Honen Shonin (1133-1212) was a high priest who is revered as the founder of Jodo-shu. He accomplished important work from the end of the Heian Period to the Kamakura Period. Two days before he passed away, he wrote to his disciples a letter known as "Ichimai Kishomon" (一枚起請文 [The One-sheet Testament]).
In Ichimai Kishomon, the entirety of the teachings of Jodo-shu are condensed. Here I would like to interpret this work in a modern style. (You can find the original text on the download page on this site: URL: /downloads/sutra_alpha_port.pdf, pages 6-7.)
As you know, Buddhism propagated from India, first to China, and then to Japan. Over the ages, many excellent Buddhists appeared and introduced various kinds of practices and meditation methods.
In the teachings of the Pure Land, visualization meditation has been recommended. In this method, one tries to vividly envision the scenery of Sukhavati and the figure of Amitabha, who is the master Buddha in Sukhavati, according to sutras.
However, the "Nembutsu" [literally meaning "imagining (nem-) Amitabha (butsu)," in addition to "chanting the name of Amitabha"] which I have taught is not such a meditation method.
Moreover, the Nembutsu I have taught is not a method involving studying a Buddhist philosophy, that is, studying sutras, commentaries, investigating the idea and meaning of Nembutsu in detail, and chanting Nembutsu as a result of the study or investigation.
Now I will tell you the principles of the teaching of the Pure Land.
Sakyamuni Buddha imparted to us numerous teachings, the number of which is said by tradition to be eighty-four thousand.
This does not mean, however, that enlightenment by Sakyamuni is classified into many kinds. Enlightenment is singular and unique. The reason why so many teachings exist is that our diseases, delusions, obsessions, suffering, etc. vary greatly. Sakyamuni therefore prepared a medicine suitable for each of our troubles. The various troubles we experience today are just as they were in the era of Sakyamuni. Because our eyes are obscured by haze, we have no idea when and how to accept and practice which teachings.
The teaching of the Pure Land is merely one of many teachings told by Sakyamuni. Among them, an excellent point of the teaching of the Pure Land is that it covers the lives of all people. One who committed an irreversible deed, one who thinks that he/she made an incorrect choice in his/her life, one who is occupied by the thought of why he/she alone should experience such a trouble, one who cannot control his/her anger, one who feels helplessness and thinks he/she cannot turn a certain situation into a better one... It is the teaching of the Pure Land that can guide such people who are far from tranquility.
Fortunately I encountered the teaching, have practiced it, and have passed it onto you.
"Sukhavati Pure Land" is a dream world spoken of by many Buddhas. There is provided an environment for facilitating enlightenment. In the real world of ours, it is almost impossible to achieve enlightenment. If enlightenment is achieved at all, it is by a very small number of people in very rare cases. In Sukhavati, however, there are no obstacles preventing enlightenment, so people can naturally find enlightenment, like a blooming flower.
I said "a dream world spoken of by many Buddhas," but do not confuse this with our dream world. Since Buddhas are completely awakened, their dreams are more realistic than even our real world. Therefore, we should regard Sukhavati as a "real world," and not a dream world.
This is a first principle.
The teaching of the Pure Land is to aim for "ojo gokuraku" (to be reborn in Sukhavati). That is, the teaching directs you to be reborn in Sukhavati when you leave your body, and join the path to enlightenment. The time when you leave your body is a key opportunity. To this end, always chant "Namu Amida Butsu" aloud. "I can promptly attain 'gokuraku ojo' by Nembutsu" -- Chant Nembutsu with this firm belief. This is sufficient. Then, we can be led to Sukhavati without fail by the power of Amitabha. All the matters I taught you throughout my life come back to this teaching. Besides the chanting of Nembutsu, no meditation or philosophy is necessary. No rigorous rituals, no studies, no stringent precepts, no Zen meditation, and no other practices are necessary. The reason is that the power of Amitabha can lead us beyond all of them.
You know, "Sanjin shishu (三心四修 [three minds and four modes of practice])," which prescribe three kinds of attitude and four approaches in chanting Nembutsu, are set forth in detail in sutras and texts. I have taught you about them before. However, these are wholly absorbed in your decision to "Chant Namu Amida Butsu and be led to Sukhavati without fail."
Therefore, chant "Namu Amida Butsu" with firm belief. -- This is the second principle.
Suppose I had the thought in my mind that "The teaching that Nembutsu alone will suffice is just an instruction for novices, and there certainly is a deep secret other than Nembutsu."
If such a thought occurred to me, I, myself, would betray the intent of Sakyamuni and Amitabha, and fall out of their saving. Therefore, understand the teaching that "Nembutsu alone will suffice" is all, with no hidden or veiled secret.
"While Buddhism has several kinds of teachings, I will follow the path of Nembutsu;" "I will live my life calmly along with Nembutsu." -- If you decide to do so, and even if you have intensively and extensively studied Buddhism, think of yourself as "Not understanding even a single sutra verse."
Do not think that you have a good understanding of Buddhism. Whether you are learned or not, or whether you have excellent concentration or not is insignificant before Sakyamuni and Amitabha. The truth is that we are continuously in delusion and fail to escape from clinging to ourselves.
Renounce the idea that you "already know it." Then dedicate yourself to Nembutsu.
Some may think, "I am afraid the teaching that Nembutsu alone will suffice violates or rejects the studies and practices usually taught in Buddhism."
Some who think so may criticize us. In fact, I have suffered persecution several times in my life. This may also happen in days to come.
However, my belief and opinion are unchanged. No other path can rightly lead us in this age.
The essence of faith and practice of Jodo-shu is exhaustively condensed in this letter. I have no other beliefs. I have written this letter so as to prevent fake teachings from being spread after my death.
January 23rd in the second year of the Kenryaku era (1212)
Samana Genku [Honen Shonin]