He lost both of his parents in separate incidents in 1180, when he was eight years old, and the following year went to live with an uncle, the monk Jôgaku Gyôji, at Jingô-ji on Mt. Takao. He became a monk himself at the age of 16, taking on the name Jôben, and beginning to study Kegon and Shingon thought at Sonshô-in, a branch temple of Tôdai-ji. He then stayed at a hermitage on Mt. Shirakami for three years, beginning in 1195, before returning to Takao in 1198. Soon afterwards, he came to live with his uncle Yuasa Munemitsu in Kii province, and continued to live with various relatives in various parts of Kii through 1206. When he was around thirty, in the winter of 1202-1203, he began to consider traveling to India; Myôe considered a journey to India once more in 1205, even going so far as to calculate (or estimate) the distance from Chang'an to Rajagrha. Drawing upon earlier records, and accounting for the differences in long and short ri used at different times (the standard length/size of Japanese Measurements varying widely across the ages), he estimates the distance at 10,000 ri, a journey of roughly one thousand days (less than three years) on foot. Ultimately, Myôe did not ever travel to India, though his desires to do so form the core of the plot of the Noh play Kasuga ryûjin, in which the great dragon god of Kasuga rejects his wishes to make the journey, and suggests to Myôe that though the greatest sites in Buddhist history lay in China and India, equivalent sites can be found in Japan. Remaining in Japan, Myôe was commissioned by Retired Emperor Go-Toba to oversee the restoration of Kôzan-ji in 1206.
In 1212-1213, Myôe wrote a pair of texts which remain quite prominent in Buddhist thought today, critiquing some of the chief positions put forth by Hônen, founder of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. Hônen asserted that enlightenment through traditional means was impossible, and that the best anyone could hope for in the age of mappô (Decline of the Law; End of the Law) was to pray for salvation by chanting nenbutsu (the name of Amida Buddha). In his Choosing the Original Vow, Hônen advocated abandoning meditation, celibacy, the creation and worship of idols, and all other standard practices in favor of devotion to the chanting of nenbutsu. Myôe opposed these assertions in his own text, Zaijarin ("Smashing the Evil Chariot/Wheel", 1212), in which he accused Hônen of betraying the beliefs of the Pure Land sect, even writing that Hônen could no longer be considered a Buddhist. Myôe countered that while there may be call for a simplification of practices, a variety of practices were essential in order for one to earn passage into the Pure Land, i.e. to earn salvation. He advocated reciting a chant that incorporated devotion to the "Three Treasures" (Buddha, dharma, and sangha i.e. monasticism), along with engaging in other traditional practices.
Myôe's other critical text, compiled in 1213, is known as the Shôgonki, or "Record of Moral Adornment." He is also known for his lengthy dream journal, in which he recorded the content of many of his dreams.
- “Amida, The Pure Land, and the Response of the Old Buddhism to the New,” in Wm. Theodore De Bary, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition, Second Edition, Columbia University Press (2001), 214-215.
- Robert Morrell, "Zeami's Kasuga Ryûjin (Dragon God of Kasuga), or Myôe Shônin," Early Kamakura Buddhism: A Minority Report, Asian Humanities Press (1987), 103-105.
- According to traditional age calculation.