This is a short commentary upon the phrase in the Summary of Faith and Practice which says "not based on study, understanding and wisdom or the revelation of deep meaning."
This phrase is interesting in part because we can say that historically the emergence of the nembutsu teaching of Honen did come at the end of a period of study, understanding and wisdom that had, indeed, culminated in a revelation or realisation of deep meaning. Honen became a monk at an early age and because of his intelligence and scholastic ability was sent to Mount Hiei, the great centre of Tandai Buddhism, to further his monastic studies. There he practised nembutsu as a meditative practice and also studied. He was an avid scholar and in his element in the excellent library. He became extremely learned and knew the doctrines of all the schools of Buddhism in Japan. This did not come about because of an ambition to be a scholar but rather because he was energetically searching for a solution to the problem that had preoccupied him since the death of his father when he was nine years old. This question was to do with the means of salvation for ordinary people.
Honen was aware of his own status as one of the most erudite monks. However, he reasoned that if even he, who knew more about Buddhism than anybody, was as incapable as he found himself to be of fulfilling the demands of the Buddhist scriptures for perfect morality of body, speech and mind, great attainment in samadhi and profound wisdom, then what hope was there or the ordinary person who was not as endowed or as privileged as he had been? It seemed as though the vast mass of the population were not catered for by the Buddhism that he read about. The standards required were super-human, yet most of the population of Japan in honen's day were illiterate and were bound by a rigid caste system to work in occupations that they had been born into that consummed all their time and effort. Could Buddhism say anything to people such as these who had no opportunity to meditate and whose imposed lifestyles made it impossible to keep all the precepts?
Of course, this is not a problem limited to the time of Honen. How many people do you know who really keep all the precepts perfectly, never give rise to a passionate impulse, have completely given up desire, have mastered all the dhyanas, samadhis and bodhisattva bhumis - or even just one or two of them? It seems quite inadequate to say that it takes a long time, as one often hears. Many people nowadays practise Buddhism, but do they really come close to what the scriptures seem to demand?
Honen could not believe that the all-compassionate Buddhas had created a situation where all ordinary people, perhaps absolutely all people, were bound to fail. Therefore, he scoured the scriptures and commentaries searching for a method that was possible for the ordinary person. Doing so he incidentally picked up a vast amount of learning.
It was while he was reading the commentary on the Contemplation Sutra written by the great Chinese master Shan Tao that he had his sudden revelation. Shan tao said that if one simply dedicated oneself to keeping the Buddha - particularly the Buddha Amitabha - in mind then the merit of that Buddha would itself take care of one's salvation even if one remained a fallible, deluded, or even evil being.
Honen had, at last, found what he was looking for. Shan Tao's whole approach went some ay to turning conventional Buddhism on its head. In the Contemplation Sutra there are listed nine grades of persons. First all are divided into three categories - the best, the middling and the worst. Then each of these strata are gain divided into three in a similar way, giving nine grades. This hierarchy is generally taken as indicating that one should strive to be one of the best and even the best of the best because only they will be fully accepted into the Buddha's Pure Land. However, Shan Tao interpreted this passage as indicating that even the worst of the worst were able to enter.
All of this spoke to Honen's condition. Soon after, in 1175, he descended from the mountain and went to live with a hermit friend in a hut in the mountains to the east of Kyoto. Soon after he started to teach the nembutsu practice and this became his work for the rest of his life.
Now we can remember that Shakyamuni Buddha became enlightened after a period of intense ascetic practice, yet, when he became enlightened he said hat such asceticism was vain, ignoble and useless. One does not necessarily arrive at the insight that a great sage had by following the same path that that sage walked. We each have to make our own mistakes.
Honen similarly said that you will not understand the nembutsu by entering upon the kind of career of scholarly study that he had followed. the essence of nembutsu has nothing to do with such erudition. it is not that erudition is necessarily a bad thing per se - it has some natural benefits - but it will not improve your nembutsu. The essence of nembutsu is a turning - to turn one's heart toward the Buddha, just as one might go outside on a full moon night and stand in that wonderful light.
To make such a turn does not require study, understanding or wisdom. It simply requires a simple faith and willingness. Actually the nembutsu is a very simple thing. It is just the name of the Buddha. Saying the name we bring the Buddha to mind. We let him into our heart. He will do the rest. Nothing else is necessary.
Some religions are said to be based on revelation. Revelation tends to imply some kind of infallibility of doctrine. This has been a problem in the history of religion, leading faith communities to clash with one another. Nembutsu is not like that. Nembutsu tells us that we are fallible deluded beings. We are not the possessors of something that makes us right while dooming everybody else to hell. Nembutsu is simply a form of refuge - a reliance upon Buddha who is much wiser and kinder than we are. Buddha is not going to persecute anybody nor fight any kind of supposedly holy war.
Buddhism contains profound meaning, but even if we do not grasp it, we are still saved by the nembutsu. This is the simple message of Honen and the simple practice that can be a complete assurance to us even today. It is a timeless message offering salvation to all irrespective of intelligence or goodness.