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Hongaku (Jp: 本覚; Chinese: Ben Jue, 本覺; Korean: pon’gak) is an East Asian Buddhist doctrine often translated as "inherent", "innate", "intrinsic" or "original" enlightenment and is the view that all sentient beings already are enlightened or awakened in some way. It is closely tied with the concept of Buddha-nature and Tathagatagarbha.

Origins and development[edit]

The doctrine of innate enlightenment was developed in China out of the Buddha-nature doctrine. It is first mentioned in the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana scripture.[1] According to Jacqueline Stone, The awakening of faith in the Mahayana sees original enlightenment as "true suchness considered under the aspect of conventional deluded consciousness and thus denotes the potential for enlightenment in unenlightened beings." [2] In medieval China, the doctrine developed from the Huayen school of Buddhism and also influenced Chan Buddhism.

The doctrine is also a common theme of the Platform Sutra of Huineng and was taught by Chinese Chan masters as "seeing original nature". Inherent enlightenment was often associated with the teachings of sudden awakening and contrasted with the "gradual" approach and the idea of “acquired enlightenment” or shikaku. The first Japanese to write of this doctrine was Kukai (774–835), founder of the Japanese Shingon school.

In Japanese Buddhism[edit]

The doctrine of innate enlightenment was very influential in Japanese Tendai Buddhism from the Insei period (1086–1185) through the Edo period (1688–1735).[2] The Tendai view of hongaku saw it as encompassing not only all sentient beings, but all living things and all nature, even inanimate objects - all were considered to be Buddha. This also includes all our actions and thoughts, even our deluded thoughts, as expressions of our innately enlightened nature.[2]

Tamura Yoshirõ (1921–1989) saw original enlightenment thought (hongaku shiso) as being defined by two major philosophical elements.[3] One was a radical non-dualism, in which everything was seen as empty and interconnected, so that the differences between ordinary person and Buddha and all other distinctions, were ontologically negated. The other feature of hongaku was the affirmation of the phenomenal world as an expression of the nondual realm of Buddha nature. This was expressed in phrases such as “the worldly passions are precisely enlightenment” and “birth and death are precisely nirvana.”[2]

The Tendai doctrine of hongaku had deep impact on the development of New Kamakura Buddhism, for many of those who founded new Kamakura Buddhist schools (Eisai, Honen, Shinran, Dogen and Nichiren) studied Tendai at Mt. Hiei.[2]

During the 1980s a Japanese movement known as Critical Buddhism has attacked original enlightenment as an ideology that supports the status quo and legitimates social injustice by accepting all things as they are as expressions of original Buddha nature.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sueki Fumihiko, "Two Seemingly Contradictory Aspects of the Teaching of Innate Enlightenment (hongaku) in Medieval Japan", Japanese Journal of Religious Study 22 (1-2), pp. 3-16, 1995. PDF
  2. ^ a b c d e Stone, J. Medieval Tendai Hongaku Thought and the New Kamakura Buddhism A Reconsideration, Japanese Journal of Religious Study 22 (1-2), pp. 17-48, 1995. PDF
  3. ^ Tamura Yoshirō, Japanese culture and the Tendai concept of original enlightenment, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 14 (2-3), 203-205, 1987. PDF

Further reading[edit]

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