Ippen is known as the founder of the Ji Shu, an important school of Pureland Buddhism. Here I will tell the story of his early life up to the time when he took the name Ippen. In following this story we can understand some of his spiritual realisations and dilemmas.

Early Life & First Going Forth
He was born on the island of Shikoku in the south of Japan. He came from a samurai family that had seen both glory and defeat. His father, Michihiro, gave up the samurai life and became a Buddhist priest in order to pray for members of he family who had died in the wars. His Dharma name was Nyobutsu.

Nyobutsu went to Kyoto and became a disciple of Shõkū (1177-1247), who was a leading disciple of Honen (1133-1212). When he returned to Shikoku he married and set up a Pureland temple. His second son was born in 1239 and called Shõjumaru. This boy was the man later to be known as Ippen.

In 1248 Nyobutsu’s wife, Shõjumaru’s mother, died. Shortly afterwards, aged nine, Shõjumaru became a monk in the Tendai School. In 1251 Shõjumaru travelled to the main island of Japan to study Pureland with Shõdatsu (1203-1279) another important disciple of  Shõkū and a friend of Nyobutsu. 

Second Going Forth: The Non-duality of Ten and One
In 1263 Nyobutsu died and Shõjumaru went back home to assume family responsibilities. He married and became immersed in family life. However, one day, while playing with children spinning a top, he had an awakening moment. He realised that samsara is like the top. If you keep whipping it it keeps spinning, but if you stop whipping it it slows down, falls over and stops.

In 1271, Shõjumaru was caught up in a violent incident in which he nearly lost his life. Attacked by four armed men and seriously wounded he fought back, disarmed one of the assailants and fled. At this point he decided to once again go forth from the household life and he went once again to see Shõdatsu. This meeting seems to have led him to reassess the practice he had formerly done with this teacher, coming to the conclusion that it had been a period of self-power effort on his part.

He left Shõdatsu and went on to the temple of Zenkõji at Nagano, a temple associated with Shõkū, the teacher of Shõdatsu and of Shõjumaru’s father Nyobutsu. During his retreat at Zenkõji Shõjumaru made a copy of the painting of the White Path between the Rivers of Fire and Water, an important Pureland icon. This retreat had a profound effect upon him and we can see the seeds of much of his later work in his experience there. At Zenkõji he met hijiri (wandering holy men) and he encountered the practice of distributing fuda, papers on which the six syllables of the nembutsu were printed. The Zenkõji temple still exists and I have visited it. It is closely associated with the notion that it is the ordinary deluded person who is saved by Amida.

He then returned to Shikoku and made himself a hermitage hut. He placed the painting on the east wall. He then dedicated himself to continuous nembutsu practice for three years, imitating, thereby, a three year retreat that had been done many years before by Shõkū. During this time he summed up his understanding in the following verse, entitled “The Non-duality of Ten and One”

Perfect enlightenment ten kalpas old pervades the realm of sentient beings.
In ichinen is birth in Amida’s land.
When ten and one are not different, no-birth is actualised.
When land and realm are the same, we sit in Amida’s great congregation.

I have left the word ichinen untranslated because it can be rendered in several over-lapping ways. Ichi means one or singular. Nen, as in nembutsu, means thought, remembrance and mindfulness. So ichinen can means one thought moment, or wholehearted mindfulness, or a single recitation of nembutsu, or simply sincerity of heart. It is a key term in Ippen’s teaching often carrying all of these meanings simultaneously.

The non-duality of ten and one means the unity of immediacy and eternity. Ten refers to Amida’s enlightenment which transcends time and space while one refers to the singularity of a moment of pure hearted utterance of the Name. The meaning is very close to William Blake’s “the universe in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.”

Becoming a Hijiri
He then left his hermitage and went deeper into the mountains to an area noted for yamabushi (mountain ascetics) in order to pray for clarity and guidance. He is said to have had many important dreams during this time.

After this further retreat he returned home briefly, gathered together some basic essentials and a few key scriptures and then took to the road, never again to live in a house. He set out together with three companions who are believed to have included his wife and daughter.

They first went to Shitennõ-ji, a Pureland pilgrimage site (in present day Osaka). Here he conceived the intention to spread the nembutsu to the whole population of the country. In the sutra, Amida vows to save every person who says the nembutsu even once. Shõjumaru, therefore, resolved to save beings by getting them to utter the nembutsu once. “Once nembutsu” or “One time nembutsu” is, in Japanese, ippen nembutsu.

He adopted the practice of approaching people, saying the nembutsu, inviting them to say it, then giving them a fuda. They could then, if they wished, use the fuda as an object of worship in a home shrine.

In his thinking, the one utterance automatically invoked the ten kalpas of Amida’s enlightenment. In other words, one moment of sincerity was direct connection with an eternity of grace. The fuda constituted evidence of the person’s acceptance by Amida and also, of course, connected the practitioner with the holy man.

The Arising of Great Doubt
From Shitennõ-ji a pilgrimage route led to Mount Koya and it was natural for the party to go on. Koya is the holy mountain of Shingon Buddhism and is where the founder of Shingon, Kukai is entombed and believed to be still alive in deep samadhi waiting for the arrival of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. Shingon means "true word" and in the thirteenth century for many people the true word was the nembutsu. Koya was thus, at that time, another great centre for hijiri and a natural place for the group of four to go to pay respect to the great bodhisattva.

Beyond Mount Koya, in a southerly direction, the pilgrimage trail goes toward  the great Shinto shrine of Kumano. At this stage of Japanese history, the supreme deity of Shinto had come to be regarded by many as a manifestation of Amida Buddha, so widely had the nembutsu teaching spread. On the way to Kumano, however, an incident occurred that threw Shõjumaru into doubt.

On the road he met a Ritsu monk. Ritsu is the vinaya school of Japanese Buddhism. Ippen offered the monk a fuda, saying, “Accept this, awaken ichinen, say Namu Amida Butsu.” The monk said, “I cannot do so. At present ichinen faith does not arise in me. If I take the fuda I will be breaking my precept against telling a lie.”

Shõjumaru said, “Don’t you believe the Buddha’s teaching? Please take the fuda,” but the monk replied “I have no doubt about the teaching but there is nothing I can do about the fact that faith does not arise in me.”

By this time a goodly crowd of pilgrims had gathered around. Ippen realised that if the monk did not take the fuda the others would not do so either. He therefore said to the monk, “Even if you don’t have faith, please accept the fuda.” The monk did so and in due course so did the other pilgrims. The whole incident had, however, thrown Shõjumaru into a turmoil.

Some of the dilemma here turns on the meaning of ichinen. Ichinen can mean one nembutsu, so the request can be taken as, “Please say one nembutsu and I will give you a fuda.” However the monk takes ichinen to mean “with sincerity of heart” and he realises that as yet he does not find such faith in himself. Rather than be dishonest, he elects not to receive the fuda. Is nembutsu only real when uttered with sincere faith?

Encountering the God
Shõjumaru was much affected by this incident and believed that it must have happened for a reason. He went on to Kumano and prayed there for guidance. Was his mission misguided? Was he asking people to be insincere and colluding in lies by getting all and sundry to say the nembutsu? Should the monk have taken the fuda or not? What a bundle of dilemmas!

Sitting in the main hall at Kumano, he had a vision. A yamabushi with white hair and a long hood appeared before him. Behind him a host of other yamabushi all prostrated. Shõjumaru realised that this must be the deity of the shrine. The yamabushi god spoke, “Hijiri! Spreading the yuzu nembutsu, why do you do so in the wrong manner? It is not through your effort that sentient beings attain birth (in the Pure Land). In Amida Buddha’s complete enlightenment ten kalpas ago all that was needed for the salvation of beings was already settled and is Namo Amida Butsu. Do not discriminate between the pure and the impure. Give the fuda regardless of whether people have faith of not.”

The vision faded away and Shõjumaru found himself surrounded by many children who had come to receive fuda. They took the slips of paper and all ran off saying “Namu Amida Butsu! Namu Amida Butsu!”

From this time on Shõjumaru called himself Ippen and it is by this name that we know him to this day. In the single moment, there is no self-power. The vision at the Kumano Shrine finally broke Ippen’s attachment to self-power. Even though he had transcended his desire to practice for his own salvation, still he had been stuck with a different kind of hubris, the belief that by his power he could save all others.

Some Reflections
Ippen gives us a fascinating example of a faith that cares little or nothing for sectarian boundaries. He follows his father’s Pureland faith, but initially does so in a Tandai temple. Later he studies with Pureland teachers and has a major revelation at Zenkõji but goes on to have further insights at the Shingon mountain and his most impressive experience occurs in a temple that is not even Buddhist. He can be said to  bring together the Way of the Buddhas and the Way of the Gods. He is also sensitive to holy places and makes his whole life into a pilgrimage.

The succession of stages in his early spiritual development show us a series of steps from self-power to other-power. At the Tendai temple and under Shõdatsu he studied nembutsu teachings but when he later reflects upon it he sees that he did so in a self-power manner. When he goes to Zenkõji he receives a more direct inspiration of the spirit of Shõkū and this precipitates him into doing his own hermitage nembutsu retreat with the White Path icon. This leads him to a doctrinal conviction expressed in the non-duality of ten and one, which releases him from the need to seek his own individual salvation, but he realises that he still needs guidance and goes off into the mountains where he finds some further resolve. This leads him to the hijiri path and he sets out on his endless pilgrimage, hoping to live up to the ideal of saving all sentient beings.Then he has the encounter with the Ritsu monk (Quan Yin in disguise?) which leads him to his pivotal encounter at the Kumano Shrine where he faces the ambition involved even in this high ideal.

Each person has a path and the stories of great exemplars show us examples. Each of us has to walk his own way, but the kinds of challenges and dilemmas that we encounter are essentially similar. Whether we say nembutsu or sit in zazen, whether we recite the mantras of Shingon or say the prayers of Shinto, whether we live in a house, a temple or walk the highroad as a hijiri, we all face the barriers created by pride, ambition and conceit and the challenges of loss, violence, attachment, separation and failure. In becoming Ippen, Shõjumaru found his own way to celebrate ten kalpas of perfect enlightenment in each single utterance of the Holy Name.


The map is from http://japan-magazine.jnto.go.jp/en/1506_kumano.html

You can meet the yamabushi at http://www.ruff.co.nz/Blog/Blog.php?id=2183182434734552568

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Replies to This Discussion

I found this very helpful, thankyou. The story of Ippen's crisis, in particular - and of the release in not requiring oneself (as I read it) to 'have faith'. Or, to be able to proceed in faith, whether one feels faith, or not. Led by feeling, for me, faith is forever like a lamp with bad wiring: on.. off.. on.. off. Namoamidabu, Mat

Namo = off; Amida Bu = on
Constantly alternating current :-)

Ha! Indeed. If it only flowed one way, nothing would work at all!



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