Hōnen was the founder of one of the sects in Japan, who worship the Amida Buddha. There’s no official god in Buddhism, but there are great Buddhas, and Amida – Amitābha Buddha, the Buddha of immeasurable splendour – is worshipped. The mantra is, ‘Namo Amitabha, Namo Amitabha, Namo Amitabha, Namo Amitabha’. He used to lead processions of this going through the towns and villages. The authorities didn’t like it – they were Confucian, mainly, and they thought this might upset people and lead to disorder. So Hōnen and his followers suffered some persecution, but they did persist, and there were very many of them.
Well, he went with some of his disciples through one town in western Japan, through the streets all day, singing this devotion to Amida Buddha. At night, Hōnen stayed at a cheap lodging place, and at the same lodging place, there was a professional thief and his henchman. They’d watched this (singing) going on in the daytime and the henchman was rather impressed with the sincerity of Hōnen. So they were talking in the evening and he said to his master, “They’re very impressive – that sincerity, you know.” But the thief said, “I don’t like it. It’s not sincere at all.” The henchman replied, “But there’s this tremendous feeling of devotion to the Buddha, to the Amida Buddha. I felt it very strongly.” The thief said, “Look, supposing you were in love with a woman. Would you go round through the streets shouting, ‘I love Ayako. I love Ayako. I love Ayako.’ Would you?” And the henchman said, “Well, no, I suppose I wouldn’t.” He said, “Well, there you are. It’s just exhibitionism and wanting to make some money. They get offerings, you know – I don’t like it, no.”
Well, that summer night, the thief thought, “I’ll just see what Hōnen’s doing.” They have a balcony round a lot of these little inns, so he crept round the balcony, and the shutters weren’t completely to, there was just a crack. He peered into Hōnen’s room and he saw there was just a little light in the middle, one little light. Hōnen was sitting in front of it and going, “Namo Amitabha, Namo Amitabha, Namo Amitabha”. The thief thought, “Well, how long’s this going on?”, but it went on and on. Then on the draughty balcony, the thief sneezed and Hōnen immediately blew out the light and went to bed.
The thief went to bed too and in the morning he went round to see Hōnen. He said, “Look, I want to apologise. I was talking to my mate, and I was saying how insincere you were. But I realise now you’re completely sincere, and I want to apologise. Well, this going through the streets, you know, I thought it was just for the public, quite insincere.” And Hōnen said, “No, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. When we go through the streets crying, ‘Namo Amitabha, Namo Amitabha, Namo Amitabha’, you’re right. That is for the public, yes. It’s to get them to do it. I can’t call it sincere on my own part, of course not – but when I’m all alone, and there’s no-one to see, then I’m sincere, when nobody knows about it”, he said. “When you sneezed, I knew somebody was watching and then I knew immediately, there’s no use going on. It won’t be sincere now; it’s in front of someone else.”
This is the sort of example our teacher used to give; some of the Indian stories, accounts of the same thing. He always wore a little very light scarf round his neck, even in summer. It was like Napoleon, you know – but I saw one day, under the scarf, there was a rosary. When he was standing, or waiting, something like that, he would be telling the beads of the rosary, but because it was under the scarf, nobody would know.
When he first came to this country, he sometimes wore a turban. He was a pundit, a very learned man. Sometimes, as he was a Brahman, he was asked to take ceremonies occasionally at the Indian embassy. Well, then he wore a turban, but he wore it occasionally. His chief disciple was a woman. She told me once that they were looking around Hampton Court – as I told you, he was very interested in history, and he followed that history – but he was wearing a turban then, as it happened. She said, as they passed along one of the streets, there was a mother and child and the mother said, “There’s a holy man”, in a soft voice and the child said, “How do you know he’s a holy man?” The mother said, “Look at his hat, dear. Only holy men wear a hat like that, see?” – he was wearing this turban. She told me that, after that, he never again wore a turban in public. He didn’t want anything to show at all and he never wore a rosary openly. He never told me about the rosary; I only discovered it by accident. To free the holy truth and the holy practice from as many of these dreams, these associations and these conjunctions as possible so that it remains unknown, we practice by ourselves. Then finally the body, he said, the body will be forgotten, and then there will be an experience.
Now, it’s like every other experience. If you play the piano, sometimes you play it well, sometimes you play it badly. But you practice every day, if you want to get anywhere. You must practise a couple of hours a day. My teacher’s teacher used to practise meditation six hours a day. We’re not asked to do that, quite, but it gives an indication. He used to practise regularly like that and we’re asked, if we feel the impulse, to do the same thing.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: Mysticism of the Heart 3
Part 4: Honen worshiped Amida Buddha