Robert F. Rhodes, Assistant Professor
Ôtani University (Kyoto)
Yôkan's Interpretation of Nembutsu Practice
In Heian Japan, it was generally believed that the year 1052 marked the first year of the Latter Dharma (mappô). Yôkan also accepted this chronology, meaning that he spent his youth in full realization that he was living during the very years that Japan was entering the degenerate age of the Latter Dharma. As a result, he turned to Pure Land Buddhism as the only hope for salvation available to people living in such an age. He argued that the recitation of the nembutsu (or the phrase Namu Amida Butsu / I take refuge in Amida Buddha) is the practice most suited for the people of his age. This was because he considered the nembutsu to be the instrument chosen by Amida Buddha himself to ensure the birth into his Pure Land of the people living in the age of the latter Dharma.
The major portion of the Ôjô jûin is taken up with explaining the ten reasons why, according to Yôkan, the nembutsu recitation enables one to reach the Pure Land. Although they include such reasons as "the recitation of nembutsu helps to annul the effects of evil karma created in the past" (reason two), "nembutsu practicionners are embraced by Amida salvific light" (reason four) and "the nembutsu practicionner is always protected by a host of sages" (reason five), Yôkan's central points are as follow : (1) the nembutsu is established by Amida Buddha in the eighteenth vow as the definitive practice for birth in the Pure Land, and (2) this is because the single-minded recitation of the nembutsu enables one to enter a state of samâdhi, where one can gain insight into the emptiness of all things and realize that one is identical in essence with Amida Buddha.
As this shows, the theory of emptiness plays a major role in Yôkan's interpretation of nembutsu practice. In his Jôdo hômon genrushô, an influential history of Pure Land Buddhism written in 1311, Gyônen (1291-1321) characterizes Yôkan's nembutsu as belonging to the Sanron Pure Land tradition of Nara. During the Nara period, Chikô (c. 907- c. 780), the reputated creator of the Chikô Mandala, inaugurated a long tradition of Pure Land Buddhism based on Sanron philosophy, or the philosophy of emptiness as systematized by the Chinese monk Chi-tsang (549-623). During the early Heian period, the Shingon monk Shôbô (832-909) established the Tônan'in cloister in Tôdaiji, the head temple of the Kegon sect, as a center for Sanron Buddhism. As a youth, Yôkan entered the Tônan'in and studied Sanron Buddhism there and remained institutionally affiliated with this sub-temple all his life. With such background, it was natural for Yôkan to make use of Sanron theory of emptiness in interpreting the nembutsu practice.