Honen’s Pure Land Sect 850 Years Later; Get Close to History with Letters, Statues, Other Relics

Courtesy of the venue
A 13th-century statue of Amida Buddha with two attending bodhisattvas

To mark the 850th anniversary of the founding of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, The Yomiuri Shimbun and other entities have organized a special exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum to celebrate the sect’s founder Honen (1133-1212) and his legacy.

Honen lived in what were believed to be the early days of Mappo, the degenerate age of Buddhist law, which started in the 11th century. It was thought that so much time had passed since Shakyamuni Buddha’s death that it was nearly impossible for humans to attain enlightenment through their own efforts. This was viewed as a quiet apocalypse.

Honen was one of a handful of influential Buddhist monks of the time who created new belief systems and new sects to counter the doom of Mappo. His solution was to rely instead on the merciful power of Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light.

Followers who devotedly chant Amida’s name are whisked away to his Pure Land after death. There, they repose on lotus flowers and can finally gain enlightenment under his watchful eye.

The Pure Land sect, and the many variations created by Honen’s disciples, became some of the most popular in Japan, reaching everyone from commoners to the shogun and courtiers.

The exhibition is displayed in four parts: Honen and His Time, The World of Amida Buddha, Honen’s Disciples and Their Lineages, and The Pure Land Sect in the Edo Period.

There are a wide variety of items on display, including a massive eighth-century tapestry and well over 100 relics connected with Honen and Pure Land Buddhism, with many being from the 12th-16th centuries. Among them are plenty of national treasures and important cultural properties.

There are carved wooden statues with crystalline eyes that glisten in the light. One of these statues is described by a placard in the museum as being in an incredibly rare style: a naked Honen, which must be dressed instead of the clothing being part of the statue. Most of the statues are on pedestals in the middle of the viewing area so guests can walk around and get a close view of them, front and back.

An illustrated biography of Honen is on display, with different scrolls available for viewing during the event. Much like many of the letters included in the exhibition, these are filled with beautiful cursive calligraphy.

This is also the first time that people can see a particular 14th-century painting of Amida descending to the world since the artwork underwent extensive conservation efforts. The detail of the work done on it needs to be admired up close.

In speaking about the exhibition, one of its producers said, “My hope is that guests who come to the Tokyo exhibition will pay special attention to the Kanto region Pure Land Sect treasures from Yutenji temple in Meguro Ward and Zojoji temple in Minato Ward connected to the enlightenment of Tokugawa Ieyasu.”

The exhibition lasts until June 9. The museum is closed on Mondays. The exhibition reopens on the next day with a rotated selection of items, so going on different dates can show something new.


To learn more about the special exhibition, click the “Special Exhibition: Hōnen and Pure Land Buddhism” official web site link