Hōnen was born on the seventh day of the fourth month (lunar calendar) in 1133, which was during the late Heian Period (794-1185). He was born on the Kume Nanjō Inaoka Estate in Mimasaka Province (present-day Okayama Prefecture), and he was the first son of Uruma Tokikuni, the estate’s overseer. Hōnen’s childhood name was Seishimaru. When Seishimaru was nine years old, his father’s residence was the target of a nighttime raid. Tokikuni, who was shot during the surprise attack, left the following testament for Seishimaru from his deathbed: “If you avenge hatred with hatred, there will never be an end to the hatred in the world of men. With a broad heart that has transcended hate, seek out the Buddhist path through which all people are saved.”
Obeying his father’s words, Seishimaru began his studies at the Bodaiji Temple, and at the age of thirteen ascended Mt. Hiei, shaved his head, and received the Buddhist precepts. On Mt. Hiei, he studied the teachings of the Tendai Sect of Buddhism. At first, he went by the name of Enmyō-bō Zenkō, but in the autumn of 1150, at the age of eighteen, he took the name Hōnen-bō Genkū and became a disciple of Jigen-bō Eikū of Kurodani. He was diligent in his studies under Eikū and was praised as “Hōnen-bō the Wisest.” Later, Hōnen would pursue a life of seclusion in search of Buddhist enlightenment.
This was a period of continuous domestic unrest, as various factions battled for political power. As famine and disease, along with natural disasters such as earthquakes plagued the land, the people were thrown into a state of confusion. However, at this time, Buddhism had turned into a religion for the aristocrats and had lost its power to save the frightened masses. “Enlightenment” was viewed as eliminating one’s attachments through understanding the scriptures from an academic standpoint and engaging in austere practices, so Buddhism had no connection to the common people. Doubtful about this kind of Buddhism, Hōnen looked thorough the massive corpus of Buddhist scripture and located the original vow of Amida (the pledge he made when embarking upon the Buddhist path). This was the way of “exclusively chanting the nembutsu,” in which one could attain salvation by simply chanting “Namu Amida Butsu” (I Seek Refuge in Amida) with all one’s heart. As such, in 1175, at the age of 43, Hōnen established the Jōdo Shū(Pure Land Sect).
Confident of the teachings of the “exclusive nembutsu,” Hōnen descended Mt. Hiei and eventually moved to a meditation hermitage in Yoshimizu, which is near the present-day Mieidō on the Chion-in grounds. Then, he took in all who called upon him, and lived a life dedicated to the teaching the nembutsu. Hōnen’s teachings captured the hearts of many and even spread among the aristocrats, including Kujō Kanezane, the regent of the time. However, as Hōnen’s teachings spread throughout the land, there were many who claimed to be his disciples and misrepresented his teachings. Also, Hōnen’s teachings were persecuted by the older Buddhist sects.
In addition, Jūren and Anraku, both disciples of Hōnen, caused an incident that incurred the wrath of Retired Emperor Go-Toba. Hōnen was forced to accept responsibility and was tragically exiled to the island of Shikoku in 1207. Five years later, in 1211, he was allowed to return to the capital, but since the Yoshimizu meditation hermitage had fallen into disrepair, he decided to live in a meditation hermitage in Ōtani, on the site of the present-day Seishidō. The following year, from his sickbed, Hōnen wrote down the essentials of the nembutsu at the request of one of his disciples, Genchi. What he wrote was the One Sheet Document (Ichimai kishōmon) which declares, “Do not pretend to be wise, just single-mindedly chant the nembutsu.” Hōnen died on the twenty-fifth day of the first month of 1212 (lunar calendar) at the age of 80.
His disciples built a tomb next to his meditation hermitage, but since it was almost destroyed by soldier-monks from Mt. Hiei fifteen years later, they moved his remains to Nishiyama Aono and cremated them. Afterward, in 1234, Genchi repaired Hōnen’s gravesite, which had fallen into disrepair, and interred his remains inside. Genchi also built the Butsuden (Buddha Hall), the Mieidō (hall with Hōnen’s image) and the Sōmon (Old Main Gate) and named the compound Chion-in Ōtani-dera. Hōnen came to be revered as the founding master of the temple. The name Chion-in is said to be derived from the chionkō, a special service performed by Hōnen’s disciples for his repose.
However, it was not until the latter part of the Muromachi Period (1333-1573) that Chion-in became established as the head temple of the Jōdo Shū, and it was during the Tokugawa Period that Chion-in’s buildings were expanded. From the time of Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shōgun, the Tokugawa family sought refuge in the teachings of the Jōdo Shū, and when Dentsūin, the mother of Ieyasu (the first Tokugawa shogun) died, memorial services were held at Chion-in. Also, the temple grounds were expanded as an offering for her enlightenment after death, which resulted in the temple grounds growing to their current size. Later, the buildings would be burned down by fires, but each calamity was overcome with the support of many people, and for 800 years, the teachings of the nembutsu have survived here.
Chion-in has inherited the spirit of Hōnen, and is the birthplace of the nembutsu, which rejuvenates our joy for living. To this day, the Chion-in continues to cast a warm, refreshing light into the hearts of all people.