Museum Dictionary

The Illustrated Biography of Priest Honen

First look at the painting below.

  • The Illustrated Biography of Priest Honen (detail)
    National Treasure The Illustrated Biography of Priest Honen (detail)
    48 volumes (total)
    Handscroll, color on paper
    Kamakura Period, 14th Century
    (Chionin Temple, Kyoto)

On a spring day, children are playing in the garden while their father and mother watch them from a warm seat on the verandah. Can you tell what they are doing? They are playing "bamboo horse." "Bamboo horse" in Japanese can mean bamboo stilts, but it can also mean a hobbyhorse, an imitation horse head on a stick that a child pretends to ride. As you know, today the sticks on these horses are generally shorter than the height of the child, but in this painting, the bamboo sticks are long and still have the leaves attached! The children in the painting have attached ropes to the base of the bamboo trunks and are using them as harnesses. You can almost hear them saying "Giddyup!, Giddyup!" In Japanese, one way to say that children are "best friends" is to say that they are "bamboo-horse friends." This expression came from the way that best friends often raced around together playing bamboo horses and stilts!

What else can you see in this picture? In the middle of the foreground (the bottom of the painting), two children are dragging around some old straw sandals on a string. They seem to be teasing a dog, who is chasing along behind them. In the lower right, a girl is holding a dog, and two children are watching the scene from under the trees behind her.

This painting is actually only one scene from a long handscroll that tells the biography (life story) of a famous Buddhist priest. This priest's name was Honen this handscroll is called The Illustrated Biography of Priest Honen. Priest Honen was the founder of the Jodo sect of Buddhism during a time called the Heian Period. He was born into a samurai family in a place called Mimasaka (today's northern Okayama Prefecture) in the year 1133. One night, his father was killed in an attack, but his last wishes were that his son go to Kyoto to become a Buddhist monk. In accordance with his father's will, Honen went to Mount Hiei to become a monk of the Tendai sect.

The years that Honen lived were filled with wars and turmoil. Honen set his mind to trying to figure out how to help all the confused and suffering people. He came upon the idea that if you chanted over and over the prayer "Namu Amida Butsu" (Praise Amida Buddha), Amida Buddha would come down to save you when you die, and you would be reborn in a heaven in the West called "The Pure Land."

Honen new ideas spread across Japan and became known as Pure Land Buddhism. Some people, however, hated this new sect and for a short period of time, Honen was exiled to Sanuki (present day Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku) . After this, however, Honen spent the rest of his life in Kyoto and died there in 1212. He left behind a large legacy of Pure Land believers in Kyoto, from the elite to the working-class.

The scene above in The Illustrated Biography of Priest Honen shows Honen as a young boy playing bamboo horse in the center. Then it shows him again facing west towards the wall calling out the Buddha's name. Can you see where there is a boy facing the wall on the far left of the picture? Look more closely at this section. Do you see anything strange about it? If you look very carefully, you may be able to see that originally there were only floorboards depicted in this section. The original painting only showed innocent children playing as their parents looked on. However, someone added on the figure of young Honen facing the west wall to this painting at a later date! This was probably to show that Honen was different from other children and yearned for the Heavenly Pure Land even as a boy!

Handscrolls that show the life stories of the founders of new Buddhist sects, like Honen, or of other highly virtuous priests are called "Illustrated Biographies of Famous Priests." Many such illustrated biographies were made in the Kamakura Period. There were many new sects of Buddhism at that time and people believed deeply in the founders. These handscrolls were very important for founding priests in order to increase their number of believers (a little like advertisements). There were an especially large number of such handscrolls made about the life of Honen, founder of the Pure Land Sect of Buddhism. The version we are talking about here comes from Chion-in Temple in Kyoto, and is famous for having the most volumes of any handscroll in Japan. This Illustrated Biography of Priest Honen handscroll is so long that it is divided into forty-eight volumes!

The "bamboo horse game" painting above is a section from the first of these forty-eight volumes. This volume tells the story of Honen's life from before he was born, when, thanks to his parent's prayers to the gods and Buddhas, his mother became pregnant. It then tells of Honen's birth, of the attack on his father by his enemies, and of his father's deathbed wish that his son become a priest. The end of this volume shows Honen's father's death.

  • National Treasure The Illustrated Biography of Priest Honen (detail)
    48 volumes (total)
    Handscroll, color on paper
    Kamakura Period, 14th Century
    (Chionin Temple, Kyoto)

"Illustrated Biographies of Famous Priests" were originally made for religious purposes, but today they are interesting as works of art too. Additionally, as I said earlier, handscrolls are important evidence of the what life was like in the past. Perhaps your school social studies textbooks include various scenes from Japanese handscrolls. When you look at a handscroll, you not only can enjoy the pictures and story, you can also learn something about Japanese history!

Text by Junji Wakasugi, Department of Fine Arts
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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