Honen’s Catechism

Not too long ago, I mentioned in passing a famous letter of Honen, the founder of Jodo Shu Pure Land Buddhism. This is the hyakuyonjūgo kajō mondō (百四十五箇条問答), or “145 itemized questions”. This is sometimes referred to as Honen’s Catechism, because like the Christian Catechism, it lists Honen’s doctrine and comes in the form of questions and answers. “Gary”, a Jodo Shu Buddhist I know online, put a lot of work into getting the entire set of 145 questions and answers online here, while another partial list can be found here.

Honen’s Catechism is fascinating to me for a few reasons:

  1. You get a window into 12th century medieval Buddhism. Not from eminent monks who wrote many treatises, but from practitioners who struggled to understand and to make sense of the variety of teachings. For us Westerners, I feel we’re reliving this experience as Buddhism is still new to us.
  2. Some of the questions, such as 31-45, highlight the kinds of questions that new Buddhists today ask on forums. The questions may differ somewhat, but it shows how people who hear contradictory information, or are new to Buddhism worry about small details, fearing that they will fail. Sound familiar? We’ve all been there.
  3. When Buddhism was first imported in Japan, it was a chaotic mess of texts, esoteric rituals, and treatises from India, and it took many centuries before people had the training and understanding to it all. So, even Honen can’t answer all the questions because some of these, but at the same time, he seems pretty unworried about many of these rituals. Take for example question 46:

    Q(46): How should one make offerings of flowers and incense to an image of the Buddha?

    A: According to ritual, prayers should be offered at dawn. Flowers may be offered in a vase or strewn before the altar. Incense should be burned without fail. However, if it is impossible to follow the ritual, so be it.

    So Honen, helped dispel a lot of confusion for this follower by helping him understood what mattered in Buddhism, and what was periphery rituals.

  4. Lastly for Pure Land Buddhists, it provides a nice, simple reference to smaller questions that we might be too embarrassed to ask someone, or not significant to warrant a topic by themselves.

So, feel free to peruse the questions above. You may be surprised to see some questions similar to ones you might have yourself. I think it’s a healthy reminder that many generations of Buddhists have experienced the same challenges we have, despite differences in language, culture and history.

Namu Amida Butsu

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