a respectable provincial priest, still went and accepted the role of disciple in order to receive this key understanding. Both men were highly accomplished scholars, yet they adopted the simplest, most easily accessible, practice. They renounced the potential privileges of elitism.
Bencho was an ardent practitioner. He held practice sessions six times per day, always reciting the Amida Kyo (the Smaller Pure Land Sutra) and he practised continuous nembutsu, chanting from the minute he awoke early in the morning. He said that the bed from which he awoke was his best temple.
Much is made of the differences in doctrine between the different leading disciples of Honen. These differences are, however, quite slight and subtle. They all believed that rebirth in the Pure Land depends absolutely upon the grace of Amitabha. At the same time they all believed in the importance of reciting the nembutsu, though each had a different rationale for doing so. Bencho believed that it was important to say the nembutsu right now because this might be one’s last moment. Death can come anytime. Bencho is thus taken to be the prime advocate of reciting the nembutsu many time every day, and he clearly was an enthusiastic practitioner.
Specific and General Nembutsu
Bencho explained the nembutsu practice by saying that calling the Buddha’s name is “specific nembutsu” (betsu-no-nembutsu) while all the teachings of other schools were “general nembutsu” (so-no-nembutsu). After all, the Dharma is simply the Buddha's pointing out of the truth, so the teachings of all schools, insofar as they genuinely come down from Buddha, are true and valid even if, sometimes, they are exceedingly difficult for ordinary people to practise. Some teachings are so perfectionist that it is doubtful if anybody can practise them, or, at least, it is probable that nobody can do so by their own effort and will-power. They can only do so by enlisting the aid of the Buddhas, which is nembutsu. By teaching in this way, Bencho relieved practitioners of the sense of failure and guilt for not attaining stupendous levels of ethical purity, or mastering all the samadhis, or understanding every subtle doctrine. Honen's point had been that these teachings are wonderful and marvellous, but that he had never met anybody who could actually do them, that despite having every advantage he had not managed it himself, and that if he could not do it how could he expect it of a fisherman or a carpenter?
The teaching that Bencho received from Honen was that in saying the nembutsu the “Three Minds” become of great importance and these arise naturally when one is confident of attaining birth in the Pure Land through the nembutsu. These three are the sincere mind, the deep mind and the mind that transfers merit. We can, perhaps, see another paradox here. The three minds arise naturally. It is tempting to think that what we have to do is to manufacture these minds by our own effort, but this is not actually what is being said. When the nembutsu becomes the window that one is looking through, one discovers a clarity that is sincere and deep and that naturally claims no credit.
Doctrinally, we can say that the practitioner creates merit by his or her practice, but that if she is in any way possessive about it then that very possessiveness destroys the merit. This is the problem of self-power: if desire is the obstacle to enlightenment, what of the desire to be enlightened?
By taking refuge one associates with and receives the merit of Buddha, which is vast. One's own small stock is of little importance and the best one can do is give it away. What may, at first, seem paradox is actually a virtuous spiral. Faith, sincerity and depth are pretty much synonyms and their effect is that one lives a generous spirited life. The ordinary person may initially think that transference of merit means that one transfer merit in order to ensure one's own salvation. A better understanding comes with transferring merit to benefit others, as in the common practice of praying for transference of merit to the sick. The best understanding of transference of merit is that one lays no claim to credit in the first place, but simply always acts for the natural good of all sentient beings. These are called the three levels of transferring merit. However, the point is that one approximates closer to the highest level in proportion as one feels spiritually secure, which is a function of the faith that one has in the nembutsu. If one has complete faith then one is spiritually secure even if the cosmos dissolves in fire.
Dying in the Light
Bencho died in 1238, aged 77, at the end of an illness that lasted a few months. During this time, when he knew he was dying, he had several visions of celestials from the Pure Land - we could say, angels. On the last day of his life, he lay on his bed chanting. He passed away after reciting the line “Amida Buddha’s Light illumines all sentient beings throughout the ten quarters,” - a very fitting reflection of the essence of how he understood the message of his teacher.