A Perennial Question

The question of faith and works is a longstanding religious debate. It is one of the main divides between Protestants and Catholics, for instance. Protestants, in principle, believe that faith in God’s love should be sufficient whereas Catholics believe that what God expects of us includes both faith and good works. Theological arguments have gone on over this issue with many cruel consequences for centuries. What about in Buddhism?

Problems within Japanese Buddhism

My understanding of Buddhism closely follows that of the founder of Pureland Buddhism in Japan, Honen Shonin. Honen, like many of the other Kamakura Period reformers of Buddhism who came after him, was initially trained as a monk on Mount Hiei, the great monastic centre of Tendai Buddhism. Tendai was a syncretistic form of Buddhism. Buddhism originally came to Japan from China and Korea. In its earliest form it was centred in Nara, the old capital of Japan. There, in Nara, six schools of Buddhism became established. The doctrines they taught were diverse and complicated. It thus became a problem within Japanese Buddhism how to reconcile all the seemingly different teachings. There thus arose a second phase in the development of Buddhism within the country with the establishment of two new schools - Tendai and Shingon. Shingon sought to reconcile and unite all the teachings within a tantric framework. Tendai did so using the doctrine of inherent enlightenment. The teaching of inherent enlightenment is the idea that everybody is already enlightened and what one needs to do is to realise this. All the different teachings can then be seen as different ways to help different personalities to recognise their inherent Buddha Nature. If one can realise that one is already Buddha then the work of Buddhism is accomplished. This idea is still around and the majority of contemporary Buddhist schools in the West teach it.

Kamakura Schoola

The Tendai and Shingon schools became rich and powerful and, as often happens in such circumstances, they became somewhat degenerate and overly involved in political and commercial activities. This then led to a further reaction and the establishment of the so-called Kamakura Schools, the first of which was Jodo Shu established by Honen and his disciple Bencho. Other important Kamakura schools were Soto Shu, Rinzai Shu and Nichiren Shu. All the founders of Kamakura schools started their religious life on Mount Hiei in the Tendai School. All of them then left Tendai and simplified the message of Buddhism so as to make it avalable to ordinary people. The ways in which they simplified it were different in each of the new schools. In the case of Jodo, Honen emphasised the practice of nembutsu as a simple way for the ordinary person to take refuge in the Buddha Amida. He thus made it possible for everyone to practice, no matter their livelihood or life situation.


In all the new schools, however, there was a dilemma about what to do with the doctrine of inherent enlightenment. Different leaders took different positions and even within the same school there would be a diversity of views. Honen rejected the idea. He believed that it was responsible for much of the laxity on Mount Hiei. After all, if one is already Buddha, what is the use of practice? Honen, like Dogen, the founder of Soto Shu in Japan, believed in practice. This then led to further debate within Honen’s own Purerland (Jodo) School. On the one hand there were those who thought that if one had complete faith in the saving grace of Amida then practice was unnecessary anyway. This position was very close to that of the inherent enlightenment faction and not so different from European Protestantism. Honen did not agree, but he did not take the view, as in Catholicism, that good works are necessary in order to attain salvation. Rather, he thought that if one has faith in Amida then practising good in the world is an obvious and authentic way to express it.

Compassion in a Trouble World

Honen did not think that we are already Buddhas, but rather that our nature is far from the enlightened state. This gave him great compassion because he saw that we are all in this boat together. He felt that the world was in the midst of degenerate times and that in such a world it is actually very difficult to practice, but that we should each do the best we can. This is a very humane position. The sinner is not condemned because we are all sinners, but that does not lead to an encouragement of laxity because evidently good actions bring good results; it is just that it takes faith to do them in such a situation. Faith in Amida gives one the faith and therefore the courage to do good even in a world such as this one.

Relevance to Our Time

This message is very relevant to our own times. Although many of us live comfortable lives in peaceful countries, there are always wars going on somewhere. Human greed, violence and delusion seems to have no end and we are very possibly set on a course of ego-suicide. How are we to live with this and how should we practise? On the one hand we need great faith not to lose heart in such a situation, but if we do find such faith it will surely lead us to do whatever we can, be it great or small, to improve matters, both locally and globally. Surely Honen was right to see a direct connection between faith and works, not in the sense that works are needed to supplement faith, but in the sense that works naturally flow from faith. If one thinks one has faith but it does not show in positive action, then something does not add up.

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