Amida Worship (阿弥陀信仰)

Amida (Amitabha) worship is the religious belief based on the Pure Land of Buddhism which believes in justification by belief and preaches that praying to Amida Nyorai would lead you to heaven. It is one of the Jodo Buddhist teachings, but it is a comprehensive belief that transcends sects and could be considered as a folk religion.

"Bussetsu Muryoju-kyo Sutra" (Sutra of Immeasurable Life) teaches that Amitabha Nyorai received the teachings of 'Sejizaio-nyorai' when he was a Hozo bosatsu (Dharmakara Bodhisattva) and thought and promised the 48 vows for almost as long as eternity, later underwent more training to fulfill the promise and became a Buddha. Amitabha Nyorai is revered in many Buddhist sects and Amida worship is a wide encompassing belief that is not restricted to one Buddhist writing, but does have an aspect that could easily fall into idol worship or a single-god (only Amida Nyorai is revered) type of thinking.

Amida worship was first introduced into Japan during the Nara period and mixed together with Miroku Bosatsu (Buddha of the Future, Bodhisattva of the Present) belief as ancestral worship.
Later, as part of the flow of Mappo-shiso (the "end of the world" belief), it transitioned into Nenbutsu belief as Amida Jodo Shinko (Amida Buddha in the Pure Land worship) in which people wished to be saved and enter heaven by believing in Amitabha Nyorai

Various beliefs sprung from Jodo (Pure Land) sect to Kamakura New Buddhism, such as Yuzu Nenbutsu (reciting the name of Amitabha) by Ryonin in the late Heian period, Jodo Sect by Honen, Jodo Shinshu (the True Pure Land Sect of Buddhism) by Shinran, and Ji Sect by Ippen.


Original Form
The foundation is thought to have started in India around the second century.

The first example of Amida worship that is traceable to modern times was when the Jodo Sect was established in China, which teaches Shomyo Nenbutsu (Invocation of the Buddha's Name) as easy progress associated with Bosatsu belief of Mahayana Buddhism.
The teachings of the ten positions of Bosatsu (the ten positions that are required as training for a Bosatsu to attain enlightenment) led to a easy progress of the 'Shomyo Nenbutsu.'
The believers of conventional Mahayana Buddhism criticized these teachings, but the Jodo Sect rallied by forming Nenbutsu Kessha (groups for invocation of Buddha's name).

Beginning of the Amitabha Jodo Worship

The origins of Japanese Amitabha Jodo worship started when the last Japanese envoy to Tang Dynasty China, Ennin (794 – 864) of the Tendai Sect came back from Tang and brought Hosho school Nenbutsu of his training place, Mt. Wutai Shan, to Enryaku-ji Temple and built the Jogyo Zanmai-do Hall. The training here consists of chanting Shomyo Nenbutsu for 90 days without rest and thinking and praying about Amida Nyorai (Amitabha Tathagata) deep in the soul.

Thinking about the Amida Nyorai' was 'Kanso Nenbutsu,' the tangible meditative training to reach enlightenment, and was first accepted by the lower class aristocracy. At that time, the majority of important positions in aristocratic society were taken by the Fujiwara clan, hence members of other clans had to wait quietly for their slight chance of getting promoted. This way of living was said to match the feeling of Kanso Nenbutsu where one thinks and adores the image of Buddha.

YOSHISHIGE no Yasutane, a literati of that time who was also a middle class aristocrat, started the Nenbutsu kessha 'Kangakukai' and started to practice Jodo Sect religion.

YOSHISHIGE no Yasutane collected biographies of people who attained gokuraku ojo (peaceful death) by Amida worship and wrote the "Nihon ojo gokurakuki" (Japanese records of birth into the Pure Land).

Later, other books were written following the editing method of "Nihon ojo gokurakuki" such as "Zoku honcho ojoden" (Sequel to the Accounts of Rebirth into the Pure Land) (written by OE no Masafusa), "Shui Ojo-den" (written by MIYOSHI no Tameyasu) and "Sange Ojo-den" (written by Sami Rensho (沙弥蓮祥)).

Using specific actual examples to teach death was extremely effective in spreading the Jodo sect.

As the Jodo sect spread amongst the middle and lower class aristocracy, the Fujiwara clan who were the upper class aristocracy were affected and started to believe in the Jodo sect to take the glory of this life to the next life.

Spread Amongst the Common People by Kuya and Genshin

Temples during the Heian period were under the control of the government and (public) monks were basically public servants. Public monks were restricted by many regulations and had to focus on work for the country. In such a situation, some public monks quit their jobs because they could not save the ordinary public and started activity as individuals.
Such monks were called 'illegally ordained priests' or 'Tonse-so' and one of them was Kuya (903 - 972) who was later called 'Ichi-no-hijiri.'
Kuya walked around the various provinces and actively spread his teachings among the public and listened to the public's wants and worries. He also worked for public works and worked relentlessly for the spread of Amida worship and Nenbutsu. Kuya also established Odori Nenbutsu (dancing and invocations of Buddha's name).

"Ojoyoshu" (The Essentials of Salvation), written in 985 by Genshin (942 - 1017), a disciple of Ryogen (912 – 985) apprentice had an important part in the further development of the Jodo sect. "Ojoyoshu" preached rules for seeing Amida Nyorai and specific methods for entering Jodo upon death, and was extremely easy to understand and practical and was considered the basis of nenbutsu thinking that was widely read by the ordinary public as well. The year after he published the book, he made a group, 'Nijugozanmaie' on Mt. Hiei, and here Genshin fulfilled a leadership role and conducted nenbutsu-zanmai (mental absorption in the nenbutsu) once a month. The people who gathered exchanged promises amongst themselves to help each other face death by wishing for raigo (descent of Amida). Genshin was a monk of the Tendai Sect, but left Enryaku-ji Temple, which was becoming secularized and conducted his own training.

This is how Japanese Buddhism changed from the old regime Buddhism as a way of controlling the country to Buddhism for saving the masses.

Mappo-shiso and Jodo-shinko (the Pure Land faith)

Mappo-shiso was a end-of-the-world theory that originated in China and considered the thousand years after Shaka's death as Shobo, Age of the Right Dharma, the next thousand years as Zobo (Age of the Semblance Dharma) and the next 10,000 years after the two thousand years as 'the latter days of Buddhism' (Mappo). During those days, the power of Buddha was not effective and the world was thought to end and both the aristocracy and ordinary people were worried about its coming. In addition, Mappo negated the possibility of being saved in this life and the trend for wishing for attainment of heaven or Jodo upon death was growing and this led to the growth of the Jodo belief which worshipped the Amida Nyorai as its saviour.

According to "Mappotomyoki" (Lamp for the Last Dharma-Age) attributed to Saicho (767 – 822), the first year of Mappo is 1052 in the late Heian period, when kanpaku (chief adviser to the Emperor) FUJIWARA no Yorimichi built the Amitabha-do (hoo-do) in Byodoin Temple at Uji, Kyoto which could be considered as an iconic symbol of Amida worship. The Amitabha-do expresses the sublime and fancy Gokuraku Jodo written in "Bussetsu Kan Muryoju-kyo Sutra" and "Bussetsu Amida-kyo Sutra" of the 'Jodo Sanbu-kyo' (the three main sutras of the Jodo (Pure Land) Sect) and the exterior is said to emulate the heavenly palace of Amida Nyorai. If you can't believe in heaven, go and see the hall at Uji' was a line of a song of that time.

At that time, the Amida worship had deeply spread within the aristocracy and Amida Nyorai statues with Jo-in (samadhi mudra, gesture of meditation) and the building of Amida Buddha halls were popular. Amida Buddha halls led to the birth of Amida Raigo-zu (image of the descent of Amida Buddha). Many halls other than the Byodoin Hoo-do Hall are known, such as; the Konjiki-do Hall at Chuson-ji Temple, the Amida-do Hall at Hokai-ji Temple, and the Shiramizu Amida-do Hall.

Amida Worship from the Kamakura Period Onwards

Kamakura Period. This was the beginning of the age when the government changed from the aristocrats to the warrior class and was the time when Buddhism was at its height in Japanese history. There was drastic change and development in politics, economics and society. Together with such changes during the new period, Buddhism also experienced significant growth.

Jodo Sect
The founder was Honen (1133 - 1212) who entered Mt. Hiei in 1145. In 1175, he converted and followed 'Senju Nenbutsu' (the Single-Minded Recitation of the Nenbutsu) after studying Kanmuryoju-kyosho (Commentary on the Meditation Sutra) by Zendo (Chinese Jodo Sect) and established the Jodo Sect. Senju Nenbutsu was proposed by Honen only recognized Shomyo Nenbutsu and negated Kanso Nenbutsu, which was considered as a way of Jodo Ojo (Rebirth in the Pure Land). He taught that by repeating 'Namu Amidabutsu' many times, all people regardless of whether they are rich or poor, male or female could attain Saiho Gokuraku Jodo (The West Pure Land (of Amida Buddha)) upon death and this was decided upon at the time of death. He finished writing "{Senchaku hongan nenbutsu shu} (the holy writings of the Jodo Sect)" in 1198.

Jodo Shinshu Sect
The founder Shinran (1173 – 1262) entered Mt. Hiei in 1181, and became Honen's apprentice in 1201. Later he spent 20 years in Kanto region to spread the teachings of Nenbutsu. He taught that with proper religious belief, it is possible for any person so reach the position of those guaranteed to Jodo Ojo while still in this world. He proposed 'Ocho Dan Shiru' in his main writing "Ken Jodo Shinjitsu-kyo Gyosho Monrui (Selected passages revealing the true teaching, practice and attainment of the Pure Land), which he finished writing in 1274. Ocho' means passing is determined instantaneously and 'shiryu' (four elements) is 'life,' 'disease,' 'ageing' and 'death' and he taught that by cutting away from these four elements, one could rebirth in the Pure Land. After being stripped of his privileges as a monk when he was exiled, following Honen's advice, he stayed as hiso hizoku (neither monk nor lay) until his death (since he was no longer a monk, he did not place importance on the religious precept and ate meat and married). Jodo Shinshu Sect became a religious group after his death.

Ji Sect
The founder, Ippen (1239 – 1289) traveled to Dazaifu in 1251 and became a disciple of Honen's apprentice's apprentice, Shotatsu (1203 – 1279) of the Jodo Sect. Later he traveled through various provinces and received a revelation from Kumano Gongen at Kumano Hongu-taisha Shrine in Kii and is said to have found Ji Sect. This revelation was that the people have already been saved a long time ago by pledge of Hozobiku (Dharmakara) so he went around to tell the people that they have already been saved by giving out tablets that have the inscription 'Namu Amidabutsu' (which referred as Fusan). The absoluteness of the Amida Buddha did not even require 'believing' and only chanting the nenbutsu was sufficient to rebirth in the Pure Land. He started Odori Nenbutsu in his later years.

Prosperity of the Ikko Sect

The Ikko Sect was the common name of the Hongan-ji Temple group of the Jodo Shinshu Sect and was started by Kakunyo (1270 - 1351), the grandchild of Shinran's daughter Kakushinni, and resurrected by the eighth chief priest of Hongan-ji Temple, Rennyo (1415 – 1499). The followers were called monto and were a strong group of believers during the Muromachi period following the Amida and Nenbutsu beliefs.
Ikko' is also read as 'hitasura' (entirely) and means to 'believe in a being saved entirely by the Amida Buddha.'
Because they keep on chanting 'Namu Amidabutsu,' they are often considered as part of the Senju Nenbutsu group, but in reality, other thinking such as Shugendo (Japanese mountain asceticism-shamanism incorporating Shinto and Buddhist concepts) and Esoteric Buddhism were incorporated and some monto believed in local beliefs such as jujutsu (an occult art) and incantations, so it cannot be considered as Senshu (Single-Minded). Ordinary people believing in the Ikko Sect are thought to have wished for the power held by Amida Nyorai and Nenbutsu rather than the religious thinking of Senju Nenbutsu.

The solidarity of the Ikko Sect believers was very strong and the power of conventional shugo daimyo (Japanese territorial lord as provincial constable) was significantly eroded. Ikko Ikki (revolts by Ikko Sect believers) such as the Kaga ikko ikki and ikki (revolts) in Yamashiro Province are famous. Therefore many shugo daimyo sought to compromise and find a way to live together, but Nobunaga ODA tried to completely suppress the group. Nobunaga destroyed Ishiyama Hongan-ji Temple and the Hongan-ji religious group declined and broke into pieces.

Please note the Jodo Shinshu Sect and Ikko Sect are not exactly the same. For example, Rennyo prohibited monto from using the name 'Ikko Sect,' but opposite to what Hongan-ji Temple wanted, in actuality, Ikko believers were deeply related with the Hongan-ji religious group.

[Original Japanese]